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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.
The guards' strike, because it was illegal, provided Boone with a good opportunity to discharge the most un-cooperative guards. The Public Employees Union of the AFL-CIO stymied his move by threatening surgent that all state employees would walk out on strike if the prison guards were fired.
The guards' union refused to negotiate together with the NPRA, thereby forcing the Department of Corrections to conduct bilateral negotiations. Boone drew up a plan, to be executed May 22, which would bring guards back into the prison and grant concessions to the guards' union and to the NPRA. This included a shakedown, a retraining of officers, and a system of assignments placing the most notorious officers in positions with the least contact with the prisoners.
There was some evidence at this point that officers within the Correction Department set Boone up for the May 19 riot (one of the officers is now superintendent of Walpole). The officers sent a memo to the NPRA which announced the shakedown and introduction of guards but gave no mention of the observers or any of the concessions granted in three months of negotiations. There are many conflicting accounts of the following events. The civilian observers who were in the prison agree that the riot was administration-instigated.
The NPRA that had performed the operations of counting and locking-in every night refused to execute them after receiving the officers' memo. Early in the morning, the guards in the bullet-proof booth which controls the cell blocks of the prison locked the steel doors separating minimum from maximum security and announced that the state police were coming. Prisoners are afraid of state police because the "staties" have a reputation for making them run gauntlets and performing other brutalities after they quell a riot. The ensuing riot was the result of the prisoners' efforts to get back to their cells before the state police arrived. They panicked and broke down the walls separating units of the prison.
After the May 19 riot, Boone had lost all power and the governor would not appoint the superintendents Boone recommended. On June 21, Sargent fired Boone and sent the State Police to take control of Walpole. The civilian observers quit Walpole one week later, after the police had denied them the rights to talk or listen to the prisoners or to gain access to the cell blocks. The observers felt that they had become a factor that legitimized the State Police repression.
Walpole is in the same condition now as it was before Boone's administration, except that the authorities have spent $1 million to put one-half-inch steel plate on the walls. The NPRA was re-established in August 1973, after 94 per cent of the prisoners ratified it in an election. However, it has lost much of its previous rights to call meetings and communicate with its ex-prisoner board members. Observers maintain that there had been no major blow-up in Walpole since May because of the presence of the NPRA, though the union did organize a boycott of a Christmas dinner in support of Attica.
Massachusetts taxpayers spend $34 million each year on the 2900-employee prison system. As of January 1973, these resources go to a prison population of only 2892 people. The budget at Concord prison last year was enough to give each of the inmates a college education.
The Department of Corrections is based on a patronage system. The women's prison at Framingham is a classic example of featherbedding. Framingham has a permanent staff of 143 employees with a combined salary of $1.4 million a year. The prison population last year was as low as to to 60 women. As a solution to the population crisis, the Department of Corrections made the prison coed (creating more scandals to be reported on by the Herald). In December, after all of the changes, there were still less than 100 prisoners.
Teachers and social workers in the prisons receive a starting salary $1200 less than the guards. The psychiatrists at Bridgewater, the state prison for the criminally insane, receive a starting salary of $9000 also less than the guards. The attempts at rehabilitating the prisoners are only a farce. The real priority of the Department of Corrections is security.
The prison system, as it stands now, is a social failure. It benefits more than anyone else the people who run it--not the victims of crime, not the taxpayer, and certainly not the prisoner. Those people who fight to keep the prisons at a status quo are thinking of nothing but their own self interest. As Attica leader Roger Champen said in a speech at Harvard in December, "Prison is an industry, and industry must have its slaves."
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