Prisons are a comparative novelty. They are, like America, an eighteenth-century experiment; but one that failed. Of course, there were jails, makeshift or permanent, long before that time—to detain people during a crisis, before a trial, or till execution. Lepers, the berserk, the plague-carriers had to be shut away. But criminals, after trial, were not customarily sentenced to confinement. If they were not executed, flogged, mutilated, or subjected to public penance, they were deprived of rights, stripped of property, fined, or—if nothing more fitting could be done to a convict left at large in society—they were disposed of by ostracism, exile, deportation. They were sometimes shipped to penal colonies, like Georgia or (later) Australia. If no colony or foreign spot was available for dumping the unwanted, some distant corner of one’s own land could be used—witness Siberia.
There were, in fact, some very long confinements—and places made infamous by them: the Bastille, the Tower. But these were felt to be exceptional, disgraceful—the detentions were normally extra-legal, a political course when open trial of any kind was felt to be risky. In the sixteenth century, houses of correction were added at the bottom of the scale of punishments, “reformatories” for slight crimes or less-than-responsible types (women, the feeble-minded, young boys). Once these institutions existed, they were also used for other things, but on no plan or system.
The Enlightenment invented prisons, not as a supplement for other punishments, at the bottom of the scale of severity, but as a substitute for things very high on the scale. Opponents of the indiscriminate death penalty, or torture, or mutilation, or public humiliation, had to answer the question What will you do with criminals? The answer: break men’s ties with a criminal society, return them to reflective solitude, and let the affections, twisted under the pressures of a corrupt society, spring back to their natural shape. Put in a cell that suggested the pre-social state, they would emerge new Èmiles, ready to sign the social contract and make a better world. We know, now, that the nature discovered in that cell was Hobbes’s and not Locke’s. But the philosophes did not know it. They had an excuse that has been taken from us.
America’s political system was born at the same time as the prison system, and the two showed a natural affinity. Prisons grew at a rapid pace where the death penalty was curbed, as in Philadelphia. By the time Jefferson’s Enlightenment monastery was dedicated in Charlottesville, a penal monastery was going up on Cherry Hill in Philadelphia, each cell complete with its little garden. One reason we think of prisons as a permanent part of life is that they spread so fast and successfully in America. Huge monk-fortresses went up everywhere, and have remained the clumsy skeleton of our prison system to this day. In 1961, more than a hundred of our prisons dated from the early nineteenth century. Even now, after a drastic phasing out of very old facilities, sixty-one of our operating prisons are from the nineteenth century.
It is the fate of rootless innovations soon to become antiques. The whole system looks so old because it was so new. The failed experiment is considered a permanent fixture, so that even the daring speculator talks of reforming the prisons when he should be considering their abolition. If there is any more disastrous survivor of the Enlightenment still gasping at a deathlike life, I do not know where to find it. We shudder our way past penitentiaries as by graveyards—with good reason. They are as nasty a little secret as sex and death have ever been—indeed, the three infanda run toward a common pool, our culture’s neglected human sewer, clogged and unworkable with human waste.
Tom Wicker was summoned abruptly down into this sewer, as an “observer” at the standoff between rioting prisoners and their guards in upstate New York. He came to look, and stayed to vomit, and vowed to write—and has now written, almost literally in blood, to give us what may be our most serious warning yet about what we are doing to ourselves when we do unspeakable things to others. The lack of serious challenge to Nelson Rockefeller’s confirmation as vice president based on his part in the Attica revolt is part of our general unwillingness to look at the ugly reality of our prisons.
Wicker is no “new journalist.” He felt the oddly comforting pangs of liberal guilt as he got drawn into a story he was supposed to be “observing.” He did not know at the outset that “observers” would become a euphemism for “semi-hostages.” They were assembled, at the prisoners’ request, as a fall-back crew of hostages, more lightly held than the captive guards, but more cooperative. The observers could be detained, on any of their timorous forays into D Yard, where the guards (fifty of them at the outset) were being held. But the real role of the observers was to supply some kind of outside guarantee for the promise of amnesty, which was the prisoners’ first and most urgent concern. They knew, from the history of other rebellions, that a mere promise from the authorities was worthless. But since the authorities, from Rockefeller on down, refused even to entertain the subject of amnesty, the observers had no agreement to stand guarantors for. Their mission was essentially futile, which led to deep anger on their part. They had risked their lives, several times, for nothing. At the end they were observers after all—that was the only thing left for them to be. They observed both the prisoners and the guards under pressure, and lived through some of those pressures themselves.
