Hoffa: From Teamster Boss to New Crusader

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."