by DCDave

Flawed Premise?

In light of the observations of these critics, perhaps it is time we take a serious second look at the very notion of putting industrial labor at the heart of the prison program. Maybe the stresses and strains we now see so clearly are not just a case of a system being overwhelmed by changing external events, but of a system whose fundamental flaws in concept were simply just papered over with good press agentry from the beginning. Mind-deadening, under-compensated assembly line work, perceived as exploitive by the workers, has been the traditional breeding ground of labor militancy and unrest, after all. Those who do it on the outside typically regard it simply as a necessary evil that pays the bills, not something that makes them better people. Even Adam Smith, the high priest of specialization and trade, who explained with the famous example of how many more pins could be produced per hour by breaking the task down into component parts had no illusions about the effect on the workers:

The common ploughman, though generally regarded as the pattern of stupidity and ignorance, is seldom defective in judgment and discretion. He is less accustomed, indeed, to social intercourse than the mechanic who lives in a town. His voice and language are more uncouth and more difficult to be understood by those who are not used to them. His understanding, however, being accustomed to consider a greater variety of objects, is generally much superior to that of the other, whose whole attention from morning till night is commonly occupied in performing one or two very simple operations. How much the lower ranks of people in the country are really superior to those of the town is well known to every man whom either business or curiosity has led to converse much with both. 38

How curious it is, then, that James V. Bennett should place at the center of his prison reform plan a scheme that at its most ambitious would leave every inmate inferior to "the common ploughman." There are clear indications in his book that he knew better. Reviewing with admiration the work of strong prison directors like Zebulon Brockway in the post-Civil War period who placed great emphasis on academic and vocational classes, had a large prison library, and provided creative recreation with a gymnasium, athletic fields, a band, and a glee club, he showed an awareness that there is more than one way to rehabilitate and to cope with inmate idleness. Brockway also allowed prison production for sale to the free market, but when he met with union opposition he gave it up and adapted smartly, replacing it with military-type exercises, complete with ranks, promotions, and awards. "All this continued to work wonders," says Bennett.39

But, then, Bennett wrote his book after his retirement. Perhaps he only learned about people like Brockway while doing research for his book. Maybe he honestly didn't know any better when, as a young man, he came up with the idea for the overarching prison industries organization that he would soon direct. The young, after all, exhibit the greatest weakness for one-size-fits-all social nostrums. Note that all the major communist leaders adopted the ideology very early in their lives. It is like a smoking habit. If you don't get it when you are young you're not going to get it.


Perhaps, as some have observed about the communist leaders, it really made no difference whether he thought he was doing the right thing or not. He, like they, under the cover of good intentions, set up an organization which gave those at the top an extraordinary amount of personal power, virtually insulating them from accountability. The variety of competing goals that FPI was expected to achieve meant that its director could not be blamed for failure to achieve any given one of them. He would never be in the position of a private company CEO blamed for failure to turn a profit. Failures, in fact, would actually redound to the benefit of the prison organization and its directors. Failure to prepare the prisoner for life on the outside would mean, as our initial anonymous letter writer observed, that FPI would soon get a good worker back.40 The massive breakdown of order represented by a prison riot would not be because there were too few Zebulon Brockways in the system and a thorough house-cleaning was needed, but could only be on account of the ever-present bugaboo of "inmate idleness" for which there was only one cure, the expansion of prison industries.

The now recognized greatest failure of all under the Bennett watch, that of the so-called "medical model" in dealing with incarcerated law-breakers, has also managed to be turned into a plus for FPI. Heavily influenced by trends in the psychology profession, under the medical model criminal tendencies were regarded almost as a disease, treatable by psychotherapy or the tender mercies of the prison system. Indeterminate sentences, of which Bennett was a strong advocate, were a natural integral part of the medical model. A prisoner would be released when, through his behavior, he could show that he was "cured." What this did, of course, was to make gods of prison officials, but their omniscience fell far short of their omnipotence. The fallacy of not releasing prisoners back out into society until they have shown that they have adapted to prison is revealed all too well by the following quote:

Many will have learned to survive through the use of manipulation, threats, and physical violence. A mentality develops among inmates that is not consistent with the value system that is necessary to succeed after release from prison. In fact, those who are labeled "rebellious" in the inside have been found to have a stronger likelihood of succeeding on the outside. 41

After this approach reached its peak in the 60s it began to dawn on people that horrible injustices were being done as those who tripped up on prison rules or just didn't play the game right could end up doing serious time for minor offenses while dangerous felons, who knew how to pay the proper tribute to the false gods, ended up out on the streets much too soon. The medical model has been abandoned, but the misadventure, unfortunately, gave rehabilitation in general a bad name and a reaction has set in against all attempts to make prisoners into better people, whether it be through education and training, recreational activities, or general civil treatment. The resulting bleakness, or the harshness, of prison life otherwise has made employment in UNICOR an all the more attractive alternative.

