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Hoffa: From Teamster Boss to New Crusader

By J. R. Eggert

THE NEW CRUSADER strode into Lowell Lecture Hall 20 minuets into surrounded by a smoky encourage of Teamster bosses. He wore a black suit, black shoes, a freshly ironed white shirt, and a silver striped tie. He sat impassively, his short, grayish hair combed straight back, while a Harvard Law School student gave him a lavish introduction. The New Crusader then walked quickly to the podium, cleared his throat, and launched into a compelling attack on the American prison system.

Jimmy Hoffa was sent to the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in 1967 on a jury tampering charge. Early this winter, after serving nearly five years of his sentence, he obtained his parole in a political deal with the Nixon Administration. When he emerged from prison. Robert Kennedy turned over in his grave the Democrats cried foul, and the New York Times shuddered. All the fears, however, were groundless for the Lewisburg experience had made Hoffa a different man. No longer was he the power-hungry union boss who stood accused of embezzling Teamster funds or bribing stubborn juniors. He was now the New Crusader.

In the past six months, the New Crusader has testified before Congress on prison conditions in America, debated William Buckley on "Issues and Answers," and given numerous speeches calling for penal reform. No one, then, should have been surprised when the New Crusader carried his cross to Harvard and gave a sober, convincing speech on the problems which plagued the Lewisburg Penitentiary.

The evils the New Crusader cited were all too familiar--impersonal procedures, overcrowded facilities, inadequate medical care. When an inmate enters Lewisburg, he is handcuffed, stripped naked, searched, bathed, given a number, and then quarantined overnight. On the next day, the new prisoner goes to the dentist who decides, after a quick inspection, whether or not to remove any of the prisoner's teeth. He then takes an IQ test, outfits himself in the available prison garb, which may or may not fit, and finally appears before the Classification Board. The members of the Board tell the inmate what educational, vocational and athletic programs he will be permitted to participate in. The inmate is then released into the general prison population.

LEWISBURG, like most federal and state prisons, is overcrowded: During the New Crusader's stay, there were three showers, three baths and three urinals for 1800 inmates. Dormitories which should have housed 50 people housed 150. Often two prisoners were placed in a single cell.

Medical care was practically non-existent. There was only one doctor and he was more interested in dispensing tranquillizers than anything else. In emergencies, inmates often had to rely on other inmates who had little or no medical experience. If a prisoner suffered a heart attack, his life depended on the skills of another inmate who was expected to administer a heart massage after receiving one week's training.

As the New Crusader ticked off these complaints, he remained dispassionate. But on two occasions his voice reached a slightly higher pitch and his face colored. The two subjects which moved the New Crusader were incidences of brutality by guards and homosexuality.

"Eighty-five per cent of the guards are good decent men who can find nothing else to do." The New Crusader paused for a moment. "Ten per cent of the guards insist on harassing prisoners by enforcing petty rules." The New Crusader paused again. "And five per cent of the guards are sadistic brutal people who get their kicks by squirting mace at the prisoners confined in isolation." The New Crusader stopped speaking, let his jaw slacken, and then went on to discuss less emotional issues.

Homosexuality was an even sorer point. "If you're young when you enter prison, you get mass raped. If you complain, they'll put you in the hole with the people who raped you." The New Crusader quickly switched the subject only to return to it a few minutes later. "Forty per cent of the prisoners at Lewisburg were homosexuals." The New Crusader's face became red. His neck tightened. "Yet nobody ever tried to separate the homosexuals from the rest of the prisoners. Everybody was just thrown in together."

WHEN THE NEW Crusader finished his speech, he received a hearty round of applause from the 500 people in the audirace. The applause, however, was deceptive. The most hearty cheers came from a group of about 20 Teamsters who sat in the middle of the hall directly in front of their fallen leader. When local Teamster leaders in Boston first learned that the New Crusader was scheduled to speak at Harvard they asked the Harvard Law School Forum, which sponsored the speech, for 200 reserved seats in Lowell Lecture Hall. "We want to pack the hall for Jimmy," one Teamster explained. When the New Crusader discovered the plan, he quickly put a damper on it, for under the terms of his parole he is not supposed to be involved in any kind of union activities until 1980.

The 20 Teamsters who did show up formed a steady cheering section, but the rest of the audience, composed predominantly of Law School students, seemed less impressed. The students remembered the charges which had been leveled at the New Crusader during the 1960's--murder, bribery, extortion, embezzlement. They knew that the Teamsters Union is the only major union in the country which actively supports President Nixon--the man who sent a congratulatory telegram to Governor Rockefeller after the Attica rebellion one year ago. And so, when the question period began, these students took every opportunity available to crack holes in the New Crusader.

The second question of the night was the toughest. "Which party platform contains the best proposals for prison reform?"

The New Crusader answered quickly. "I think both Nixon and Mitchell have spent a lot of time studying this issue, and I think they're gonna' push some pretty good proposals through Congress." There was some snickering, some hissing. The New Crusader gulped a glass of water and then pointed to the next questioner. A few minutes later a black man rose and asked why the New Crusader had not mentioned the problem of race during his speech. The man argued that the death of George Jackson was a classic example of the racism prevalent among prison authorities and prison guards.

