Prison space is too precious to waste,
A former corrections official from New Mexico
Is telling judges and prison administrators.
By Penelope Lemov


MARCH, 1990

Central Prison at Lorton, Virginia, doesn't look like a jail so much as an old, bleak, rundown army post. It is one of eight penal institutions run by the District of Columbia on this sprawling suburban site, but it is the largest and is known simply as "Big Lorton.'' Its landscape is marked by row after row of low, flat, red brick dormitories. Clutches of men, most of them in sweat pants and sneakers, walk the grounds unescorted, heading for meals, prison jobs or, in a few cases, rickety trailers that house the library and a college extension service.

Every few weeks, Kay Monaco passes through the electronic gate and walks the barbed-wire-enclosed grounds. It is hard not to notice her. Virtually all the faces at Lorton, prisoners and staff alike, are black. She is a white woman with blue eves and cropped blond hair. She is also 6 foot 1.

The prison supervisors do more than notice her. They unlock kitchen freezers and pantries so she can check on cleanliness. They watch while she spot-checks the condition of toilets and showers in the dormitories that house some 1,200 men.

The inmates know Kay Monaco on sight Several stop to chat with her; a few warn her that all is not what it seems, that the kitchen was cleaned especially for her visit. Some voice more personal complaints they need medical treatment and aren't getting it. One of them stops Monaco to update his correspondence with her. Monaco, who apologizes for her delay in answering the inmate's most recent letter, pats him on the shoulder.

Kay Monaco is at Big Lorton wearing the hat of special master. Three of the District of Columbia's nine corrections facilities are under a federal court order to clean up their act—to reduce overcrowding and improve living conditions that were found to violate prisoners' constitutional rights Monaco has been called in to be the court's outside expert—the enforcer empowered to tell prison officials how to run their institutions.

It makes her less than popular with local officials. In the district, some complain that this normally affable 37-year-old New Mexico woman is too aggressive and too demanding. Mayor Marion Barry accused her of fomenting a riot in a prison in 1986. She had reported to the court that a filthy, overcrowded dormitory was ripe for a revolt, and the day after a court official leaked her report to the press, prisoners burned the building down. "It's not a job to have if you want to make friends," Monaco admits.

If you run a prison system and you haven't come across Kay Monaco, there's a reasonable chance you will one day. Some 41 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are under federal court order to improve prison conditions. When a judge decides that a prison is not complying with these orders, a special master—the formal title, in the District of Columbia, is special officer—is brought in Kay Monaco is one of a relatively few people in the country with the background and expertise to take on this sort of assignment.

She can be very particular about details. But she has more than mere compliance in mind. Kay Monaco is a woman with an agenda She doesn't just want to clean the prisons up—she want ants to make massive changes in the entire American sentencing process. She doesn't think prisons will get a grip on their problems until judges stop filling them up with people who haven't committed violent crimes.

America's prison population has been growing at a disturbing rate for the past 10 years. Last year, the population increase was 11 percent; enough to fill several new facilities each week.


Some governments, such as those in California, New York and Washington State, are hoping to build their way out of the problem with new prisons. The price tag is high It costs an average of $52,000 per bed to build a prison today, up 28.5 percent from $42,000 two years ago. Many states don't have the money to do much of that or choose not to spend it for that purpose. In Alabama, two prisons, costing a total of $30 million and adding 1,265 beds, are being completed this year, but so far the legislature has been able to come up with only $` million in annual operating funds, preventing one of the new prisons from opening its doors.

Alabama is where Kay Monaco frequently happens to be when she is not wearing her special master hat. There, she doesn't spend her time inspecting bathrooms. Working under the auspices of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, based in New York City, she has been brought in by state officials to persuade Alabamians that the solution to prison overcrowding lies not in more prisons but in the prudent use of them. Prison, she says, is an expensive resource that should be used carefully. Nonviolent offenders should be punished within their communities, with state prisons reserved for violent criminals.

