Prisons don’t work, so let’s build more of them

Letter by Jerry Mosier

Prisons – November 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Prisons don’t work, so let’s build more of ’em

Editor:

I turned 22 in prison, a member of the first group of guards hired in 1961 under Kansas Civil Service; prior hirings had been a tradition of political patronage.

And, until I typed this, I had not taken into account that I was there at the beginning of the trend toward bureaucracy, professionalism, and protectionism that has seen salaries of correctional officers increase tenfold from the $267 per month that I received before taxes for six-day weeks.

We were supposed to be called correctional officers then, too, but seldom were, even by other guards. The convicts called us bulls, screws, and less complimentary names.

Many of the guards on the job when I went to Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing, a suburb of Leavenworth, had already retired from other jobs. Some were in their seventies. One, who was legally blind, manned a rifle tower and outside gate to a fenced area.

It mattered little that many of the tower guards (upon whom our lives theoretically depended) could not shoot straight. Cellhouses built through the years effectively blocked view of the exercise yard from the rifle towers.

Younger guards mingled with the cons in the exercise yard. We were called “escort officers” because we would be assigned, via a booming loud speaker, to escort convicts or visitors or vehicles that moved within the walls. This movement frequently left a single guard in the yard with 400 or so convicts. They called us “yard bulls” and, my personal favorite, “eight-hour cons”; a subtle reminder that the gates were locked for all of us. Unspoken was the fact that, in event of a major disturbance, those gates would remain locked and an unpopular guard could do a life sentence before the end of an eight-hour shift.

“The only difference between these men and us,” the training officer said, “is that they got caught.”

“Eighty-five to ninety percent of the men in my prison don’t need to be here,” Warden Sherman Crouse later told me when I interviewed him for The Leavenworth Times. The vast majority of inmates in prison, he explained, could be housed in a facility that was less costly to the state and less damaging to the individual.

Guards who train guards and wardens who run prisons could scarcely be considered soft on crime or criminals, but, traditionally, are the first to admit the failure of our correctional systems.

In today’s prisons, roughly 50% of the inmates are doing time for non-violent drug offenses courtesy of the Zero Tolerance policies of recent political administrations. Add that 50% to the 85-90% who already didn’t need to be in prison and, clearly, we already have more than enough prisons. The problem is that we are putting too many people in prison, and the wrong people at that.

While I was participating in the early days of the change (in Kansas, at least) from prisons run on the patronage system to prisons run by bureaucracy, another important change was taking place; the baby boomers were coming of age.

First, we overbuilt grade schools to accommodate this lump of population; then middle schools, high schools, colleges and now, belatedly, we are overbuilding prisons. Going to prisons however, is not an elective. College classrooms may go begging; prison cells will not.

The prison-prone years, for men, are ages 18-35. The baby boomers are now over that hill, but bureaucratic reaction to their generation continues.

My father held that, on average, the leaders of this nation were roughly 20 years behind the people they presumed to lead. Economists call any action taken by the bureaucracy in response to a perceived problem a lagging indicator; meaning that the problem has already passed. The baby boomers were no more nor less moral than any other generation; but there were more of them; and their causes for being vocal were real. They fought to end the draft, to lower the voting age; they fought police, and they fought the most protracted and unpopular war in their country’s history.

Some historians argue that the U.S. will always be in a wartime economy because mass production works best in conjunction with mass destruction. Whether that be the cause, our nation’s track record shows a period of depression/recession after each of our wars; with an accompanying rise in unemployment, and crimes. It was in this atmosphere, after a journalism career of a dozen-odd years, that I returned to making a living from crime. Feeling the need to know more about the criminal justice system (and spurred by the shutdown of a weekly newspaper I had been editing) I took contract employment as a criminal defense investigator for private attorneys and the Colorado Public Defender office.

The year was 1974 and Colorado Springs was experiencing a crime wave, attributable in large part to the fact that Fort Carson was a major discharge point for soldiers returned from Vietnam. My first homicide case involved a murder in Old Max at Cañon City. I got the job because I had penitentiary experience. Business boomed for several years, then there was a decline in the number of defendants who needed, or could afford, a defense investigator whose specialty had become homicides.

Meanwhile, politicians state and federal tried to outdo each other in the headlong rush to grab headlines by proposing get-tough-on-crime legislation; with a vengeance.

I use the word “vengeance” advisedly. Policies which, if projections hold, will see 50% of adult new American males enter the millennium with a prison record, and an absolute majority of black American men behind bars by the year 2012 are policies that can fairly be characterized as vengeful. Revenge of the Nerds, one might say.

Drug tests and polygraph tests have virtually eliminated anyone from the ranks of public service with a spark of independence or the inclination to question authority, and it is through these ranks that bureaucrats become legislators.

We are the nation which imprisons more of its citizens per capita than any other on earth; the nation led by a president who smoked marijuana, but did not inhale.

U.S. Justice Department statistics say that crime has dropped steadily for six years and, in the recent year, it took the biggest dive in the 55 years such statistics have been kept. The Colorado Department of Corrections is now the largest employer in the state (and I’m sure that doesn’t include the convicts all those people are hired to watch).

A society which tries to sustain itself by building more and more prisons under the guise of providing real employment and a real economy, as Uncle Mose would say, “doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.”

None go to a state or federal prison until they first pass through a county jail. It is this huge movable gulag, the ever-moving fleet of unmarked 11-passenger vans with darkened windows, that Colorado counties are competing to serve; by renting jail space to populations much larger than the counties’ own crops of homegrown miscreants.

“We’re in the corridor,” whisper proponents of the proposed Chaffee County Jail. Truly, the Arkansas River Canyon has always been a major route for whatever moved through Colorado. Today, rather than timber, minerals, or beef, the traffic is in human bodies.

I don’t recall ever being allowed to vote on the building of a state or federal prison; those are built by bureaucratic fiat. We do, however, get to vote on new county jails and it is this corridor that the voter can close; and thereby dry up the incredible flow of our fellow Americans to prisons.

When we just say no to this imprisonment insanity, the wholesale imprisonment of people guilty of what Uncle Mose calls “front yard crime,” perhaps our lawmen can spend a little more time apprehending truly dangerous people.

Currently, a rape or murder which does not solve itself within 24 hours will likely remain unsolved. In many major cities, 50% of complaints handled by police are for barking dogs and 50% of arrests are for misdemeanor pot possession.

Known dangerous people, rarely, are actively pursued. Police wait for snitches, computers, or TV’s Most Wanted to do the job.

There has surfaced, in my recall, another lesson learned as a “fish” (convict parlance-for newcomers to prison, be they guard or inmate) in Kansas State Penitentiary. The way 185 guards spread over 24 hours, seven days every week, could control 2,000 prisoners (in a penitentiary built before the Civil War to house 1,100) was to keep them divided, and bickering among themselves.

Race was always a good card to play. Blacks were fed first on chow line, and given the top tiers in five-story cellblocks unbearably hot in the summer but almost warm in winter. Whites got the lower tiers, almost bearable in summer, sometimes freezing in winter.

Rules were so simple, vague and ever-changing that they could be interpreted, on the spot, in a manner to hold any inmate in fear of going to jail immediately. (Yes, dear Squarejohn Freeworlder, every penitentiary contains within it a jail for people who cannot even conform to jail).

They were, after all, already guilty; of something.

For those of us old enough to remember the difference, did the Kansas convict of 1961 live in such a different world as the Squarejohn Freeworld American of 1997?

J.T. Mosier Center