When the prisoners ran the prison: Massachusetts, 1973

I stumbled across an astonishing story on the US Prison Culture blog. It’s about a prison rebellion in 1972 and 1973 in MCI-Walpole (now known as MCI-Cedar Junction). The MCI part stands for Massachussets Correctional Institution.

MCI-Cedar Junction
MCI-Cedar Junction in 2007. Photo by bunkosquad via Flickr CC

The early 1970s had already seen one of the worst lows in US prison history, with the Attica Prison uprising, when over 1,000 prisoners had taken over the prison in response to harsh conditions and treatment. Taking hostages, they made a series of demands about better treatment. The confrontation ended five days later with the violent deaths of 43 people, including hostages, as control over the prison was retaken by state police and National Guard units. Even to this day there are conflicting accounts of who killed whom and what precisely happened in the chaos.

Walpole, meanwhile, had been one of the USA’s most violent prisons, with extremely poor relations between prisoners and guards, and a reputation for racism and violence. In 1971, a branch of the National Prisoner Reform Association (NPRA) was established and started to organise prisoners along trade union lines, something that was especially easy in the US system, which has for a long time relied on prisoner labour in profit-making industries.

In late 1972, a new warden, seen by prisoners as exceptionally harsh, locked down Walpole, ostensibly to search for drugs and weapons. Prisoners felt that this was a tactic to intimidate and quieten down the NPRA. They alleged mistreatment during the lockdown, which resulted in embarrassing confrontation, the shutdown of prison industries, and deteriorating conditions and relationships. Prisoners were not allowed out of their cells to eat, use toilets or shower, for weeks. When the warden resigned and the lockdown was partially ended, prisoners refused to return to work in the prison’s lucrative workshops unless the remaining locked-down areas were opened. Rather than accede to this demand, guards at the prison took unprecedented action and walked out from work, effectively going on strike rather than tolerate what they saw as an unacceptable challenge to their authority.

What is supposed to happen in these situations is the complete breakdown of law and order. What in fact happened was an outbreak of peace. Having spent the last year or more organising programmes, practising some self-government, and attempting to speak out for more, the NPRA, which had won the support of prisoners as their legitimate representative, organised committees which then ran the prison, for three months. No prison officers were in the prison besides cadets, and the inmates’ efforts were overseen by neutral civilian observers, volunteers from local communities who were concerned to see better conditions in the prison.

During that time the murder rate in Walpole fell from the highest in the country to zero; rates of violence fell; prisoners worked to bury long-standing feuds; and they reorganised work programmes, achieving, it is alleged, two-thirds cost savings. You can watch, in lowish quality, a documentary about this episode in US prison life; it is about 45 minutes in length and I have assembled the five parts into a Youtube playlist, though if you don’t have time, I’ve linked a few moments I think are particularly interesting below.

I find several things about the film, which presents these events entirely from the prisoners’ perspective, really interesting. One is the prisoners’ apparent acceptance of their imprisonment. At no point are they arguing that they should not be there. Instead they seem to be concerned with the better functioning of what is, after all, their community (a point made by one of the interviewees).

Another thing, which can be seen in the lockup scene in the second part of the film, is the total lack of confrontation. It is as if confinement in cells for the night, never popular, is being done consensually. It’s striking that this trust seems to stem from the fact that it is their peers and the civilian observers who are overseeing the process, with a cadet guard operating the electronically locking cells.

The point is made by another prisoner, who is explains how the kitchens in the prison work far better when prisoners are in control of their own jobs, rather than being told what to do.

This distinction between the fact and the manner of a prison regime seems important elsewhere, when another prisoner explains the difference between how conflicts were resolved before and after the takeover. The distinction he draws between ‘pigs’ and ‘brothers’ is distasteful, but unsurprising, and speaks volumes about the importance of solidarity in getting a community to resolve its differences peacefully. Perhaps one way to make a community is to have it define itself against an outside threat.

It would be interesting to know what oversight there was at the gates of the prison by the authorities, which presumably must have operated some basic confinement procedures even without the cooperation of the guards. I would love to hear, in their own words, what the guards and the correctional authorities made of the episode. The film doesn’t adequately explain why this episode ended. I suspect either a rose-tinted picture of how successful the NPRA was, or alternatively a decision by the authorities that punishment was more important than success. There is sometimes an attitude that justice can only be done to, not done with, prisoners. Radical disempowerment is a major feature of modern prisons, rarely more so than when punishment trumps all other aims.

There is a strong emphasis in the best work in today’s British criminal justice system on what is now called ‘service user involvement’ or ‘user voice’. Its advocates make the basic point that you’re far more likely to achieve a good service if you can incorporate feedback from the users of a service, and involve them in its delivery or design. We see the same principle elsewhere in public service provision. While care must be taken to avoid hollow tokenism, the basic principle – that engagement is a good principle – is worth keeping. What happened for three months in Walpole went far beyond that, to the apparently paradoxical point that prisoners were not only running the ‘soft’ elements of the prison regime (such as workshops and education), but also ran internal security and processed new admissions. This is far further from our conceptions of what kind of a place prison is and should be.

The story of MCI-Walpole in 1973 is so interesting that I’ve ordered a book about it, and I may end up blogging about it again in future once I’ve had a chance to digest it further. I’m sure that certain conditions in the early 1970s were key in making these events possible: public dismay at what had happened at Attica might have helped to create a will for change; fifteen years of widespread political activism probably helped create the organisational models that we see in the films; and the community outside Walpole could probably only have trusted prisoners’ representatives to run the prison (even temporarily) because mediation and oversight was available from civilian observers. These were, remember, citizens who gave up their time to monitor a tense situation. (A fine example of volunteering making the world a better place, perhaps?)

So, readers: what else might it take to bring about a situation of similar creative potential today? What would it take to sustain it?

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