Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary is a “maximum security” institution located in eastern Pennsylvania. Although Lewisburg is for prisoners considered to be dangerous criminal types—the reason for its high walls, gun turrets, sliding steel doors, triple locks, and guarded cell blocks—it also serves as a processing point for political prisoners and other “low-risk” convicts who pass through on their way to Lewisburg Farm or the nearby Allenwood Camp. The latter are “minimum security” arrangements, that is, prisons without walls.
The crucial difference between “maximum” and “minimum” security, however, is less architectural than psychological. The potential for violence at Lewisburg, where murders, rapes, and beatings among inmates are not uncommon, makes it a frightening place, especially for peaceful political prisoners, who are usually resented by the general population and the prison staff.
In mid-April, Father Philip Berrigan, after ten days as a fugitive, was apprehended and confined in maximum security in Lewisburg to serve a sentence of six years for having taken part in the Baltimore Four and Catonsville Nine draft board actions. On July 9, in his fourth month of maximum security and fourth day of voluntary solitary confinement, Father Berrigan wrote to Senator Charles Goodell. In a brief, mild-mannered letter, Berrigan protested his daily bread of cruel and unusual harassment—tampered mail, sanctioned stool pigeons, incessant surveillance, periodic shakedowns of person and quarters, denial of legitimate visitors, and the refusal of minimum security, which is the normal lot of political prisoners.
“The reason alleged for the latter,” Berrigan explained, “is the fact that we absconded (refusing to surrender to US marshals) on April 9th. (We did abscond to attend a peace rally in New York City, but we did notify both the press and the FBI.) The real reason, however, is this—my brother, Father Dan Berrigan, is still a fugitive; and everybody thinks that I can help apprehend him. Fortunately, he’s wise enough not to let me know where he is.”
He suggested that Goodell might wish to check up on his case and that of other political prisoners with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Berrigan closed the letter by contrasting the relatively comfortable nest inhabited by congressional doves with the jeopardized situation many war resisters endure. “I’m indicting no one,” he added. “I’m merely trying to point out that you need us, as we need you. Without us, you could not, perhaps, talk as freely against the war as you do. And without you, there would be complete intransigence from the government.”
Berrigan’s note was about to get a form reply of concern when Judy Poole, a nineteen-year-old Cornell student on leave to work for Goodell, rescued it from the pile and passed it up to the senator.
The senator was more sympathetic than most of his colleagues would have been. Goodell had introduced the first end-the-war amendment in Congress in September, 1969; he and McGovern were the only senators to appear at the November Moratorium in Washington; he was one of four senators who voted against military appropriations that December; he introduced a bill to allow for selective conscientious objection to the draft and amnesty for draft resisters; he was the first Republican senator to oppose Judge Carswell’s Supreme Court nomination; he also came to the public defense of the Presidio 27.
Although Goodell had never met his correspondent, he was familiar with the crime and trial of the Catonsville Nine. “I regarded their burning of draft records as an important symbolic act,” Goodell told me. “Such acts are necessary when you reach a point of such great frustration that you don’t think you can communicate any other way.” What brought Goodell to the aid of Philip Berrigan, apart from the maximum security issue, was his belief that the Catonsville Nine had been denied a fair trial: “I believe in a system of law,” he said, “but I believe the law was misinterpreted in this case. Constitutional guarantees weren’t utilized in the trial itself. The jury should have considered the action of the Catonsville Nine in its proper perspective—the whole backdrop of the war, the lack of responsiveness within the established system, and the intent of the individuals. These factors should be relevant to the jury.”
Goodell immediately instructed his staff to investigate Berrigan’s predicament and thereby set in motion a delicate set of maneuvers that was eventually to gain the release from maximum security of the three apprehended Catonsville fugitives—Philip Berrigan, David Eberhardt, and George Mische.
“Your letter expresses a view which I have always held to be true,” the senator replied to Berrigan, “—this is the view that each man must speak out in his own way. For the fight against the machinery of war is not a new one; your actions have shown a profound understanding of the paradoxes and contradictions of our country’s position, both moral and political.
