Making Good(s) Behind Bars

Entrepreneurship threatened to rehabilitate Maine's prisoners—but the authorities couldn't handle it.


By 5:00 A.M., April 16, 1980, trained snipers lined the perimeter walls of Maine State Prison, home for 365 inmates. Nearby, at the local headquarters of the Maine state police, approximately 150 riot-prepared police and national guardsmen awaited the order to move. So complete had been the secrecy surrounding the upcoming maneuver that only hours before had they been informed of their mission: a "lockdown" of the prison, with all inmates confined to their cells 24 hours a day and an extensive search and seizure operation carried out.

Outside the prison, a tense director of the Bureau of Corrections, Donald Allen, coordinated affairs via walkie-talkie. Shortly before the lockdown began, Allen persuaded a local television crew, who had somehow gotten wind of the impending move, to leave off their camera lights near the prison. Such lights, Allen warned, could alert the inmates behind the walls and cost lives.

At 6:00 A.M. the troops began their move, crossing first through the administrative area before fanning out through the rest of the prison. The 10-week lockdown of Maine State Prison had begun.

And what was the dramatic lockdown designed to accomplish? The end of a riot? The freeing of hostages?

No, the answer to that question is far less dramatic and far more fascinating. The lockdown of Maine State Prison, planned and prepared for months, was designed to impose state control over a market economy operating behind prison bars, controlled by the inmates, and centered around the production and sale to the public of wooden crafts and novelties. When the riot troops moved into the prison, what they found was not a life-threatening situationall the prisoners had been locked in their cells overnight, and most were just waking up when the invading army arrivedbut prisoner-made novelties, stacks and stacks of them, some finished and some unfinished, piled into every bit of spare space in the prison; in the cells, in the industrial shops, in the recreation room, in the laundry, everywhere.

All told, the lockdown and changes wrought during the period destroyed entrepreneurial inmates' thriving businesses, some of which may have been netting their bosses in excess of $30,000 a year; threw hundreds of inmates out of work; imposed idleness on a large portion of Maine State prison's inmate population; and cost Maine's taxpayers at least $700,000. Worse than any of its other accomplishments, however, the lockdown represented a triumph of mainstream, paternalistic, costly bureaucratic correctional thinking and a failure of imagination on the part of Maine's correctional and political establishment. It wasn't called that, but Maine State Prison had a rehabilitation program that was working. And it could have pointed the way to a far better arrangement of who pays for crime in our society. But Maine officials were unable to see the situation as an exciting, if imperfect, glimpse of what today's troubled prisons could be.


There are approximately 320,000 convicted criminals behind bars in the United States. Over half of them reside in maximum-security prisons that are enormously expensive to build, maintain, and operate.

The total correctional bill footed by taxpayers in 1978, the latest year for which data are available, was $5.5 billion. With a climbing prison population and inflation, it is likely that that figure now exceeds $7.5 billion annually. Indications from a study of the New York State correctional system in 1978 are that about 50 percent of prison budgets are spent on security; 15 percent on food, medical care, and recreation for inmates; and 10 percent on serviceseducation, psychological counseling, libraries, etc. (In the New York program, another 6 percent of the prison budget went to subsidize the state's prison industry.)

And the returns for all these tax dollars? Increasing violence behind bars, a failure of the rehabilitative ideal, and a prison population in which repeat offenders continue to outnumber first-timers by almost three-to-one.

Despite all the money spent to keep America's prisoners behind bars and to "rehabilitate" them while they're there, life in prison is far from the country club existence occasionally painted by critics. True, many prisoners now have their own televisions, stereos, or radios in their cells. On the other hand, today's prisoners are locked into those cells a greater number of hours per day than was true just a few years ago. Overcrowding in prisons is a well-documented problem, though it may well take more than its share of the blame for the troubles that plague our prisons.

Anyone who reflects on the situation must recognize that a bigger problem is this: that prisoners are regularly denied virtually every outlet for constructive expression of their identities, energies, and creativity. Visitation rights are severely circumscribed. Recreational and athletic facilities are limited. In most prisons there are not nearly enough jobs in the traditional state-run industries to keep more than a tiny fraction of the inmates busy. Moreover, there is almost no incentive to participate in those industries, because wages are either nonexistent or absolutely nominalseldom topping $1 per hour.

When combined with the general character of many inmates, idleness caused by the lack of constructive outlets makes prison a fearsome, and oftentimes violent, place. The incidence of violent deaths behind prison walls has climbed to about one per thousand per year. Stories of homosexual abuse are unfortunately commonplace. In recent years the level of violence in prisons has been exacerbated by gang warfare among inmates, particularly in the larger urban state prisons. Less well known but possibly more important on a day-to-day basis is the fact that lower levels of violence, particularly beatings and nonfatal stabbings, occur sufficiently frequently to create a pervasive atmosphere of suspicion, tension, danger, and unease in most prisons. It is widely acknowledged that much lower-level violence goes unreported.