A couple more answers to my questionnaire capture the current climate:

Q. Are inmate sports and recreation encouraged and/or facilitated?

A. Sports are generally encouraged. Recreation has been cut back to such a degree as to be virtually non-existent.

Q. Are inmate crafts and hobbies encouraged and/or facilitated?

A. See above. Barely.

In his embrace of the medical model, which is now but a best-forgotten, distant embarrassment, and his creation of FPI, which is bigger and stronger than ever, there is a consistent thread, and it is not humanitarian "reform." It is the totalitarian, or, at least its closely-related cousin, the bureaucratic mentality at work. Each discounts the importance of the individual, whether it be the individual prisoner, prison warden, or entrepreneur trying to make a living by selling his products to the government. Everyone is to be pressed into one preconceived mold. Prisons are like a laboratory, the prisoners are subjects to be experimented upon, and the highest ideal is to be "well adjusted" with no questions asked about what it is that one is adjusted to. Also, in this way of thinking, whether it be in a prison or in society at large, the concepts of "order" and "control" are pretty much the same thing.

...to every prisoner, in normal circumstances, work is a necessity, and satisfies an inner need...Work helps a prisoner to get over the emptiness of imprisonment. It pushes the wretchedness of the daily round in prison into the background if it occupies his mind sufficiently, and if he does it willingly, by which I mean with an inner readiness, he will derive satisfaction from it. 42

The words are from Auschwitz Concentration Camp Commandant Rudolf Hoess. Over the entrance to his camp was a sign with the words, "Work Brings Freedom." The work that he was referring to, of course, was that which was assigned by the jailers.

Bird Man Versus Prison Industries

The distinction between that form of work and genuine, fulfilling, creative endeavor is akin to the distinction between James Bennett's FPI and that which it supplanted, and continues to supplant. It is all brought into relief if we look upon the remarkable career of Bennet's arch-enemy, the man he kept in solitary confinement longer than any federal prisoner in history, a total of 43 years, the celebrated "Bird Man of Alcatraz," Robert Stroud.43

Stroud had originally been sentenced to 12 years in a federal penitentiary when, as a 19-year-old in Juneau, Alaska, he exacted frontier justice upon a man who had severely beaten a bar girl with whom young Stroud had had the misfortune of falling in love. He shot the man to death. His misfortune was compounded when his case was brought before a new judge bent on cleaning up the territory. The sentence, which was unusually long for the crime, the time, and the place, was meant to send a message to others. After an incident at the McNeil Island, Washington, facility in which Stroud injured another prisoner with a knife, he was shipped off to the maximum security prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. There, he committed the sin of all prison sins. He killed a guard. Never mind that a good case could be made that the stabbing was in self defense. The guard was a notorious club-wielder. Stroud was sentenced to be hanged.

Demonstrating the strong-willed purposefulness that she had passed on to her son, Stroud's mother, in the culmination of a long personal campaign to save her son's life, managed to secure an audience with Edith Bolling Wilson, the wife of President Woodrow Wilson while Wilson lay incapacitated with a stroke. She convinced Mrs. Wilson, the de facto President at the time, to commute the sentence to life in prison. The prison authorities, feeling cheated, interpreted the orders remanding Stroud to solitary confinement until such time as he was hanged as still in effect after the commutation. Thus began Stroud's long, unusual career in an isolation cell.

Though he had dropped out of school after the third grade, he embarked upon the path of science and scholarship and away from the persona of young, incorrigible hot-head forever when he happened upon an injured baby sparrow in the small, open-air exercise yard at Leavenworth. After nursing the sparrow back to health, he soon graduated to canaries. When the canaries grew mysteriously ill, he not only diagnosed the illness, but through trial and error and determined research he came up with a cure. In a remarkable feat of human achievement, initially without even so much as a microscope, he made himself into the ranking authority in the world on bird diseases. With the help of a widowed, bird-fancying correspondent he founded a successful business selling the bird medicine that he developed. His 500-page book, Stroud's Digest of the Diseases of Birds, brought out in 1943, was an instant success--with specialists in the field if not commercially--and ten years later was still considered the world's top bird-disease volume.

To see what this has to do with James V. Bennett and FPI we pick up the narrative of the book by Thomas E. Gaddis, Birdman of Alcatraz describing Stroud's influence on this major federal penal facility:

This was an altogether different feeling from that of "getting ahead in prison" by becoming a "cooperator." It was not a matter of becoming a trusty, stool-pigeon, or preacher. Every old-line con sensed that Stroud was incapable of this adjustment, regarded by them as a form of spiritual death.
"The Isolation Department," Stroud later wrote, "which for years had been the hottest trouble spot in the prison, was transformed into the least troublesome." Through force of personality combined with their dangerous records, Stroud and (Feto) Gomez exerted a calming influence on many isolation prisoners. Their profitable spare-time activities gave prisoners a stake to protect and for each a privately tailored individual hope.

