When the first male prisoners arrived last September at the Kansas Correctional Institute for Women, the inmates were deeply involved in lesbian affairs.
"Everybody was paired off," said Sally Chandler Halford, director of what is now called the Kansas Correctional Institute and only the second experiment in co-correctional institutions in the state. "We had 58 women inmates and what seemed like 29 lesbian affairs among the inmates. Lesbianism was rampant at this prison."
No longer. Most of the 58 women at the Kansas Correctional Institute abandoned homosexuality once men were imprisoned with them. To hear Kansas Corrections Commissioner Patrick D. McManus describe it, the behavioral change shown by the inmates of both sexes since being put together has been little short of phenomenal.
"Every time we tried co-correctional prisons in the past, we took an all-male institution and put 20 women in it to see if it would work and it didn't," McManus said the other day on the grounds of the minimum-custody prison, which is about a mile from the all-male, maximum-security Kansas State Penitentiary. "This experiment has been incredible, almost unique in my experience in the corrections business."
No matter how successful the Lansing experiment has been, coed prisons have a limited future. The reason is simple. Women make up only 5 percent of the prison population in America, meaning there just aren't enough women inmates to make up more coed prisons.
"We can't expand it any more than we have because we don't have any more women prisoners," Halford said. "All the women prisoners we have in Kansas are now in coed institutions. That's as far as we can go."
The difference between the Kansas Correctional Institute and the Kansas State Penitentiary is as striking as night and day, black and white or fire and ice. The penitentiary is a stone fortress, watched by guards with machine guns in towers 40 feet high. It is the prison where the murderers of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" were sent to the gallows. Sixty percent of the 1,100 inmates are white; their cold, hard looks have to be seen to be believed.
The 48 men and 58 women who make up the population of the Kansas Correctional Institute are an even mix of black and white. There are no walls, no towers and no guns. A chain-link fence circles the grounds, which are as well-groomed as the lawns of the White House.
Though they live in separate dormitories, the men and women inmates mix as freely outside their dormitories as the men and women on any college campus in America. Their expressions of hope and promise are nowhere in sight behind the walls of the Kansas State Penitentiary a mile away.
"We're a two-sex society, not one," said Sally Halford as she walked around the grounds, stopping to chat with working inmates. "When you lock one sex away from the other, I think you depersonalize that sex. And when you do that, you breed macho violent behavior in men's prisons and a childlike, dependent behavior in women's prisons that we haven't seen here in a year."
The first change Halford noticed was in the appearance of the women, who often complained they were too tired or too lazy to concern themselves with their looks. They formed jogging clubs and volleyball teams, began to diet and take more interest in their clothes.
Gone was the cropped haircut most of them had favored. Almost all of them wear their hair longer than they did before the men arrived.
"They're cleaner and they're neater," Halford said. "They're more positive and they're more assertive."
The first change Halford noticed in the men was that they lost what she calls "that macho walk they pick up in prison, the walk they use to intimidate the guards." All the male inmates at the Kansas Correctional Institute came from the penitentiary up the road. They qualified for transfer by being on good behavior for at least a year.
Once they grew accustomed to each other, Halford says, the men and women formed organizations inside their prison community. They put together a newspaper; the other day, they were planning a field day for Labor Day in which the men were getting ready to compete against the women in volleyball, softball and a tug-of-war.
"I think what we've done here is return normalcy to these people's lives," Halford said. "I did a radio show in Kansas City a month ago and a young woman called in who was the wife of an ex-offender who had just done 10 years somewhere in Missouri. She said, 'I wish my husband had been in a place like yours. He doesn't know how to talk to me anymore, he hadn't been around a woman for so long that he lost the ability to relate to me.' "
Not everything is the Land of Oz here in Kansas. One female inmate is pregnant and the male inmate who made her pregnant was sent kicking and screaming back to the Kansas State Penitentiary because he'd committed what prison officials call a Class One offense.
But even that story has a little bit of a happy ending. The pregnant inmate plans to have her baby, who will be cared for by the parents of the prospective father. The inmates have hinted they plan to get married when they are paroled.
This second Kansas experiment in coed prisons is the first that appears to be working. McManus and Halford think the first one--at the women's prison in Topeka--was too radical a change, which triggered a passive resistance among the staff.
"The predominantly male staff at Topeka decided a coed prison was a dumb idea that we'd end up coming to our senses about and get rid of," Halford said. "Well, that reminds me of my first boss when I proposed the second coed prison. He said, 'Long as I'm here, it ain't happening.' Well, he ain't here and it did happen."