Violence is an outlet for some prisoners; drugs, for othersand they are available, even if not readily or cheaply so, behind the walls. Black-market operations exist in virtually every American prison to supply the common but illicit wants of prisoners, drugs and weapons included.

This bleak picture of America's prisons should hardly startle anyone. What is disconcerting is the way prison officials attempt to deal with their charges.

While correctional experts seek clues in criminals' past lives and in socioeconomic conditions on the outside as a basis for rehabilitation, they ignore the single biggest positive change that could be made in prisoners' lives on the inside: allowing inmates to put their lives to constructive use. Meanwhile, prison officials must establish some sense of order and peacefulness behind the walls. There is little doubt that prison security staffs are undermanned and unable to solve problems by applying traditional, limited police methods. The result: with pressure to achieve both rehabilitation and security, prisons are almost universally run on a system of (usually) benevolent despotism that combines aspects of the welfare state and the Gulag Archipelago, with prison experts shrinking from any untraditional alternatives. This, I was to discover, is what the lockdown at Maine State Prison was all about.


Maine State Prison (MSP) is a red-brick fortress located in Thomaston, Mainea town of 2,000–3,000along Interstate Route 1. Originally built in the late 19th century, MSP is Maine's only maximum-security prison. Less than a mile beyond its easternmost wall is the shimmering Atlantic Ocean, an appropriate symbol of the freedom of which those behind the wall have been legitimately deprived.

MSP's crafts and novelties program dates back almost 40 years. At that time, prison administrators, seeking to encourage inmate participation in the zero-paying state-run prison industries (chiefly license-plate and furniture manufacturing) offered inmates who worked in those industries the opportunity to use state-owned machinery in their spare time to produce hobby and craft items. Many prisons have a hobby and craft program, but MSP's novelty program went beyond those in other prisons in two important respects.

Firstunlike their counterparts elsewhere, who are hampered by restrictive lawsMSP inmates have easy access to an excellent market for their goods. Inmates can sell their products at a prison-owned store located about 60 yards up the road from MSP on Maine's heavily traveled summer tourist route. Crafts sales to tourists are an important part of the region's economy, and many tourists seem not to mind paying the premium prices charged at the prison store. After all, how many people can say their living rooms are decorated with lamps, wooden ships, or anchors built by conmen, armed robbers, or murderers? Tour buses frequently make it a point to stop at the prison store.

Second, MSP inmates may hire one another to perform work, allowing for specialization. Until the lockdown, there was a legitimate, transferable currency with which inmates could pay one another for finished work: canteen coupons, which could either be spent at the prison canteen or banked in the prison's business office. In most prisons, on the other hand, an inmate may sell only those goods that are entirely self-produced, and there is no legalized currency (though prisoners inevitably create their own currenciesoften cigarettes).

Until the last half of the '70s, the craft and novelty program remained a constant but minor feature of MSP life, providing spending money for many inmates but little more. Prison administrators limited both inmate earnings and productivity. In the early '70s, a single inmate could take in no more than $4,500 annual gross revenue through the sale of a maximum of four designs of crafts or novelties.

With the appointment of Richard Oliver as MSP warden in 1976 (Oliver later resigned rather than carry out the lockdown), the novelty program was transformed. Oliver appointed a Novelty Committee, dominated by inmates, to oversee the program. By the time of the lockdown, it had evolved into a group of inmates elected by MSP's "residents." To protect individual novelty makers, the committee awarded "patents" that gave the designers of novelty patterns the exclusive right to produce items according to those designs. The committee also collected a five percent surcharge on the price of all novelty items sold. The proceeds went into an Inmate Benefit Fund that was used to purchase goods or services not provided by the prison administration, including, among others, recreational and athletic equipment and a huge TV antenna to serve all the inmates, and new equipment for novelty production.

More important than the Novelty Committee, however, under Oliver the caps on inmates' economic activities were significantly raised in an effort to reduce idleness at the prison and to create a constructive outlet for their energy. From $5,000 and 5 patterns in 1976, the caps increased to $10,000 and 10 patterns in 1977 and again to $15,000 and 15 patterns in 1978.

With Oliver's changes, crafts and novelties production at Maine State Prison took off. In the year prior to the lockdown, $550,000 worth of inmate-produced items were sold through the prison store. Nearly two-thirds of all MSP inmates were participating in the novelty program as employers, employees, or occasionally both. With abundant work and income opportunities, there had developed inside the prison a miniature economy.


There were people who excelled as entrepreneurs. A group of five or six of the largest novelty operators came to be known as the "novelty kings." To a man, they had arrived at MSP without business experience. The novelty program tapped their latent talents.

