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Monday, December 19, 2005

Does Women's Prison Need a Perimeter Wall

The New York Times
December 19, 2005
In Minnesota, an Odd Request: Please Don't Fence the Inmates In

SHAKOPEE, Minn. - In 40 years here, Dennis Hron has never worried about the women living across the street - not even the murderers, the robbers and the kidnappers among them.

What Mr. Hron and other residents are up in arms about now is a plan to wall them off.

The women live in the Minnesota Correctional Facility, separated from the tidy suburban neighborhood that surrounds it by nothing more than a three-foot hedge, pruned to ground stubble in some spots in winter.

State corrections officials, concerned about the rising number of violent women in prison, want to cordon the facility off with a 12-foot fence. They argue that it is the only prison in the country with a maximum-security wing and no perimeter wall.

But residents and city officials say good fences would be wasted on good neighbors.

"They're better neighbors than neighbors," Mr. Hron said, referring to the 496 inmates in the prison, which in December included 79 killers, 5 kidnappers and 17 burglars. "The prison has been part of the community for a long time; a fence will divide that."

Residents of this suburb southwest of Minneapolis apparently did not consider the prison a blemish on the neighborhood when they bought their homes; over the years, most have come to see it as an asset.

Prisoners ran a day care center for a time and enrolled in high school classes by video link. They still play softball on a diamond just across the street from the local elementary school. The prison rents plots to local gardeners and allows neighbors to bicycle and jog on the grounds, despite the No Trespassing signs. People here still recall watching inmates milk cows and raise chickens when the prison kept a farm.

"They're out there every day walking, and there's no trouble," said Gary Hartmann, who has lived on a quiet street behind the prison for 28 years. "We're not concerned about safety issues. There have been a few walkaways, but nothing too violent. I don't see any reason to have a fence."

The warden, Rick Hillengass, counts seven escapes - or walkaways, as even he calls them - in the past 10 years. A young woman serving time for homicide fled to a Smashing Pumpkins concert in Minneapolis, then came back. (Rolling Stone magazine, Mr. Hillengass said, named her Most Dedicated Fan.)

Another made it only to the other side of the street, where she stuck out her thumb and was picked up by an off-duty police officer, who promptly delivered her back to the prison. Others have gotten a few blocks only to encounter the Minnesota River and realize that it is too wide to swim across - and that the only bridge out requires them to walk through downtown Shakopee, where in their prison clothes they would surely be spotted.

Mr. Hron recalled one inmate who changed into some clothes left hanging to dry on someone's back deck. "That's a little scary," he said. "But generally, there hasn't been a problem."

Still, state corrections officials say the neighbors are ignoring a new reality: more women are in prison now, and they are more violent.

While there are still 13 times as many men as there are women in prison, the women's population is growing faster. Nationally, the number of women grew an average of 4.7 percent a year from 1995 to 2004; in Minnesota, the increase was far greater, an average of 10.8 percent a year. The population at Shakopee, the state's only prison for women, has doubled since 1998.

And while nationally men are more likely than women to be in prison for violent crimes, violent offenders accounted for half the growth in female prisoners from 2001 to 2004, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

That is only likely to grow: while the number of men arrested for violent crimes declined 20 percent from 1995 to 2004, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the number of women arrested for such crimes increased by 3 percent.

"We feel good about the fact that we've always had a very good relationship with the community," Mr. Hillengass said. "We're very concerned about trying to keep that. But I think a lot of people in the community think we house only low-level offenders. We don't."

The prison has been here, in different configurations, since the 1920's, and Shakopee has grown up around it: at 32,000 residents, this is one of the fastest-growing Minneapolis suburbs. The prison sits a few blocks from downtown in an established neighborhood of ranch houses, on a plot dotted by crabapple trees and pines, reminders of the farmland this once was.

The prisoners live in brick "cottages," and the grounds include a greenhouse and a large fitness center. Cameras on the perimeter watch the women on their daily outings. The only fence, however, is the backstop behind the softball diamond, which is across the street from the elementary school, a water tower and a cemetery. (The cemetery and the water tower have fences.)

"It's beautiful; it looks like a college campus," said David Hart, who lives across a bike path on the edge of the prison. "You put up a fence and searchlights, and it changes people's perception of what's there."

But the residents say they are concerned about more than property values. The average inmate gets out in six years, and only 12 are serving life sentences.

"We have to think about assimilating them back into society," said Mr. Hron, a former county commissioner. "Now they come out and play ball, they see us cutting our lawns or coming and going, they see what life is like out there, that people are enjoying it. It gives them a good picture, something to aspire to."

Mayor John Schmitt suggested that the fence might actually inspire more walkaways. "If suddenly you're inside a wall, and you can't see your neighbors," Mayor Schmitt said, "it will give you other thoughts. Your natural inclination is to say, 'I want to get outside those walls.' "

The fence would cost $4 million to $6 million. But at a recent meeting, neighbors told the warden that it would be a waste of taxpayer money; they were unimpressed by the statistics on escapes. "Five million for seven people in 10 years?" Mr. Hart said afterward.

In a nod to the community, state prison officials are suggesting that the fence be made of black metal pickets between carved stone or concrete posts - "the kind of fence you might find in a gated community," Mr. Hillengass said - with another fence 20 feet inside for extra protection. Lights would be positioned downward to avoid "the ball-field effect," he said, and there would be no concertina wire.

"If somebody gets out of this facility and causes some serious harm," the warden said, "we would be sitting here in a position of explaining why we hadn't done something about it - why we didn't have a system that tried to keep people inside. As sensitive as we are to the community, we have a public protection responsibility that goes beyond the neighborhood."

Now, visitors often toss drugs in the bushes for inmates, Mr. Hillengass said. And many of the women have come from violent relationships, reflected in restraining orders they have taken out against their partners. "That's an additional reason: to keep people off as well as people on," he said.

Mayor Schmitt remains unconvinced. On a recent tour, he pointed out that the fence would be almost as high as the unobtrusive, one-story prison buildings there now.

"I think it would look very forbidding, certainly not in keeping with a residential neighborhood," he said. "If they want a 12-foot fence, I would encourage them to move to the country."

* Copyright 2005The New York Times Company