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An Unenticing Carrot

BEHIND BARS

By Gay Seidman

THERE'S A HUNGER STRIKE on in Walpole's Cell Block Four. Prison administrators say that although the inmates are boycotting the cafeteria, they are buying food at the prison store, but on one knows for sure. The men in Four Block have been locked up, isolated even from other prisoners in Walpole's maximum security end, ever since a fatal prison stabbing on September 9.

For more than a month, the men in Four Block have been cut off from the rest of the world for refusing to cooperate with the administration's investigation of the stabbing. During that month, there have been at least two more stabbings, two serious assaults, and one major racial incident involving about 25 inmates. Five state legislators visited Walpole this week and returned convinced that the guards beat prisoners who fail to answer questions, as well as being outraged at the physical conditions of the cells. Prisoners in other blocks in the maximum end tell gruesome tales, like the man who dangled 30 feet from the third tier for refusing to cooperate. Things have been heating up in Walpole's maximum end since the beginning of the summer.

The impasse probably won't be resolved for some time. The guards have one code of ethics, and the inmates live by another. The men in the max end have a strict code of behavior, and it does not include informing on other prisoners. The prison environment naturally pits inmates against guards, and an informer is, quite simply, a traitor.

Things have been heating up in Walpole's maximum end since the beginning of the summer The rate of stabbings--a fair condition of tension in the joint--rose. Four Block started heating up quite literally in August when the prison administration welded shut the vents on the third tier, after they caught an inmate smuggling objects through the tiny slits.

RIGHT ABOUT THAT TIME, I met a group of prisoners in Walpole who were trying to improve conditions there. It is not easy for them to get a hearing. One of them told me, "People outside don't care if a prisoner's stabbed; they just think, `So there's one less criminal." I didn't have an answer then; I was still overwhelmed by the windowless, airless rooms, the clanging metal doors, the body search and petty harassment on the way inside. Harassment not from the inmates, who did their best to make us--the outsiders--feel comfortable, but from the guards.

I guess I was also overwhelmed by the inmates themselves. I was scared, walking in--the series of metal doors closing behind us reminded us that the people we were meeting were criminals, locked up to avoid polluting the rest of society, a tumor isolated from the body. But the 20 or so men we met were kind--when we first came in, one gave me a pack of cigarettes to replace those the administration confiscated when we entered. They were polite, holding themselves back from interrupting each other far better than most Harvard students could have. And they were articulate, using the long unwieldy words of the self-educated to describe the conditions of their lives.

This was a self-selected group: These, I learned later, were perhaps the toughest men in the maximum end, the men who were not afraid of punishment--the guards had developed a healthy respect for these prisoners' ability to fight the correctional system.

The correctional system, as the state refers to it, is a bit of a misnomer for the prison system. Since 1975, it has been based on a "step" system, where prisoners progress from heavy to lighter security jails as they return. But, as in the current situation on Cell Block Four, there is a basic contradiction involved: behavior the prison administrators consider "progressive"--informing on other prisoners, cooperating with the guards--is the very behavior the prisoners' code condemns.

The step system is grounded in behavior modification theory, where a tantalizing reward is supposed to induce the desired behavior. But even if the philosophy is sound, it has filtered down through so many layers of bureaucracy that it loses any validity it might have had in the beginning. The thought of the minimum security jail at Walpole, with its few educational programs, and a few more visiting privileges, is supposed to tempt the men in the maximum end. But these men, as they will tell you themselves, have spent their lives fighting the authorities; it will take more than a few carrots, they say, to persuade them to change the underlying premise of their lives.

Walpole offers nothing more than those few carrots to help rehabilitate a prisoner. Because the inmates are supposed to strive towards the minimum security programs, the prison offers no programs in the maximum end, where the toughest cases start out. There are, for example, no drug programs; self-confessed addicts in the max end have to go through withdrawal without support, so it isn't surprising that there's heavy drug traffic in Walpole. No skills are taught, except in a program designed, staffed and funded by the American Friends Service Committee in collaboration with the inmates themselves. Inmates are alone in their cells 20 out of 24 hours. Psychiatric care is nonexistent; medical care is minimal (there is one doctor for the entire prison). Discipline is often harsh, often arbitrary, and there is no appeal beyond the prison officials who make the initial ruling.

In the minimum end, things are slightly--but only slightly--better. The step system extends beyond this prison; the administration has to hold out other, better prisons--Norfolk, for example--as still more tempting carrots for rehabilitation. But the essential contradiction pervades the system: "progressive" behavior conflicts directly with behavior the inmates consider acceptable. From that perspective, the carrots look less and less enticing.

There is a whole subculture of jails; they are, by definition, cut off from the rest of American society. The people who work in them are heard from almost as little as the people who live in them. Prisons have their own vocabulary: screws, woof tickets, iso; they have their own theories, their own bodies of literature. Which means that when the prison administrators demand an increase in their budget, few legislators know enough about the issues to question the bureaucracy.

The five legislators who went out to Walpole last week came out demanding a gubernatorial investigation into the prison. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has asked the legislature to approve an increase in the budget to construct two more medium security jails, but the legislators who visited Walpole say--along with the inmates--the root of the tension isn't overcrowding, but the attitude of the prison administration toward the prisoners' conditions. But the governor seems likely to ignore that request. Although Dukakis said Thursday he will appoint an investigatory committee, he will continue to push for more jails, rather than more programs--this is, after all, an election year.

PRISONS THAT MAKE no effort to rehabilitate exist only to punish, to strip away the prisoners' rights and dignity. But one of rehabilitation's main elements must be that the convict begins to identify, somehow, with the rest of society. When that society is represented by a prison administration that appears to be unresponsive, rehabilitation seems a distant ideal. Building more jails won't do much to relieve the basic problems at places like Walpole--all it can do is create more jobs for wardens and guards.

The men I met at Walpole this summer--one of them is isolated now in Four Block--are optimistic that they will be able to get a hearing, to have some input into decisions about their lives, but at the moment it seems unlikely. "It's just another criminal," the people with power seem likely to say. And people who are only treated like criminals, in the end, probably don't have much choice but to continue to behave like them.

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