Probably the most successful, and certainly the most flamboyant, of the novelty kings was Aaron M. "Jack the Griz" Harrelson (so named because while in college he wrestled a circus grizzly bear to earn tuition money). Convicted of aggravated assault in 1975, Harrelson turned to the novelty business in 1977 in order to, in his words, "give the inmates something to do."

Harrelson proved himself a quick study in the business. He bought up patents on patterns from inmates leaving prison and, along with his talented stepson and fellow inmate, André Beaudoin, invented new patterns. A number of these were put in the name of other inmates (in exchange for a share of the profits) in order to avoid the official limits on novelty production. To make items under his many patterns, Harrelson hired a work force that numbered (estimating conservatively) between 30 and 50 inmates at the time of the lockdown.

Harrelson soon diversified his business. One of his operations, a TV rental business, was discovered at the time of the lockdown, when state officials confiscated over 100 Harrelson-owned television sets from cells all over the prison.

Another of his endeavors was management of the prison canteen, originally a state-run money-loser. Harrelson turned the operation around and by the time of the lockdown, Maine's taxpayers were no longer subsidizing inmate purchases of candy, cigarettes, and razor blades. It was from the canteen, too, that Harrelson ran another of his businesses: money lending.

The P.T. Barnum of Maine State Prison, Harrelson's finest hour came when, following prison administrators' announcement that they intended to tax novelty sales in order to subsidize the unprofitable prison-run industries, he offered to buy out the state operations and state-owned equipment, to employ inmates to produce prison-industry goods on a profit-sharing basis (at the time, inmates working in these industries were paid nothing for their work), and even to pay the salaries of the shop's supervisory staff! Although prison administrators didn't doubt Harrelson's ability to keep his promiseone called him the "most brilliant businessman I've ever seen"they rejected his offer.

Shortly after the lockdown, Jack Harrelson was transferred to a federal penitentiary in Indiana, where he served out the remaining months of his sentence. Currently, he operates a lucrative wholesale novelty business several miles from MSP. His factory is a small, two-story house in Waldoboro, Maine, stocked from floor to ceiling with woodworking equipment and novelties in every stage of completion. He hires former inmates to perform most of the work. In a true ironic touch, one of the directors of his business is a former prison guardmaking him, he says, an "equal opportunity employer." Harrelson's business is accredited by Maine's Better Business Bureau.

The one subject about which Harrelson is reticent to speak is the amount of money he earned from his several businesses. Published estimates ranged between $30,000 and $100,000. Harrelson himself told me, "Only me and God knows what I made," but, he quickly added, "I made more than the governor and the warden put together."

Another of the novelty kings was a convicted murderer who arrived at MSP in 1975 with $20 in his pocket and no useful skills. The $20, says Richard Freeman, he quickly blew on junk food and cigarettes. Broke, he began rolling cigarettes for other inmates to earn spending money. The business gained Freeman a reputation for honesty.

When Warden Oliver made the changes that catalyzed the novelty program, Freeman's reputation paid off. Another inmate already heavily engaged in producing novelties had more ideas for patterns than he could legitimately produce under prison rules. He turned to Freeman, who agreed to apply for rights to the other inmate's patterns under his own name; in return, Freeman would receive a share of the profits on the novelties' sales. Through this and similar deals, he gained both experience in the business and capital for later investment.

In 1978 the former spendthrift began his own business. Like other novelty kings, he bought up patents belonging to inmates about to be released from the prison. He hired a work forcenumbering at least 30 at the time of the lockdownthat he paid on a piece-work basis to maximize productivity.

Unlike Harrelson, Freeman was a behind-the-scenes operator, a fact that may have kept him from being transferred to a federal prison after the authorities made their move against MSP's enterprises. Since the lockdown, Freeman has refused to participate in the restructured novelty program.

Like Harrelson, Freeman will not disclose how much he made in his novelties business. He does admit that he did well enough to hire a well-respected attorney to file suit against prison administrators, charging them with property losses suffered as a result of the lockdown. Moreover, he put aside enough to pay for a college education when he is finally released from prison.


Other novelty makers ran smaller operations. Among them was André Beaudoin, who, in addition to contributing to Harrelson's efforts, owned several patterns of his own. Described by other inmates as the best craftsman behind MSP's bars, Beaudoin emphasized quality rather than quantity. He eschewed the assembly-line techniques of the novelty kings, choosing instead to hold an individual inmate responsible for building a novelty item from beginning to end. That way, Beaudoin told me, a worker takes greater pride in his work and produces a better-quality product.

Beaudoin spoke to me animatedly about the technical details of craftworkabout the best woods and lacquers to use for particular jobs, for example. But he has curtailed his operations since the lockdown, he said, because of low-grade materials, overregulation, and red tape under the restructured novelty program.

