Two years ago a portion of a research grant examining the psychological needs of inmates at the Vermont State Prison trickled down to this writer. Like most American prisons, it was in chaos.
The warden stalked the halls muttering about the limitless irresponsibility of his charges while his staff fed us stories of how they had been abused by inmates. Guards shot us hostile, wary looks at they saw yet another batch of well dressed experts being trotted around to cluck at the misery of all within. During that summer, one-fourth of the inmates went over the wall (all were returned); fights, law suits, riots, investigations and threats of suicide and homicide pervaded the prison.
And so it want until Paul Davallou was brought in on August, 1974 to oversee that institution’s last year. Under Davallou the experience at the prison was soon quite different.
The 75 men housed in windowless caves smaller than a king-size bed still spoke skeptically about their perception of the criminal but free millionaires thriving in a corrupt legal system. Yet their voices bordered on the reverential at any mention of their new warden. They appeared to have little to occupy their time—the pretense of a make-0work rehabilitation program had been dropped—and most enjoyed good relations with their far more relaxed guards. What may have ended as the best prison in the country demonstrated how effective and yet in many respects, how fraudulent prison reform can be.
To understand the limits of the improvements in that prison, one must understand the economic and psychological roots of the initial unrest.
On the economic side is the discrepancy between the promise of equal treatment for all and the practice of a penal system acting as a selective lottery among the poor. This was a major source of discontent. Eighty percent of the million-plus Americans doing time come from the bottom 12 percent of wealth-holders. Our usual response is to blame the culture of poverty for creating criminals. But many inmates knew that the distinction between law-maker and law-breaker rests on class rather than behavioral lines: to be incarcerated one must do more than just break the law. As Ben Baghikian and Leon Dash point out,
All social classes commit significant amounts of crime… Austin Potterfield compared criminal offenses of college students with 2,000 boys who had been sent to juvenile court; 100 percent of male and female students had committed at least one of the offenses for which the 2,000 other boys had been sent to court.
In the 1960's, Bill Haney, Martin Gold, Jay Williams and Myrtle Blum's study of 1,369 juvenile delinquents "....found no strong relationship between social status and delinquent behavior." A 1970's Rand Institution study of the New York judicial process demonstrated that in comparable cases, men who could afford bail were far more likely to be found not guilty than their less wealthy counterparts.
Of course the poor people do commit more of a certain kind of crime. Since, for example, they are people who are more likely to see rather than handle money, they are more likely to be guilty of theft than embezzlement. As the old saying might have gone, "Manual
labor doesn't pay."
The psychological tensions are complex. For some time prisons have claimed to be in the business of rehabilitating defective individuals. Theoretically, this has implied a rather dramatic transformation in the prison's conception of the inmate from that of a thug to a
client. The ideology of rehabilitation permeated the prison environment, from the easy availability of psychiatrists through the small appliance work shop to the disciplinary hearings.
But this commitment has been half-hearted at best and always confusing to those at either end. Since the prison's real purpose is detention, it does not make sense for it to cure its inhabitants before the end of their sentences.
The conflict between the promise and the reality—the unrealized hope of improvement—was the final chain in the breakdown of prison discipline.
Perhaps the best example of these tensions was the weekly disciplinary hearing at which the inmate, with tragic predictability, would be found guilty of a rule infraction. Although these infractions ranged from an inmate throwing part of his breakfast literally through a window (he pleaded not guilty by reason of the muffin) to another inmate possessing a deadly weapon, almost all were concerned with the accused attempting to cover some portion of his cell with a blanket. The punishment was to allow the prisoner to see only members of the cloth or the bar for ten days.
These hearings were run on a highly developed model of judicial safeguards. Every effort was made to permit the accused to say his piece uninterrupted, to postpone his trial in order to better prepare his case, to call witnesses and to cross examine the complaining officer. Virtually all of the accused took advantage of these legal amenities. At best it postponed the inevitable.
If their story directly contradicted that of the accusing officer, it was usually met with stony but polite silence; the more the inmate protested his innocence the more restive the Board became. No inmate was ever called to testify against a fellow con and though inmates were often called by the accused to corroborate a story, such testimony was only given attention if it was flawed.
What does this tell the inmate about himself? That while the prison calls for a healthier self image to cure the disease of law-breaking, it obviously considers him to be a totally unworthy character. And what was the crime in the first place? Trying to carve out a little privacy in an institution which had ripped the doors off the bathrooms. The prisoner-as-child was attempting to have his own room, and the prison-as-kindergarten was telling him to give it up—while at the same time telling him to grow up.
Due process normally implies the possibility of a finding of innocence, but that possibility was missing at the prison. So the inmate was seduced into a promise of relief only to have it slam in his face. Despite their cynical worldliness, even the most radical of inmates were swept up in the current. Some even brought in tattered law books.
