Prison: A rehabilitation center or a warehouse?
By MICHELLE KRUPA
MICHIGAN CITY, Ind.
Main Street was almost empty in a small Northern Indiana town Monday afternoon.
Only one of 1,835 residents enjoyed the crystal-clear autumn day. In khakis and a white T-shirt, he leaned against a concrete post outside a two-story, red brick building and stared across the street toward the community's church, complete with ornate stained-glass windows.
But the sun's rays didn't create colorful patches on the ground as it passed through tinted glass. Iron bars forbade the light's penetration, and the only glow was reflection from the barbed-wire hoops strung atop every building and fence in sight.
Main Street isn't quite the same at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City as it is in most American towns.
Fourteen Notre Dame students visited the facility Monday to study crime and punishment, a lesson required by sociology professor Paul Magro in his course, Criminal Justice. The real-life classroom showed that despite efforts by corrections officers to rehabilitate inmates, prison is a monotonous, depressing and often dangerous place to live.
From behind a giant, wooden table in a room normally reserved for parole hearings, Ron Sanford, dressed in prison-issue khakis and a gray sweatshirt and without shackles, explained what prison life is like, from the inside. At 25, Sanford has spent almost half his life behind the 40-foot concrete walls that separate the maximum security facility from the rest of the world.
At 13, he and a "friend" were involved in a double homicide in Indianapolis. While Sanford's co-conspirator turned state's evidence and won a lenient eight-year sentence for his part in the murders, Ron was charged as an adult and sentenced to 170 years in prison.
At 15, he arrived at Michigan City, the youngest person ever to be held at the institution.
"I was a baby in this setting," Sanford said. "There was nobody for me to hang out with. I was terrified. There are killers, rapers, child molesters, robbers, thieves in this place. I was terrified."
Learning the ropes
With a seventh-grade education and no one around younger than nine years his senior, Ron attempted to take the GED, but because of age regulations, the state would not grant him the certificate, equivalent to a high school diploma.
So Ron gravitated toward friends he knew from the streets and who knew his father. For three years, he battled through and learned the system, witnessing illicit activity and watching friends becoming victims of violence, including stabbing, along the way.
"There are four things you'll find at every prison in the continental United States: money, drugs, homosexuals and weapons," he explained. "A guy with 600 years could care less about the administration or someone else, so he goes ahead and makes trouble. What does he have to lose?"
But even with almost two centuries to serve behind bars, Ron decided soon after facing correction's department punishments — restricted recreation time, diminishing opportunity for parole — that he needed to occupy his idle mind so it wouldn't "fall into the hands of the devil."
At 18, he earned his GED and currently takes courses offered at the prison by nearby Grace College. He aims to get a bachelor's degree in business administration and finds that focusing on studies makes it easier to avoid falling in with the wrong crowd. "All I have to do is hold up that econ book. It's like a deterrent. They don't want anything to do with that."
Ron works hard at school because he truly believes that one day, he'll walk free, outside the boundaries of the makeshift town of convicts 30 miles east of South Bend. But while Ron's motivation is one that corrections officers call a sign of a system that can rehabilitate offenders, inmates and administrators know Ron is the exception.
"We used to just give inmates $75 and a bus ticket home," said Gil Peters, a case manager for the Indiana Department of Correction. "Just recently, we first attempted, through a transitional program, to give inmates tools to get a job, shelter, food: ideas to help them to be more successful when they leave here."
"It's a scary thought, going out into society with no skills," Sanford said. "Of course I want to be free, but I would like to be prepared. But prison is no longer about rehabilitation. It's about warehousing. You have to rehabilitate yourself."
And for most offenders who do not seek their own education in prison, it's that lack of preparation that leads them back to the drugs and violence that landed them in prison in the first place, noted Peters.
In fact, released offenders must remake their lives after existing in a system that satisfies their every need, down to the daily routine. Explaining Sanford's reliance on the system, prison administrator Gus Carlson said, "On a busy day, he'll make 10 decisions. On a busy day, you'll make 500."
The color of money
Facing an entire world filled with decisions often plagues former inmates, officials said. Offenders who reenter society must adjust to a system of monetary value non-existent in prison.
"Yes, capitalism is at an all-time high at ISP," Ron explained. "I'm indigent. I make $13 a month. I make sweatshop wages. But all offenders have to buy their own personal items. A bar of soap is $1, toothpaste is $2-something. By the time I know it, I'm broke."
Inmates in Michigan City make license plates, offender clothing, metal storage cabinets and farm for income. They also perform service labor at the facility, including food preparation, grounds keeping and custodial maintenance.
While amenities like a television set are available to inmates, they are expensive on wages of $13 per month. A 13-inch TV costs $199, and the headphones required to hear programs are an additional $35; together, those require 18 months of wages to purchase. Black market sales are alive and well; in the non-smoking institution, a pack of cigarettes goes for $50.
And the monetary system is closely monitored, as University students learned while visiting Cell Block B, a stuffy brick building with five tiers of cells caged by chain-linked fences.
An Irish football starter was recognized by several prisoners as he toured an open cell — six feet wide, nine feet long, eight feet tall. When asked for an autograph, he obliged, but a corrections officer quickly snatched the paper from his hand and escorted the group outside through two heavily guarded gates.
An athlete's autograph in prison, she explained, is like cash. It is prohibited because it gives one offender advantage over others. It also endangers that inmate, leaving him and his valuables prey for jealous or vindictive neighbors.
Officers are aware of this delicate balance. As Carlson reiterates, "These guys are not here for lying to their moms."
For the most part, inmates who spoke to students encouraged them to stay in school and to help their friends and siblings do the same, to avoid ending up behind bars.
While most occupy their days with work and reading, offenders said they miss their families; one inmate had a tally of letters received from and sent to family members taped to the cinderblock wall of his cell.
"Everyday is the same thing," he said, recounting his daily schedule — 4:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. with trips back to his cell throughout the day "to be counted."
For now, this is his life — meals and license plates and basketball and sleep. He, like the others, are getting used to the fact that their town is different from the rest in America; theirs is one of few Main Streets that, in addition to a library, a hospital and a general store, includes a quaint and ominous building which the others don't have — the execution house.
All News Stories for Tuesday, November 9, 1999