Chapter 5: Abolition, not Reform.


It's time to stop talking about reforming prisons and to start working for their complete abolition. That means basically three things:

First, admitting that prisons can't be reformed, since the very nature of prisons requires brutality and contempt for the people imprisoned.

Second, recognizing that prisons are used mainly to punish poor and working-class people, and forcing the courts to give equal justice to all citizens.

Third, replacing prisons with a variety of alternative programs. We must protect the public from the few really dangerous people who now go to prison. But more important, we must enable all convicted persons to escape the poverty which is the root cause of the crimes the average person fears most: crimes such as robbery, burglary, mugging or rape.

Why prisons cannot be reformed

Every one of the existing Massachusetts prisons was built in the name of reform. That includes even Walpole, which was built after severe riots at the Charlestown State Prison in the 1950's. It's time to stop fooling ourselves with the slogan of "prison reform."

Nothing will ever change the main reality of a prison: the fact that guards and prisoners are permanently locked in a cycle of hatred and violence. A prison guard's job is to prevent prisoners from exercising the most basic human rights: the right to be with loved ones, the right to plan one's own life, and the rights of speech, religion and voting, among many others. To do his job, a guard must be ready to kill, and every prisoner knows this. No amount of reform will change the basic fact that the keepers have the legal right to kill the kept.

Prison reform means a lot of different things to different people. At Walpole, good food, personal safety, furloughs and work release would be major reforms. But to most "experts" on prisons, reform means one of three things: psychiatry, rehabilitation or increased control over prisoners.

Psychiatry as Reform:

There are many prison administrators, psychiatrists and ordinary citizens who think that all criminals are mentally ill. Their solution to crime is to have every prisoner sit down with a psychiatrist.

Mental illness, or at least temporary insanity, is connected with some crimes, but with only a minority. When a father kills one or his own children, or when a seemingly normal person goes berserk and kills several strangers, mental illness is probably involved. But most crimes, even crimes of violence, involve simple economic motives that have little or nothing to do with mental illness. You don't have to look far for a motive when someone holds up a package store to pay his rent.

Psychiatry isn't the answer to the problem of prisons, but many psychiatrists are still saying that it is. Their most recent program is to use a combination of drugs and behavior modification ("carrot and stick") programs on "incorrigible" prisoners. This is what will be done at the new Bridgewater and what is being done at Walpole today.

Rehabilitation as Reform:

The idea of rehabilitation is as old as the Massachusetts prison system. When the Charlestown prison was built, every prisoner was required to go to prison services every day and then to put in a full day's work. This didn't stop crime then and it won't stop crime now.

Prisoners do want education, jobs and a chance to improve their lives. But what they want most is freedom, not to be locked up and told at gunpoint to work or to study.

A prisoner's first struggle is to survive until release. That struggle alone takes too much attention and too much mental energy to leave much time or desire for taking part in programs of rehabilitation.

Control as Reform:

What prison reform usually means is not reform at all, but simply more control over prisoners. Even now in Massachusetts, more money is being spent on new cellblocks at Concord and a new prison at Bridgewater than has ever been spent on other types of "reform."

When prison wardens talk of reform, what they mean is constructing bigger or better prisons. The latest idea is construction of a New England Regional Prison, where so-called "special offenders" from each of the states would be sent. These "special offenders" would be prisoner leaders, political activists, and others who rebel against prison discipline.

Wardens and politicians are kidding themselves if they think that new prisons will stop rebellion. Because prisoners want their freedom, they have always had riots and always will. Prisoners are human beings, and human beings in all ages have been willing to fight and die for their freedom.

Stop imprisoning the poor

With rare exceptions, it is poor and working people who go to prison. If you don't have money, you don't get justice in the courtroom -- just as you don't get justice in areas such as housing, medicine, education or job opportunities. Prisons are supposed to be a lesson to anyone who might try to take their fair share of the nation's wealth. Some people try to get what they need by stealing from a bank. Others do it by stealing from each other. Still others try political action. In all cases, prisons are used to punish and kill those who will not stand for poverty any longer.

Abolishing prisons means ending Massachusetts' dual system of justice. Prisons are seldom used to punish business crimes or any other crimes of the rich. They shouldn't be used to punish the crimes of the poor.

Alternatives to prison

If prisons were abolished, what would we put in their place? There is no single answer to this question, except that the answer is not a new set of institutions.

Almost all of the men and women now in prison would be better off (and so would the rest of society) if they were allowed to stay outside on the street and offered one or more of the following options:

Community probation service:

In Washington, D.C., local neighborhood groups have formed what are called Community Release Organizations. Basically, these are community groups who take the place of the probation or parole officer. A convicted person is released into the custody of one of these groups made up of people from his or her own neighborhood. The group works with the offender and his or her family and friends to help solve the problems that led the person into crime.

