- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Today, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Corrections and Rehabilitation is scheduled to hear findings from the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons’ report, released today. The commission began last year as a nonpartisan effort co-chaired by former LBJ Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and former appellate court Judge John J. Gibbons to study the state of America’s prison system, which holds on any given day 2.2 million prisoners at an annual cost of $60 billion.

The magnitude of the prison system, although trumpeted often enough by the liberal media, remains a troubling part of our society, all the more so since, as the report found, data collection remains poor to nonexistent. For instance, Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota each reported zero assaults among prisoners statewide in 2000 — a laughable statistic. As Commissioner Pat Nolan will tell the committee today, “there is no way to track the number of assaults by prisoners on other prisoners, by prisoners against staff or the use of excessive force used by corrections officers.”

Not only does this endanger prisoners and the officers who guard and protect them, but it affects communities in that a majority of prisoners are no better citizens when they leave confinement than when they entered. The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found in a 15-state study that more than two-thirds (67.5 percent) of released prisoners in 1994 were rearrested within three years, an increase from the 62.5 percent released in 1983. Aside from violent offenders, whose recidivism rate remained relatively unchanged at 60 percent, every major category of prisoners (property, drug and public-order offenders) saw at least a five-point increase over the 1983-94 period. Improving life inside a prison is step one for improving prisoners’ lives outside.

Another of the commission’s disturbing findings related to medical care. As the report found, “more than 1.5 million people are released from jail and prison carrying a life-threatening contagious disease.” Part of the problem is that a lot of prisons have a low prisoners-to-doctor ratio, in some cases as low as two or three doctors for 4,000 or 5,000 prisoners.

Much of the commission’s recommendations involve increased funding and independent oversight. What the subcommittee should remember today is that prisons — which the report compares to hospitals and schools — are often reflections of the quality of administrators, who must be held accountable.

By their crimes, prisoners have forfeited the kind of life law-abiding citizens take for granted, and we must remember that they are being punished. But we shouldn’t forget that a vast majority will also be returned to society, which has as much a stake in their rehabilitation as they do.

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