Chapter 3: Subsidizing the System

If prisons are expensive to run, it's not the fault of the prisoners. They and their families subsidize the system in a number of ways. By paying prisoners 50 cents a day, the Department of Correction has a permanent cheap labor supply. By denying prisoners enough to eat, it forces families to pay for much of the cost of food. Families are also normally the prisoners' only source of money for goods such as radios, televisions, shoes or clothing. The system doesn't just punish the poor. It does its best to keep them poor.

Prison industries: paying back the state

The prison industry system is a slave labor system used to force prisoners to pay for the cost of their own imprisonment. Prison industry jobs are dead-end jobs, despite Department propaganda saying otherwise. No one working in prison jobs comes away with experience or skills useful on the street.

The best known prison industry, Walpole's license plate shop, brought in $1.7 million in 1973. Altogether, the industries at Walpole earned $1.9 million -- compared to expenses of $1.6 million. Even in that year of strikes and riots, Walpole industries made an official profit of $300,000.

This profit is one of the reasons why Walpole prisoners went on strike. The National Prisoners Reform Association (NPRA) are seeking a minimum wage and recognition as a labor union. Governor Francis W. Sargent's response to the strike was to ship the license plate contract out to a firm in Arkansas. The NPRA also took its case to the state Labor Relations Commission, which refused it recognition as a union. The commission backed up the governor by claiming that prisoners have no rights as employees in other words, that prisoners are slaves of the state.

The department still intends to bring the plate contract back to Walpole in 1974, but now it is thinking of building a new shop outside the walls. Under this plan prisoners would be paid at least a minimum wage, but they would also be taxed and forced to pay for room and board in the prison. Even if the NPRA is not immediately recognized as a union, this arrangement would mean a major victory for the prisoners. They would be the first in Massachusetts history to be paid a minimum wage by the state.

The plate shop is only one of many prison industries, however. Other shops at Walpole make street and highway signs, sewer covers, brushes, and letterhead stationery for state officials. Norfolk prisoners make clothing, uniforms, shoes, mattresses, beds, trash cans and cardboard boxes. At Concord the major industry is furniture making. The women at Framingham used to sew flags, linen, pajamas and hospital supplies until work release went into effect.

The cut-rate prices of prison products subsidize the running of state and local government agencies as well as some private firms. Uniform police shoes, for example, are sold by Norfolk at $7.10 a pair. It takes a 72-page Department of Correction catalogue to list all the goods made in prison shops.

Other prison jobs

In addition to industrial work, the 2,900 prisoners do most of the nitty-gritty work that keeps the prisons running. Prisoners work as clerks and janitors, cooks and barbers, laundry workers and window-washers, as well as in many other tasks. When Framingham went co-ed, the men were hand-picked from other prisons on the basis of their labor skills: men with experience as plumbers, electricians, mechanics and so on. They now do the work of Civil Service employees already (and still) on the payroll.

Prison jobs are performed under threat of a long list of punishments. Prisoners can be put in solitary confinement for not working, or can be denied parole, visiting rights and other privileges. Personal articles such as books, radios or televisions can also be seized as punishment.

Prison industry profits, low-cost operation of the prisons, savings on prison-made products and jobs for Civil Service shop managers -- all these are made possible by prisoners who worked for a total of $171,000 last year. That is an average of about $60 a year for each of the 2,900 prisoners. If the prisoners' pay rate had been $3.00 an hour instead of 50 cents a day, their earnings would have been more than $8 million last year instead of $171,000.

Prisoners thus provide the state with several million dollars a year of free labor. That's more than enough to pay for what the prisoners receive from the Department of Correction: $1.6 million worth of food, $800,000 in heat, and a few hundred thousand more in medical expenses. It even pays the cost of the badly administered educational programs in the prisons. And that still leaves much of the prisoners' earnings to help pay for the salaries of guards, administrators and contractors.

