Refresher Course in Jail

DAVE DELLINGER is one of the editors of the New York monthly Libertarian, from whose August number his account of a recent refresher course in jail is condensed.

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 15, 2016

I GENERALLY GET A LAUGH when I mention that I went from Yale to jail and that I got a more vital education from three years in jail than from six years at Yale. The laugh always makes me a little uneasy (even apart from the feebleness of the play on words) because I am afraid it implies that far from being dead serious I am merely indulging in a humorous exaggeration, since one wouldn't really expect to learn more in prison than in a university. A little reflection should convince most persons that one can learn more about the nature of our society (for example) by sharing in a small way the life of its victims than by interacting intellectually with its privileged academicians. Be that as it may, I spent ten days in jail recently and had my complacency jolted once again (non-conformists can be more complacent than we realise) and my imagination quickened by this little refresher course in the realities that lie behind the facade of our society.
I have never forgotten my first experience of arrest and imprisonment many years ago: how inexorably the transitions took place from being treated as "saints ahead of our time" (a comment by a member of the grand jury that indicted eight of us for our refusal, as pacifists, to register for the draft), to misguided and stubborn idealists (the attitude of the judge) to criminals with "no rights of any kind" who had better wise up if we wanted to stay in one piece (as we were told by a guard five minutes after being ushered out of the polite and superficially civil libertarian atmosphere of the courtroom into the prison world into which no visitors are admitted and from which no uncensored letters are released). If the details varied slightly this time, the pattern was similar: only when we were safely out of sight of judge and spectators were the realities of the prison system revealed to us.
Most convicts would rather serve time in an old-fashioned jailor pen than in a liberal "correctional" institution. The basic prerequisite for a decent life – freedom – is lacking in either case, but in the "reformed" institutions the prisoner finds that he is subjected, in addition, to a kind of manipulative and psychological assault that the old-fashioned warden and keepers had no interest in. I remember a

Christmas at Danbury (Connecticut) "Federal Correctional Institution" when the Christmas party consisted of an exhibition of dancing and singing by the warden's young children and their classmates. When the performance was over, the warden mounted the platform and made a speech in which he kept reminding the prisoners that if they hadn't broken the law they could have been with their wives and children on Christmas Eve, as he was. Perhaps only those who have been deprived for a lengthy period of the company of wives, children, and loved ones can appreciate how cruel this little sermon was and how it embittered rather than enlightened the men. Never did I receive a half-hour visit (we were allowed a total of one hour of visits a month) without having my parents or fiancée subjected to a prior interview with the warden or a social-service worker in which they were treated to a lengthy analysis of my various character defects. Wives were often told, on the basis of "scientific" case-studies, that they should divorce their husbands, or stop visiting them, because they were "no good". Censorship of reading material, "to help rehabilitate the convict", was so extreme that at one time only one New York newspaper (the New York Times, which appealed to the warden but not to many of the inmates) was allowed to circulate and copies of it were distributed only after every news story that dealt with crime had been cut out. When a friend sent me a copy of The World's Great Letters, the censorship department passed it on to me only after having deleted a letter by Benjamin Franklin which was considered "salacious". Did they really think that the inmates would have learned more about the perverse glories of crime from the New York Times than from their follow inmates with whom they were joined in the common, embittering experience of living in an "extreme totalitarian society" and with whom they united in a thousand imaginative ways of "beating the system" (everything from stealing food and manufacturing a powerful prison brew to smuggling tobacco, at great personal risk, to men in the "hole"). Did they think that sexual abuse and insensitivity were more apt to result from reading a letter by Ben Franklin than from being locked up for years without contact with loved ones? If anyone had interrupted one of the jail house bull sessions on sex to read out loud the offending passages from Franklin he would have been hooted down for boring the audience.

* * *

My recent arrest grew out of a "vigil" outside the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., where ten of us picketed, handed out leaflets, and began a two-week fast (taking only water) in protest against the invasion of Cuba. The Washington (D.C.) jail was an uneasy compromise between the old-fashioned jail, in which confinement and the prevention of escape are almost the only concerns, and the modern paternalistic institution, which tries, unrealistically, to combine confinement with rehabilitation. In the main, it succeeded in combining, in slightly modified form, the shortcomings of both types of institution and the virtues of neither. On the one hand, we were subject to classification interviews with social-service workers whose sheltered, conformist lives had so limited their ability to grasp the realities of the system that it is hard to imagine their ever understanding a criminal or establishing any significant human contact with him – even if they had any interest in considering him as anything but a "case". (In the first information-gathering my name was somehow transcribed as David Dillings and a series of interviewers insisted that I must sign my name in this fashion if I did not want to go to the "hole". I suppose that in some future court appearance I shall be accused of having used an alias). On the other hand, the daily routine was such as to encourage utter boredom, and physical and mental deterioration. We were awakened at 4.30 a.m. and spent the entire day sitting in the overcrowded chapel, without reading material, work, exercise, or diversion of any kind. The windows were even frosted to prevent looking outside. The only breaks were the three daily meals and the periodic "counts". In our case, we were continuing to fast, so benefited from the mealtimes only by having a brief respite from living in a dense crowd. There were 160 beds in my dormitory arranged in double-deckers so close together than if anyone lying in his bed (we were only allowed on the bed between 9.30 at night and 4.30 the next morning) stretched his arms out, he would touch the beds on both sides. I am told that the prisoners are allowed to go to the stockade for two hours on Sundays, but since it rained we watched television instead. As beautiful women and expensive status symbols were flashed on the screen, I looked at the men around me and thought that the crime of many of them was to have been hypnotised by the lures of our society and to have sought to attain them by methods which were outside the law (the ground rules of capitalist society) but not necessarily more anti-social than the accepted legal ones. In varying degrees they lacked the education, the contacts, the pigmentation, the patience, the inherited capital or the hypocrisy to attain their goals by accepted methods of living off the labour of others – collecting rents, profits, dividends, interest or the excessive salaries of the professional and managerial classes; buying or hiring cheap and selling dear; excelling in the attractive packaging or psychologically effective advertising of an inferior product, etc. The man who pockets a cool million by speculating in slum-clearing, housing or installing inadequate air-conditioning in fancy apartment houses becomes a public hero by setting up a scholarship fund or contributing to charity, but the man beside me, his eyes glued to the TV screen had "lost all his rights" because he had stolen some jewellery.

