Go to jail

There is a pregnant pause before the latch of the heavy gate buzzes and springs open. Swinging in to enter a chain-link corridor topped with razor-wire, a second, identical gate waits. Despite the fresh air, the claustrophobia quickly settles in.

Visitors to the Columbia River Correctional Institution must identify themselves verbally into an aluminum squawk box. Two gates gain access to the yard, where manicured grass and landscaped hedges line a slender, utilitarian walk to the guard booth. Here, picture IDs are surrendered through a bank-teller slot for visitors’ badges. Another electronic buzz opens a waiting room lined with small lockers.

“This is a new generation minimum security prison,” retired field officer Lloyd Copeland said. “It’s like a little city, with a library, a school and a big police force.” Copeland served as tour guide for five Portland State University Administration of Justice (AJ) students and their Crime Literacy professor, Mike Day.

Designed by Portland architects Zimmer, Gunsel and Frasca, and erected in 1990, the facility has been a progressive environment for individuals transitioning from prison life. It was so innovative, in fact, it began as an experiment in co-ed incarceration.

A fitting institution to visit, given the novel nature of PSU’s AJ program.

Nestled between law-enacting and law-enforcing concentrations in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government building, AJ is a program designed to assess policies for efficiency and fairness and suggest adjustments or alternatives.

Annette Jolin, chair of the program, said, “AJ is policy research, evidence-based practice, evaluating implemented programs so that only those demonstrating results will receive continued funding.”

Some immensely popular programs have been difficult to weed out, though. “There is no evidence that boot camps work,” Jolin said in reference to intense, army training-style curriculums aimed at reprogramming repeat offenders.

“The assumption persists that abuse and neglect are the major cause of delinquency that leads to career criminality,” Jolin said. “Yet only one-third report early family traumas. Additive forces like race, gender and class have cumulative effects. The problem is greater than the sum of its parts, leaving offenders and victims feeling very vulnerable.”

Uninformed attitudes and misinformation about crime causation have contributed to an extraordinarily large prison population and the politicization of crime as a campaign platform. “Tough-on-crime” bills and media coverage of only the shocking, high-profile murders and of street crime have made the U.S. the nation with the greatest percentage of its citizens incarcerated.

As crime rates have fallen by one-half over the last 30 years, prison population has tripled. Do they correlate? The study of AJ has some surprising answers. For example, “roughly 30 percent of crime is reported or detected,” Jolin said. “A significant portion of undetected crimes are ‘white-collar,’ and have more devastating effects on the community than street crime.”

“Meanwhile, a street person has no privacy, is always visible and potentially surveilled. Power and money allow white-collar offenders privacy, even invisibility,” she said.

Such disparity in privacy is amplified in a prison environment, where AJ students traipsed through inmates’ bunk and shower rooms. Stares and whistles were less common than passive indifference to the intrusion.

“Do you know what kind of guys are housed here?” Copeland asked the touring students. “Fathers, brothers, uncles. Typical people just like your next-door neighbor. They’re also serial screw-ups stripped of their dignity and freedom. Their mail, crate of personal possessions and body cavities are searched daily. They make $30 a month, which can be docked for breaking prison rules.”

“They are also educated, can conduct law research pending trial or sentence relief, and are cared-for medically while they’re here. This facility fields 3,000 clinic calls from 500 inmates each month. Most have led high-risk lifestyles and many will be dead before age 50,” he said.

The Columbia River facility saw a dramatic drop in violence when it instituted a no-tobacco policy. “Previously, when we’d conduct random urine tests for drug use, we’d get several every time. Now, everyone is so preoccupied by where their next smoke might come from, harder drugs are almost a non-issue,” Copeland said.

But when inmate-on-inmate violence occurs, it can be brutal. “We call it lock-in-sock,” he said. “They take several combination locks in a tube sock, swinging it at faces, breaking noses and eye sockets.”

The AJ program explores the effectiveness of incarceration and a move toward preventive policy versus the current reactive model. It is available as a minor, hosts 350 majors and 20 graduate students in such specialized interests as domestic abuse and juvenile corrections.