How Can The Prison Population In Pa. Be Reduced? Boot Camps Would Help

Posted: January 21, 1990

Pennsylvania's prison system is overflowing with inmates, and the inmate population is expected to continue increasing. Building more prison space is necessary, but it's impossible and impractical to pin our hopes on building our way out of overcrowded prisons.

Nor does simply building more prisons address the problem of how to change the behavior of those who are incarcerated or headed on a criminal path.

I have talked to juveniles who have been labeled delinquent for their crimes. I also have listened to prison inmates tell their problems and life stories.

The one common thread in all of their remarks is that they have no hope or sense of a future outside of prison. Many of the juveniles who are in trouble grew up without proper guidance, interpersonal skills and basic living tools.

Those who commit crimes deserve to be punished, but we tend to forget that the prison system also exists to rehabilitate and turn inmates into productive members of society.

What those in trouble often need is training, regimentation and, above all, hope that they will be able to leave prison and not repeat the behavior that landed them in trouble.

What Pennsylvania needs is a progressive package of prison reforms that combines increased space with better controls and better rehabilitation.

We could begin reaching both of these goals through legislation (House Bills 2199 and 2198) that I have written to establish motivational boot camps (New York calls it shock incarceration) for both adults in state correctional facilities and those youths assigned to juveniles programs.

Its name may sound harsh rather than forward-looking, but it may be the wave of the future in prison control and rehabilitation. The goal: to teach certain inmates how to live in society and give them the hope of rejoining that society.

Inmates selected to participate in the voluntary six-month boot camps would undergo rigorous physical activity, intensive regimentation and discipline, substance abuse therapy and programming, continuing education, vocational training and pre-release counseling.

Only certain offenders would participate in this program. Those selected for boot camps would have to be first-time offenders, younger than 30 and sentenced for minor drug convictions or other nonviolent crimes (those convicted of first- or second-degree felonies would be ineligible). Participants also would have to be eligible for release or parole within three years at the time of sentencing.

Boot camp would be voluntary, so it would attract those offenders committed to changing their behavior. Inmates would be taught problem-solving techniques, positive thinking and respect for rules and authority.

The state Department of Corrections could remove an inmate from boot camp at any time. Inmates also could withdraw from the program but if they chose to do so -or if they are removed from the program - they would have to serve the remainder of their prison sentences under normal prison confinement.

It's unclear at this point whether boot camps will be more expensive than traditional prisons. Some opponents say that they are costly because they require heavy supervision, which means large staffs.

But boot camps also reduce the amount of time that an inmate is incarcerated, which would help alleviate the overcrowding situation and possibly reduce the number of new prison spaces that must be built. It would have a great impact on the largest portion of our prison population. Last year, according to the Department of Corrections, nearly 15 percent of its 20,500 inmates were in for drug offenses, 8 percent for theft and 21 percent for other miscellaneous charges. Those in for murder, rape and manslaughter combined constituted less than 15 percent of the inmate population.

This is not a proposal that will let murderers walk free from prison. It would, however, not only punish but rehabilitate inmates through tough yet fair measures.

Boot camp alone, however, cannot solve all of our problems with repeat offenders. What we do after these offenders are returned to the community is equally important.

After successfully completing boot camp, inmates would be be paroled under intensive supervision.

I want to model Pennsylvania's supervision phase after Louisiana's and Georgia's programs, which are some of the toughest in the nation. These intensive-supervision programs consist of: five to 12 face-to-face weekly contacts with a probation officer; mandatory community service, curfew and employment; weekly checks of local arrest records; automatic notification of arrests elsewhere; and routine, unannounced alcohol and drug testing.

This supervision is extremely rough and, in many cases, as tough as the conditions placed on inmates in prison. But the key is that the person is under strict supervision but not in jail. That helps alleviate overcrowding.

The bottom line is that Pennsylvania's prisons need relief from overcrowding, the corrections officials need better means to control the inmates lodged in our facilities and the inmates and troubled youths need a tough but fair program that gives them hope and teaches them to lead productive lives after they get out of prison. Motivational boot camp, in my view, would give Pennsylvania a means to achieve all of these goals.

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