The range of employee participation in the novelty program is illustrated by two cases:

• Thomas Mitchell, recently released from MSP after serving time for an assault conviction, worked for Jack Harrelson behind bars. Mitchell was one of the hardest workers among inmate employees; he took in, he says, around $200 per week prior to the lockdown. Currently, Mitchell works in Harrelson's free-world novelty business.

• John Roberts (not his real name), convicted of armed robbery, was one of the more sporadic inmate employees. He worked, he says, so that he could buy the drugs that "helped the time go by." Nevertheless, he earned nearly $4,000 the year prior to the lockdown.

As the novelty program flourished, other entrepreneurial talents were tapped. There arose inmate barbers who charged other inmates for style cuts. For the right price, an inmate could get his personal clothing laundered. For many of the prisoners, it was no doubt the first time they'd seen that individuals can profit by providing a good or service desired by others.

The novelty program was quite a success from the inmates' point of view. Every one of those I interviewed, from sporadic employees to novelty kings, agreed that the vast majority of inmates benefited greatly from the program. Some, it is true, were the targets of retaliatory action by the larger novelty operators, who, having gained considerable influence among the inmates, acted to counteract theft, the breaking of agreements between employers and employees, and general thuggism. Inmates who minded their own business, however, and refrained from violating the rights of others could freely take advantage of the economic opportunities created by the novelty program, earn wages determined by a competitive labor market, and escape the regimen of enforced idleness that characterizes most American prisons. Perhaps most important of all, they had control over and were permitted to take responsibility for an important aspect of their lives.

It was a unique program with unique results. It went a significant step further than any other prisoner work program in the history of US prisons.


Since at least the time Robert Stroudthe famous Birdman of Alcatrazbuilt his first canary cage while confined in prison, it has been generally understood that work can be a creative outlet and pastime for prison inmates. (Indeed, had Stroud been confined at Maine State Prison in the late 1970s, my guess is that he would have been a major inmate entrepreneur.) Stroud and others like him, however, have for years labored under the burden of stifling rules and anticompetitive laws.

It wasn't always thus. Inmate labor once played a central role in the American correctional scene. Prisons were originally intended to be self-supporting, and, as a 1940 Department of Justice report noted, "the success or failure of many wardens depended on their ability to meet this test, and many of them met it successfully, even though they may have failed in all else."

The early self-supporting prison, however, succeeded not by granting economic liberty to prisoners but by making slaves of them. The unfair competition created by the exploitation of prisoner labor generated political opposition from unions and businesses. As early as 1801, New York passed legislation restricting the use of convict labor and the goods that it could be used to produce. Similar restrictive laws became increasingly common following the Civil War.

Not until the Great Depression, however, was the blanket of restrictive laws limiting the market for prisoner labor completed. Nearly every state now has laws or even constitutional provisions controlling the sale and marketing of all but a few types of prisoner-made items. A common arrangement is to permit such goods to be sold only to state agencies.

The federal government has restrictive laws of its own. The most significant of these complements the state laws by prohibiting interstate commerce in prisoner-made articles where the recipient state has local laws against commerce in those same goods. Other federal laws prevent private industries from using prisoner labor to fulfill government contracts and require careful labeling of prisoner-made items as such.

The effect of all these statutes was virtually to wipe out the market for prisoner labor and for prisoner-made goods. Even if such a market existed, it would be difficult to satisfy it; prison regulations typically permit prisoners to sell only those goods that they themselves have produced in their entirety.

An interesting demonstration of the untapped productivity of convict labor occurred during World War II, when many of the federal restrictions on the sale and transport of prisoner-made goods were lifted by executive order in order to get prison industries to help the war effort. Statistics available for the period 1942–43 show that state prison industries produced nearly $10 million worth of war matérielmostly clothingduring that year. Not coincidentally, it is reported that prison morale rose significantly during the war years. But when the war ended the restrictions on prisoner-made goods were reinstated.

As a result of the anticompetitive laws and regulations, in virtually every prison the only work opportunities are in the traditional prison industriesthe making of license plates being, of course, the classic exampleand in prison maintenance and custodial work. In almost every case these positions are low-paying, and in spite of that the industries involved are almost everywhere money-losers. Few prisons have sufficient facilities to permit more than a small fraction of their inmates to participate.

A program that emerged during the '60s and '70s and expanded work opportunities for some prisoners is work release. Most states now have such a program, whereby minimum-security prisoners are permitted to work outside the walls of the prison part-time for private enterprises at market wages and under competitive business conditions. Importantly, work release participants are usually required to pay out of the wages they earn the costs of transportation to and from prison, room and board expenses, and taxes. By most accounts, work release programs are successes, but they are clearly inappropriate for most inmates.

