History Behind Bars

Some movies you can’t find at Blockbuster. One of my favorites is a documentary called “Three Thousand Years and Life.” The film’s title refers to the accumulated sentences of prisoners at Walpole Prison in 1973. Located in rural Massachusetts, Walpole was and is a notoriously vicious prison. Prior to Massachusetts’ abolition of the death penalty in 1984, it housed the state’s death row. For years, it has functioned as a maximum security prison with various forms of control units where prisoners live in solitary confinement. In 1973, the cruelty of the prison was confronted by the revolutionary ferment of a prison population radicalized by political movements both inside and outside prison. Bound together by circumstance, prisoners crossed racial lines to organize and educate one another. Within this context, the National Prisoners’ Reform Association (NPRA) came into being. Through the NPRA, the prisoners of Walpole achieved an unprecedented level of control over their own plight. “Three Thousand Years and Life” documents how the NPRA led the prisoners of Walpole in running the prison themselves after the guards left their positions on strike.

Produced shortly after the takeover, this little known documentary unlocks a moment in time that has long suffered in obscurity. In stark, compelling fashion, it portrays a singular struggle unmatched in the history of prisoner protest within the United States. While oral history indicates that the film suffers from incomplete and romanticized accounts of what transpired, at the time it served as a much needed counter-punch to the propaganda put forth by guards and their allies in certain segments of the corporate media. In an interview for an art student magazine published shortly after the making of the film, Randall Conrad, one of the film’s producers, reveals the sharp contrast between the film and parts of the media: The prisoners were great men. Nobody could fool them; they’d been through it all. They’d learned to mistrust the established media, the TV crews that would come inside and just do a blitz treatment. Whereas we were there to learn from the prisoners; we had no prejudice about them being ‘criminals’ and we wanted them to help us shape the film.

Conrad goes on to note that “the public was already saturated with the guards’ viewpoint. You could read it between the lines of every newspaper article, whereas nobody listened to the prisoners seriously.” While at times not all of the media failed to sympathize with the prisoners, Conrad’s view warrants attention.

The empathetic approach of the filmmakers led them to render a portrayal of prisoner self-governance based upon interviews with prisoners and actual footage of them running the prison. Throughout much of the film, the voices of NPRA members inform the audience of their struggles to exercise and maintain power according to their own ideals. Implicit in the film, and explicit in oral history, is the notion of dual power, a concept first articulated by Lenin in 1917 when describing the Soviets. In opposition to the power of the bourgeoisie government, the Soviets represented a form of governmental power directed “from below” by the proletariat and peasants in their local settings. This shadow government provided an alternative set of operating institutions. In more recent times, writers like ZNet’s Brian Dominick have theorized about “grassroots dual power” in a way that emphasizes popular participation rather than the vanguardism associated with Lenin (www.zmag.org/AWatch/note2.htm ). “Three Thousand Years” captures the NPRA’s alternative government in its peak form as it temporarily replaces the immediate institutional control of the guards. In the filming of a board meeting, one witnesses the deliberations of the NPRA’s central body. The board is responsible to more than 20 prisoner committees that deal with localized issues and problems within the prison. In the meeting filmed, they review the accomplishments and benefits of their governance to that point. After the departure of the guards, prisoner conduct and the general standard of living for prisoners improved significantly. In particular, no stabbings took place. Furthermore, work efficiency increased while cost decreased. In essence, the prisoners not only did a better job of running the prison, they did it at far less expense to taxpayers. The board notes that the guards fear the discovery of this by the public.

Outside of the board meeting, the individual accounts of prisoners depict the practical form self-governance assumed in the daily life of the prison. In these accounts, the acutely conscious way in which the NPRA governed in a way utterly different from prison authorities becomes quickly apparent. Two aspects of this merit special attention: the manner in which the prisoners confronted crime within the prison and the manner in which prisoners worked. On the matter of prisoner crime, one interviewed prisoner discusses an educational process whereby prisoners learn how to live according to a standard of conduct far different from that embodied by the prison system. To rip off one’s “brothers” in prison for personal property is to rip off those whom have already had their families and loved ones ripped away by the system. In other words, by stealing from a fellow prisoner, a prisoner “becomes what the system is, he becomes a pig.” Thus, the goal of NPRA is to “educate the cons as to not becoming pigs.” The interviewed prisoner goes on to describe what this educational process means in practice when it comes to addressing actual crime. Instead of meting out beatings like the guards, the prisoners use a non-violent approach. The wrong doer is brought before the men on his block where he is then confronted, embarrassed, and educated not to become a “pig.” According to the prisoner, a record of success resulted: The majority of the men that we’ve talked to like that would put their head down, would be greatly ashamed, and would thank us, and say they were sorry. We would pat them on the back, give them a cigarette, and say, “That’s alright. It’s no big thing. Just be our brother as we’re your brother.”

In contrast to the dehumanizing, authoritarian punishment typically issued by guards, the prisoners of Walpole instituted a fraternal style of accountability that initially relied upon shame-induced humiliation but ultimately lead to re-humanization through reconciliation.

In a similar manner, the distribution and performance of work responsibilities under the NPRA structure of governance differed radically from the system imposed by the guards. Previously, the guards served as overseers who forced the prisoners to work while doing little manual labor themselves. By contrast, the system implemented by the NPRA made work both voluntary and subject to peer accountability. Unlike the forced labor typical of prisons, no prisoner was asked to do work which the person requesting it would not do himself. Unlike the usual system of theft, bribes, and favors, work environments were structured so that prisoners kept each other in line. In this way, egalitarianism ushered in responsibility as the corruption endemic to hierarchy disappeared. While the achievements of the NPRA were in many ways remarkable, oral history accounts suggest that prison life was far less ideal than portrayed in the documentary. Through the infiltration of the NPRA by provocateurs and the reassertion of guard influence on white prisoner gangs, conditions deteriorated. Corruption within the NPRA increased as some members began to opportunistically manipulate their allies outside of prison. The Irish and Italian gangs resumed selling drugs, and eventually even murder was committed. While these events deserve sober recognition, it would be a mistake to thereby dismiss the capacity of prisoners to achieve remarkable levels of self-governance when given the opportunity. Guard involvement and provocateur infiltration never permitted prisoner self-governance to reach its full potential. The window of opportunity was brief and severely hampered.

Eventually, authorities took firm command of the prison once again. By combining rumors with scare tactics, the authorities created panic and chaos among the prisoners. State police were ordered to enter the prison and quell the “riot.” Ensuing media distortions prevented the public from receiving more accurate accounts of what occurred. Without an aroused public, the NPRA fell to the mercy of prison authorities who, for a brief period, had become revealed not only as needlessly barbaric but as altogether unnecessary.

The NPRA’s moment of power, their moment in which they were allowed to live as brothers and strive after the realization of their ideals, has now become a sparsely kept memory, teetering near the edge of a forgotten past. Some of the NPRA’s leaders live free in civilian life. Some remain in prison. And a few have died. Aside from a seldom seen film, the story of the NPRA remains largely untold. And we are diminished because of it. We lack the knowledge gained from their use of labor strikes and civilian monitors. We lack the knowledge of their pitfalls, their internal struggles with racism and authority. We lack precisely the lessons that could prove invaluable for confronting the prison crises of today. The question that remains is whether history will remain behind bars or whether it will be freed for the sake of freedom itself? Our hope is not to be found in Hollywood pictures or Blockbuster movies. Our hope is within history itself.

Written by Brooks Berndt with the help of former NPRA leader Ralph Hamm and Jamie Bissonnette of the American Friends Service Committee who is writing a book on the NPRA. Berndt can be reached at [email protected]

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