Two contrasting portraits emerged Tuesday during a public hearing in New Jersey of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, reports the Newark Star-Ledger. Former prisoner Daud Tulam, 54, spent almost half his life in a Trenton prison for robbery and assault. He served most of his time in an isolation unit where he was locked down 23 hours a day. Put there because he was a jailhouse lawyer, Tulam says as a result his social skills have deteriorated and he is desensitized to violence. But Allen Beck, chief of the Corrections Statistics Program at the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, had a very different tale to tell. Armed with a slideshow of statistics, Beck says data show that the nation’s prisons and jails may have become more crowded, but they are less violent and unruly places, where murder, suicide and assault rates have dropped in recent years.
About 100 people listened to testimony that focused on overcrowding and the use of isolation. The 21-member panel consists of former U.S. attorneys general, politicians, judges and corrections officers. It is spending the year examining problems in prisons that house 13.5 million people and employ another 750,000, and looking for ways to solve them. Yesterday marked the start of the panel’s two-day hearing that will continue today at Essex County College in Newark. It is the second of four public events the commission has scheduled for this year. A final report will be distributed to lawmakers and state and federal officials.