The company store

Every prison has a true company store: the prison canteen, which is the only place where prisoners are allowed to spend their earnings. The canteens are used to milk prisoners and their families of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Food is the first and foremost product sold in the canteens. Many prisoners prefer to spend their own cash on canned or packaged food rather than eat the slop cooked in the prison cafeterias. Clothing, cigarettes, toothpaste, candy and similar items are also sold in the canteens. These aren't luxuries, just the everyday necessities the state refuses to supply while paying prisoners slave wages at the same time.

The amount spent in the canteens gives a good indication of how much prisoners and their families subsidize the system. Official records on canteen income are hard to find, but the State Auditor's reports show that the canteens take in about $750,000 a year and possibly more. Since the total combined wages of all prisoners came to only $171,000 in 1973, that means their families put up most of the rest of what was spent in the canteens. That other $580,000 comes to about $200 per family.

Since most of the goods are sold at higher than street-level prices, the state also makes a profit on the canteens. For example, cigarettes are sold at $4.50 a carton, even though many outside stores sell them for $3.99. Even if the canteens' profit margin is just 10 percent, that is still $75,000 a year -- almost half of what prisoners earn in a year.

Supposedly, the profits of the canteens go to the prisoners. In fact, this rarely happens. The State Auditor's report on Bridgewater for 1972 shows that the prison canteen had a total income of $151,000. Most of that amount was spent on operating expenses, including $15,000 in salaries paid to guards who ran the canteen. That $15,000 taken by the state accounted for most of the canteen's profits. Only $4,348 ended up being given back to the prison population as profit, and even this small amount was spent mainly in ways determined by the state. For example, $1,247 of that $4,348 was spent on new carpets for the prison library.

Savings accounts

Prison savings accounts are another way for the state to take away prisoners' earnings. By law, half of every prisoner's wages must be deposited in a prison savings account. The other half goes into a separate account which the prisoner is permitted to spend. (Prisoners are not allowed to possess cash.)

No interest is paid to prisoners, even though the state deposits their savings in private banks. The explanation commonly given for this situation is that it would be "too much book-keeping" to determine how much interest each prisoner should get.

If a friend leaves money for a prisoner at the prison's outer office, it is supposed to be deposited into his or her account. But as a result of careless book-keeping, such money is often lost. When that happens, it is a prisoner's word against the accountant's. And when a prisoner dies before getting out, his or her money is taken by the state instead of being given to the prisoner's family.

Medical and drug experimentation

An off-shoot of the Department of Correction's slave labor policies is the standing invitation it gives to drug manufacturers and medical experimenters to use prisoners as guinea pigs. Prisoners are regarded as ideal subjects for experiments because:

Drug research in Massachusetts has a long history. For example, Harvard Professor Timothy Leary did experiments on prisoners at Concord with a new drug called LSD long before he became an international celebrity. Ten years later, Leary is in prison himself -- for giving the same drug to middle-class kids instead of to prisoners.

Just how many men and women have been crippled, deformed or turned into vegetables by more dangerous drugs than LSD may never be known. No one with inside knowledge of prison experiments is telling. But medical and drug research on prisoners continue.

One prisoner made $550 in 1973 by taking part in five different experiments run by drug manufacturers. The fees he got ranged from $250 for a month-long test in which he ate a special diet, took drugs daily and allowed some 100 blood samples to be taken from his arms, to $50 for a week-long experiment that left him with constant diarrhea. One drug left him so high, he said, that he "ended up in the hospital because they didn't know what was happening to me." Despite these and other problems, he keeps going back to sign up for more experiments. "This is the only way I live in here -- taking tests. The food in here ain't the best, you know. You need money."

To fight this exploitation, prisoners' medical committees have formed at Norfolk, Concord and Framingham to prevent drug firms from coming in. In the fall of 1973, the Concord committee succeeded in preventing Hoechst Pharmaceuticals from trying out a new tranquillizer named Clobazam, similar to Valium, on 45 prisoners. The instructions for this experiment asked prison authorities to give Hoechst copies of autopsy reports if any of the prisoners died during the experiment.

