Chapter 4: The Human Price of Prisons

Imprisonment doesn't just interrupt the lives of prisoners and their families: it destroys them. Many prisoners lose all contact with their families as soon as they go to prison. Whether the family is shattered by imprisonment or not, it will never be the same again. Every prison sentence leaves permanent scars on both a prisoner and his or her family. This is how one prisoner's wife explained the problem:

"How do I explain the life of a wife and mother of four whose husband is an inmate of Walpole? It's not easy to do because it's a life of constant confusion and discipline, it's a life full of heartache. It's a life without a definite schedule, it's a life of never-ending worry about bills. Although I'm grateful, being on welfare is a burden. It's a life we have to live one day at a time, sometimes forgetting our reality and escaping into our memories for strength to continue our struggle. It's a life of loneliness .... I constantly refer to the word our because not only my husband but myself and our four children are doing 20-25 years.

Our baby, now almost five, was an infant when my husband first went to Walpole. Our other children were two, three and eleven. We were alone, we were scared, and I became head of the household. We became the topic of everyone's conversation. We became the outcasts of our neighborhood, eventually forced to move. We had no friends, we had nothing ... nothing but each other."

Attacking the family

For the Department of Correction, it is not enough to separate a prisoner from his or her family. It also does everything it can to keep families permanently apart. Its goal is to make every prisoner totally dependent on the prison system. The family stands in the way of that goal.

The first step in attacking the family is to encourage divorce. The woman quoted above was visited by a social worker who said, "You're just a young woman. Do you really want to put yourself through this? There'd be more opportunity for you with another man." As a result of this practice, many prisoners do get divorced soon after being sentenced.

Even a family that wants to stay together is up against heavy odds. Massachusetts prisons are all difficult to reach from the major cities. Visiting hours are severely limited. A visitor who is a few minutes late is not allowed to visit. The number of visits allowed to a prisoner at Walpole is just four a week, yet the Department considers this a liberal visiting policy. Many a visitor is turned away and told that the prisoner's quota for the week has been used up.

Visits are so expensive that many families can't afford to visit often. Here is what the woman above calculated it would cost for her to visit Walpole if she went four times a week:

One visit: $3.40 (90 cents for bus and subway, $2.50 for Greyhound bus trip to Walpole and back)

Four visits: $13.60

Four visits a week for a year: $707.20

If she brought her children, the cost would be still higher. Just to bring the four children once a week for a year would cost $668.20

Prison officials and guards do not want prisoners to have many visits. Any newcomer is apt to be warned that "This guy is a bad customer," or "Be careful. He's a vicious character." Going into a prison can also be a humiliating experience, as described here by a woman married to a prisoner:

"First I had to succumb to a skin search: take off all my clothes, or they wouldn't let me see him. They didn't give me a reason. They said that if I made any trouble they would bar me. Later there was a lockup of the prisoners, and when the place was opened again, the guards told me: 'You're not allowed here any more.'

That went on for two or three months. We couldn't even talk to each other through the mail. He'd send me a letter, I'd never receive it. Where did it go? Finally, after some lawyers got an injunction and started getting in, he got smart. He'd send a letter to the lawyers, with a letter inside for me. And he'd send it registered mail. I sent my mail certified -- I wasn't as smart as him. And even though I had a receipt, the prison denied ever getting the letter."

Contact with outsiders is hard to make at any time. But prisoners who take part in political action risk losing all outside contacts. One prisoner stated: "I was at Walpole eight and a half years before they would let me have a visit from a woman. I was labeled a troublemaker and this was my penalty. They wouldn't even let me write to a woman."

One prisoner's wife made the following observation about the lockups:

"I don't know which is worse -- the beatings or the keeping families out of contact. The bruises from a beating will heal a lot faster than the bruises of not having his family. To use a man's wife, sweetheart, mother or children as discipline is a far cry from reform. This will never help a man in prison, who will someday be released to the messed up society outside, to know how to cope with it. Instead he will strike back. He thinks in this manner:

'They've done it now! This is the last of what I'll take. The only thing I have left in the world, my family, and I can't have it. Without them I have nothing. So why behave?'"

