Legislative Lockdown

Jan 13, 1999 at 4:00 am
While I was living in California in the '80s, they built one of those supermax penitentiaries outside Crescent City, near the Oregon border. Some wanted to call it the Prison in the Redwoods, until officials realized the name itself would be a cruel joke on the misfits in the system for whom it was intended. It is now called Pelican Bay, and it is a fearsome fortress.

The word "misfits" itself is carelessly used, because not too many human beings can adapt to a life behind bars, and if they were misfits before embarking on the life of a criminal, that's a challenge to society that stronger and more isolated imprisonment will never solve. So we have opted to treat insoluble problems like this by removing them from public observation, preferably to the outer reaches of civilization.

This is what Illinois has done with its new state prison near a town called Tamms, in a national forest near the Kentucky border. Its inmates live and sleep on concrete furniture in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. Inmates have no visual contact with each other. The system is designed to break a person down. And this is society's answer to the problem of "incorrigibles" among the population -- lock them away in isolation for as close to forever as we can get.

But to do this costs an inordinate amount of public money. At Tamms, three or four guards are assigned to put handcuffs and leg irons on each inmate and escort him to and from his one hour of "exercise" -- walking in an empty yard. Cooks, psychologists and other prison personnel are necessary to keep the place functioning. It costs $35,000 a year to house one inmate at Tamms, twice the average at other Illinois prisons, where 42,000 inmates are incarcerated. Missouri has not built a supermax prison yet.

A story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch over the Christmas holidays -- good cheer to all! -- described the conditions at Tamms. One inmate was quoted as saying, "You start to lose touch with reality. You become depressed. You become incoherent." If he was a misfit before -- "sociopath" is the formal word for it -- he might become a psychopath with such prolonged isolation.

But society's answer (and that of America's growing penal establishment) is that it is protecting itself. It raises serious questions about the rights of society and the individuals in it.

But if the cruelties of the penal system confound many Americans, the crusade of the "young guns" in the U.S. House of Representatives to remove an elected president raises another set of questions. How did the lower house manage to lose touch with the electorate? And so we embark on 1999 as we ended '98 -- wondering about public opinion as reflected in the polls.

It remains to be seen how the impeachment trial will play out in the Senate -- many predict it will be a "show trial" of the kind once favored in totalitarian states. But the sound and fury seem likely to fade away when the show is over.

Senators serve six years instead of two, meaning that they don't take their records to the voters as often and hence don't face the urgency of appeasing their constituents on "hot-button" issues. But the last major poll of 1998 suggested that the button had cooled way down, and the Senate has had time to digest that report.

The Gallup Poll at the end of 1998 showed that the beleaguered president was the most admired man in America and the first lady the most admired woman. Bill Clinton's rating was four percentage points higher than the previous year -- through Monica and all -- and this year he was far ahead of the second man on the list, Pope John Paul II.

I'm never sure what to make of the results of opinion polls, but politicians tend to read them for breakfast. And this one showed Kenneth Starr way down in 13th place, tied with Jesse Jackson, Bob Dole, Tony Blair and Norman Schwarzkopf. And Hillary Rodham Clinton was far ahead of Oprah Winfrey.

Even if they have more time to digest such information, it seems that the Senate has been handed a very unpopular issue to contend with, and even the new House speakerfor the Republicans says it is time to get back to business.

If the impeachment ritual turns out to be a dud, as now seems likely, the big question remains: How did the Washington press corps manage to spend this past lost year on a subject as unreal -- in terms of citizens' needs -- as an everyday soap opera?