A promising experiment to improve job opportunities and the incentives to work inside prison is Free Venture, until recently funded by the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. Free Venture programs seek to upgrade state-run prison industries. Occasionally, the state-run industry will, under Free Venture, act as a contractor or subcontractor for a private business.

The impetus behind Free Venture came from a study commissioned by the LEAA and published in 1978. The study examined typical prison industry programs and found they suffered from, among other things, low wages and productivity, short work days, overstaffing of shops, high overhead, poor financial controls and record-keeping, failure to teach useful skills, limited marketing efforts, and a lack of managerial capability. The solution? New prison industries designed to emulate the outside world of work"not busy work, but productive labor with outside-world efficiency, outside-world wages, and outside-world relevance."

Free Venture's practical achievements have been promising. LEAA helped to fund pilot projects in seven states. Prisoners chosen to participate in the program work in print shops, furniture shops, computer programming businesses, and farm machinery production businesses, among others. Wages are higher than in traditional prison industries, topping out at about $4 per hour, but not as high as originally hoped.

Initial results suggest that many prisoners in Free Venture programs develop positive attitudes toward work and that participation often aids a prisoner's reintegration into society upon release. Most importantly, Free Venture programs channel inmate energies into constructive outlets. Moreover, prisoners who are adequately rewarded often turn out to be unusually productive workers.

Free Venture is not without problems, however. First, the industries are rarely self-supporting, and some require heavy taxpayer subsidization. Reagan administration cutbacks in LEAA funding call into question the continued viability of Free Venture.

Second, some significant innovative features of the program as originally proposed have been dropped. These include requirements that participating prisoners turn over a portion of their earnings to help pay for the cost of their imprisonmentotherwise borne by taxpayersand to provide some form of restitution to their victims. Both deductions were originally proposed to force the prisoner to absorb a greater portion of the social costs of his or her crime. After all, there is no reason to punish taxpayers any more than necessary for criminality. Both pay-back schemes have, however, been dropped in the face of prisoner complaints and administrative inconvenience.

Finally, Free Venture, despite its promise, can usually offer jobs for only a tiny fraction of the total inmate population. The problem of idleness is thus reduced, but not significantly.

Free Venture has demonstrated the potential productivity of prison inmates and the benefits of tapping it. If the Maine State Prison novelty program under Warden Oliver is any indication, the way to release that productivity without the tremendous cost to taxpayers is to encourage not just prisoner work but prisoner entrepreneurship. But the fate of the MSP program also indicates the hurdles that such an innovation faces.


Why, despite the tremendous success of the novelty program in channeling inmates' energies into constructive activities, was the prison locked down? Donald Allen, director of Maine's Bureau of Corrections, admitted to me that for every example of problems with the situation at MSP there were undoubtedly numerous examples of benefits. So why did he personally, with the approval of the governor, plan, order, and coordinate the lockdown?

Lockdowns at prisons are not uncommon. Relatively frequently, prisoners will be locked in their cells while prison guards comb through the cells searching for and seizing contraband, usually weapons and drugs. Occasionally, lockdowns are used to foil rumored or suspected riots.

What was extraordinary about the lockdown of Maine State Prison was not the painstaking searches of the cellswhich resulted in 50 dump-truck loads of inmates' personal property being carted away, inventoried, and stored. Nor was it the fact that three inmates were transferred to federal penitentiaries in connection with the lockdown. Though one can quibble with the choice of those relocated, such transfers often occur in conjunction with lockdowns.

Rather, what was extraordinary about the lockdown was its duration10 weeksand the complete about-face in prison policies during that period. Warden Richard Oliver had resigned in protest. Donald Allen took his position on an interim basis. A classification committee was set up, and each and every prisoner was reviewed so that his security risk could be assessed and his living situation and privileges designed accordingly. Lock-up time increased from about 10 hours per day prior to the lockdown to an average of about 17 now.

The biggest changes, though, were made in the prison's economy. Permitted levels of novelty activity were cut almost in half; from a high of $15,000 in 1980, the cap on an individual's gross income was slashed to $8,000. More important than this change (since inmates had always before found their ways around the caps), state control over intra-inmate economic activity became much tighter. Prison canteen coupons were declared nontransferable; thus, the only legitimate form of currency in the prisonindividual prisoners' accounts in the prison's business officerested under state control.

Moreover, to add red tape to inefficiency, inmates who wish to hire other inmates to perform novelty work must now sign a staff-approved contract with the intended employee. Staff must approve wage levels and determine that the intended employer has sufficient funds to pay the promised wages even before work on any novelties has begun! Thus, employers cannot promise to pay inmates out of expected profits from sale of the novelties. Too risky, say the authorities; the employee may never get paid. Better, they implicitly say, that he remain unemployed.

