Prisons are the means with which society claims to execute justice and deter crime. Their actual record, however, proves that they have been miserable failures on both counts. Out of every 100 felonies committed in the Unites States, 27 people are apprehended and only one is convicted. The prison population is heavily weighted towards racial minorities and men of low income, while many middle and upper class offenders are able to escape conviction and prosecution. As consistently high return rates show, prisons have been remarkably ineffective in deterring ex-convicts from returning to crimes. Prison experts claim that the violence and institutional brutality of prisons actually breed more crime.
For many years, thinkers like Clarence Darrow and Emma Goldman have recognized the failure of prisons and described them as the natural extension of injustice in society. Most people ignored the issue. In the late 1960s, things began to change. Young prisoners who had been involved in political struggles on the outside increased prisoners' awareness of their need for solidarity. George Jackson's writing and the rebellion at Attica began to increase public awareness.
why has the prison system remained unaltered and the number of prisons actually increased despite the growing pressure from both the outside and the inside to change? The opposition against John Boone as the tried to reform the Massachusetts prison system in the past two years provides the perfect example.
The major opposition to prison reform comes from the people who run the prisons, the prison industry. The real reason for their opposition is economic. They stand to gain from the continued operation of prisons through jobs and contracts.
In 1971, citizens groups, ex-offender groups and church groups joined together to form the Ad Hoc Committee on Prison Reform, a group that put pressure on Governor Francis W. Sargent, with mailing and campaigning, to reform prisons. In February 1972, Sargent appointed a new commissioner of corrections, John Boone, and introduced a new prison reform bill, Chapter 777. The bill, which the legislature passed in June 1972, gave Boone the power to make changes such as work releases, furloughs, and education releases--all reforms which increase the prisoners' interaction with the community.
John Boone had been the warden of the federal Lorton prison in Washington, D.C., and changed it radically before coming to Massachusetts. Though the changes he recommended were already tested, not new (Mississippi had permitted furloughs for years), Boone was the first commissioner to put them together in one system.
One of the restrictions of a previous Massachusetts bill requires prisoners to serve two-thirds of their sentences before becoming eligible for the new reforms. Walpole is a maximum security prison, containing the most reactionary guards in Massachusetts and a large majority of prisoners serving long sentences who are not eligible for the reforms. While reforms were being introduced at other prisons, Walpole was maintained as the security unit. This was the grave weakness of Boone's administration Walpole became the battleground of the system.
The St. Patrick's Day Riot in 1972 first put Walpole in the news and established Boone's opposition. In an attempt to embarrass Boone's administration, the guards left the prison and then claimed that there was a race riot inside. Boone told newsmen that Walpole did not have a race riot but a guard-instigated riot. He proved this by showing that although the prisoners had done $1 million of material damage, not one prisoner was hurt.
This riot established the battle-lines of the future struggle. By September 1972, the prisoners inside Walpole had formed a local chapter of the National Prisoners' Reform Association. The guards' union began a campaign to discredit Boone.
The prison guards were opposed to Boone because they realized that his reforms led to a reduction of prisons and therefore a cutback of jobs, through transferring prisoners away from prisons to community-based corrections. Boone also recognized the prisoners' union (the NPRA), opened the prisons to the media, and was in favor of maintaining some discipline over guards' treatment of prisoners. The strategy of the guards was to picture themselves as the defenders of civil service and trade unions in the state. If their jobs were threatened, all state employees would be vulnerable to reform cutbacks.
The guards' union gained the political support of the Boston Herald American, which used the issue as a source of sensational stories. The furlough program, for example, depended on the voluntary return of the prisoners and had a 98.6 per cent success. In the few instances when prisoners did run off, the Herald printed front-page stories condemning the entire furlough system.
Conservative members of the Democratic legislature (Sargent is Republican) began to voice opposition to the reform program, though many of them had voted for Chapter 777 before it became an issue. The most vocal was State Senator Francis X. McCann, whose district includes West Cambridge.
Thirteen different men served as superintendent of Walpole between April 1972 and September 1973. Boone appointed Raymond Porelle in December 1972 to clean up Walpole. Porelle had a reputation as a strict law enforcement officer and his assignment was to discipline both the prisoners and the guards. Porelle instituted a lock-up and shakedown in late December to rid Walpole of contraband drugs and alcohol. The tension between guards and prisoners increased so much during the lock-up that Porelle could not unlock a cell block without creating a disturbance.
Boone finally sent Porelle away for a week's rest and his aide Larry Solomon ended the lock-up. Porelle quit in early March, claiming that Boone was "meddling." Boone instituted a 24-hour civilian observers program--something the Ad Hoc Committee had been asking for two years--at the same time.
The guards' union went on strike one week later, on March 15, 1973, not for higher wages, but in protest against the observers program and Boone's policies. During the six weeks that the guards were out, the NPRA, observers and officer trainees ran the prison without the occurence of one incident, though the Herald American predicted chaos.
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