Most of our ideas about male prisons are mistaken because they fix on a type of prison - the "big house" - that has virtually disappeared during the last 25 years.
In the "big house" the prisoners - mostly white - lived according to the "convict code." Primarily, this meant not informing on other prisoners, "doing your own time," and not talking to guards.
Prisoner leaders - "right guys" - taught and enforced the code. A few prisoners carried on illegal activities like making "pruno" - a nasty tasting prison brew - and got involved in prison sex, a peculiar sexual world with "jockers" - the masculine partners, "punks" - prison-made homosexuals, and "queens" - self-admitted homosexuals.
But most prisoners stayed close to a few prison friends, worked at their job assignments, took up hobbies, played sports, read, and tried to stay out of trouble.
Administrators ran the "big house" with one overriding concern: to keep the place running smoothly and out of the public's attention. Guards kept the peace by striking a bargain with the convicts: "Don't get too far out of line and I won't bother you, but if you cause me any trouble I'll bust you."
By and large the big house was a mean and monotonous place, but peaceful. Contrary to popular belief, most prisoners didn't learn crime there, but they didn't learn how to live outside either. They learned how to do time and about half came back to serve more.
Today's prisons, in contrast, are torn by violence, with inmates assaulting both each other and their guards. Gang warfare is common, and by 1973 the murder rate inside San Quentin was 20 times higher than that in the outside world.
Meanwhile, penologists, prisoners, and the public have all come to recognize that prisons are failing to rehabilitate convicted criminals or deter others from crime.
What has caused such turmoil? And what can be done to end the war behind walls and ensure that prisons serve their purpose?
The decline of the big house began after World War II, when many states seriously tried to "rehabilitate" prisoners.
Innovative penologists accepted the idea that criminals were sick and could be cured, and developed elaborate classification systems, to diagnose criminals' sicknesses; therapy, education, and vocational training programs to cure them; an indeterminate sentence systems to release prisoners when, but not before, they were cured.
In the early years of rehabilitation many, perhaps most, prisoners accepted the idea that they were sick and willingly participated in the new programs. Communication flowed more freely between prisoners and staff, and the gap between them narrowed. Many prisoners stopped thinking of themselves as "criminals" or "convicts," and the ties of the convict code that had held prisoners together weakened.
By the 1960, however, social scientists and prisoners began questioning the worth of rehabilitation. The new programs had not really helped ex-prisoners faced with the same conditions that, in the past, had pointed them toward crime.
Furthermore, under the dogma of rehabilitation, prisoners were subjected to indeterminate sentence systems. Parole boards fixed and refixed sentences for reasons that were never quite clear to the prisoners. On the average, prisoners served more time. In California, for example, the median sentence increased from 24 months in 1950 - the real beginning of the rehabilitative era - to 38 months in 1968.
Harshly punitive measures, such as indefinite segregation in "adjustment centers," were slipped in as "rehabilitative" devices. The discrepancy between rhetoric and reality produced a sense of rage and injustice among prisoners.
At the same time, racial hostilities soared. Prisons in the East, North, and West that formerly housed predominantly white prisoners now contained half or more non-white prisoners.
Black prisoners began organizing religious, cultural, and political groups. Chicanos in the West and Puerto Ricans in the East followed the lead of black prisoners. Violence between races increased drastically, and many prisons became tense battlefields with voluntary segregation by race.
In the late 1960s outside political activists became interested in the prisons and began working to improve them and to help prisoners organize. For a short period a political "movement" grew among prisoners of all races.
Prisoners planned strikes, formed unions, and even ran a prison in Walpole, Mass., for 11 weeks after the guards walked out in protest over the administration's lenient policies.
Although the old "big house" order based on a single convict code and respected prison leaders had been torn apart, involvement in political organizations and demands for prisoners' rights temporarily created a new form of solidarity among inmates and reduced racial violence.
Prison administrations across the country acted swiftly to stop this new development. They identified prison leaders as "revolutionaries" and segregated, transferred, or paroled them. They succeeded in halting or stalling the prison political movement.
However, without a unifying purpose, the prisoners have again split into hostile factions. These divisions, particularly racial divisions, prevent prisoners from following a single code.
Many inmates have formed gangs or cliques to protect themselves and to control drugs and other contraband, including money, which is now in the prisons in large amounts. Gang members attack rivals and retaliate when attacked.
Most prisoners, as always, try to avoid trouble, but this is now more difficult. They must obey the informal rules of racial segregation enforced by the gangs and tiptoe carefully around violent gang members. Even then they run some risk of being assaulted, robbed, raped, or murdered.
Prisoners now assault guards much more frequently. Accordingly, guards have grown more hostile towards prisoners and toward the administrators, whom they blame for the dismal state of the contemporary prison. Prison guards are organizing into labor unions that demand more punitive policies against prisoners, in addition to such traditional labor benefits as higher pay.
Unfortunately, we are stuck with our contemporary prisons. Despite talk about "alternatives to incarceration," the public will accept no substitutes that are more humane.
Some convicted persons may be placed on probation or in halfway houses. Others may be sentenced to volunteer services or some alternative to prison. But the public will ordinarily demand that those convicted of serious crimes be imprisoned.
Actually, the expansion of "community corrections" has increased the number of people in the control of the criminal justice system by adding new categories of minor offenders, as the number of offenders in prison also rises.
Since we are stuck with prisons we must understand their limitations. Presumably prisons deter many free citizens from committing crimes, yet, our selection process for prison actually reduces their deterrent value. Less than 10 percent of the persons charged with a felony are sent to prison, and by and large these are the poorer and less deterrable criminals, not necessarily the most serious.
Consequently many citizens accurately conclude that they will not be sent to prison even if they commit crimes and are caught.
Prisons punish people. But "heaping" punishment upon the few sent to prison embitters and damages them. They perceive that they are carrying the entire punishment burden, and they break or rebel under the strain.
We could increase deterrence and reduce the turmoil in prison if we were honest about what we are doing - punishing prisoners - and delivered shorter sentences to all persons convicted of serious crimes.
I believe that prisoners should be allowed to form organizations that would unify their warring factions. These organizations would have to have some real responsibility in running the prison so prisoners would actually participate in them. They should also have access to outside grievance mechanisms so that many of the practices which unnecessarily degrade, injure, and embitter prisoners would be discouraged. It is likely that these measures would reduce the turmoil greatly.
However, such changes would not make prisons into "country clubs." Prisons are inherently unpleasant and are intended to be.