The conclusion is unavoidable that, at best, MSP's novelty program is now viewed as it originally wasa way to provide inmates a little spending money and to relieve a little of the idleness at the prison. The "preferred" means to reduce idleness at MSP is by provision of traditional rehabilitative services: since the lockdown, Maine's taxpayers have funded improvements in MSP's library and a significant increase in nonsecurity personnel, including social workers and psychologists.

At worst, prison administrators are out to destroy the novelty program. Though they deny the charge, their actions speak louder. Particularly significant is the fact that, for the first time, MSP's state-run prison industries pay for work performed. (Of course, the industries still lose money; the taxpayers fund the losses). Although the cap on inmate earnings in the prison industry program is lower than in the novelty program$5,000 compared to $8,000the returns are more certain. Clearly, administrators are seeking to encourage greater participation in the traditional prison industries. The only possible loser from such a policy is the novelty program, particularly since inmates must now choose between participation in novelties and industries; they may no longer do both.

Whether the aim is to undercut the program's unique success or to completely destroy it, the question remains: Why the lockdown and attendant changes at Maine State Prison? One possible explanation is political. In the view of inmates and former inmates with whom I spokeJack Harrelson most vociferouslythe lockdown was a ploy to get more money from the state for the Bureau of Corrections and to have the bureau elevated to cabinet-level rank.

On the face of it, there is some evidence to back up the inmates' belief. For several years prior to 1980, Maine's legislature had repeatedly turned down requests from the Corrections Bureau for budget increases. Following the lockdown, and enormous accompanying publicity, budget increases were finally approved. Moreover, in September 1981 the Bureau of Corrections finally made it to the big time by being elevated to cabinet level. According to a newspaper account, a switch by a key legislator, Barbara Gill (R), who had earlier voted against such a move, was prompted by the lockdown.

In fact, however, there's not enough evidence to back the political motivation theory. It's no doubt true that, after the fact, Maine's correctional administrators took excellent political and bureaucratic advantage of the lockdown. But an afternoon spent with Donald Allen and other staff members at what was then the Bureau of Corrections convinced me that the reasons for the lockdown lie elsewhere: a failure of imagination. The situation at Maine State Prison before the lockdown simply did not fit within the traditional American model of corrections in which Maine's prison administrators are trained. It frightened them.


In the early days of the prisonswhich were first used widely as the principal means of criminal punishment in both England and America shortly after the American Revolutionbrute force was the predominant mode of dealing with inmates. Shackles, irons, whippings, tortureall these were used and even accepted. And in some more "progressive" prisons, such as the Cherry Hill Penitentiary in Philadelphia, near total isolation (intended to allow the convict time to reflect upon the evils of his past ways) solved many security problems.

Brute force is, however, as former Fortune editor and author of Criminal Justice, Criminal Violence Charles Silberman puts it, a grossly inefficient way to maintain order. And prison administrators did develop more sophisticated techniques.

Patronage provided part of the answer. Prison officials promoted some inmates above the rest by giving them special jobs within the administration. Essentially, the system was based on the ancient notion of divide and conquer. The favored inmates, who by the fact of their promotion gained a stake in maintaining the status quo, exerted influence over other inmates to keep the peace.

In some instances, this proved a highly effective means of control. In others, it amounted to an official sanction of violence by the favored few against the unfavored masses. Under the so-called trustee form of this approach, prisoners called trustees actually became responsible for guarding other prisoners; in some instances the trustees were armed. Stories abound of trustee inmates coaxing others to attempt to escape, shooting those inmates sucker enough to make the attempt, and then claiming additional favor from prison officials for their heroics. As a result of exposure of these and less dramatic abuses of the divide-and-conquer system, it is rarely used nowadays.

Shortly after the Civil War, there emerged another order within prisons, based on the premise that behind prison walls everything is a privilege. Good behavior is then rewarded by the grant of privileges; bad behavior discouraged by the revocation of previously granted privileges.

Until very recently—since the beginning of the '70sprison administrators had virtually unchecked power to dish out privileges, including work opportunities, furlough, decreased cell time, increased recreational time, and "good time" (which brings forward an inmate's release date). The parole system, whereby parole boards were established to grant early release to well-behaved criminals, was a particularly effective means of controlling inmate behavior.

This benevolent despotism behind bars was justified on rehabilitative grounds; essentially, the view was that inmates were being "trained" to behave well. In fact, of course, the system taught no such thing; prisoners behaved only so long as they were rewarded for doing so. Once on the outside, these ex-cons, no longer institutionally rewarded for good behavior, often returned to their former criminal paths.

To many prison administrators, though, the fact that the system was a rehabilitative sham was irrelevant; it served the purpose of maintaining a semblance of order. When combined with more overt security practiceslockups, searches, seizures, isolation, etc.the reward system guaranteed that prison would remain a despotic place despite the benevolent ideology.