It was by and large the prison’s best men who were out in D Yard. Some came desperately, as a last effort to keep some pride alive in themselves. Others came in fear, like sheep. A few came reluctantly, sorry the break had begun, but feeling responsibility for their charges—many hotheads in the Yard were “squires” in the barbaric chieftain-structure of this jungle. The cooler heads, not hoping much for reconciliation, at least tried to bring order into the rebellion. Others came in that discipline of brotherhood that prison Muslims have been able to instill. Most of the whites in the Yard, inmates as well as hostages, survived because the Muslims guarded hostages and broke up struggles between inmates. (Three white inmates were secretly killed—to pay off private grudges, or to enforce leadership; in panic or a private quarrel? No one but the participants knows why; knows, even, when or exactly where the killings took place.)
Wicker felt that all hope for compromise depended on noninvolvement, on rational bargaining. He was carrying a tiny ice cube into a furnace, but he held onto it as long as he could. He learned only partially, and late, that there is no noninvolvement in a situation entirely made up of human emotion. Wicker is critical of the flamboyant observers, who seemed to do nothing but heighten the drama—William Kunstler, all tears and “Brothers!” and rhetoric; Jaybarr Kenyatta, a shadowy figure no one could quite pin down. But as time went on, Wicker saw Kunstler risk his own life to save observers from convicts whose trust he had earned. And even Kenyatta softened and pleaded as the death sentence began to limn itself on the walls of D Yard.
Wicker is almost exasperatingly fair in his nice liberal effort to find excuses for everybody’s irrational behavior. He even finds something good to say about duplicitous people like Assistant Commissioner Walter Dunbar. Only two men stretch his resolute tolerance. The first is Bobby Seale, who came late and left early, after being almost forced into D Yard, promising to return, and then breaking that promise at the first excuse. In the heated oven of the observers’ room, where sleepless men began to react like those in marathon therapy, Wicker’s angriest outburst was at the slippery egotism of Seale. His other anger was more considered, with a longer fuse—the contained, justified, stalking anger at Nelson Rockefeller.
Despite Wicker’s effort at noninvolvement—no radical rhetoric, no false promises, no stage-directed “interviews” with inmates calling the shots—he became aware as time went on of other soft “engagements,” a meshing of gears under the floorboard, that kept him jerkily moving forward in the negotiations while probing back and back into his own life. He and others faced death—not very bravely, by Wicker’s wry account (but bravery is just one’s cowardice faced). They saw the rotting underside of America’s life; and Wicker, not being a monster, had to face the underside of his own life. The book is part confession. We hear about Wicker’s dissolving marriage, his Southern resistance to contact with blacks, his small-town pieties and prejudices. He had heard the grim reports of a lynch mob as a boy, and seen its “catch” in a car trunk.
These reflections do not seem forced or out of place. Anyone in his spot would have to ask the kinds of questions he does. What is he, of all people, doing there? What of the wife and kids? (Well, the wife is leaving, and the kids are almost grown up.) Is this silly bravado, or an attempt to make up for past attitudes? Or is that thought a rationalizing of one’s fear? Is there nothing to do in such a crazy cockpit of emotion? Or will an incongruous semicaptive from outside give both sides pause? There is no end to such questions, once started. One can only avoid them by walking away—which is what most of us do. Wicker, without any self-flattery, simply decides he cannot do that any more.
In him, though he does not spell things out so schematically, there were three very important elements of American life tugging with and against each other. None of the three could make sense of Attica; but in combination they made Attica seem a fitting Nemesis. They could not judge Attica; but Attica judged them. The top, most recent layer of his life is Tom Wicker the New York Times liberal. He gives touching credit to his parents for the way they opened certain areas of tolerance for him in the constraining atmosphere of a Southern town.
Still, the liberalism is partly a coverlet, one he keeps twitching at. Underneath, he remains a son of the pious South. Perhaps, he half-confesses, the only part of that creed he retains is the guilt for noncompliance with it. But when moral energy rises in the limp near-hysteria of the observers’ room, Wicker finds himself towering into an improbable John Brown tirade at Commissioner Oswald, quoting Deuteronomy from memory: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” Sin is an endangered species in our world, and the South may be its last game preserve. What Tom Wicker found at Attica was sin, tangled and inexplicable, feeding on itself. Nice liberal symposia are hard to carry on when serpents are crawling over you. He found man’s perverse cruelty to man, folded back and back over upon itself—without any promise of redemption by Dialogue.
