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Panel's Report Seeks Changes in Prison Policy

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

We turn on this part of the program to the state of the nation's jails and prisons. There's a comprehensive new report out; among its findings, more then a 100,000 prisoners are released each year with communicable diseases. And some states pay their prison guards just a little more then $9.00 an hour. The study concludes that America's prisons are in trouble.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

This kind of report doesn't come along that often. That's because to examine the state of U.S. prisons, you have to look in 50 different places, every state in the country to see what's happening. That's what the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's prisons did over the past year and half, and what they found is a system on the brink of disaster.

Mr. ALEX BUZANSKI: (Staff Director, Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons): This is a system we're spending $60 billion a year for. This is a system that where we currently accept a recidivism rate of over 60 percent nationally, where hundreds of thousands of people are being released every year with communicable diseases.

SULLIVAN: Alex Buzanski is the staff director for the commission.

Mr. BUZANSKI: These are public institutions, our jails and prisons. If these were our public hospitals or our public schools and those are the numbers that we were talking about, we would talk about closing those institutions down immediately, and about demanding immediate reform.

SULLIVAN: The commission is privately funded and non-partisan, staffed with a who's who in criminal justice of both parties. There is a former attorney general, former FBI director, both victim and prisoner advocates, as well as current prison officials. The commission heard from more than 100 top prison officials from across the country. And it compared data from hundreds of prisons nationwide.

But the panel faced a huge challenge. The report found, quote, “stunning gaps in the information prisons are providing to the public.” And according to commission members, some of what they did learn, seems implausible.

On the question of violence in prisons, the commission found some states with hundreds of assaults in each facility. Three states, though, reported that there was not a single assault in any facility in their state in over a year. On the issue of prison staff, the report found, quote, “an extraordinarily unstable workforce, where almost one in five officers leave the job every year.” It says low pay and low prestige are to blame. Some prisons in rural areas are having trouble competing with Wal-Mart for workers.

Staff director Alex Buzanski says too many of the facilities they examined have the wrong mindset.

Mr. BUZANSKI: It is us versus them. It is corrections officer versus inmate. Us versus them works if there is an enemy. We're not at war with the people inside of our jails and prisons.

SULLIVAN: Commissioners say it can be easy not to care about inmates locked behind concrete walls, but 95 percent of all inmates currently incarcerated will be released back to the public one day. Commissioner Richard Dudley says that makes prisons a public problem. Dudley is a New York psychiatrist. He says he has one word to describe the state of medical care and mental health in prisons.

Mr. RICHARD DUDLEY (Psychiatrist, Commission member): Alarming.

SULLIVAN: Dudley says he was most shocked to find that almost one in five prisoners suffer from a serious mental illness. And in some of the prisons they visited, there was only one medical doctor to treat two or three thousand inmates.

Mr. DUDLEY: That's a big deal. I mean, if you took one doctor and put him or her out in the general population, they couldn't handle that number of people. But we're not talking about the general population here. We're talking about a population that is likely much more ill. So it becomes a totally impossible task.

SULLIVAN: The report also criticizes the widespread use of long-term isolation to manage problem inmates. The commission found solitary confinement is too severe, too common, and has not reduced prison violence. UC Santa Cruz professor Craig Haney(ph) has studied the effects of solitary confinement on inmates and testified before the commission.

Mr. CRAIG HANEY (Professor, University of California Santa Cruz): These environments do nothing at all positive for the people who are confined in them, and for many of them, do real tangible damage.

SULLIVAN: In their year-long study, the commissioners did find some facilities trying innovative ways to solve some of these problems. They will talk about that and the rest of their findings today when they present their report to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.