In the 1970s, three developments coincided to reduce the power of administrators to deal with prisoners by traditional means. First, the courts began to involve themselves in problems behind the walls recognizing certain legal rights of prisoners. Though the scope of recognized rights has been comparatively modest, the change in attitude has been drastic; no longer are prison officials looked upon as courts of last resort for prisoners, and no longer can they look upon themselves as such. Second, the national trend toward determinate sentencingand concomitantly, in some cases, eliminating or limiting the powers of parole boardshas reduced the effectiveness of traditional order-maintaining devices. In Maine and several other states, the parole system has been undergoing a gradual phase-out since the mid-1970s. Third, new arrivals in prison are not only younger but, it is widely acknowledged, more prone to violence and nihilistic. Combined with racial animosity and overcrowding, this factor has resulted in a greater problem with violence behind the walls.

The response of prison administrators, guards, guard unions, academic penologists, and occasionally the courts to increasing levels of tension and danger in the prisons has been mixed. One reaction has been to decrease inmate freedom and step up the extent of intrusion into prisoners' lives. Lock-up time has increased in many prisons over the past few years. Another example: more and more, electronic surveillance is used to keep closer tabs on even the minutiae of inmate activity. The other response has been to provide improved living environments for and more services to prisoners. The theory is that such improvements will eliminate the causes of violence and vandalism inside prisons and contribute to prisoners' rehabilitation.

The American Correctional Associationa private, influential, prison-accrediting groupregularly adjusts its prison standards upward. In capsule, ACA standards represent the prevailing view of correctional experts regarding the conditions that must exist at a prison in order for it to be minimally satisfactory. For example, ACA standards require prison cells to be of certain minimum dimensions, require a minimum level of access to psychological counseling for inmates, require food to be of a certain quality and temperature, etc., etc. ACA standards do not, significantly, allow for inmates hiring one another to perform work or, obviously, paying wages for such work; indeed, virtually all inmate economic activity outside the context of state-run prison industries is unrecognized by the ACA.

The ACA prescription for maintaining order within prison and attempting rehabilitation is essentially a modernizedand, unfortunately, more expensiveversion of the benevolent despotism that has prevailed for years. If prisoners are legitimately imprisoned in the first place, it is because they are responsible for their actions. Yet the accepted mode of dealing with prisoners, reflected in the ACA standards, is to pay great attention to the "causes" of criminality on the outside and violence on the inside, while denying inmates any opportunity to assume responsibility for their own lives.


In 1979 Maine's Corrections Bureau dedicated itself to achieving compliance with the standards of the American Correctional Association. The same year it applied for and received a grant from the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to begin compliance measures. (Incidentally, the LEAA had subsidized the ACA standards-creating process in the first place.)

As a first step toward ACA compliance, the Bureau of Corrections commissioned a team from the Philadelphia-based American Institute for Criminal Justice (which, by the way, administers the Free Venture program for the LEAA) to study the conditions at Maine State Prison. It is hardly surprising that the team's report on conditions at the prison was overwhelmingly negative. "The prison was the worst I've ever seen," says George Sexton, the study team's leader.

According to the team's summary of the situation:

Current operations at the Maine State Prison violate nearly every accepted principle of prudent correctional management as practiced in this country today. The overriding reason for this is the fact that the staff do not control the prison. On the contrary, the prison is virtually controlled and operated at the whim of the inmates. The inmate economy generated by the novelty program dominates the entire social structure and operation of the prison. It is this economy which has enabled a few powerful inmates to exploit (through fear and intimidation) the labor of a larger, less powerful group of inmates. This same inmate economy has created and fostered an atmosphere in which the potential for staff corruption is too great to be ignored. The general conditions under which both staff and inmates are living and working at the Maine State Prison are so unsafe as to constitute a serious danger to the safety, health, and life of both groups.

It is true enough that the flourishing economy inside MSP shaped the social structure. At the top were the so-called novelty kings. Next came the lesser entrepreneurs, from inmate barbers and launderers to the smaller novelty operators. Beneath these entrepreneurs in terms of power and usually of economic well-being were the novelty employees, ranging from the sporadic worker who wished nothing more than to earn enough to keep himself supplied with the amenities of prison life to the more enterprising inmate who worked virtually all his spare time in the novelty program. Finally, on the lowest rung of MSP's social ladder there were two groups: the drug pushers and the strong-armers. (Another group, made up mostly of old-timers, chose not to get involved in the novelty program and remained effectively outside the prison's social structure.)

Yet in every prison there are powerful inmates and weak inmates. In most of them, the social differentiation is farther underground than it was at MSP before the lockdown, but there is little evidence that the more powerful inmates exploited all the rest through fear and intimidation.