A third layer of himself that Wicker was forced to deal with is his inherited Southern fear of blacks. He remembers, as a vivid day in his mental calendar, the first time he shook a black man’s hand (he was nineteen at the time); how he fenced with blacks, in strained friendship, as a soldier; what a liberation the civil rights movement brought to him and his South—yet what primordial terrors move still in him, in his people, in this nation, when for any reason one strays into a ghetto (the prisons are an extension, and exaggeration, of the ghetto). Wicker comes out of one long sweat-drenched confrontation in D Yard, stunned again with new knowledge of the old truth, “God! how they hate us!” Even Wicker rarely gets close enough to learn that disheartening fact—and “they” hate us because we are unwilling or afraid to get that close, or hear them, except on occasions like this, when we are forced to—to save whites. And when blacks are about to die. Every lifted voice among blacks is a bid for martyrdom—and few such offers get refused.
Wicker’s memories are not exhibitionist but honest, and they show how close are the racist fears to sexual anxiety. His first real conflict with blacks took place as a jocular hard-edged duel over each side’s sexual boasts and inadequacies. The story is too well told (on pages 156-160) to be lifted out of context and quoted here. But anyone who has scratched a Southern racist soon hears the screech of repressed sexuality. When Viola Liuzzo was murdered for working with the civil rights movement down South, rednecks exonerated themselves by inventing and dwelling on stories of her sleeping with niggers—and who can care for trash like that? Bad conscience stirs the cesspool where all degraded forms of sexual fear have long been draining.
Sexual fantasy played around Attica’s walls like invisible lightning. Guards had told their families that all the inmates were animals (having done their best to make them such). Prison homosexuality needs little exaggeration—it is the channel not only of baffled tenderness but of brutal revenge. Sex and longing, bottled up, explode; and some capitalize on these compulsions. There are pimps and profiteers of systemic rape behind those bars. No wonder the guards feared for their brother-jailors trapped inside as hostages. Long before the showdown, while observers swore to the hostages’ safety, wild stories multiplied baroquely in the peaceful New York countryside of rape and sexual humiliations and castration inflicted on the hostages. The stories were not true; but they prepared the guards for “retaliatory” sexual fiendishness when the prisoners were retaken—one was prodded back to his cell with a screwdriver up his rectum. No doubt the guards who did this, or watched it being done, thought it a mild and fitting return for all the outrages that had filled their dreams during those four days when few people slept easy around Attica.
When the assault finally came, and officers mowed down the hostages along with the inmates (nine of the former, twenty-nine of the latter), an almost religious faith kept faked stories alive against all the evidence—that the hostages were found castrated; that those still living had been raped; that dead guards were found with their severed testicles placed in their own mouths. None of it was true—but the guards knew what degradation the prisoners had been submitted to, and the kind of response that might call for. There was a symmetrical justice to the tales, mistaken for truth and stoutly maintained. When New York corrections officials, reluctant to back down from their reports of atrocities committed on the hostages, insisted that further examinations would have to be made, the Monroe County medical examiner invited the officials themselves to come look at the assembled bodies (“more than I ever want to see again in one day”) and check the stories themselves: “It doesn’t take a medical degree to tell if someone’s genitals are lacerated.”
One has to go very far down into the human psyche to understand what went on in that placid town. Wicker, and most outsiders, were astounded that local residents, whose relatives were being held hostage, were so anxious to invade the prison on the very first day, risking lives. But time and reflection did not sober them with second thoughts or hesitation. The clamor just grew more insistent, less patient of argument, more compelled to charge the enemy and get it over. The bloodthirsty hate of the local community was so obvious by the time of the assault that even Rockefeller, at his great distance, knew about it, and ordered that no correction personnel join the attack. Commissioner Oswald seconded the order, without enforcing it—eleven men managed to go in, some armed from their own hunting arsenal. Did they come to save the hostages, showing more care for them than outsiders could? Far from it. They fired as early and indiscriminately as the rest. Why?