Experiments on poor people are being used to develop an arsenal of drugs and medical techniques for keeping them in their place. New types of tranquillizers are being used not only to control prisoners, but also to "quiet down" poor and black children who refuse to submit to the discipline of badly run schools.

Psychosurgery -- the destruction of certain portions of the brain -- is being used in California and in Federal prisons to silence politically active prisoners.

Massachusetts prisons apparently have not started using psychosurgery yet, but the danger is real. From 1966 until 1973, Dr. Lawrence Razavi of Massachusetts General Hospital did research on prisoners at Bridgewater in an attempt to prove that violent crimes and sex crimes are linked to brain damage caused by inherited genetic defects. He theorized that violence-prone people could be spotted at an early age by studying fingerprint patterns (which he also thought were linked to genetic damage). Razavi received a $79,000 Federal grant for this work in 1971, but he did not need to pay prisoners to take part because prison officials forced them to be examined. Similar studies were done at Framingham, Concord and Bridgewater by other doctors.

Razavi's research is closely related to that of three other physicians connected with Mass. General and Harvard Medical School: Drs. William Sweet, Vernon H. Mark and Frank Ervin. Sweet once said that people with brain damage are probably responsible for urban riots. Ervin and Mark, in their book Violence and the Brain, recommend psychosurgery for individuals prone to violent behavior. Sweet got a $500,000 Federal grant in 1971 to open a "Violence Center" at Boston City Hospital to study violence among poor people. Ervin and Mark are being sued by the mother of an engineer named Leonard A. Kille who has not been able to work since he underwent psychosurgery at Mass. General in 1966.

The use of drugs and behavior modification to control prisoners was recommended by another Harvard group with a $188,000 Federal grant in 1973. A Harvard School of Public Health professor named William Curran, along with Harvard Medical School researchers, said that "special offender" prisons using these techniques should be established throughout New England. Their theory is that anyone who refuses to put up with conditions in Massachusetts prisons must be mentally ill.

The likes of Curran, Sweet, Ervin, Mark and Razavi, along with drug firms such as Hoechst, must be kept out of the prisons. And it is not just prisoners who need to be on guard, since many researchers of this type are always seeking other groups on whom to test their latest theories.

Work release: the perfect prison industry

A work release job is an opportunity that almost any prisoner would welcome. It means a chance to earn money and a daily trip outside the prison. But the state and the employers involved get much more out of work release than a prisoner does.

For wardens and guards, work release is the perfect prison industry. It means fewer prisoners to watch during the day, but enough prisoners at night and on weekends to justify the guards' jobs.

For employers, work release means eager employees who will work at low wages and not make waves. To the prisoner, getting fired means not just losing a paycheck, but being returned to prison full-time and possibly losing a shot at parole.

The state makes at least as much off work release as a prisoner does. A prisoner earning $100 a week pays roughly $20 in state and Federal taxes and $15 more a week in room and board at the prison. (Fifteen percent of wages are deducted for room and board.) Of the remaining $65, half goes into a prison savings account and the state keeps the interest. That leaves the prisoner with $32.50 a week for his or her own needs, including transportation, lunches and clothing. Commuting from Framingham, Concord or Plymouth to Boston costs $15 or more a week. Aside from fresh air, a work release prisoner thus gains only the $32.50 a week of compulsory savings. A work release prisoner who is fired or laid off cannot collect unemployment compensation. Also, most prisoners have to quit their work-release jobs when paroled since their homes are in different parts of the state. (Parolees usually can't get driving licenses.)

Lastly, most work release jobs are not good jobs and do nothing to solve a prisoner's need for training or education. In fact, the few prisoners who have skills for high-paid jobs are sometimes refused permission to go out on work release since the wardens want their services inside the prisons.

Work release may be the best financial break prisoners have ever had, but it isn't the miracle cure that it is billed as by politicians and prison officials. Work release also contradicts the very idea of prisons: if prisoners can be trusted to go out and work in an office or factory every morning, then they ought to be trusted to go home to their families at night.