Sentencing Laws Take Away Incentives

N.C. youth prison system gets new facility but loses good time as motivational tool

By Carla Crowder, Journal Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The worn-out Polk Youth Institution offers little in the way of inspiration for the 360 young thugs who live here.

The walls are red brick. The bars are black steel. An occasional padlock hangs on a door. Few perks are available for prisoners. They sleep on stacking metal bunks in stark dorms with little ventilation and no privacy. Nothing they do is hidden from visitors wandering in and out.

So for George Currie, superintendent of the prison for young adults, structured sentencing laws take on a whole new meaning.
With good time eliminated, prisoners are required to serve their full minimum sentences.

"Now I don't have any carrot hanging over their heads for good behavior," Currie said. "It's really made management more difficult."

Though part of the adult prison system, Polk is reserved for men ages 19 through 22. They tend to have a lot of energy at this age, Currie pointed out.

Before structured sentencing, Currie and his officers could manage prisoners' behavior with incentives such as good time -- time off for not causing too much trouble -- and gain time -- time off for working or going
to school.

Most of his prisoners could get out after serving 25 percent of their time if they didn't raise too much Cain.
Judges can add additional months -- a maximum sentence -- for especially bad behavior in prison. But no criminal can serve more than the maximum, which amounts to 120 percent of the minimum sentence, plus nine months for most crimes.
Officials at Polk and other prisons have been fairly successful in controlling prisoners without traditional incentives. To do so they've had to "become a bit more innovative" to encourage prisoners to be good, said Bobby Montague, program director at the prison. But at Polk, the options are somewhat limited. Currie describes it as "World War II vintage."

A little extra recreational time, favored job assignments and movies are the few good-behavior incentives officers can offer prisoners in this dismal place. But there is an upside to North Carolina criminal justice reforms for Currie and his crew: a new prison. Builders are putting the finishing fencing on the new 1,070-bed Polk Youth Institution. It's a high-tech fortress that makes the old prison look antique.

Modern design, cameras and electronics will make the new one more efficient to run. Here's an example: At the old Polk, nine guard towers manned by nine officers 24 hours a day shoot from the barbed wire. The new prison will have electronic security and master control rooms so only two perimeter officers will be needed.

"Right off, you've eliminated seven positions and the benefits that go along with those positions," Currie said. He'll also be able to offer more programs and more behavior incentives at the new prison. The new Polk is among 18 prisons North Carolina has built and/or funded since 1985. The state runs 87 prisons.

In all, 19,784 beds have been added at a cost of $531 million. Some of the beds came as additions to prisons, according to the North Carolina Department of Correction. Though structured sentencing reserves most of these beds for dangerous criminals, the sentencing commission believes the state will have plenty of prison space through 2007 for everyone who needs to be there.

Copyright © 1997 Albuquerque Journal

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Sentencing Laws Take Away Incentives
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Albuquerque Journal