The media and public often focus on the most egregious forms of beliefs and behaviors of jails and prison life. In the case of jails–the most direct manifestation of front-line cop/thug violence and street life–all-too-much of it is accurate. The police, prosecutors, courts and jail personnel largely use these transitional centers to exact their punitive, retributional authority most directly.
Prisons are another animal all together. The numbers amassed in the world’s largest Prison Gulag in history (2.3 million; ’nuff said about the center of “democracy,” eh?) are NOT your imagined violent, social predators. In my experience and research, only some 3-to-15% are violent offenders.
In fact, if you throw a net over the largest street corners in America, you’d probably have a good representation of who’s in these prisons.
Among the police and other authoritative agencies of all-too-for-profit America, Inc, many sociopaths who escape a criminal record–usually not your poor and ghetto kids–are channeled into these “forces.” They become the reflective face of those they impose their peculiar form of authority over and vice versa…
But not all–not all by far, staff or prisoners–are such damaged goods:
Early one evening in the summer of ’94, a group of us were in Spanish class at FCI McKean, PA. Our instructor, a kindly, older Cuban lady by the name of Mrs. Rodriguez, teaching us Spanish for the University of Pittsburgh, suddenly stopped talking as her mouth continued to open and close and her eyes grew large.
(This was the same year that Congress and Clinton killed Pell Grants for prisoners, even though prisoners never consumed more than 1% of those moneys. There was a mass exodus of community colleges from prisons across the nation. Ironic, given that education was one of the most proven anti-recidivist measures. [Pell Grants for prisoners were not reconsidered for restoration until 2015].)
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For a moment, I thought she might be having a stroke. Following her gaze and looking behind me, I caught a brief sight of “Laverne and Shirley” passing by the classroom windows.
One of the guys asked, “Are you alright, Mrs. Rodriguez?”
She took a moment, then said, “Oh my God,” covering her mouth, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to say anything bad about black women, but I’m afraid your prison has two of the ugliest staff I’ve ever seen…”
A couple of us murmured, “Laverne and Shirley,” and realized who/what she was talking about. As we were all laughing, she perked up and said, “It’s funny?”
“They’re not staff, Mrs. Rodriguez. They’re inmates! They call themselves Laverne & Shirley.”
“Inmates?” she stammered. “But how? They’re in dresses…and all that makeup.”
“Well,” we explained, “this is sort of our free-time. They’re out for a stroll ‘on the town.’” We got a few more laughs as we informed her of the relatively loose conditions at “Dream McKean,” certainly compared to other prisons.
Warden Dennis M. Luther racked up national and international awards and recognition for his radically progressive, laissez-faire policies. During his entire tenure at FCI McKean, from 1989 ‘til July of 1995, there was never a single significant incident of misbehavior. (Who’d want to screw up?)
If we left it to the authoritarians…
We had open movement…I was there for six months before I realized they even had keys to the doors!
One time, a college girl w/some classmates strolling the compound (on a class tour, but also local townies were routinely invited for sports, etc.) asked me if I was an inmate. When I told her I was, she asked, “How do you tell the inmates from the guards?”
(On off times, most prisoners at McKean wore sport’s apparel purchased in the prison commissary thru approved catalogs.)
“Oh, we know,” I said. “The difference might be subtle, but it’s definitely there. While we’re wearing sports-type clothes on our off hours and the weekends, they have civilian clothes—bluejeans and stuff. Also, they have radios and keys.”
I recall when I first entered my housing unit upon being transferred to McKean, the inmate clerk, Porter, walked up to me and asked if I had money in my account. Answering yes, he gave me a MacDonald’s menu to order from. I assumed it was a joke for the newbies. I soon learned that each of the units got a weekend they could order outside food delivered for a Saturday meal.
Crime control in the eye of the beholder…
Each month the system rotated to another unit. If you lived in the Honor Dorm–clear conduct and a waiting list required–you could participate in such privileges all the time as opposed to the other units.
Inmates at Dream McKean could purchase typewriters, sports gear, art and music supplies and have them in our rooms (which were never locked).
We had floating TVs and stereo headsets with a library of movie and music tapes for the rooms as well. All of this was on a competitive/merit basis for behavior and cleanliness.
The usual obedience and discipline concepts of retribution and punishment—prevalent throughout the systems—fail to take into account the meritocracy of responsibility and reward toward rehabilitation.
(Ironic…given that “free society” is touted as open and democratic, not their perverted vision of a “communist dictatorship.” So what are they preparing inmates for?)
McKean proved it worked–a sort of microcosm of ideal capital/democratic society. In fact, it put more responsibility on prisoners, not less. I guess it depends who you want back in your communities…criminals or self-disciplined, moral citizens? Work hard, behave correctly, and respect the rights and property of others.
Not all of the worst perps end up in prison…
Kathleen Hawk Sawyer took over as the Director of the federal Bureau of Prisons in 1992, replacing Warden Luther’s brother-in-law, J. Michael Quinlan.
Luther was soon forced to submit his retirement, effective in July 1995. Upon his retirement, she lost no time sending in her former protégé, James A. (I taught her everything she knows) Meko as warden to bring McKean “back on line.”
That was in July of ’95. In October, FCI McKean was one of some 40 federal institutions that engaged in the largest mass prison uprising in the history of the United States (with a virtually total news blackout by the BOP, the Administration and corporate media). Two of Dream McKean’s five housing units suffered significant fire damage.
Retribution and punishment…works every time, eh?
Laverne & Shirley? They were among hundreds shipped to USPs and other prisons.
Dr. Publico (Nick Medvecky, PsyD), July 2010...