The tension between the claim of rehabilitation/self-reliance and the reality of total, infantilizing control was explosive.
The hearings also unconsciously echoed the economic bias of the larger court system by selectively considering certain classes of criminality. Although the inmates had a barter system, the idea of holding a disciplinary hearing because one prisoner defrauded another is as likely as a felonious ex-president serving hard time. And for much the same reason. The hearings dealt not with morality but with methods, and as a good college of crime reminded inmates that “manual labor doesn’t pay” so “use your head.”
As the economic and psychological discrepancies between theory and practice rebounded back and forth with greater intensity, the prison became a fiscally expensive proposition. Under the rubric of progressive penology, the state decided to close it up and transfer inmates to other less expensive prisons or dump tem on other state’s maximum security facilities. Paul Davallou, a former social worker with experience in nearly all the parole and probationary slots in the nation’s penal system, was brought in to oversee the institution’s last year. The essence of his task was to smooth over the internal paradoxes of the prison. As the following quotations, given over a period not exceeding fifteen minutes demonstrate, he is a man whose internal tensions match those of the institution he inherited.
When I came in, the reaction was, “Oh, here comes another flaky son of a bitch who doesn’t know shit about jail and he wants to do all these things.” I don’t like institutions…I’m a lousy bureaucrat…I don’t see manipulation as negative necessarily. I had to manipulate dozens of factors. I had to set up game plans and then manipulate all these variables to bring about some order and some functionality. (emphasis added).
The essence of Davallou’s regime was the absence of illusion. He knew full well that prison reform only comes about when the private suffering of the inmate becomes a public “problem.” As he put it,
[The Commissioner] just wanted a normal, operating prison. He wanted peace and quiet; he didn’t want escapes, continuous state police alerts. He didn’t want officers continuously assaulted. He didn’t want the place in mass chaos. He wanted a normal prison.
In order to deliver that serenity to his superiors, Davallou began by cutting a very wide swath around himself. On one hand he resembled an old-fashioned gate keeper more than happy to throw away the key:
In my first three months I had punitive segregation [the hole] filled almost daily. I said to them very specifically, ‘If you act like an asshole I’ll treat you like an asshole. The law does not make me keep on providing for you if you destroy.’ After the first couple of nights in water-filled cells, they said, ‘I’ll clean my cell.’ That was the end of it. I have no problem saying to a prisoner, ‘If you act irresponsibly because you fell you hold the upper hand, I’m going to suppress you.’
On the other, untraditional hand, his regime included long overdue changes in the working conditions of guards, many of whom had been manipulating overtime regulations so as to avoid inmate contact while drawing bloated salaries.
They said, ‘You can’t change our schedule,’ and I said, ‘I sure as hell can.’ They were all going to walk out and I said, ‘That’s cool, I’ll call in the State police.’ The inmates had already told me they would police the inside if I didn’t ask the State Police in so I knew that I had that power play balanced. So when the guards said they were going to walk, my reaction was, ‘Do your thing.’ The few who resigned I was glad to see go.
What was extraordinary about Davallou’s actions regarding inmates and guards was that they occurred simultaneously. Here was a warden who related to inmates in that embarrassing-to-liberals manner that tough white cops have with black street informants—without apology. And here was a warden who untypically refused to pander to the lowest element among his guards as the price of protection against the inmates. No apologies, no fear.
But he was not successful in quieting the prison simply because he used strong arm methods. That had been tried without much luck before. Davallou’s secret was to gather near feudal power and then proceed to share it.
The prison hierarchy was reconstructed to include inmate leadership. A prisoner-elected liaison committee was taken seriously by the warden and allowed to exercise veto power over applications for an unprecedented furlough program in which a third of the population was released over Christmas (all returned);
“I discussed the furlough list with the liaison committee and they dropped some of the names from it. They said, ‘’Hey, there are some of these guys we would rather not see go out because they are going to fuck us up.”
Davallou made it quite clear that “maximum security” referred to the over all function of his institution, not its hour by hour workings. Short of outright assault or mutiny, the prisoner was free to sulk or dance around as unrepentant and as unrehabilitated as he liked. It is a measure of the obscene tensions and confusions inmates previously endured that this simple sounding change was so liberating.
Davallou laid out clear ground rules for acceptable conduct, backed up with the near absolute power of the state, and minimized the petty harassment which helped drive many inmates up and over the wall. As one would expect, the changes were reflected in the disciplinary hearings. Not only were prohibitions against such behavior as covering one’s cell and putting (political) posters up removed (the prior warden had claimed the posters were a fire hazard. You had to see the prison to appreciate the irony of this), but inmates were made part of the disciplinary process itself. It was possible for inmates to make collective complaints against other inmates This radically transformed the status of the accused from that of a popular rebel fighting an unpopular administration to that of an isolated individual rightly or wrongly going against the group will. Within months the disciplinary hearings and their endless, futile appeals all but disappeared.