The best prison community is no more than an extreme totalitarian society, and the most it can produce is a good convict who is quite different from a good citizen … Reformation of convicts must be attained chiefly outside any penal institution.

–Encyclopedia Britannica, article on "Prison".

The question is, does a person ever lose his rights as a human being? Both kinds of prison operate on the assumption that he does. As I entered the D.C. jail I was greeted with the words, so familiar to me from previous experiences: "You have no rights." (In liberal institutions the advances of modern penology are summed up in the alternative byword: "You have no rights, only privileges.") A "good convict" is one who acquiesces in this defamation of character until he finally explodes in resentful violence or becomes a shadow of a man who is made a trusty or is considered safe to release on parole. I have seen men put in the "hole" for "silent insolence", because the system cannot function without breaking the spirit of its victims, and the light of independence in a man's eyes is more frightening to the authorities than occasional violations of administrative regulations.
As pacifists we revealed at least a few signs of inter-directedness and this caused immediate tensions with the authorities. But we also tried to go out of our way to be sensitive to their human qualities, and the more contact we had with individual guards the more willing they were to overlook our minor transgressions, in apparent (if somewhat bewildered) appreciation for being treated, for a change, as fellow human beings. They were more used to opportunistic subservience, without personal respect, than to foolhardy resistance combined with respect. Traditionally tough guards who had gotten to know us pretended not to notice our idiosyncratic violations of prison routine, but whenever we entered a strange part of the prison and encountered new guards we were in danger. On one occasion, when we had been escorted to a new area and were waiting to see what would happen (prisoners are seldom told where they are going or why), two of us were excoriated for looking out of a partially open window. When I asked, as gently as I could, what harm there was in looking at the grass, the guard became nervous and felt the need to assert his authority. He ordered me to take off some paper buttonholes with which we managed to keep our shirts from being constantly unbuttoned because of the oversized buttonholes. His manner was so arbitrary (and the practice of wearing the buttonholes so well established) that I felt it necessary to explain that I was chilly, that the shirt would not stay buttoned otherwise, and then, in response to his shouted "You are in prison now; shut up and do as I say," that even prisoners had the right to be treated civilly.
When I got to the "hole", the modern prison's equivalent of the mediaeval dungeon, I found that the approximately 5 ft. by 6 ft. damp strip cell, part of which was taken up by a toilet which could only be flushed from the outside, was already occupied by two other prisoners. There was not room for all of us to lie down at one time, but we managed by having two of us put our feet and legs up the wall while the third put his on the toilet. One of the prisoners was upbraiding the other for being a damn fool. "It don't make no difference that you're innocent," he said, "They don't want you to plead not guilty.

You would've got off with thirty days. Now you'll get six months." "I know," said the other, "but it was a matter of principle with me."
The seasoned, guilty man had been in the "hole" a week, for having a fight. The principled "damn fool" had been taken to the barber shop earlier that day, in anticipation of his appearance in court the following morning. He had an attractive pompadour hair style and he balked when told that he would have to have it cut another way. "Just don't give me no haircut at all, he said, "'cause when I appear in court I wants to be mine own self." For this, act of self-assertion he had been thrown into the "hole". It wouldn't have been right under any circumstances, but I couldn't help thinking that here was a man who apparently was innocent, and who, in any case, was supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Because he could not afford bail, however, he had already lost all his rights.
When I walked out of jail after my ten days were up, I couldn't tell whether I felt more elated at having my "freedom" or depressed at the thought of those whom I had left inside. I know, from previous experience, that I shall never forget some of them and that I shall never meet any finer persons out of jail than some of the friends I made inside. But I also know how easy it is to get caught up in other routines, and how hard it is to convince people that the only way to reform jails is to abolish them. For jails are necessary for the preservation of a semblance of "law and order" in a society where there are rich and poor, over-privileged and under-privileged.

Man is a social creature. He is born into a community, and his life is continuously conditioned by it. It shapes his personality, and his judgments, his decisions, his desires, and ambitions reflect its influence upon him. His life is generally judged in terms of his place within it. But isolate him from it, make him an outcast, and he will bind himself to those who are likewise outcasts. Prisoners have their own community, and though prison officers may spend as much time with the prisoners as the prisoners do with each other, yet the officer does not belong to the prison community. A modern prison may organise countless educational classes for the offenders, and still the demand persists. But the men attend less from the desire to improve their learning than from the desire to be together. The prisoner may object to solitary confinement because it commits him to hours of inactivity. 'There's nothing to do except think.' But the real reason lies in the removal of man from his fellow men, for he belongs by nature to society, and he 'lives' only when he is within society.

–MERFYN LLOYD TURNER: "Ship Without Sails" (1953)