Guaranteed employment at a living wage.

Free education or vocational training.

Assistance in obtaining decent housing, medical care or related services.

Free mental health services or similar counseling for alcoholics, drug abusers, gamblers and persons with similar problems.

Programs such as these will not lead to the abolition of crime, but neither do prisons. The United States uses longer prison sentences, on the average, than any other country in the West, yet the amount of crime here constantly rises.

What such programs can do is enable those who now go to prison to make better lives for themselves, which is something that most prisoners have never had the chance to do.

Exactly what alternatives to prison will work in a particular case depends completely on the individual, as well as on what type of crime is involved. Right now there are three basic types of crime for which people go to prison:

Crime and Punishment in Massachusetts: 1972
State Population: 5,800,000
Total Number of FBI Index Crimes: 181,923
Burglary 65,828
Auto Theft 53,405
Larceny over $50 47,377
Robbery 8,593
Assault 6,778
Rape 736
Murder & Manslaughter 206
Prison Population 3,300

Economic Crime:

Robbery, mugging, auto theft, forgery, and so on. Ninety-nine percent of all crime is economic: it happens because people need money. In 1972, 96 percent of the FBI Index Crimes committed in Massachusetts were economic crimes. And the FBI statistics don't include crimes such as bribery, price-fixing or violations of the rent control laws.

The solution to economic crime should be to the give the men and women now going to prison some other choice besides poverty and crime. Robbery, burglary and mugging are not pleasant occupations. None of the people in prison like the options they now have.

The money now spent on prisons should be spent to start programs of job training, education and counseling -- on the street, not inside prisons. Every citizen should be guaranteed a minimum income, along with adequate housing, unlimited education and free medical care.

Violent Crime:

Murder, rape and similar crimes arouse strong public support for punishment. But the thought that punishment can prevent such crimes is dangerously wrong. In fact, FBI and other studies show that most serious crimes are committed by people who were previously in prison for lesser crimes.

The most publicized crimes of violence usually happen in connection with economic crimes such as robbery. If economic crimes decrease, so will the related crimes of violence.

Crimes of sex and violence are partly caused by the extreme violence and sexism of our society. Young men are taught to be violent through sports, television and war stories. Newspapers glamorize violent crime. It should be no surprise if some young people end up imitating what they see and read about constantly. Likewise, millions of dollars are spent on advertisements telling men how to conquer women. Is it any wonder that some of them take the idea of conquest literally? To stop violence, we have to make some basic changes in our society and social values. Prisons only increase the problem.

Murder and assault occur mostly among families or friends, people who know each other. When a husband kills his wife, or vice versa, what is the point of life imprisonment? What will it prevent? In order to prevent such crimes, our real energy should go into combating problems such as alcoholism and mental illness by making family counseling and mental health services available to every citizen.

There are a handful of people now in prison who are truly dangerous and must be confined. But even these people should not be cut off from all outside contact, locked up in cages and treated like animals. They could be confined in small group homes instead of in fortresses like Walpole, Concord or Bridgewater.

Almost every prisoner is released someday. Prisons only guarantee that a person who was desperate and violent once will be even more desperate and violent after five or ten years of isolation.

Victimless Crime:

Several hundred people each year are imprisoned for prostitution, drug use, alcoholism, homosexuality and similar crimes. When these crimes have any victim at all, the victim is the "criminal" himself (or herself).

There are also victimless economic crimes such as gambling, drug sale, and illegal sale of alcohol. Although each of these crimes is a major industry, only a handful of street-level operators such as bookies or small-scale drug salesmen are ever punished. It is absurd to punish a numbers operator working in a cigar store when the state operates "The Game." It is discriminatory to prosecute prostitutes when their customers are never even brought to court.

All victimless crimes should just be taken off the books. None of these "criminals" should be punished.

Common objections to abolition

Public thinking about crime and about prisons is shaped mainly by Hollywood movies and hysterical news coverage. As a result, there are a lot of myths about prisons that need to be done away with:


Just the statistics on crime should be proof enough that crime isn't stopped by the use of prisons. There are nearly 400,000 citizens in prison or jail in America, yet only a few percent of all crimes are ever solved by police. In Massachusetts in 1971, only about one out of 30 persons convicted of crime went to prison. In other words, the odds against going to prison are so great that deterrence just doesn't work.

Public Safety:

Contrary to popular belief, there are very few people in prison who would ever be a physical threat to the general public. Even prison guards and wardens frequently say that 80 to 90 percent of those in prison could be released at no risk to the public. The furlough program now in operation in Massachusetts backs up this view.

In the long run, prisons are more a public menace than a source of protection to the public. The majority of ex-prisoners end up returning to crime because their records put other types of employment out of reach.


As we said earlier, rehabilitation is a fraud. Prisons have never succeeded in rehabilitation and never will.

