Go directly to jail -- but how tough should it be for inmates?

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

That’s a quote from Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Before writing his masterpiece Crime and Punishment, he served four years’ hard labor at a work camp in Siberia. He knew a thing or two about prisons.

A complaint about jails and prisons these days – usually voiced by people who never have been in prison – is that inmates have it soft. We hear about jails having televisions and perhaps small libraries, and before you know it our imaginations are running wild, picturing prisoners sprawled on recliners tossing cheese puffs into one another’s mouths.

That perception doesn’t shift much when you hear about Anders Breivik. He’s the savage convicted in Norway last month of killing 77 people last year. Norway doesn’t have capital punishment, but it does have a three-room suite in a suburban Oslo prison where Breivik will spend the next 21 years. He gets a bedroom; a study with a laptop computer fixed to a desk; and a room with exercise equipment.

Too much? Perhaps. I’ve seen photos of the rooms, and I’ve seen college dorm rooms that looked a lot sketchier.

For someone who snuffed out 77 innocent lives, a lot of folks would rather see Breivik in some dank, rat-infested vault with a cobblestone floor and a pile of hay in the corner.

Too much? Perhaps.

The closest I’ve seen to a “happy” medium was when I was a guest earlier this year at the Columbia County jail. No, not like that – I just toured the jail with my son’s Cub Scout den. He learned how to safely cuff a suspect. I learned that the jail is brightly lighted, scrupulously clean, tighter than a drum and the absolute last place you would expect inmates to have it soft.

I also like the policy that authorities started Aug. 1 at the Richmond County jail – no more free medical care for prisoners. To tamp down soaring medical costs, inmates now have to cough up a $5 copay.

It might shock you to learn that prisoners have been known to lie about being sick just so they can spend time out of the regular jail population to, as sheriff’s Maj. Gene Johnson wryly told The Chronicle, “go down there to see the pretty nurse. This is going to stop some of that.”

I realize I’m mixing the terms “jail” and “prison” here – prison is federal and often state; jail isn’t. But behind bars is behind bars.

Putting someone behind bars requires a delicate balance. Imprisonment has to be enough of an unpleasant deterrent to keep people from committing crimes again and returning – but not to a degree that they emerge with more scars. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want guys back on the streets who are angrier getting out of prison than they were getting in.

Still, keep their minds and bodies active. If an inmate is willing to learn something in a classroom, or seek spiritual guidance, or pick up some kind of trade skill – except maybe locksmithing – I don’t have a problem with that. If you keep them idle, they’re probably more likely to continue to be slackers when they get out.

That’s hardly revolutionary thinking. For years, prisons have offered chances for prisoners to take high-school and college classes. Prison ministries, such as the international one founded by former Watergate figure Charles Colson, have helped tons of inmates get closer to God. The trick is finding out which kinds of rehabilitation work best for which kinds of inmates.

I came across an article in The Atlantic magazine about prison reform in Vermont, specifically about an innovative work-release program. Inmates, according to the story, “are made to feel that their imprisonment is designed to improve them as men, and to restore them to social life not only with full self-respect but with the cordial respect of the community.”

I should mention the date on the article: August 1911. Yep. Prison reform is at least that old.

I collect antique newspapers. One of the oddest ones in my collection is the Dec. 6, 1913, edition of The Summary – “published weekly by and for the inmates of the New York State Reformatory, Elmira, New York.” A prison with its own newspaper. The editor-in-chief – I kid you not – is listed on the masthead as inmate 22875.

Elmira apparently was the first U.S. prison to be renamed a “reformatory,” because instead of pouring on lots of beatings and forced labor, it sought to reform prisoners through such programs as vocational training, athletic leagues, a prison band and, as you just read, a newspaper. (From the paper’s “Local Notes” column: “18183 is now the leader of the Hebrew choir. He expects to make it the talk of the Institution.”)

There is such a thing as being too accommodating, though. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Boston ordered the Massachusetts Department of Corrections to use state tax dollars to provide an inmate a sex change to become a woman. The judge said treating the prisoner’s gender-identity disorder is a “serious medical need.”

I won’t try to feign expertise when it comes to correctly diagnosing transsexual murderers. And I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining the difference between a want and a need.

But as someone who pays taxes, I could think of more prudent expenditures. Unless, of course, the inmate wants to foot the bill himself – er, herself.

Of course, that’s a lot of $5 copays.

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