Monaco insists that she doesn't believe these things because she is softhearted. "This is a public safety issue," she says. "The public needs to be assured that those who pose a physical threat to society are removed from the community." When too many nonviolent offenders are sent to prison, crowding becomes intolerable, corrections departments are sued and pressure is put on local officials to enact a quick fix Release enough prisoners to make room for incoming offenders. Under these circumstances, some prisoners who pose a physical threat to society gain early release.

"When a prison has to operate under a court-imposed population cap," says Monaco, "you don't have much control over who's going out but you can control who s going in. Among those who shouldn't have to go in, in her opinion, are check forgers. Unarmed burglars and people convicted of low-level drug crimes. She thinks they can be handled with home detention, supervised probation, community service, and weekends in jail and restitution to victims. In these ways, Monaco says. "You make the community and victim whole and reserve prison for those who commit vicious and violent crimes.''

When prison population is capped,"You don't have much control over who's going out. But you can control who's going in", says Monaco.

New State Prison Beds

1989 and 1990

Budgeted Construction Costs in Millions of Dollars
State Beds Added Total Cost
Alabama 1,812 $31.4
Alaska 250 2.3
Arizona 1,538 45.5
Arkansas 1,600 26.1
Calif. 15,030 1,291.6
Colo. 892 8.5
Conn. 6,126 26.1
Del. 600 60.0
Fla. 12,347 194.3
Ga. 13,555 319.2
Hawaii 1,160 75.6
Idaho none none
Ill. 1,728 90.0
Ind. none none
Iowa 220 6.1
Kan. 896 68.7
Ky. 1,050 72.9
La. 1,000 56.0
Maine 345 9.4
Md. 3,220 142.5
Mass. 1,749 144.1
Mich. 6,944 477.0
Minn. 250 10.8
Miss. 1,500 50.0
Mo. none none
Mont. none none
Neb. 40 1.7
Nev. 144 12.5
N.H. none none
N.J. 1,000 104.0
N.M. 300 8.2
N.Y. 5,400 409.0
N.C. none none
N.D. none none
Ohio 4,326 246.0
Okla. 1,000 20.1
Ore. 930 32.4
Pa. 2,650 146.6
R.I. 1,054 103
S.C. 3,250 117.8
S.D. 384 25.0
Tenn. 4,888 180.3
Texas 10,250 268.0
Utah 623 32.0
Vt. 134 9.5
Va. 2,764 180.7
Wash. 400 12.0
W. Va. 1,000 60.0
Wis. 1,121 64.9
Wyo. 50 0.6

Figures do not include federal prison bed Source Corrections Compendium survey

Her ideas run counter to the national call for a war on drugs, a war that emphasizes more arrests and longer prison terms for drug users, pushers and dealers, among other criminals. The governor of Washington state, Democrat Booth Gardner, spoke for this mainstream when he announced an ambitious prison-expansion program a few months ago. "We're taking prisoners in the war against drugs like never before, ' he said.

There continues to be widespread public support for sentiments of that sort. But officials in Alabama, like those in many other states, face a horrendous and costly crowding problem that the get-tough approach will only worsen. While the national incarceration rate is 260 per 100,000 people, the rate in Alabama is 321 per 100,000—23 percent higher. The number of inmates coming into the System is increasing by nearly 1,000 a year; Alabama w would need a new prison each year to keep up.

Prison costs already- are draining money away from highways, schools and social services. In Alabama, it costs $14,000 a year to house, feed and guard an inmate; it costs $3,000 to $4,000 a year to provide supervision for alternative sentences. And so. v whatever their views s may be on the abstract questions of crime and punishment, there has been growing pressure on those in charge to look at alternatives to prisons Alabama's corrections commissioner, Morris Thigpen. urged the Clark; Foundation to consider his state a laboratory for its approach. Kay Monaco arrived in to summer of 1987.