Punishment is not a myth. It's a grim reality. What is a myth is the idea that punishment for one crime will teach a prisoner a "lesson" and thus end his or her criminal career. As every judge and warden knows, prisons only keep people off the streets for a few years.

Punishment is a traditional and popular idea, but mat doesn't make it a good idea. Lastly, punishment is only applied to those who have neither the money, the influence nor the power to avoid prison.

Rehabilitating those who run the prisons

Part of the job of abolishing prisons is to overcome the opposition of the men and women who run them and who make a living off the system. The most vocal opponents of abolition are the Department of Correction's 1,800 employees, particularly the 1,100 guards.

Many times in the past two years, guards have undermined prison reform by building up tensions to cause riots, by encouraging violence among prisoners, and by allowing prisoners at Walpole and Concord to escape. The clearest example of this sabotage was the 1973 affair in which Walpole guards granted a furlough to a particular prisoner against the orders of Commissioner Boone. The guards did not expect the man to return, and I he didn't. But they then used this example as proof that the furlough program should be stopped to prevent more "escapes."

Guards, however, are serving life sentences just as much as prisoners do. Guards come from the same class background as prisoners, and they end up in-prison for much the same reason: they have little chance of finding other employment. A guard learns no skills that would lead to better opportunities. Also like prisoners, guards graduate from prison to prison and then to the forestry camps. A few guards become wardens, but for most the job is a dead end.

Hopefully, guards may come to realize that they are prisoners of the system and themselves rebel against its inhumanity. But right now the guards are fighting to keep their livelihood, just as the prisoners are fighting for the right to earn one. The guards! too must be offered a way out of the prisons. But by refusing to offer them other employment, the state has encouraged them to sabotage even small reforms in the system.

Stopping new prison construction

Stopping new prison construction is a necessary first step in abolishing prisons. The Department of Correction is planning several million dollars worth of new buildings at Concord and Bridgewater in the next few years, and this work should be halted. In addition, several Massachusetts counties have plans for new jails. Boston's Charles Street jail, for example, has been ordered by a Federal judge to close by 1976. The Federal government is planning a 250-unit youthful offenders prison for Massachusetts, and that too must be stopped. Every dollar that goes into new prisons pays for years of human misery. This money should be used to pay for alternatives to prison, not to pay for their perpetuation.

For more information on prisons

Organizations to Contact

For further information about Massachusetts prisons and jails, or assistance in local educational or organizing efforts, contact one of the following organizations:

New England Prisoners Association (NEPA)116 School St., Waltham, Mass. 02154 Telephone: 899-8827

An organization of prisoners and ex-prisoners throughout New England. Publishes the NEPA News, a monthly roundup of prison movement activities and issues.

National Prisoners Reform Association (NPRA) c/o John Kerrigan, President, Box 100, So. Walpole, Mass. The prisoners' union at Walpole prison.

Prison Busing Program c/o Prisoners Survival Center, P.O. Box 553, Cambridge, Mass. 02139

An organization of families and friends of prisoners which provides group transportation to the Massachusetts prisons.

American Friends Service Committee 48 Inman St., Cambridge, Mass. 02139 Telephone: 8643150

AFSC's Justice Committee does educational and organizing work in several areas of criminal justice, including prisons, court monitoring, bail funds, and women in prisons.

Self-Development Group, Inc. 3 Joy St., Boston, Mass. 02108 Telephone: 523-7965

An organization of prisoners and ex-prisoners offering counseling and other assistance. Also has a speakers' bureau and publishes The Outlook, a monthly journal of prison news.

Films Available

3,000 Years and Life -- a film made inside Walpole in 1973 during the strike by the prison guards' union. A documentary on the running of the prison by prisoners. Available through the New England Prisoners Association.

With Intent to Harm -- Another documentary on Walpole, made in 1971 Also available from NEPA.

Organizing Manuals

Community Release Organization: A Manual for Community Based Citizen Involvement in the Criminal Justice System. Description of a Washington D.C. program in which community groups replace the use of jails and prisons with group programs organized on a local basis. Write to Quaker House, 2121 Decatur Place, N.W., Washington D.C. 20008

The County Jail-A Handbook for Citizen Action. A useful manual on problems involved in gaining access to jails for political action. Write to Friends Suburban Project, P.O. Box 54, Media, Pennsylvania 19063


The following half-inch videotapes are available from the Media Project, Urban Planning Aid, 639 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, Mass. Videotape equipment can be borrowed from UPA by community organizations, and UPA staff will assist in videotape production free of charge.

Doing Life at Walpole. A discussion with four lifers at Walpole, made in March, 1973, during the guards' strike. 25 minutes long.

Family on Furlough. One day with a Walpole prisoner on furlough with his family. Focuses on how prisons oppress families as well as individual prisoners. 30 minutes long.