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Under the Sun: Fix violence by fixing prisons

There are several schools of thought on the best way to reduce the violence in Philadelphia that resulted in more than 400 murders last year.

There are several schools of thought on the best way to reduce the violence in Philadelphia that resulted in more than 400 murders last year.

There are those who say the answer lies with the police: Put more cops on the street. Deploy them better.

There are those who say the answer lies with the courts: Judges need to issue longer sentences.

Some say the answer lies with the prisons: Build more lockups so we can lock up more people.

Some say we need better schools and social services for children likely to grow up violent and criminal.

Me? I think the answer is like a buffet. You know, take some of this, some of that, and, voila, you've got a satisfying plate. But as unappetizing as it may sound, we need a heaping portion of that prison dish.

No, I'm not advocating the construction of more prisons. We need to do a better job with the ones we've got.

Long ago, a convict was actually expected to be rehabilitated in prison. Too many prisons today are little more than warehouses of men and women who become more larcenous and violent there than they were before being locked up.

Sure, there are exceptions. Many inmates do their time, get educated, find religion, recover from their addictions, and otherwise do what's necessary to return to the world as better people.

But when Philadelphia police say nearly 90 percent of the city's homicide victims and nearly 90 percent of its murderers had prison records, I wouldn't call them "rehabilitated."

Prisons are terrible places. I've been inside more than I care to remember. Always as a visitor, thank God, and never to see anyone I knew.

I've been inside the famous Birmingham Jail, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his celebrated letter on civil rights.

I've been in super-max prisons, where you're asked to sign a waiver in case something awful happens while you're there.

The first time I visited a jail was when I was in high school in Alabama, as a participant in a Student Law Day observance at the county courthouse complex.

My most vivid memory of that day is of a huge holding cell for juveniles. There were dozens of kids inside, guys in their teens and younger, already set on a career path.

I averted my eyes, not wanting to see anyone I knew from the housing project where I lived. That could lead to an awkward moment after their release.

And an awkward moment can lead to a fight when someone has a chip on his shoulder from being jailed.

Leon King, Philadelphia commissioner of prisons, is proud of the Frankford Reentry Project and other programs offered to the more than 500 inmates released from that system into the city each week.

The average stay in the city's prison is only about 90 days, as inmates await trial or other adjudication. But that's a long time to be in a facility that, with 8,900 inmates, is a thousand prisoners over capacity.

A federal judge in January cited the city prison for being so crowded that some inmates had been sleeping on concrete floors. Imagine their mood when released.

An additional 3,500 inmates are released each year into Philadelphia from the state prisons. They have spent an average of nearly four years incarcerated. Many leave prison with chips on their shoulders.

They're tired of taking orders from guards. Tired of taking orders from bigger, stronger inmates. Tired of living in deplorable facilities.

They are accustomed to resorting to violence to escape rape or other abuse. They are despondent - because sometimes there is no escape.

I wonder why there is little discussion of prison reform when people talk about reducing the violence in Philadelphia and other cities.

Wouldn't it make sense, since most inmates are eventually released, to make sure prison doesn't make them more violent?

I once asked Mayor Street that question. He knows the value of prison reform. Each New Year's Day, he joins local ministers at the city prison to urge inmates to turn their lives around.

But Street isn't optimistic about more money being spent to improve prisons. He says too many people see rehabilitation programs as coddling. They say prisons are where you send criminals to be punished, not to be coddled.

Well, call it what you want, but if a safer, cleaner, less-crowded prison that prepares inmates for good jobs outside will lead to fewer ex-convicts returning to the city ready to rob or shoot somebody, then we need more of that type of prison.