Peter Pringle's America: Three strikes and you smell

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The Independent Online
THE REPUBLICAN governor of Mississippi, Kirk Fordice, believes he has a good way of deterring crime. In January he is going to make prisoners in the state jails wear striped uniforms with the word 'convict' on the back, just as in the days of the chain gangs.

In the Governor's mind - and in the minds of the majority of the members of the Mississippi state legislature - prisoners have a much too cushy time, so prison is not a deterrent to crime. Already Mississippi has banned private television sets, radios, record players, compact discs, computers, stereos and weight-lifting equipment from its prisons.

During the recent debate in the legislature on the Governor's clothing proposal there was talk of reintroducing caning, bringing back the whip and the punishment cell and generally making a 'prisoner smell like a prisoner'. A keen supporter of striped overalls, Representative Mack McInnis, a Democrat, told his fellow politicians, 'When you see one of those boogers aloose, you'll say, 'I didn't know we had zebras in Mississippi.' '

Meanwhile, in the state capital of Jackson, letters in the local newspaper urge the Governor to even greater efforts against the 'criminal crackhead trash'.

Such attitudes are to be expected in redneck country, but Mississippi is not alone in wanting to crack down on convicts. From Florida to California, state legislatures have been discussing laws to make prison life harder. Even the recently passed Federal Crime Bill included, at one stage of its draft, an amendment that prohibited weight-lifting equipment in federal prisons.

So far, the nationwide debates have done more to increase the popularity of 'get-tough-on- crime' politicians, such as Governor Fordice, than they have to harden up prison life. New laws affecting prisoners' leisure time have been passed in only three states: Mississippi, California and Louisiana.

Lost in the rhetoric is the appalling state of the American prison system, which is bursting at the seams. The US imprisons its citizens at a higher rate than any other nation, having recently overtaken South Africa. In the Eighties, the prison population more than doubled from 330,000 to 770,000. By 1990, the number of citizens incarcerated was larger than the population of some major cities including San Francisco and Washington DC.

As a nation, the United States spends dollars 25bn annually to build, operate and maintain its prisons, but at the end of last year 40 states were under court orders for having overcrowded jails. On average, state prisons were operating at 31 per cent over capacity and the federal system had 46 per cent more inmates than it was designed to hold.

California, at 183 per cent of capacity, has the most overcrowded prisons. Its prison population quadrupled during the past decade, and Californians pay dollars 3bn annually to operate the system.

Recently, the US Justice Department concluded a report on the city jail in the East Coast port of Norfolk, Virginia. The jail was so overcrowded that it offended the 'elementary concepts of human decency': the federal authorities ordered the prison kitchen to be closed after inspectors found rat droppings in the bread and mice footprints in the sugar. Yet the jail, designed to hold 597 prisoners, will have 1,700 inmates by 1996.

Mandatory sentences for violent crimes and the 'three strikes and you're out' rule (that puts away third-time offenders for life) will keep the number of convicts high, but despite huge investment the states are unable to build new prisons fast enough to cope with the increase.

America's prisons are hardly the 'five star' hotels Governor Fordice complains about and his campaign for stricter conditions is wholly inappropriate, prison warders say. In such overcrowded conditions the warders speak of the 'pressure cooker' effect and argue that to take away the minimum leisure allowed is likely to cause the inmates to riot.

Some new facilities being built for the most violent inmates reflect such fears. In its first report on the design of a US prison, Amnesty International examined the three-year-old 'H-unit' death row facility in Oklahoma. The concrete structure has no windows to the outside and is covered up to the roof with an earth bank. Inmates are locked up for all but five hours a week.

Prison administrators defend the highly restricted conditions, claiming there is better protection for the guards and reduced violence. But the report, which was released in June, says the unit imposes 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment', in violation of accepted world standards.

Such a regimen contradicts what prison reformers are seeking to do in their rehabilitation of long-term offenders. The reformers try to create an atmosphere relaxed enough for the inmates to benefit from group therapy sessions. In a New York state prison, 'lifers' under the supervision of psychologists work out their frustration with debates on the 'evils of manhood' and the 'mechanisms of masculinity'. To help create a co-operative atmosphere the prisoners wear civilian clothes, not convicts' overalls.