The McKean Corrections System as a Model Prison and Reform System

[Source: “A Model Prison,” The Atlantic Monthly, November 1995, by Robert Worth]

The following is an excerpt from an article published by the Atlantic Monthly about the McKean Correctional Facility. [Read full article]

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Approaching McKean, the federal correctional institution in Bradford, Pennsylvania, one is not likely to think of a prison. The buildings, low and modern, display a pseudo-Navajo motif in soft gray and salmon colors. In the air-conditioned entryway there are carpets over an immaculate tile floor, the glimmer of polished glass, the green tint of tropical plants. Tasteful couches sit in the corners. Well-dressed employees walk up and down the stairs, speaking in hushed, respectful tones. Beyond, on the prison grounds, are a broad expanse of well-tended lawn and distant athletic fields. Inmates walk alone or in pairs along the concrete pathways, offering greetings as they pass. Across the compound inmates sit quietly in classrooms, learning everything from basic reading skills to masonry, carpentry, horticulture, barbering, cooking, and catering. Next door is a multi-denominational chapel. The cellblocks are cramped but clean and orderly, with a weekly inspection score posted on the wall. “With visitors, it’s like a joke, to see how long before they compare this place to a college campus,” one prison staff member says.

This prison and others like it are the targets of a fierce campaign that is changing the shape of the U.S. criminal-justice system. For several years journalists and politicians all over the country have spoken and written angrily about such prisons as “resorts” or “country clubs.” They have railed against a philosophy of rehabilitation that “coddles” inmates with too many amenities. Punishment is in vogue, along with hard labor and “no frills” prisons, stripped of weight rooms, TVs, and computers. Republicans in Congress have added a no-frills-prison section to the Contract With America’s “Take Back Our Streets Act,” and they have passed it as an amendment to the 1994 crime bill. Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld has argued that prisons should be “a tour through the circles of hell,” where inmates should learn only “the joys of busting rocks.” Alabama has already reinstituted the chain gang, forcing inmates to do hard labor in leg irons for up to ten hours a day. State administrators and sheriffs, sniffing the political wind, have begun to crack down, cutting educational and treatment programs, making prison life as harsh as possible.

Yet McKean, by several measures, may well be the most successful medium-security prison in the country. Badly overcrowded, housing a growing number of violent criminals, it costs taxpayers approximately $15,370 a year for each inmate. That is below the average for prisons of its type, and far below the overall federal average of $21,350. It is about two thirds of what many state prisons cost. And the incident record since McKean opened, in 1989, reads like a blank slate: No escapes. No homicides. No sexual assaults. No suicides. In six years there have been three serious assaults on staff members and six recorded assaults on inmates. State prisons of comparable size often see that many assaults in a single week. The American Correctional Society has given McKean one of its highest possible ratings. No recidivism studies have been conducted on its former inmates, but senior staff members claim that McKean parolees return to prison far less often than those from other institutions, and a local parole officer agrees. According to the Princeton University criminologist John DiIulio, “McKean is probably the best-managed prison in the country. And that has everything to do with a warden named Dennis Luther.”

Dennis Luther is a slim man of fifty with thinning brown hair and wide, curious eyes. He retired last July, after sixteen years as a warden. He dresses neatly in a jacket, a tie, and tasseled loafers, more like an English professor than a prison administrator. His movements are slow and deliberate, and his voice has an uncanny steadiness to it. He is not a large man, but it is easy to imagine him walking unarmed into the center of a prison riot and asking calmly to speak to the leaders. As a young man, Luther considered going into the ministry. He chose corrections instead, and soon came to believe that American prisons were unnecessarily brutal places, more likely to teach hatred and violence than remorse. But, he says, that insight did not lead him to a liberal philosophy of inmate rehabilitation. Instead he read up on business management. He saw no reason why ideas that had worked in the private sector could not be applied to prisons, to make them more cost-effective and more humane. What he came up with was a systematic approach to building something he calls “prison culture.” All prisons, according to Luther, have a culture of some sort, but it is generally violent and abusive, based on gangs. Prison staffs are aware of this culture, but they are helpless to change it.

The root of Luther’s approach is an unconditional respect for the inmates as people. “If you want people to behave responsibly, and treat you with respect, then you treat other people that way,” Luther says. McKean is literally decorated with this conviction. Plaques all over the prison remind staff members and inmates alike of their responsibilities; one of these plaques is titled “Beliefs About the Treatment of Inmates.” There are twenty-eight beliefs, the product of Luther’s many years as a warden, and they begin like this:

1. Inmates are sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment.

2. Correctional workers have a responsibility to ensure that inmates are returned to the community no more angry or hostile than when they were committed.

3. Inmates are entitled to a safe and humane environment while in prison.

4. You must believe in man’s capacity to change his behavior.

5. Normalize the environment to the extent possible by providing programs, amenities, and services. The denial of such must be related to maintaining order and security rather than punishment.

6. Most inmates will respond favorably to a clean and aesthetically pleasing physical environment and will not vandalize or destroy it.

To a visitor, McKean’s “clean and aesthetically pleasing” environment is its most striking feature. Impressions gleaned from Midnight Express, Judge Dredd, or an ordinary state prison are out of place here. Luther insists that these physical details help to maintain order, just as the programs do. During my visit, as he led me past the special housing unit that is known in most prisons as “the hole” to the recreation area, a group of inmates appeared in the distance, jogging on a circular track around an athletic field. “Some of the staff think there’s too much recreation here,” he told me. “Most think it’s important. On a summer evening you’ve got three to five hundred men in this rec yard, with three staff. If you had less recreation, you’d need more staff. There’s a clear economic advantage. You’d definitely have more fights. We do surveys every year, and they show that as inmates get more involved in the rec program, they get in less trouble. Also, they tend to have less health trouble, and that saves money.”

Even without recreation programs most of the inmates at McKean would keep busy, with work assignments or training programs. Forty-seven percent are enrolled in classes, which is one of the highest rates in the federal system. Many inmates earn licenses that help them to get jobs when they are released. They also have opportunities to teach one another–a mentors’ group, for instance, and the “I Care” group, which holds discussions about issues of prison life. Many inmates teach Adult Continuing Education as well. These programs are not mere frills, Luther claims, because they help to keep the prison running smoothly. “The older guys see some young guy who’s got forty years to do,” one staff member told me. “They think, He’s angry, and he’s scared of me, and I’ve got to do time with this guy. So they see it as a challenge to get some of the younger guys involved in the ed program; they see that as the only hope. They do it a lot of different ways–mentoring, whether formally or informally–to somehow expand the resources of this younger population coming in. Wherever the staff leave that challenge, the older inmates pick it up.”

Education may be the most effective way to lower prison costs. DiIulio, who is well known in Washington for his pessimism about rehabilitation, claims, “In some prison systems cost-effective management is possible only because programs keep prisoners busy, with less supervision than you’d need otherwise. Especially with respect to certain types of prison educational programs, you save money by hiring fewer officers in the short run and reducing recidivism in the long run.” The Corrections Corporation of America, a publicly traded company that was founded on the principle of cost-effective management, takes the same line on the value of educational programs.

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Categories: Justice Reform


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