“Although each man’s manner of expression differs, every voice of dissent is essential to the struggle against the war, racism and human suffering. Because individuals such as yourself have offered an alternative to the killing and injustices perpetrated in the name of this country, I believe there is reason to hope.”
It was Goodell’s intention to be as low-key as possible in his negotiations with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He had no desire to embarrass the FBP publicly and risk forcing them into a defensive position from which it would be difficult to retreat. Instead of taking Berrigan’s case immediately to the Senate floor, Goodell chose—correctly, as it turned out—to follow the more traveled bureaucratic road.
On July 17, two days after Berrigan’s letter arrived, Goodell wrote to Dr. Norman A. Carlson, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He repeated the charges of harassment and requested that Berrigan and the other two men be placed in a minimum security prison with the same status as other political prisoners. Carlson replied ten days later. Without referring directly to the accusations regarding Berrigan’s rights, he simply denied that Berrigan had been mistreated or harassed. But he did give some reasons why Berrigan deserved maximum security. Minimum security, he said, is generally reserved only for those prisoners with two-year sentences or for those within two years of being released. Berrigan was sent up for six years and won’t be eligible for parole until September, 1971. Second, Berrigan was a fugitive prior to his arrival at Lewisburg.
Judy Poole then telephoned the FBP to inquire about minimum-maximum security regulations, without referring to Berrigan. Would Carlson’s specific interpretation of the Berrigan case match official policy pronouncements? Not exactly. Roger Haney, Assistant Director of Institutional Services of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, admitted that maximum security is hardly an automatic consequence to a better-than-two-year sentence. Age, family ties, and prior criminal record are some of the other factors considered in the final decision about a prisoner which ultimately rests on the discretion of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. So Berrigan, as well as Eberhardt and Mische, were not being detained in maximum security because of the rules, but rather because of the will of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Dan Berrigan’s insistence that Philip was being held as a hostage in maximum security to encourage his own surrender (“Letter From the Underground,” NYR, August 13), would seem to be corroborated by the FBP itself.
Goodell again wrote Carlson on July 29, pointing out that he had discretionary powers in such cases and suggesting that minimum security would be the more appropriate punishment for Berrigan:
Increased security would seem most appropriate for individuals of a violent nature who might pose a further threat to society. In light of Reverend Berrigan’s relentless preaching of nonviolence, his lifelong service to the community, and his announced intention to surrender on the day of his apprehension, Reverend Berrigan’s confinement at Lewisburg appears to be a grave injustice.
Carlson did not reply, but the Berrigan affair became publicized when Homer Bigart published a story in The New York Times on July 30, headlined “Prison Denies Berrigan is Mistreated.” Since Bigart was not allowed to talk to the prisoner, his report from Lewisburg reflected Acting Warden Robert L. Hendrick’s defensive view of the circumstances surrounding Philip Berrigan’s status. Hendricks told Bigart that extra surveillance was necessary because Berrigan just might try to break out. “Well, hell, he escaped once,” he said. Then, contradicting his boss, FBP Director Carlson, Hendricks stated that the reason Berrigan was still in Lewisburg instead of Allenwood Camp where, Hendricks says, he was scheduled to go in June, was Berrigan’s violation of mail regulations. (Berrigan had got a letter past the censors.)
After Bigart filed the story, he called the psychiatrist Dr. Willard Gaylin, author of In the Service of Their Country: War Resisters in Prison, and remarked on his misgivings concerning the information he received at Lewisburg. Gaylin had been asked for advice about the Berrigan case several days before by Dr. Robert Coles of Harvard and was in a position to challenge the statements of both Hendricks and the FBP.
Coles himself was furious at the Times story. He had interrupted his research somewhat reluctantly in mid-July to help out a group of young Boston doctors who were disturbed by the treatment Berrigan and Eberhardt were getting at Lewisburg. The former was said to be fatigued by harassment; the latter was disturbed by threats of homosexual rape; and both at the time were in the midst of a protest fast.
Coles had worked with Southern blacks who were improperly imprisoned during the early days of the civil rights movement, had taught in prisons, and had written movingly of Karl Menninger’s The Crime of Punishment. Still, for the past four years he had been studying white lower middle class families around Boston for a two-volume sequel to Children of Crisis, and if these people heard of his involvement with a “radical” like Berrigan, he felt the project might be irreparably damaged.