On one day this past January, she was in Commissioner Thigpen's conference room in Montgomery, meeting with him, three judges, an officer of the state court system, the executive director of a victim's rights organization and a collection of foundation consultants from around the country who have been trying to implement the ideas of Monaco and the Clark Foundation.

Malcolm Young, a lawyer who heads a sentencing project in rural Alabama, took the floor to tell the group about Willie Collins, a 57-year-old man who lives near the small town of Demopolis in southwest Alabama and who had shot and wounded his common-law wife and himself. It had been a crime of passion--the wife was leaving him to marry a preacher. Collins pleaded guilty to attempted murder, which carries a prison sentence of 10 years

But the presiding circuit court judge, Claude Neilson, had been exposed to the ideas Kay Monaco and the Clark Foundation espouse. He had attended a workshop on sentencing sponsored by the foundation at Yale University. In addition, Young had brought into the community a "sentencing advocate to work with the defense

When it came time for sentencing, the advocate pointed out some pertinent facts about Willie Collins He was the father of 11 children, all of whom were either employed or attending school; none had run into trouble with the law. Collins had been milking cows for a dairy for company for 21 years; his employers testified and wrote to the judge on his behalf. Arguing that Collins was not a threat to society, the advocate presented the judge with non-prison-sentence alternatives.

Judge Neilson, after Consulting with the prosecutor and the victim, suspended the I0-year prison term and sentenced Collins to five year of probation, with conditions. He ordered that, for those five years, one-quarter of Collins' paycheck be sent to the victim and that Collins devote 100 hours of supervised community service to his local volunteer fire department. Collins was ordered not to drive a car, not to go near his victim or her new spouse, and not to possess a gun. He was told that if he quit his lob, his probation status might be revoked.

Kay Monaco listened to this story closely. Judge Neilson was at the meeting, and Monaco, in a show of support for him asked what hat kind of help the foundation could give him in working with the press and the community to gain better understanding of' what he was doing. Neilson said he had taken a hit in one local newspaper, but that overall the response had been positive. ''The more you send people out to civic clubs to explain the cost to the state of incarceration, he told Monaco, ''the more receptive people workshop will be to alternatives."

But Anita Armstrong Morgan, sitting five chairs to Kay Monaco's right, didn't think the Willie Collins story was a positive step. She found it frightening. "That sentence floored me," said Morgan, the executive director of the Alabama Crime Victims Compensation Commission. "That's the kind of violent crime we should hold prison cells open for.''

Monaco doesn't think so. People are imprisoned, she counters, for one or more of four reasons to keep them from doing further harm, to rehabilitate them, to deter others from committing similar crimes or to exact retribution.

In this case, she argues, the offender was almost certainly not going to shoot someone else—he acted out of the intense emotional pain that grew from a personal relationship. His sentence would not deter others from committing a crime of passion—that's not the way crimes of passion work. He didn't need rehabilitation—he had held a steady job for 21 years.

Even some hard-liners on the sentencing issue can accept those propositions. What they might have a hard time accepting is what Kay Monaco says next—that having his freedom of movement restricted, working in the volunteer fire department and giving up a quarter of his wages are adequate retribution for what Collins did.

"If he goes to prison," she says, "society will be obligated to pay for the care of his children. He stops being a contributing--that is, tax-paying--member of society. If he's not a threat to public safety, it's better to punish him in a way that doesn't punish the rest of us."

And if the people of Demopolis don't agree that the sentence was just? Well, says Monaco, they'll communicate that to the judge. "The judge lives in that area. If people are not happy with the sentence," she says, "they'll let him know about it when he shops for groceries or gets his hair cut. He might not get re-elected." It gets down, she adds, to what the community itself finds acceptable.

