This is an early article by the highly respected Alistair Cooke, later famous for his tv programmes, Letter from America. :
AFTER THE SURRENDER AT JACKSON
If the prison riot at Jackson, Michigan, which ended in a signed treaty of peace last week, were a work of naturalistic fiction, it would already be drawing lofty comparisons with Dostoevsky, O’Neil, and Kafka. Its plot, if told with only bare competence, would become a classic; and dramatic critics would begin to probe the genuine tragedy of a group of social misfits who submitted i good faith their terms of surrender and then returned to their cells to await the inevitable vengeance of the law.
As it is, the film companies are already fighting for possession of the record, and a sociological document is promised by the Professor of Criminology at the University of California, who flew out at the Governor’s request to go over the scene and recommend the means to prevent its repetition.
The bare record of the episode was told here in a previous article. A riot of over 2,000 men at the world’s largest walled prison was put down in a day. But 170 of the toughest criminals, isolated in a punishment cell block, held out for 5 days, bargaining coolly with the lives of 8 prison guards they had captured as hostages. The ring-leaders were a psychopath named Earl Ward and one Crazy Jack Hyatt. They drafted the terms on which they would willingly surrender and submitted them as an eleven-point truce to the prison warden and the Governor of the state. On the solemn promise of the Governor Williams that they would suffer no reprisals, the rioters released their hostages and walked out to exact payment of one of their terms: a steak and ice-cream dinner to be served before they went back to their cells.
When the guards staggered out weeping to see their families, and the men were locked again in their cells, and the small army of reporters heard the prison gates close behind them, the granting of a Reform Bill to a horde of dangerous criminals seemed a small price to pay for their dreadful complacency. By the end of the first night, when the rebels had their hostages terrified, the 170 inmates of the punishment cell were gaudy with power. They knew they had the prison authorities cowed. They were being watched by hundreds of pacified convicts crouching against the barred windows of their cells. At the first approach of a guard, they threatened to cut off the head of a hostage and drop it at his feet. the guard knew they would do it and retreated. Inside the rebels restaged the original bedlam. A score of lunatic homosexuals ran through the cell block starting paper fires and tearing out the plumbing at its roots. Others broke all the locks, hack-sawed through bars, furniture and benches. There were fights with butchers’ knives and murderous scraps over pistols. By the third day they had cooled off into hunger and blasphemy and sporadic obscenities. They squabbled over newspapers to gloat over the headlines. They were never far from exploding into bloodshed.
There was a hero who kept them barely sane. But he was not the same man to any of the groups involved. To the rebels it was Earl Ward, the crafty psychopath who undoubtedly asserted a mastery of his men. To the Governor it was a newspaper, the Detroit times, which flew editions to Jackson and rushed them in to the men to show them their grievances were being sympathetically reported. to the newspapermen themselves, who camped inside the prison and came out for grim press conferences, standing a hundred yards away from Ward, shielding himself with a petrified guard, it was the Deputy Warden, Dr. Vernon Fox, a young psychologist who had acted as a courageous go-between, respecting the rebel leaders as responsible negotiators, praising their morale and generally playing the ingratiating part of Paul Douglas’s canny policemen in the film of “Fourteen Hours”.
Dr. Fox came to the prison 2 years ago and has been at odds ever since with the old-time guards about the effectiveness of what is rather ominously called “restraint”. the inmates call it brutality comparable with the Nazis, and their complaints on this score touched off the riot. Fox believes punishment cells should be abolished. He has used them only to sit and talk things over with tough cases. He has engaged 12 young psychologists to act as “counsellors for the inmates”, thus endearing himself less warmly still to the older guards and other practitioners of the “beat ‘em and break ‘em” school. He is very popular with the convicts. To him this is its own reward. To the older staff it is the final proof that “discipline” in the state prison is in a perilous way.
When the peace treaty was signed Dr. Fox praised Ward and his henchmen as men of their word. Ward, eh thought, was “a natural leader”. He and the other boys are to be congratulated on the good faith with which they have bargained. This may presage a new era of good relationships between inmates and administrators in American prisons.”
It presaged the firing of Dr. Fox. His psychological victory was too much for the system, and an embarrassment to the clear duty of the state Attorney-General to punish the rioters.
Once the prison was simmering back to normal, the Governor, the Warden, and the other exhausted authorities began to rue the promise that had brought about the surrender. the Attorney-General of Michigan, Frank Millard, is a law enforcement officer, not bound by the independent word of the Governor. Mr Millard has sent in investigators to get evidence for a prosecution. He would seek warrants, he said, charging kidnapping, rioting, and malicious destruction of property. The Governor was in dismay. He recalled Earl Ward’s threat to kill the Warden and to go berzerk through the prison if the authorities violated their promise of no reprisals. the Attorney-General brushed this off with the reminder that “I am compelled by my oath of office to prosecute every person who violates the criminal statutes. No state official, not even the supreme Court Justices, can grant immunity for eh commission of a crime.” Dr. Fox was quietly “relieved of his prison duties”. The governor went on insisting that the treaty of surrender should be honoured.
The Jackson story can hardly be over. But it has stirred penologists, parole boards, and criminologists to reiterate a few facts about American prison administration which institutional barbarity will not soften. There is a general agreement that overcrowding and badly paid, poorly trained prison personnel are at the root of the trouble. where there can only be “mass treatment”, said one authority, discipline is most conveniently bought in the form of tough, rather primitive disciplinarians. “Idleness,” says the California professor studying the riot, is the fertile soil for disorder of every personal and collective sort. A director of the National Probation and Parole Association believes that a prison sentence is the automatic resort of lazy magistrates; “40 percent of the inmates do not belong there.”
But there is one evil, old as American state government, that reacts continuously against the painstaking psychological research that many american institutions are doing. this is the rotation of state governments, and the entrenched habit of paying off political debts by giving penal posts and administrative authority to men who know nothing about crime or prisons, and would, in some states, qualify more accurately for a place on the other side of the bars.