I am afraid Mr. Wicker is a bit too decent to understand what was happening, though his own background gives us our clue. Whenever a white girl was caught with a black in the old South, myth demanded that a charge of rape be brought and the “boy” be lynched. But a shadowy ostracism was inflicted on the girl. Did she fight back? Might she undermine the myth with a blurted tale or a repeated episode? At any rate, she was tainted. She had, willed she or nilled she, touched the untouchable and acquired her own evil halo of contamination. Taboos take little account of “intention.”
In the same way, guards caught in that yard were tainted goods. They may not have been raped—though who could tell? Would they volunteer the humiliating truth themselves? Fantasy had run filthy riot over and around them for days. They had certainly been forced to crawl, to beg for their lives on TV, to ask that the prisoners’ demands be met. They were an embarrassment. The white girl may sincerely have struggled with her black assailant; but even to imagine that resistance was defiling—and her presence made people imagine it. She was a public pollution, to be purged.
Is this fanciful? Even Wicker, far down as he went into that abyss, cannot understand the attitude of those in charge who brought no special medical units to Attica before the attack began. Didn’t they care if the hostages, wounded or mistreated, were allowed to die for lack of treatment? But care for the hostages was ominously missing, all along, in the call for punishment of the inmates. Some even talked of hostages in the past tense before any had been killed. Once tainted, what was there to save? The prison surgeon at Attica had treated men through a screen, avoiding even the simplest physical contact with them, pushing pills through the interstices. The hostages had not only touched pitch, but been rolled in it; been manhandled, tied up, abused, violated, stained. Their only vindication at this point was to revenge them. The lynch mob may kill the girl in its urgency to get at the boy—and it will regret this less than it admits.
Long before the revolt, Attica prison had corrupted those who live around it, caused an inner violation of otherwise quite likable people. But prisons corrupt us all—our very unwillingness to know anything about them, a careful and guarded ignorance, corrupts. We rush to defend the poor “good people” who called for the massacre, because we know we are just that kind of good people. So is Nelson Rockefeller that kind.
Rockefeller’s slogan in the 1964 Oregon primary was “He cared enough to come.” He was called for, on all sides, at Attica—and never came. Officials as well as inmates wanted him there. Observers who could manage to even tried to force his attendance, Herman Badillo hinting he would look bad beside John Lindsay, who personally handled an earlier riot at The Tombs. But Rockefeller did not care enough to come. At last, on the final negotiating day, Wicker got him on the phone. The Governor blatted his grinning appreciation for the great job Wicker was doing there (he was doing—could do—nothing). Wicker asked him to come. Why? To gain time. All the campaign blarneying disappeared, as Rockefeller spelled out the facts as he saw them: 1) The sticking point was amnesty, and he would not grant that. 2) He would only raise false hopes if he came to a hopeless situation. 3) Recovery of the institution was now a military problem, and he was not expert in military affairs—he would let qualified experts handle it. Even in the most complex of our national military problems, we honor a principle of civilian control. But Rockefeller forswore that in an action where American citizens would be firing on American citizens.
What could Rockefeller do in such circumstances? Wicker repeated: “Gain time.” He was afraid to say, “Control your brutes,” thinking that would terminate the conversation, along with what little hope others had of bringing the Governor to his rightful post. But now we know all too well what Rockefeller could have done: He could have controlled his brutes. He could have made sure his order against the participation of guards in the assault was being carried out. He could have insisted that stationary marksmen fire only at catwalks (as they were ordered) and not into the Yard (as they did). He could have seen that medical care was provided for. He could have monitored the aftermath, and prevented the atrocities inflicted by vengeful guards, who ran surviving prisoners naked through a gantlet of clubs—or he could have insisted on prosecution of the offending guards. He could have insisted that no officials (like Walter Dunbar) give out stories of inmate mistreatment of hostages until there was solid evidence of that—which never came. He could have done all this, at the very least, even on his own showing of the situation.
But he might have done a good deal more than that, as well. While defending his own conduct afterward, he finally granted, late in 1974, that another Attica would be better handled without weapons. If he were present, weighing the facts, watching the build-up of hate, hearing more of the hostages’ plight and the prisoners’ lack of firearms, he might have decided this during the first Attica. Indeed, Attica was no first. The lesson he claims finally to have learned has been taught us a hundred times in cases of riot and armed assault.