“I told them [the young doctors] I was working with…people, conservative Catholics, who were not sympathetic to the Berrigans,” Coles recalls. “What if my name got into the papers on this? That was my particular moral dilemma. I’ve been on this project for four years…. ‘Give me a break,’ I said.”
“I’m a doctor who has become kind of a social anthropologist,” he told me. “It’s hard for me to become identified with an upper-middle class, university-dominated protest movement. I’ve been working with middle Americans for four years. If anything, I’ve been distressed by their problems and their feelings. One just can’t leave that and start marching with people who are self-centered, quite arrogant, and often interested in problems far away while ignoring their own backyard.
“So before I agreed to go to Lewisburg, I went to see two of the families about Berrigan. Both of the fathers are policemen. They are for the President, intensely angry with the blacks, believe the students are bums. They are still tortured though. They want out of Asia but with honor. One lost a son in Vietnam and he has to make sense out of that.”
The first policeman had no objections. “I don’t give a damn what Berrigan is like or what he believes in,” he said to Coles. “If he’s getting a raw deal in prison, I think that’s wrong. But what did he expect? Anyone who goes to jail gets it.”
The second policeman was tougher. “You mean Father Berrigan’s a Communist.” Coles explained further. “Well, hell,” the man said, “he’s probably no more Communist than the students at Harvard.” Finally the cop gave in by reciting an old but handy Catholic truism, “Once a priest, always a priest.” “You’re a guest of ours, Doctor Coles. Don’t worry. Go ahead.”
Coles got in touch with the retired director of the FBP, James Bennett. Listening to Coles’s discourse on Berrigan, Bennett was reminded of all the trouble Dave Dellinger gave the FBP in World War II. “Doctor, beware,” he said to Coles, “they’re going to try to turn this into a political thing.” Coles then called FBP Director Carlson and was promised an appointment with the two prisoners on Monday, July 20.
Coles was warned by Gaylin to expect difficulties on the visit. “You’re entering never-never land in Lewisburg.” In fact, Coles spent one of the strangest and most unpleasant days of his practice in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Not only was he forbidden to see Berrigan and Eberhardt alone, but in the morning session the then-Associate Warden Hendricks sat in on the interview taking notes. After a half-hour Coles realized the prisoners could not talk freely. Extremely angry, he told Hendricks he was leaving. Hendricks immediately called Warden J. J. Parker who wanted to talk things over.
The talk, however, became a harangue. Parker screamed at Coles about the troubles he had had with political prisoners. Why do innocent people like him get involved when they don’t know what’s going on? Didn’t he know that the “world is a bad place,” that people “must pay for injustice?” As Coles started to walk out, Hendricks threw a pen back on the warden’s desk. Then Parker opened the pen and disclosed a concealed knife. “This is why we shake down Father Berrigan’s cell,” he shouted. “This is why we shake down everyone’s cell.”
Eventually a compromise was worked out by telephone between Coles and FBP Director Carlson: the prison doctor would sit in on the interview instead of Warden Hendricks. Thus the morning’s aborted interview was resumed for three hours that afternoon.
According to Coles’s psychiatric report, both prisoners were in bad shape. For Eberhardt, a continued stay in maximum security meant “the possibility of a severe, and seriously impairing, psychotic break.” Despite Berrigan’s apparent cheerfulness, Coles was alarmed by his confession that “all is not going well.” “Men like Father Berrigan,” he observed, “do not dramatically collapse, they do indeed gradually lose the kind of well-being, and initiative, and sense of authority about themselves and their values, that they have always had. In sum, they lose their dignity.”
When the afternoon session was done, Coles visited Parker’s office again. There the Warden’s macabre harangue began all over again.
He warned me about speeding and said he wouldn’t let me go until I accepted a metal serving tray made by the prisoners. I told him I didn’t want the tray. “Sometimes, Doc, the gates don’t work around here,” he said. “I would like nothing better than to spend the night here,” I said.
Parker kept at it. So with the serving tray in one hand and my notes in the other, they finally let me out.
