“Don’t let it be forgot / That once there was a spot / For one brief shining moment / That was known as Camelot!”
the second of several articles on FCI McKean, PA, and its warden, Dennis M. Luther, from 1989-to-1995. (The first, “Laverne & Shirley
,” can be found by clicking here
In 1946, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, put the lie to the Nazi defense that they “had no choice” and were “only following orders,” by submitting other Nazi witnesses who had refused criminal orders without retaliation.
My initial request to be transferred to FCI McKean, PA, was denied with a terse, “We’re only sending disciplinary subjects to McKean…” The denial made no sense to me—at the time. It would eventually take the interest and inquiry of FAMM and a US Congressman to effect my transfer.
The day that I walked into the housing unit after arriving at Dream McKean in August of ’94, I was met by the unit clerk. He had a clipboard with Form 24s (prison payment requests) Xeroxed onto MacDonald menus. After ascertaining that I was a transfer inmate with money in my account, he asked me if I wished to place an order?
Looking at his nametag, I responded, “Porter, do I look like a fuckin’ rutabaga that just fell off the prison truck to you?” It took a few minutes, but he convinced me he was serious. There was a monthly rotation that allowed each unit in wkly rotation to order food from a list of approved local vendors.
That was actually the third surprise about McKean on that first day of many that I was to eventually learn. The first occurred before we even got there.
Leaving USP Lewisburg that morning, all the McKean-bound prisoners were separated from those going to other destinations. While everyone else on the prison transport were bound with the usual hand, feet and waist chains, McKean-bound prisoners had only our hands cuffed.
When I asked one of the guards what gives, he casually remarked, “The warden at McKean says he don’t like his prisoners to arrive all trussed up like prize turkeys.”
The second experience completely out of the norm, came when we pulled up in front of McKean. While the usual phalanx of guards toting rifles and shotguns were evident, each of the prisoners were released from our cuffs as we exited the bus and politely directed to the reception building inside the fence.
The female guard had us sit at a bench (instead of the usually crammed holding cell) as she welcomed us to McKean with a smile and processed us into the prison. We were each then directed to proceed to our assigned housing units.
Warden Luther had created a program that emulated the ideal version of an American meritocracy. A program of reward for self-disciplined and responsible behavior. All prisoners had something to look forward to, besides a harder row to hoe.
The usual prison regimen, then and today, is one based upon authoritative and utilitarian rule. This methodology is based upon retribution and punishment, and leads to alienation and conflict, not rehabilitation and reconciliation.
Lutherian rules makes the prisoner a partner in our own condition. His number one rule for prisoners states that we are in prison “as punishment, not for punishment.”
A good study for some enterprising university program would be to compare the recidivist rates between former Dream McKean inmates (largely pre-selected as the more “troublesome’ by other prisons), and those from other institutions of the same time frame.
Like Justice Jackson found at Nuremberg, there is always a choice.
Dr. Publico (Nick Medvecky, PsyD), July 2010…