The sale of Stroud's canary medicine was going quite well, and he was eyeing the much larger poultry market, but storm clouds were on the horizon.

Unknown to Stroud, however, a vast plan for expanded prison industries was taking shape in the Bureau of Prison in Washington. Federal penologists had placated organized labor and businessmen.

Leavenworth was still a powder keg. Warden (T.B.) White sat upon it, encouraging hobbies and handicrafts where he could. With the example set by Stroud, after a decade of good behavior in the tough Isolation Department, hundreds of prisoners in Leavenworth devoted their idle hours to handicrafts. Some prisoners had made such progress with their hobbies that, with the aid of an outside contact, they earned as much as a thousand dollars a year, although the average was much smaller. The activities developed in many prisoners the small businessman's love of independent effort.

"They were learning the secrets and pride of honest industry," Stroud later wrote, "and the men who learned those lessons did not return to prison."

Unfortunately, there was a parallel growth of ugly little rackets among some prisoners. It was in the name of abolishing the rackets that severe restrictions on all activities were ordered.

Many kinds of food and materials were requisitioned by prisoners from local merchants. Officials claimed these merchants were mulcting the convicts with double prices and poor products.

In June, 1931, a commissary was opened in Leavenworth, government-owned and operated, and supplied through large companies who outbid local merchants. Hotly opposed, they protested that the Government was doing them out of a million dollars a year.

These seeming irrelevancies to the story of Robert Stroud were shortly to become pointed and germane. On July 29, 1931, Warden White received orders from the federal Bureau of Prisons instructing him to order Number 17431, Robert Stroud, to discontinue his bird business forthwith, and to dispose of his birds. 45

This would not prove to be the end of Stroud's bird activities. Many of his greatest accomplishments would come later, but the collision course with the Bureau of Prisons and with James V. Bennett had been set.

When word reached the bird-loving world, with the help of Stroud and his immediate supporters, that he was being put out of the bird business, a public outcry ensued. Great political pressure was brought upon federal prison authorities. They took the unprecedented step of sending a young official to Leavenworth to negotiate directly with Stroud in his cell. Stroud, sensing he had the political upper hand, would not budge an inch and the official was forced to return to Washington in humiliating defeat. Stroud was permitted to keep his bird business. The young man left, Stroud would later write, with an ominous parting warning, however, "The public has a short memory."46

Six years later, in 1937, that man, James V. Bennett, would ascend to the directorship of the Federal Bureau of Prisons where he would remain until 1964. It was a major personal setback for Stroud. The screws were slowly tightened on his operation until, at 5:00 am on December 15, 1942, without prior warning, he was told to pack up and prepare within hours for a transfer to the federal system's maximum security prison, Alcatraz. The birds would have to stay behind. Though Stroud, continuing to wrap himself up in research, remained a model prisoner, Bennett continued to rebuff all his efforts to win parole. In 1953, he denied a petition on behalf of Stroud's publisher that he be allowed to write a new, updated edition of his still-popular bird disease volume. Not until 1959, for reasons of failing health, was he transferred out of the forbidding climate of Alcatraz to the federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, where he would die at the age of 73 in 1963.

But Bennett's ascendancy was not just a personal disaster for Stroud. Bennett was not yet BOP director, but his influence and that of those who shared his bureaucratic, centralizing philosophy was already becoming dominant when Stroud wrote the following words in 1936:

I have done time under all kinds of conditions. I was in prison when they had the silence system. I know what hard time is. But never in all the years I have been in prison did I ever know the prisoners to be more bitter and less subject to reformation than is the case right now, and it is all due to the college punk reformers sitting on top of everybody in that Bureau. 47

Inmates with the intellect and the driven qualities of a Robert Stroud, of course, are few and far between. Indeed, such people are rare indeed in the general population, but the creative urge is not rare. We all have it to one degree or another, and it can be cultivated, not crushed, as it all too often is in bureaucratic systems.

"Painting becomes an obsession for some men and so absorbed do they become in their hobby that time sometimes races too madly."

The quote is not from Birdman of Alcatraz but from James V. Bennett's own book I Chose Prison, though they are the words of prisoner Stanley Mockford, not Bennett, describing the varied activity in a typical pre-UNICOR prison. Again, Bennett demonstrated that he realized that industrial labor was not the only solution to the idleness problem, though it is doubtless the most beneficial one to the prison organization. For "painting" one may substitute any number of arts and crafts as well as the craft of self-improvement, either intellectual, physical, or spiritual. Not everyone can be a Robert Stroud, but everyone can be made into a better person than he is.

David Martin

continued in UNICOR V - A Better System

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