Many prisoners began to talk about how the warden cared about and respected them, which is interesting because Davallou himself was apparently as immersed in his “factors and variables” as in anything else. He viewed the liaison committee as conservative presidents view powerful labor unions;
The liaison committee is essentially the control group in the prison. They are the intelligent, the verbal and also some of my most dangerous prisoners, ones we had continually placed in isolation for being disruptive and inciting the population—my feelings are that you can’t ignore the power block in any situation. If you pretend they’re not, you’re dealing in a vacuum.
And though he came “up” the ranks of the helping professions; as case worker, parole board member, probation officer etc., he wasn’t buying any of what they sell either;
Social workers delude themselves—and the delusion is fed by the schools—that they are competent human beings who can help incompetent human being, and they have all these grandiose ideas about what they have done for their client. Which is bullshit.
Davallou’s work helped some inmates deal with whatever personal problems they may have had without having to hassle their way around a confused prison administration as well. Changes which may strike some as raising the level of the prisoner to that of a sixth grade school monitor were, in the context of their previous institutional experience, liberating to a degree we cannot fully appreciate. Men whom we had written off as suffering from terminal sullenness were, in the prisons last year, leading pleasant if grotesque public tours around their ancient building, walking casually through areas where they once thrown their own excrement at guards, talking with pride about their new laundry machines etc. As one prisoner commented;
You don t have to like [Davallou]. In fact he sometimes seems to make that impossible. But you can't help but respect the man. He really gets into the job and seems
to care about the joint. Many of the guys here are starting to get some new feeling about themselves, something positive.
When asked about this seeming miracle, Davallou does not spin out grand theories of personal rehabilitation. In fact, he shrugs and claims to have no special knowledge of where the improvement comes;
By the time he gets to prison most of the damage has already been done. Our job is to see if we can avoid making it worse. And the psychiatrist, the case workers and the administrators say, 'Hey, this is what my intervention has done for this guy.' And that's bullshit.
He is quite right to imply that the $400,000 the state spent on a new wing for the prison and the $300,000 the LEAA spent granting us the right to politely ask rude questions of captive specimens did not materially improve the prison. If we also rule out miraculous
repentance, we must eventually ground our explanation in the structural elements at work under Davallou; the granting of more autonomy, authority and real if limited power to those inside without making them recite the tired litany of personal rehabilitation.
While Davallou masterfully stripped the prison of some of its psychological tensions, he was obviously not in any position to deal with the economic tension between the theory of equal treatment and the practice of selective incarceration. Since any realistic analysis of the prison system must eventually confront the variety of class issues involved, it is tempting to end our analysis with haughty reference to the spectacle of convicted boy scouts being kept in line by the toughest of social workers. But we should see more here than a mere cooling out of potential revolutionary anger.
There was, for starters, a dramatic improvement in
the emotional lives of nearly all inmates. One walked around the prison without
the feeling of being both spectator/participant in an experiment to determine
how much anger can be expressed short of homicide. The deadly aura of a
snow-bound Southern town no longer crackled in the
It must also be remembered, appearances to the contrary, that the changes were basically the result of collective inmate action, not the fortuitous selection of a progressive warden (In fact the extent of his progressiveness is a truly murky area and is, I believe, ultimate-
ly irrelevant). Only the latest arrivals to the prison or those on tour failed to realize that Davallou was dragged in by a desperate state government. Since there is little evidence of reform movements succeeding simply on the good motives of those in power, this should
come as no surprise. But neither should anyone demand that prisoners ignore the gains their previous struggle made possible.
It must also be remembered that the inmates were co-opted in a very political way. Under the prior administration a full quarter of them were being given some form of tranquilizing drug. That mode of social control virtually disappeared with Davallou. The prisoners
were no longer dealing with a Clock Work Orange conformity or a Brave New Therapist's obsessional inner peace, and they proved—if it needed proving—that anarchy and squalor are not the order of the day when even the lumpen of the lumpen obtain a greater measure of social control.
The final closing of the prison in August, 1975 was in no way related to the actions of the new warden. It was a specific economy measure partially brought about by the long term interaction between rebellious inmates and sympathetic radicals on the outside. The pris-
on had become an uncomfortable
political and economic proposition for a state which enjoyed an abundance of
enlightened rhetoric and sentiment with which to justify the closing. It may
not be far fetched to claim that this closing saved the state more than money,
that is, the stability afforded by the
Such questioning, not so much of the prison itself but of its social function, would reopen questions temporarily closed off by the reforms. And the inmate would truly come against his real position of helplessness and closure. The radicalization process would begin anew.