Hard time's never a 'circus'
By James Alan Fox
Monday, October 17, 2005

Clowns, strongmen, musicians performing live inside our prisons? Notwithstanding the Herald's expose about Operation Starting Line, a volunteer-based prisoner re-entry program designed to bring hope, life skills and religion to incarcerated men and women, the image of a three-ring circus at MCI Cedar Junction seems too bizarre to be true.

   Since 2000, Operation Starting Line has been behind the walls of some 700 prisons in dozens of states nationwide. The group's Christian ministry, funded through private donations, is delivered at no cost to the taxpayers of this or any other state. The "clown," as he was characterized by one critic, was likely the comedic emcee, and the strongman bending iron bars (not cell bars) was a muscle-bound, former drug addict whose mission is to help other offenders turn their lives around.

   The entertainment portion of the event is designed to grab the attention of typically reticent inmates. The message of change then comes from former inmates, athletes, inspirational speakers and preachers, who are hardly clowning around about values and moral choices.

   Regrettably, this turned into a public relations nightmare for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Ordinarily, Operation Starting Line invites the media to witness the program first-hand, so as to avoid any possible misinterpretation about its method and purpose. But correction officials here decided not to involve the press. Not surprisingly, the word leaked out regardless, and the rest is embarrassing history.

   Regardless of whether one agrees with the light-hearted format, the goals of Operation Starting Line are inarguably laudable: To provide mentoring and spiritual guidance for inmates and to help them forge a connection with outside volunteers who have successfully transitioned from incarceration to freedom.

   Most important, an evaluation of this initiative by criminologist Byron Johnson of Baylor University has shown encouraging results in reducing the risk of recidivism. Even Burl Cain, warden of the no-nonsense Louisiana State Prison at Angola, has praised the program for promoting positive change in his inmates.

   And what's wrong with a little entertainment in prisons anyway? Johnny Cash was famous for his "Folsom Prison Blues" recording and his frequent concerts at that austere institution. Comedian Paul Rodriguez taped his HBO special, "Live in San Quentin," in front of an auditorium full of convicts.

   Many sports leagues have involved prisoner teams (the film, "The Longest Yard" is not all joke). Last year, while doing work at Sing Sing in New York, I got a glimpse of that prison's baseball diamond--a rather nice ballfield, except its "green monster" is more prison-wall gray.

   Live entertainment, plus television and movies, serves multiple functions in corrections-- including order maintenance and rehabilitation. It is sad when important initiatives, like prison-based college degree programs, are scrapped because critics and some crime victims complain. Whether the state provides tuition-free education for convicts (when citizens must pay for their kids), or whether "a circus" comes to the prison yard (when correctional officers can't afford to take their families to the real "Big Top" at the Garden) are red herrings.

   Still, many citizens cheered when Gov. Bill Weld talked about introducing prisoners to the "joys of busting rock" Others whine about the luxurious life afforded inmates, with "three squares" and free cable TV. These concerns are mean-spirited and short-sighted.

   The main objectives of imprisonment are to protect society from dangerous criminals and to deprive them of liberty as punishment. Religious, educational and drug treatment programs, plus a few amenities here and there to make prison life minimally tolerable, do not detract from these functions, and can help inmates re-enter society. Certainly, they do not turn hard time into a good time.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at j.fox@neu.edu.