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When the Prisoners Ran Walpole

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On March 9, 1973, the guards at Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts walked off their jobs to protest prison reforms. The governor declared a state of emergency. And the inmates were left in control of the maximum security prison with the highest murder rate in the nation.

What happened during the next three months—or rather, what did not happen—is one of the most important stories in the history of the U.S. criminal justice system.

That story is told in When the Prisoners Ran Walpole: A True Story in the Movement for Prison Abolition, by Jamie Bissonette, with former Walpole prisoner leaders Ralph Hamm and Robert Dellelo, and Episcopal priest Edward Rodman.

What did not happen at Walpole was what everyone feared: murder, rape, violence, and chaos. Instead, with the prisoners in charge, incidents of violence dropped to zero. Inmates moved about freely. They got the prison industries up and running again. They created a part-time work schedule so that men could both work and attend the new education programs they started. They invited in outside observers and the media to monitor their actions. And through their union, a chapter of the National Prisoners Reform Association (NPRA), they held ongoing negotiations with the administration for improved living conditions and won concessions that are, in some cases, still in effect today.

But in the end, the prisoners ran the prison too well. Again and again the guards’ union was humiliated by the successes of the inmates. Finally, on May 18, the administration succumbed to intense political pressure to “take back control,” and the guards re-entered the prison, this time for good.

What can these three months at Walpole teach us about our predicament today, when one out of 31 Americans, according to the Pew Center on the States, is under the supervision of our criminal justice system? 

For starters, Bissonette’s meticulously documented portrait shows prisoners as intelligent, capable, disciplined people quite capable of running their own lives. The “voices” of the prisoners themselves, outside observers, and officials, further challenge the fundamental assumptions behind our criminal justice system, that people convicted of crimes must be “incapacitated.” The enemies of our social order, it turns out, are not just those we’ve locked up.

The authors suggest that our overflowing prisons are, at root, a labor problem, and they may well be right. The unemployment rate in the U.S. is 9.5 percent. What if we were to add to the pool of job seekers the 2.3 million men and women now in prison? Do we need to keep some people in prison, working for 50 cents an hour, so that the rest of us can thrive, so that guards can keep their jobs, and prisons and the industries they support can prosper? Are our prisoners “redundant people,” to borrow sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s term, people for whom we have no need and no room?

Confronting disturbing questions like these is not fun, but it is the real work of social change. This book takes us firmly by the shoulders and turns us to face them.

Carol EstesCarol Estes wrote this review for Learn as You Go, the Fall 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Carol is director of University Behind Bars, a program that offers college courses to prisoners in Washington state.

Beyond Prisons: A 12-step program for re-inventing criminal justice
Prisons That Work: A survey of prison reform


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