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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Criminal Justice Quote: Life is Good in a Pennsylvania Prison

     The Mercer Regional Correctional Facility in western Pennsylvania looks like a small college campus, with tidy brick buildings scattered across expansive, manicured green yards. The prison superintendent, a self-described "liberal," told me he tries to make the prison experience for inmates "as much like the street as I can." At one point, he referred to them as his "clients," adding, "Inmates aren't evil, by and large. Many just did not have good life circumstances, and have reacted inappropriately." He concluded: "The public needs to know that modern corrections is not like the Jimmy Cagney movie."

     That is an understatement.

     The only building with actual cells is the Restricted Housing Unit, where a handful of troublemakers are locked up all day. But the rest of the inmates wander freely among the two-story, brick dormitories. One holds rapists, child molesters, and HIV-positive inmates. Though small, it has two separate recreation rooms, so that inmates watching TV don't distract those who wish to play cards. Individual inmate rooms are about 8 by 10 and have no bars--just doors with glass windows. In one, the only occupant lounges comfortably on his bunk, reading a book. Around him are a desk, bookshelves, lots of magazines, and his own TV.

     The prison's thieves, rapists, and killers are indulged with a very good library, a separate law library, and a beautiful chapel. The prison offers them GED and art classes, electrical and mechanical training, even night college courses in classrooms filled with books and computers--all for free. Inmates can visit the infirmary and dentist offices for free medical care on demand, while those with emotional problems have access to four staff psychologists and ten counselors--again, at no charge.

     One of three "activities directors" leads me from a commissary stocked with amenities to the gymnasium. A volleyball net bisects the gleaming floor of the full-sized basketball court. At one end, nine cycling machines and four "stepper" aerobics machines face a TV. These, he explains, are for the inmates' "leisure fitness program." Two rooms are jammed with weightlifting equipment; from another, current movie videos are broadcast nightly to the TVs in the inmates' rooms. "Nothing cheap here," my guide says proudly.

     Outside, there is a softball field with bleachers, and a running track circling an outdoor weightlifting pavilion, exercise stations, five horseshoe pits, two bocci courts, a handball area, and more basketball hoops. My guide rattles off some of the other pastimes available: tennis, racketball, ping-pong, football, chess, checkers….[What? No golf?] Inmates even have their own leagues for baseball, softball, volleyball and power lifting. Teams of felons are squired around in prison vans, by guards and activities directors to compete at other state prisons.

     Contrary to the claim of Mercer's superintendent, this does not mirror life on the outside. For most housed in modern prisons, life is far better than it is on the streets.

Robert James Bidinotto, "Crime and Moral Retribution," in Criminal Justice?, Robert James Bidinott, editor, 1994 

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