Jimmy Hoffa

He's an Unlikely Crusader for Prison Reform

It seems to be conventional wisdon that if and when significant numbers of white collar criminals find their way into the nation's prisons, the public might be forced finally into acting upon calls for prison reform.

James R. "Jimmy" Hoffa is one of the few people considered more-or-less successful who has actually served time--for him, five years in Lewisburg, Pa., federal prison. Hoffa has formed a new prison reform organization called the National Association for Justice (NAJ) since his release in December 1971, and he has been traveling around the country promoting it.

The former president of the two-million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters was in Boston recently pressing the message of his new-found cause onto, it seemed, anyone who would listen, and probably many who didn't. The Crimson listened, mostly in Hoffa's limousine, between a speech and reception in Andover and a dinner in downtown Boston.

Hoffa articulates well the rhetoric of liberal prison reform. "We [NAJ] believe that the prison cannot be as large as they are because of the lack of attention given to the individual. We further believe there should be classification of prisoners so they will be compatible with each other in background, education, etc. We believe that the majority of prisoners should be released on parole within a reasonable period of time so they are not indoctrinated into the criminal breeding yard. Hospitalization, recreation, education should all be improved.

"And most of the people in prison, if they were let out, would never commit another crime if they could get a good job." This is standard fare; but it is, of course, worthwhile that Hoffa is publicly adding his own well-known voice and connections with the labor movement to efforts for prison reform.


But it is also disturbing, because it is fundamentally unclear whether Hoffa's approach grapples with some of the real problems confronting prisoners and ex-cons. This does not mean that Hoffa is insincere about what he says, but more that Hoffa has not shared, or allowed himself to share, the problems with which most prisoners, and therefore prison reformers, must deal.

Talking to Hoffa, it becomes clear that he regards his five years in stir as simply an unpleasant interlude, a necessary evil in the normal course of his life. His ability to do this, and the assurance he had that his family, money, and reputation with the Teamster rank-and-file would be waiting for him when he got out meant that he was able to avoid embarassing questions about society and probably about himself.

This security has allowed Hoffa to minimize the personal impact of prison on himself, to deny that the indignity of being in prison actually affected him deeply. "I don't get harassed by nobody in or out of prison. I'm not the kind of a fellow who people want to harass, because I can get along with anybody. But I can disagree with anybody and if it comes to a disagreement I won't be second."

Hoffa is quick to jump to the defense of the system in which he was, after all, a conspicuous success. "I believe in free enterprise 100 per cent. Nothing better in the whole world. You couldn't change me in a hundred years upon that belief."

On a personal level as well, Hoffa insists, and it is not hard to believe, that prison had remarkably little effect on him. Did he ever lose confidence in himself? Did he ever get pushed around? Hoffa answers unequivocably "no." "I wasn't pushed around," he says. "I don't allow nobody to push me around. I had my arguments in prison with the officials for that very reason. When they found out my position, found out what I was willing to do, I wasn't pushed around by nobody." But he denies that this was special treatment. "I'm willing to take whatever comes to straighten [a situation] out; most people are not; I am."

Prison officials didn't search Hoffa's cell, didn't give him trivial orders or try to frame him, Hoffa says, although for the first 15 months of his imprisonment, he worked separately from the rest of the inmates, stuffing mattresses alone in a room.

Hoffa seems to regard the whole unpleasantness of prison life as a personal affront, as an attack on his ego. He considers his conviction on jury-tampering and mail fraud charges the result of a vendetta. Firstly, "I say I am not guilty of the crimes I was charged with, but they used a vehicle of public relations to deny me a fair trial," Hoffa says. He believes Robert Kennedy was out to get him, and his ultimate conviction was the result of the government's single-minded desire to see him put away. And Hoffa is not entirely self-serving in this. People who have studied the Justice Department under Kennedy, particularly Victor Navasky, acknowledge that Kennedy had a long-time grudge against Hoffa, dating from hearings before the McClellan Committee of the Senate in the late '50s. Kennedy served as counsel to the committee.

Hoffa says Kennedy was behind some of the discriminatory treatment he got in Lewisburg, particularly relating to job assignments. When it was pointed out that Ramsey Clark, and not Kennedy, was Attorney General when Hoffa began his prison sentence in 1967, he launched into a diatribe, saying that Clark was just a "puppet" of Kennedy (who was then a Senator from New York). Hoffa cited the Congressional Record, a couple of books and the reporter's common sense to try to bury what had been a small slip, but, importantly, a slip related to Bobby Kennedy: as if catching the mistake was somehow an attack on himself as a person.

But beyond that, Hoffa is trying to restructure his life to regain the office he held before his jailing, and he is suing in a Washington court to have the restrictions on union activity that are written into his parole lifted.

President Nixon commuted Hoffa's sentence, but the parole granted to him bars him from holding union office until 1980. Hoffa believes that former presidential aide Charles Colson was behind the ruling.

Recommended Articles