THE NEW CRUSADER fielded the question skillfully. "I spent almost five years in Lewisburg and during that time I didn't see any evidence of racial problems. When a man is in prison, it just doesn't matter what his color is." He then went on to defend George Jackson. "Let's face it. Nobody could ever hide a gun in their hair. Any GI who's ever carried a 45 knows that this whole story given by prison officials is pure bunk." The entire crowd, led by the group of Teamsters, cheered loudly. Only one more tough question remained. Someone asked if the New Crusader approved of Nixon's wiretapping policies. The New Crusader struck back quickly.

"I condemn wiretapping any place, anywhere, any time. But I'm 99 years old now, I've been organizing for 47 years, and my lines have been tapped for 47 years. At least with the bill Nixon's putting before Congress, there's certain guidelines governing the use of these taps. You can protect yourself better."

When the question period ended, the New Crusader dutifully stood by the lectern and shook hands with his devoted followers. The Teamsters, dressed in dark suits, white shirts, and dark overcoats, filed by and pumped his hand. "Great speech Jimmy. Atta boy, Jimmy. Good to see you, Jimmy." After the greetings and the handshakes were over, the New Crusader, his wife and a few friends drove to the Law School for a reception.

The reception was held on the second floor of the Pound Building in a spacious room covered by a plush, orange wall-to-wall carpet. Bowls of pretzels, potato chips and shrimp lined every table. Directly in front of the door was a make-shift bar manned by two students who graciously mixed drinks for all comers. The majority of Law School students sat together in small circles, sipping gin and tonics and delicately chewing shrimp. In the corner of the room, just behind the bar, stood the New Crusader, surrounded by two of his attorneys, several reporters and a couple of Law students who asked question after question. The New Crusader drank an Orange Fanta, munched on some shrimp, and gave every question a quick, direct answer.

"Did you ever get put in isolation?" "No, they didn't have the balls."

WHAT DO YOU think of Congressman Conyers?" "John's a fighter. You know, Conyers was a shop steward in my union once. I told the boys to bring me three colored fellas, two dark, one light. One of the guys they sent me was Conyers, and I made him a Congressman."

"What kind of a job did you have at Lewisburg?" "I worked all alone in the clothing room stuffing mattresses."

"What did you get paid?" "Nothing. If you have money of your own, you don't get paid a cent."

"Do you think anyone could ever unionize inmates?" "Hell yes, overnight."

"If you become president of the Teamsters again, will you organize prisoners?" "No, but if the inmates are no strike, we won't send in our trucks."

"What do you think are the most crucial penal reforms?" "We need uniform sentencing, proper classification on inmates when they enter prison, and real educational and vocational programs inside the prison so the inmates are prepared for some kind of job when they're finally freed."

"Do you think conjugal visiting would reduce homosexuality in prisons?" "Hell no. Most of these guys are homosexuals before they enter prison."

After about thirty minutes of questions, the New Crusader flashed a quick sandpaper smile, shock hands all around, excused himself, and then retreated to the for corner of the room confer with several members of his entourage. His lawyers, however, kept circulating, defending Jimmy, talking up prison reform, and downing drinks. One attorney, Mo Krislov, was particularly entertaining.

Krislov was an enormously fat man with strands of dark, wet hair plastered back across his head to protect the bald spots. He spoke in a soft, high-pitched voice.

Krislov started by attacking the severity of the jury tampering sentence. "The average time for this crime in six months to a year, assuming, of course, that they guy's guilty. Jimmy got much more."

KRISLOV THEN REMINISCED about the frantic final weeks before, the New Crusader was finally sent to prison. "You know, I think I was the first guy to tell Jimmy that he was headed for jail. Jimmy took me aside one day and asked me how much time he had left. I said, 'Jimmy, you got only a week, two weeks at most because the Supreme Court just isn't going to consider your appeal.' Jimmy just started at me."

Mo mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and then continued. "When Jimmy realized what I had said, he brought is two other attorneys and asked them if, in their opinion, he had only a few weeks left. They just said 'well, maybe' or it's hard to tell.' Then Jimmy said 'Listen, I gotta know.' And they said 'Jimmy, that's what it looks like.'"

Mo paused a few seconds to catch his breath and then plunged ahead. "When Jimmy heard the news, he was a little worried, I'll admit. I mean, he and I went on this walk, and he was walking 200 miles an hour. I couldn't keep up with him."

Mo ignored the sweat which was trickling down under his glasses and went on with the story. "Like I said, Jimmy was worried, but he wasn't scared. He spent his last two weeks fixing up the union so when he left, the other boys could carry on. He took the whole experience like a man, in every sense of the word."

By the time Mo finished his story, it was almost 11:30 p.m. The New Crusader was ready for some sleep. After a few quick goodbyes and a few firm handshakes, he strode out of the Pound Building with his wife and friends and headed for bed.

Is the New Crusader for real? Many people have their doubts. Yet for the past seven months he has carried on a tireless campaign for penal reform. His speech at Harvard was both sincere and convincing. Jimmy Hoffa spent almost five years at Lewisburg. During that time he witnessed two riots, two strikes, incidences of guard brutality, mass rapes, stabbings, and murder. He spent most of his days stuffing mattresses in the prison's clothing room. For the first time in his life, Jimmy Hoffa was pushed around. He hasn't forgotten the experience

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