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A Peek Behind Prison Walls

Inside a once-innovative correctional facility, men walk in circles and read the best law books

FIRST impression inside: Norfolk looks a little like a threadbare community-college campus with a central quad; handsome green lawn spotted with dandelion yellow. But the encircling red brick buildings, circa 1930, are well-worn. Beyond the quad are the prison walls, 19 feet tall, gray cement forming the mean bunker-line around this medium-security prison.

Second impression: Why are so many men walking in a big circle? ``Walkin' and talkin','' one inmate says. Around and around the paved walk in the quad they go, doing time by passing time, walkin' and talkin.'

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Third impression: A gym, a weight room, a learning center, educational classes including college level, a barber school, a welding school, a repair school, a library, and ``one of the best law libraries in the prison system,'' says an inmate known as a ``jailhouse lawyer.'' He has a case with the state supreme court petitioning for inmate word processors.

So, for the 1,309 inmates here, there are other options to walkin' and talkin.' And this is what reformer Howard Gill had in mind when he guided the construction of the ``Norfolk Penal Colony'' in the late 1920s and early '30s. Differing with the conventional repressive theories of the day, Gill avoided a ``factory of punishment with ... preoccupation with rules and regulations,'' wrote Luke Janusz in a history of Norfolk. No fortress prison here with clanging steel doors and brutality for control.

Gill put the inmates in dormitories and formed resident inmate councils. Other committees, all responsible for running the overall community, were formed to bring administrators, counselors, case workers, and inmates together. What Gill wanted to initiate was an ``atmosphere of participation, of expression as contrasted with repression.''

Easier said than done. Despite the on-again off-again willingness of guards, and a humane effort on the part of case workers to reach men, Gill was either ahead of his time or a fool. He was flirting with the age-old balancing act in prisons in a new way: How do you solve the problems of day-to-day discipline while encouraging rehabilitation in men daring anyone to change them?

Gill put the men in five treatment categories ranging from those with no so-called personality problems to psychotics. The objective was for the men to move up the categories and then out of prison.

It didn't work, according to author David Rathman. Inmates played their helpers off each other, never trusted the process, and, in many cases, didn't like the ``unpredictability'' of the innovation. Lack of resources also scuttled the program, as did the need to create a ``hole'' (solitary-confinement cell) for punishment.

As Norfolk became more punitive, and the councils became coercive, Gill was discharged early in 1934. He said, ``A little restriction and a little freedom do not mix . . and the inmate's need is for a great deal of freedom or a great deal of repression.''

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Today, it would be inaccurate to characterize Norfolk as repressive, but as a medium-security institution designed for 988 inmates but housing 1,309, it is as tense as any other overcrowded, conventional prison facility.

Inmates still live in dormitories with up to four in one room. Two weeks ago an inmate was killed late at night. Another inmate said that the man was known to need counseling, but that mental-health programs at the prison had been discontinued. State funds have been withdrawn from many prison programs.

``The administration would rather you not do anything here,'' said an inmate in advanced classes, ``because if you do well at a program, you'll be different. It's a Catch-22 situation. Do something, but not too much.''

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