Why did Rockefeller act the way he did? The prisoners demanded the removal of their warden, Vincent Mancusi, on very solid grounds of mistreatment. The demand was never considered, even though the warden was quietly dismissed after the rebellion had been put down. Mr. Mancusi was like the Turkish missile installations of the Cuban missile crisis. Never back down, or show weakness, even to save lives—even if the thing to be yielded is worthless in itself. Our prisons make no sense; but the state has committed its funds and personnel and clout to them, along with all the symbols of the law. That is a “commitment” we must “live up to,” no matter how crazy it becomes. It is a Vietnam, a drain on lifeblood continually nurtured as if it were a source of life. Amnesty would not be considered, because an institution whose very existence is justified by punishment cannot lend itself to an escape from punishment. The institution must be served, “because it is there.” If anyone still wants to know what kind of president Nelson Rockefeller would make, he must read this book.
But that is the least of its benefits. The book’s real impact is not in the criticism of others (a criticism hedged with all kinds of liberal fairmindedness, even in Rockefeller’s case) but in its ability to make us examine ourselves—as Wicker did. On assault Monday, as the observers whimpered against the wall of their room, breathing tear gas through wetted handkerchiefs, several of them (Wicker included) vowed not to stop working against this outrage, which continues. The book fulfills that pledge, in part. And it should pass the duty on to all of its readers. None of us should leave it without a similar resolve—to do something, whatever we can, to prevent the psychic incineration of our fellow citizens, subtler and more gradual than Nazi extermination of prisoners, but inexorable. (German citizens, too, protested they did not know what went on in certain “institutions.”)
What on earth do we think we are accomplishing with our prison system? That question is hard to answer, because people who think as little as they can about prisons are bound to think confusedly. Analysis is abortive and disjointed. At least three conflicting views of the penal institutions are forced to live in uncomfortable league with each other—trying to find a justification for them in Revenge, or in Deterrence, or in Rehabilitation.
1) Revenge: The oldest of our culture’s views on punishment is the lex talionis, an eye for an eye. Take a life, lose your life. It is a very basic cry—people must “pay” for their crimes, yield exact and measured recompense. No one should “get away with” any crime, like a shoplifter taking something unpaid for. The desire to make an offender suffer equivalent pain (if not compensatory excess of pain) is very deep in human nature, and rises quickly to the surface. What is lynching but an impatience with even the slightest delay in exacting this revenge? It serves our social myth to say that this impatience, if denied immediate gratification, is replaced by something entirely different—by an impersonal dedication to justice. Only lynchers want revenge, not those who wait for a verdict. That is not very likely. Look at the disappointed outcry if the verdict does not yield even delayed satisfaction of the grudge.
The importance of revenge is seen in the fact that the demand for a death penalty is often greatest in cases where no other motive can be observed—with the psychotic or deranged killer or rapist or child-abuser; with those who have committed crimes of passion, where deterrence of the similarly afflicted is not possible. Such cries for redress have little to do with social utility—especially when it is an outsider or outcast who is being punished (an Indian on the frontier, a black in the old South). One cannot pretend to be instilling respectability in a people denied that respectability from the outset.
We are uneasy with the unabashed revenge motive for punishment, but we continue to talk of penalties as “payment.” Payment to whom? In the original lex talionis, the commerce was explicit, and defensible as such. One “stole” an eye or a tooth from the God who was looking out for them, and had to pay back an eye or a tooth—or a treasure, or one’s life. “Revenge is mine,” said the Lord—but he used human instruments for exacting it. Our society is tactfully non-committal about God now, so it can hardly claim to be collecting debts for him. Still, rather than give up the language of payment, we talk of men “paying their debt to society.” A man “owes” the society twenty years to life; pay now, no credit accepted. “Society” steps in to relieve the aggrieved party of those spiritual dangers associated with direct personal vengeance. If pain was inflicted, society exacts an answering quantum of pain from the offender. Prison is therefore geared to inflict pain—mental pain, if not physical; the suffering of various privations; loss of liberty, family, friends, conveniences, income. So prisons are meant to be awful—reformers hear a constant refrain that we should not make prison too soft on people (fat chance!) when they are there precisely in order to suffer.