Coles spent the rest of that week trying to enlist support from doctors and politicians. Senator Edward Kennedy’s assistant, David Burke, was willing to help but thought a Republican might be more effective with the Justice Department these days (Kennedy did attempt to intervene with Cardinal Cooke of New York but the prelate was out of town). At this point Coles linked up with Goodell, who, unknown to him, was already working on the case.
The day after Bigart’s story broke in the Times, Coles decided that it was time to make a public issue out of the case. He leaked some of his findings to Newsweek (August 17). He and Gaylin drew up a joint letter to the Times (August 9) implying that there was also much to be said about prison abuses regarding other war resisters. A march on Washington by hundreds of doctors was being planned by Dr. Joseph Brenner of MIT. And, finally, Coles was arranging a press conference at the Overseas Press Club in New York for Thursday, August 6, in which he would tell the whole story.
Goodell’s office, however, which was now working in conjunction with Coles, advised against such precipitous action and suggested waiting for the outcome of an appointment with Attorney General Mitchell, which the senator and Coles had just requested. On August 4, Warden Hendricks called Goodell’s office from Lewisburg to say that Eberhardt would be sent to Allenwood and Mische to Lewisburg Farm. Coles then canceled his press conference.
A week later, on August 11, Dan Berrigan was apprehended; the next day the FBP informed Goodell that both Berrigan brothers would be interned in Danbury Prison, where the conditions are not so relaxed as at Allenwood but are a considerable improvement over the maximum security of Lewisburg. After three weeks of effort to help Berrigan, Coles could now call off the militant doctors and Goodell canceled his plans to take the case to the Senate floor with Hatfield, McGovern, Javits, and Hughes.
There is little political advantage for Goodell in helping someone like Philip Berrigan, especially in a year in which he is fighting hard to keep his Senate seat. Running on two fronts, against the flag-waving conservative James Buckley and the money-waving Democrat Richard Ottinger, Goodell hardly needs the blessing of the Berrigan brothers.
“The real hero in this is Goodell,” Coles said. “He gave us a day-by-day account of what was going on so that our behavior could be most effective. We hear all this nonsense about Goodell’s past, what he was like before 1968, that he has changed only recently. This attitude is a combination of psychoanalysis and Calvinism. Neither knows what grace means. Each approach traces something back in order to judge the person. Psychoanalysis, for example, always says, But what did you do before? This is why, I think, people could never understand Bobby Kennedy in 1968. They were always trying to judge him by his past. Well, I think the point is to try to get people to change their minds, and if Goodell has changed his mind this way, then, by God, there’s hope.”
Philip and Daniel Berrigan are now in Danbury Prison. This, of course, is no help to the prisoners, “dangerous” or not, who are left in Lewisburg under the regime of Warden Parker and Associate Warden Hendricks.
Philip Berrigan wrote to Goodell from Danbury Prison on August 28.
Thank you for your continued, kind efforts. I feel very guilty, in light of the more critical work that you have.
What I’ll now mention to you is not an issue—it’s merely an attempt at clarification. The Bureau of Prisons neatly dodged issues by this transfer—thereby deflating pressure raised by you and others to have me given normal treatment in minimum security at Allenwood or Lewisburg Farm. They accompanied this by a clever public relations stunt—“we have made exceptions to allow the Berrigans to be imprisoned together.”
Without a doubt, the issue was the possible presence of both of us at Lewisburg Penitentiary, where heat on them could be generated by the question of minimum security, and eventual transfer to Allenwood or Lewisburg Farm, where we might organize other political prisoners. This they could not afford to do.
I am grateful to this move because it gives me the opportunity to see my brother. This fact, however, does not require me to accept the duplicity of the Bureau, and the staff at Lewisburg.
In any case, I intend to play it by ear at Danbury, and see what service I can be to the men here, a high percentage of whom are narcotics people….
I realize that portions of this may sound like sour grapes. But both the Bureau and the administration at Lewisburg have repeatedly proven by their actions that they can’t endure sustained public scrutiny. Any more than the government can regarding the debacle in Southeast Asia.
Again, many thanks. Dan joins me in best wishes and warmest regards. Peace of Christ!
November 5, 1970