Families and friends who take part in political work are also punished: by being barred from the prisons, or by being insulted and hassled by guards. If those tactics don't work, the prisoner is punished for his or her family's activities. The threat of punishment has discouraged many families from fighting back in the past, but more and more families are becoming willing to take the risk.

Doing time on the outside

Prisoners' families do their own kind of time on the outside: being ignored by former friends, avoided by neighbors, kicked out of homes or apartments, and plagued by money problems. For a family with little to begin with, lawyers' fees or the loss of a paycheck mean new levels of hardship. A woman with children has little choice but to go on welfare unless she has access to a good day-care program. This is how one woman described her plight:

"In the past three years since my husband has been in prison, the only family that has stuck by me has been my mother, brother and sister. My husband has six brothers and two sisters and only two of them have bothered to call me on the phone or visit their brother and our son.

I have been looking for an apartment for my son and me because my present rent is too high. I found a four-room place in the same area and I went to check it out. The landlady was just about ready to let me have the place until she asked me where my husband was. I said 'Walpole' and I'm on 'Welfare' and needless to say I didn't get the apartment.

I receive $117.95 every two weeks from AFDC and out of that I must pay $150 a month for rent. Gas and electric, oil and telephone are supposed to be paid out of the balance. I didn't mention that I'm supposed to be able to buy food and clothing for my eight-year old son. As you can see, it's impossible. Last year my gas and light and heat were shut off most of the winter. And if it hadn't been for the people I met doing prison work, we would have frozen and starved to death."

Assaults on the personality

Being in prison means more than being locked up and separated from family and friends. The way the prisons are run results in a never-ending series of assaults on every prisoner's sanity and human dignity. Many prisoners are driven to desperate acts, like Walter Eliot, the Norfolk prisoner who in 1972 killed his wife, himself and two guards. He and his wife made a suicide pact rather than bear the pain of imprisonment and separation any longer. Being in prison means:

In the end, it means being made so dependent on the prison system that you don't know how to do anything for yourself when you get back on the street. One man released recently after a long sentence didn't even know how to open the door of the car that was waiting to take him home.

Imprisonment also means years of total isolation from the opposite sex: never speaking to a woman or man that you love except under the watch of a guard. That alone is more punishment than any crime deserves. Because of this forced separation, male homosexuality and lesbianism are more common than on the outside, though having sex with people of the same sex is feared and misunderstood just as much as on the outside. Some prisoners' guilt and confusion about homosexuality also lead to homosexual rape. Sexual deprivation for years on end also makes it difficult for some prisoners ever to have a good sexual relationship even after getting out.

The extreme racism of the system makes prison a special hell for blacks and Puerto Ricans. Blacks serve longer sentences than whites, have fewer privileges, and are disciplined more often and more harshly. More than a third of Massachusetts prisoners are black (there are only a handful of black guards). Whenever possible, guards whip up racism among white prisoners, so that blacks are forced to struggle against both the administration and their fellow prisoners.

Another tactic used by administrators is to play favorites or to force prisoners to compete with each other for privileges within the prison. Over the years, administrators have always tried to use small groups of prisoners as strongarms to control the rest. This leads to violence among the prisoners, but the guards turn their backs on beatings and even murder in order to keep the total prison population in a state of fear. The guards only give protection to those prisoners who are willing to become informers.

Prisoners are denied almost every legal and human right, even when the law or the courts say prisoners should have them. Censorship of prison mail is forbidden by the courts, but it still goes on. Freedom of speech, religion and association are also unconstitutionally denied.

A prisoner with a grievance can only complain to the same guards who caused the grievance in the first place. Prison disciplinary boards are kangaroo courts in which a prisoner is tried, convicted and sentenced by the same people who filed the charge.