Amnesty was unthinkable at Attica—like “permissiveness.” It would be logical suicide for, a guard whose job is to inflict pain if he had to prevent its infliction as well. Besides, those convicts who reach prison are only a fraction of the real criminals, and were probably convicted of a fraction of their actual crimes. Anything they get there, they had coming to them, and more. A clubbing or two is just late and insufficient payment, part of a debt accumulated. (“The do-gooders do not understand this, because they do not have to deal with the human scum in prison.”) It actually helps a guard to stay human if he does not have to think of prisoners as human—do doctors think of persons when they are cutting into organs? Guards cannot afford to be squeamish. The accounts are way overbalanced in the criminals’ favor, with lax laws and coddling courts and clever lawyers. By the time a criminal reaches the prison, there are a lot of society’s dues to be collected from him.
2) Deterrence: Yet this double-entry bookkeeping, the endless totting up of eyes lost and eyes “gained,” is not very economical in the long run. Once society has “gained” a certain number of eyes, what is it going to do with them? What is left in its account that can be used? You just have to build further dumps for the decomposing retinas. When men pay society their quanta of pain, society has nothing spendable as a result. What makes the whole thing worth such tremendous effort and expenditure? One answer is to say that the man who “pays his debt” gives society something useful because he offers his body as an object lesson to others, who might commit the same crime if they did not see his grisly example set before them.
This was, of course, the reason for public execution and penance in the days before prisons were invented. People were locked in the stocks to be ridiculed. They were deprived of an ear or branded, to give all citizens a mnemonic lesson on the wages of crime. But our crooks are hidden away, not brandished in public. Certain parts of society are very aware of the prisons, but not in ways that scare them off—the ghettos commune with their prison-extensions, so as to make prison walls seem inevitable. Others are deterred—but mainly those who need no such harsh deterrence. The middle-class citizen is frightened of prison—just as he is scared to death of a ghetto. But his type also fears any loss of respectability—fines, bankruptcy, scandal, lost jobs and opportunities. All those things hedge his actions, deter him, even apart from jail—which is a comparatively distant threat.
We have just heard bright and prominent people telling us that mere loss of office was punishment enough for the “high” social types of Watergate. There is, in that argument, an admission that prisons are not maintained to deter the deterrable, but to sequester the undesirables, the nonrespectables (and therefore the nondeterrables). We talk of making society safe from the criminal; but most criminals are taken from parts of society that are not safe anyway. The prisons just add ghettos to ghettos, making them all worse in the process.
Deterrence is a simple principle of life, and it often works—as in the disciplining of young children. But even there it only works within a general frame of useful affection and mutual benefit—and only if a specific person is made aware of an immediate penalty: “If you go outside the yard, you will not get a lollypop.” That gives a two-year-old pause. Yet even in this enclosed area of mutual awareness, it has a milder effect (if any) on the three-year-old who overhears the threat. The problem of a deterrence theory of prisons is that it aims its “lesson” at those outside prison. The convict is turned into a teaching instrument for the enlightenment of others—unspecified others who do not, for the most part, even advert to the man inside the walls. The lesson being taught is remote, diffuse, aimed at an undifferentiated “they” out in the crowd. This would blunt the lesson even for rational, informed, and adverting parts of the presumed audience—much more so for those beyond the reach of such indirect pedagogy, the compelled or impulsive or culturally hardened types on whom the treatment of third parties makes no impression at all.
So we have this situation: the deterrable are mainly deterred by other things short of prison, and the imprisonable are by and large undeterrable. That sounds crazy, but not nearly so crazy as what we find in the present circumstances. If deterrence worked, the more people we had in prison (thus the more teaching examples there were), the more would their lesson be conveyed across the walls. But today we have record numbers of men and women in prison, and a record crime rate—one growing, not decreasing. Even if you grant all the questionable contentions of the deterrence theorists, you still have to add one incontrovertible fact at the end of their demonstration. The education has not educated. The deterrents have not deterred.