Kathryn R. Monaco grew up in Albuquerque, where her father was a security guard for a private company. She more or less wandered into criminal justice work when she graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in psychology and not a clue about what she was going to do with her life. After a brief stint as a commercial construction worker—which w on her some newspaper coverage because no women were doing those jobs at the time—she went to work in Albuquerque as a probation officer for juveniles. "The lawyers representing those kids were doing a lousy job,'' she says "I thought, 'I can do better than those hobos.' "

She left that job to go to law school at the university of New Mexico, signed on at graduation with an established Albuquerque firm but decided after a year that social service interested her more than corporate practice. In 1982, single and 30 years old, she moved to the East Coast and applied to be an assistant to Kenneth Schoen, the special master overseeing prison conditions in New York City for a federal court.

Schoen, who is also the director of the Clark Foundation s justice program, liked the fact that Monaco was not easily intimidated. He also liked the fact that she was 6 foot 1. "It wouldn't hurt,'' he thought, "to have her tower over wardens. Besides, she presents herself with such powerful confidence that it permits her to move comfortably in the male-dominated, paramilitary organizations that corrections systems are."

Monaco learned more during her two years in New York than how to intimidate wardens. She learned the ins and outs of the prison system—the complex math involved in figuring out prison staffing, the not-so-obvious places to look for unsanitary conditions.

When she decided to return to New Mexico, she took a job with the state corrections department, monitoring its efforts to conform to federal court orders. Within a year, she was named deputy secretary for programs.

"I wanted to see what I could do from the inside," she says of her New Mexico experience. She did something rather unorthodox. She appointed a staff person in each prison to check on conditions and report problems directly to her instead of the warden. It wasn't the best way to make friends in the corrections hierarchy. "In a paramilitary structure,'' she admits, ''you do not break a chain of command." On the other hand, she argues, New Mexico had to comply with court orders. ''To do that, you have to set up something outside the normal operating procedure."

Unorthodox or not, she stayed on until 1987, when a new governor took office and a new commissioner of corrections was appointed. At that point, Monaco resigned as deputy. She was already assisting the special officer in the District of Columbia and decided to work with the Clark Foundation as well. Last Year, when the district's special officer, Judge John Fauntleroy Jr., died, she was asked by the federal court judge to succeed him.

It is not an easy task. The D.C. corrections bureaucracy is careful not to make any public comments critical of her--"She has not been antagonistic, and neither have we," says the acting deputy director, Paul A. Quander Jr.--but the entire situation is a natural source of tension, as Mayor Barry's remarks about her in 1986 make clear. "I don't try to go out of my way to be nasty or say things that will embarrass people," Monaco insists. "Having been in a corrections department, I know how difficult it is to implement a court order, to change a bureaucracy. But I also know what can be done, what's possible."

There are small satisfactions in a special master's job that make up for some of the frustrations. Inmates at Lorton write Monaco letters about missed parole dates or medical problems that aren't being treated. But that isn't the only reason Monaco is in the corrections business. She is there to change the way prisons operate. And while that isn't part of her special master's mandate in D.C., she's doing it anyway.

And she has a weapon in a special fund established by the court last year and stockpiled with $1.6 million in contempt fines collected from the D.C. corrections system. Monaco is the administrator of that money and plans to use a portion of it to "open doors to playing a wider role." She wants to start some of the same programs she is conducting in Alabama—sentencing seminars for judges, defense lawyers and probation officers. "If it fails miserably," she says, "the worst that happens is that the system continues exactly as it is.

In the meantime, she is spending long days inside the walls at Big Lorton, tending to the minutiae of the present system. The list of small problems is endless. Kitchen tiles are broken—they were on her last visit—and she asks prison personnel why they haven't been repaired. She pokes her fingers under the vent hood of a kitchen stove to see if grease has accumulated.

She has just about finished inspecting one dormitory when an elderly black prisoner stops her to complain that conditions at Big Lorton are unbearable. "You're right," she says. "We need to figure out a way to get some of you people out of here." But she doesn't have time to talk very long. She is due at the prison hospital, where she plans to inspect the medicine bottles on the pharmacy shelf.

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