Cripple and control: prisons create junkies


One of the prison system's most vicious practices is using drugs to cripple and control large numbers of prisoners. By freely giving out dangerous drugs, wardens and guards keep many prisoners sitting quietly in their cells instead of protesting prison conditions. The result is the creation of junkies who will be prosecuted and imprisoned again for taking the very same drugs when they get back on the street.

This practice was documented at Walpole by the State Police investigation in 1973, again by a Department of Public Health investigation and a third time by Federal researchers in 1973.

The State Police found that hundreds of Walpole prisoners were being given daily doses of sleeping pills and of stronger drugs such as talwin and valium. Their report said that in the first five months of 1973, Walpole officials had bought 56,000 tranquillizer pills of different types -- enough to give every prisoner 100 pills over the five month period. In addition, the prison had purchased 7,000 needles and syringes.

The State Police also found 2,500 methadone tablets in the prison pharmacy -- although methadone is strongly habit-forming, and although the prison lacked the Federal license required for methadone distribution. In giving out the methadone, prison officials were both violating Federal law and creating new junkies.

Financial records of the department show that this practice is not limited to Walpole. Librium, valium, thorazine, phenobarbitol, stelazine, talwin and other such drugs are purchased in vast quantity by the Department.

Prisoners at Bridgewater report that handing out drugs is almost the only treatment known to psychiatrists there. The standard treatment for Bridgewater's allegedly mentally ill prisoners is to issue massive doses of thorazine and stelazine. Bridgewater purchased 25,000 stelazine tablets on a single day in December, 1972, and purchased large quantities of many other drugs in the same month. These pills don't benefit the prisoners, but they do benefit the staff: a prisoner so doped up that he can't talk won't badger guards or doctors with questions.

The use of drugs achieves the same results as more traditional means of control such as beatings or solitary confinement. As a result, so-called "chemotherapy" is becoming as common in prisons as in public mental hospitals. Prisoners who would otherwise fight back are being turned into vegetables until released, as the following first-person account reveals:

"I once witnessed a black man who was adamant in proclaiming that he was sane and didn't want to be kept in F-Ward (Bridgewater's infamous lockup/suicide/isolation section). He was taken out of his cell by four guards after they rushed in and wrapped his wrists and ankles in wet towels. They forced him onto a table, keeping him spread-eagled in the nude.

The man protested and tried to defend himself, but he was held fast. Then the head 'psychiatrist' came over with a rubber hose, funnel and pint bottle. He forced the hose up the man's nose and down into his stomach. The man's face wrenched in terror and revulsion. Then the doctor put the funnel to the hose's end and poured in the pint of medication, sending the fluid straight into his insides.

After many bubbly gurgles, the hose was whipped away and the screws lifted the man off the table and threw him bodily into the cell. As the doctor and guards walked away highly satisfied in their work, the man gagged himself time and time again and tried to get it all back up. But it was useless.

The next day, and from then on, the man was an apathetic zombie."

Being just plain broke when released is an obstacle that leads many ex-prisoners back into prison. Even if they have worked every day of their imprisonment, ex-prisoners are not eligible for unemployment or welfare benefits. Yet an ex-prisoner needs all the things any other person needs, starting on the day of release: money, food, clothing, an apartment and transportation. The state provides a departing prisoner with nothing but a suit of clothes and a few dollars in cash.

Because of both discrimination and legal barriers, there are very few jobs ex-prisoners can get. They cannot work in Civil Service jobs, in professions or trades that require a special license, or in jobs that involve handling money. Since they usually cannot get drivers' licenses, they cannot take jobs that involve driving, and they cannot even commute to work. In other words, ex-prisoners are usually limited to menial, low-paying jobs that don't lead anywhere. They're also likely to be last hired and first fired. An ex-prisoner's money problems don't end there, since discrimination also means being unable to get a bank loan, charge card or other credit.

Lastly, there is social discrimination. The only friends many ex-prisoners have are the few who might have kept in touch while they were in prison. New acquaintances are often scared off by the mere mention of a prison record.