3) Rehabilitation: Forced back and back, from one indefensible position to another, the advocate of the prison system has to try one last grisly excuse, though it is visibly the thinnest. Yet logic compels him. If the criminal’s punishment does not deter others, out in the undifferentiated crowd, the system should at least try to deter the criminal it has caught from repeating his crime. This prompts the Rehabilitation approach to prisons, circling back to the Enlightenment-monastery rationale. But the statistics on recidivism are even more damning than evidence on the ineffectiveness of deterrence. Prisons teach crime, instill it, inure men to it, trap men in it as a way of life. How could they do otherwise? The criminal is sequestered with other criminals, in conditions exacerbating the lowest drives of lonely and stranded men, men deprived of loved ones, of dignifying work, of pacifying amenities. (Those in Attica lacked proper psychiatric care, religious exercises, and a drug program—and they were nagged at by petty indignities like having to get along on one roll of toilet paper per month.) Smuggling, bullying, theft, drug traffic, homo-sexual menace are ways of life. Guards, themselves brutalized by the experience of prison, have to ignore most of the crimes inflicted on inmates, even when they do not connive at them, or incite them. Breaking up smuggling, extortion, and sex rings is dangerous and probably futile; better look the other way and live to collect one’s pension. The less contact with all but the most exploitable inmates, the better.
Wicker rather naïvely asked one of the brighter inmates in D Yard how could he expect to get amnesty? Didn’t he know a crime had been committed (the fatal clubbing of the guard in the first triggering episode of the revolt)? Where a crime has taken place, someone must pay. The inmate grants all that—fine, he did wrong, and is now paying for it. But in this institute of “correction” every inmate has suffered crime after crime since his admission, from inmates, from guards, from violences daily threatened or committed, from gang extortion or protection exercised without any possibility of redress. He came to pay for one crime committed on a victim, yet he is himself made the victim of dozens of crimes before he has even settled into the prison life. His own safety often depends on joining the criminal element against others. And what respect can he learn for the law when his overseers condone such acts, and inflict further ones? Guards, too, are frightened, and often overlook or join in criminal acts to save themselves, cultivating their own insensitivity as a mode of self-protection.
What are we left with, then? Three excuses for the inexcusable. None of the three can stand on its own, and their conjunction just further weakens them. The Revenge attitude demands that harshness be maintained, if not actually increased—thus making Rehabilitation even less feasible. Yet Deterrence reinforces a middle-class horror of prisons only by feeding the Revenge impulse that makes these places incapable of Rehabilitation. We often profess as our motives a desire for Deterrence or Rehabilitation, while acting for Revenge—which neatly gets the worst of all three worlds at once.
The prisons are expensive even by the simplest norms of measurement. Wicker notes that New York is spending, by now, roughly $12,000 per man in a place like Attica—more than it would take you or me to send our child to the finest university. And that is only the first expense. Collateral costs include welfare to the man’s family, the loss of tax productivity, the court and lawyer costs for purely prison-related procedures. And that just begins the dread accounting. We pay in human life as well as coin—we pay in the criminals we are producing behind walls; we pay in the brutalization of the guards and their families, in the corruption of officials, in the passivity bred throughout surrounding society. We pay in each failure of our moral concern.
All these proved costs have to be weighed against the dubious and contradictory claims of a benefit to be derived from revenge, or deterrence, or rehabilitation. For the most insubstantial promises of gain we undergo repeated verifiable losses. Prisons demonstrably corrupt our society from top to bottom—corrupt the inmates, and their keepers; corrupt the defenders of prisons, and those too apathetic to defend or attack; corrupt officials, and supporters of officials. The lesson of the prisons is, recurrently, that of Vietnam—that we cannot with impunity let our society savage other human beings, no matter how distant or invisible or unimportant they may seem. Indeed, one of the eighteenth century’s better experiments—America—is endangered in serious ways by one of that period’s least defensible innovations.
Are we serious about rehabilitation? Then the last place we should send a person is to one of our prisons. Do we want to deter others? The best way is not by hidden brutalization but by making society participate in the reclamation of people still present to the public’s concern. (Of course, none of these socially useful goals should even be pretended to if all we want is revenge.)
Solitude, deprivation, the breaking up of families, the loss of meaningful work, the denial of heterosexual congress—all the staples of our prison system—do not “reform” human beings, but destroy them. We no longer have any excuse for not knowing that. The record is too clear. We have been far too successful at breaking down dignity and hope. The harder we work along these prior lines of effort, the more we must harm and cripple ourselves.
Wicker has written a searing and honest book, one that may rank in time with Beccaria’s Delitti or Voltaire’s Prix—and might undo those books’ earlier reforms, so foolishly pursued past their useful time. I hope so. The situation is hideous, and growing worse. And until we do something about it, we are all the prisoners of our own prisons.
April 3, 1975