The inmate workers I spoke to said that employees chose to work; no one forced them to do so. Usually, they worked on the basis of oral agreements with their bosses. Occasionally argumentsand, infrequently, minor violencewould ensue when an employee failed to perform promised work or when employers couldn't or wouldn't pay for work performed. By and large, however, work proceeded peacefully. According to James McCamant, prison industry supervisor, "We rarely had any problems in terms of fights or disturbances."

Since wages were not set by administrative fiat, as they are in most other prison work programs, the novelty operators paid wages dictated by the amount and quality of work and the availability of inmate labor. Some novelty employees at MSP earned as much as $50 a day, compared to the $0–$10 typical in traditional prison industries. Certainly the orthodox correctional model, consisting of low-paying or nonpaying state-run industries and closed markets for prisoner-made products, much more clearly exploits the labor of inmates.

In one area, however, the more powerful inmates did use fear and intimidation. According to Donald Allen, who took over at the prison with the lockdown and went on to become commissioner of the newly formed Corrections Department, a state of near war existed between the thugs and drug pushers on the one handthe "young turks," as he calls themand the "novelty kings" and their henchmen on the other.

Certainly the novelty kings recognized the young Turks for what they were: threats to the economic status quo. Nothing would more surely lead prison administrators to cut back on the newly won freedoms of inmates than would an escalation of drug pushing and violence and theft behind bars. So the novelty kings sometimes turned vigilanteusually, as far as I could determine, with the tacit approval of substantial portions of the remainder of the inmate population.

Now vigilantism is vigilantism, whether inside or outside a prison. Yet the fact is that the intimidation and violence involved was aimed at maintaining order within the prison. It was not the mindless violence that plagues so many prisons, where violence is engaged in because prisoners are denied other, constructive avenues of self-expression.

Moreover, although prison administrators claim the level of violence has fallen since the lockdown, they are understandably unable to document their claims. It is a simple fact of prison life that most attacks and beatings behind bars go unreported. To a man, the inmates with whom I spoke at the prison denied, however, that the lockdown led to reduced levels of violence; one said that what violence there was at MSP has simply gone farther underground.

In spite of the power of some inmates to impose some sort of order within the prison, the staff, contrary to the experts' report, remained in control of the prison. The prison watch towers were manned by staff, not inmates; prisoners were locked in their cells every night; they regularly appeared for head counts; they were not free to walk out the prison's front door.

Did the income flowing throughout MSP's internal economy pose the danger of staff corruption? If so, it hardly seems just to punish the inmates for that potential. That's not how police departments deal with this omnipresent problem.

Nor was the drastic lockdown warranted by safety problems discovered at the prison by the team of experts. Fire and disease hazards there were; cracking down on the placement of flammable materials and on the maintenance of food preparation areas would seem to have been an adequate response.

In the final analysis, Maine State Prison was locked down because it didn't fit into the correctional experts' picture of prison life. There is simply no place in ACA standards for inmates roaming around more or less freely within a prison or for prisoner-made products to be stacked haphazardly throughout it. Even more telling, there is no place for ambitious and talented individuals finding a way around bureaucratic restrictions on their activities, for prison workers' wages being determined other than by administrative fiat, for some inmates benefiting from others' desires for haircuts, laundry services, loans, or anything else. In short, the MSP lockdown occurred, not because authorities did not have control over the prison, but because they did not have control over the economic lives of the inmates.

Had the authorities responsible for MSP's lockdown realized that they were sitting on a potential gold mine, would they have carried it out with such dispatch? Had they seen the possibilities for making their prison into a showcase, might they have thumbed their noses at the tradition-bound experts and done all in their power to improve the freed-up novelty program instead of scaling it back?

When Chief Justice Warren E. Burger made a news-breaking speech in December 1981 calling for converting the nation's prisons into "factories with fences," MSP's administrators could have stepped forward with a real-world demonstration of the potential productivity of America's 320,000 prisoners under a program with real-world economic incentives. They could have pointed out the importance of a ready market for prisoner-made goods, thus backing up Burger's injunction to federal and state lawmakers to abolish all the existing restrictions on the production and sale of prisoner-made items. And they could have offered living proof of his claim that a program for prison production offers "a better chance to release from prison a person able to secure gainful employment."

What they could not have done, of course, is nodded their heads in agreement with Burger's promise that his proposal could take soaring prison costs "off the backs of the American taxpayers." For Maine's correctional authorities never tapped the financial bonanza that lay before them. While MSP's inmates reaped the benefits of their economic liberty, they never had to pay, nor even contribute toward, the costs of their crimes. Had their miniature economy included that eminently justifiable feature, perhaps it would have been more palatable to the bureaucrats, and on that day in April 1980, no riot troops would have gathered outside the prison walls to put a lock on a unique experience with business behind bars.

Jeffrey Shedd is a law student at Boston University. This article is a project of the Reason Foundation Investigative Journalism Fund.