The Walls

Oct 9, 2009 - by J. J. Maloney - 0 Comments

Missouri State Penitentiary

Missouri State Penitentiary 

A first person account of what it was like to serve time in the maximum-security prison at Jefferson City, Missouri.

by J. J. Maloney

When I was sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, in February 1960, there were 2,500 men inside "the walls." The white convicts slept three to a cell (except for several hundred in the one-man cells). The blacks slept as many as eight to a cell.

Stabbings and killings, robberies and rapes were common. Dope was easier to get in prison than it was on the streets. There were men in prison who were said to make more money each year from dope and gambling than the warden was paid. There were captains on the guard force who owed their souls to certain convicts.

You never knew whom you might have trouble with. The reasons for murder and mayhem made little sense to anyone except the convicts. So hundreds of men either carried a knife or had one they could get to in an emergency.

You wonder if you have an enemy in the "population." If you have, he has the advantage: He got there first, he made friends, he knows the prison. He has a knife; you don't.

A lot of men, thinking of the enemies they made outside, begin to imagine that they see them in a chowline or in a line of men going to work. And many of them "check in" for protection.

A lot of men would rather die than check in. A lot of men have died, though all they had to do was walk up to a guard and say "protect me."

There are other ways of getting into trouble in prison. No matter how much you've been around, you feel uneasy when you go to prison. If you are young and goodlooking, you can count on being confronted again and again. If you have money, there will be people who want it. If you are helpless, there are people who will try to make a reputation at your expense. Or you may simply say the wrong thing to the wrong person.

In 1961 a prisoner I knew went up to a 22-year-old man and told him that he wanted to have sex with him. The young convict, within two months of going home on a two-year sentence, replied, "I don't want any trouble-but I'm not going to be a punk." (A punk plays the female role in a homosexual relationship.)

The young man worked on the food service dock. The next day the older inmate walked up, drove a 22-inch ice pick through the young man and raped him as he lay dying.

In 1963, a 16-year-old black inmate resisted the sexual advances of a group of older convicts. They caught him in the A-hall shower and stabbed him to death while he screamed for help. After they killed him they rolled his body up in a tarpaulin, dried themselves off and returned to their cells. All because he didn't want to be a punk.

Some older inmates decided they were going to make a punk out of another young black convict at Jeff City. The boy's uncle, also serving time in the prison, tried to intercede in his behalf. The uncle was stabbed to death for "meddling."

You never know for sure what is going to happen from day to day in prison. If you mind your own business you probably will not have any trouble, but there is never any guarantee.

In 1966 an inmate working in the school was daydreaming and looking in the direction of another convict. At recess the daydreamer was stabbed twice in the liver. I watched him die. The killer remarked later that the victim had been staring at him.

Not long before that an inmate in the kitchen walked up to a man and chopped off the back of his head with a meat cleaver. He explained later that Moses had come to him in a vision the night before and told him to do it.

In prison, paranoia and fear are natural states of mind. You develop a vigilance and alertness that makes you sensitive to who is around you, their moods, their actions. You become chronically suspicious.

Violence is only one aspect of prison. Sometimes when you get to know the men you feared, you find beneath their icy visages warm, lonely, desperate beings who would like to reach out to you but who are afraid to.

There was a time when I cared for Ronald Westberg the way I would a brother. He was serving 25 years for shooting a state trooper. To his friends he was warm and giving-anything he had was yours. He tried to escape several times, always in the company of friends; one such attempt ended with two of his friends being shot down in the yard.

When Ronnie first came to the prison he was stabbed in the back over a relatively minor matter. He always carried a knife after that. He had a quick temper and assaulted several other inmates. He became increasingly paranoid.

Some inmates spoke resentfully of Ronnie behind his back. A lot of men tried to belittle him by starting rumors. These things got back to Ronnie. He felt that the convicts who hated him might think he'd lost his nerve; and if they thought that, they might work up the courage to attack him.

He had a kitten-he pampered it, spoiled it. A kitten was something he could love without his love being mistaken for weakness. One day he came in from work and found the kitten dead, crushed by the electrically operated cell door. He felt that it had been done by someone who hated him. He draped the dead kitten over the lever that operates the doors and vowed to kill the person responsible.

Several months later he killed a man. He told me later that he'd had an argument earlier that day with the person. When he came out of the cellblock to go to the yard, he said, "the guy was looking at me and laughing. So I killed him." That prison killing, plus his earlier escape attempts, pushed Ronnie's original 25-year sentence up to 52 years.

In December 1970, while in solitary, Ronnie hanged himself.

There are many Ronnie Westbergs, and while they live in fear they also create fear in others. I'm talking about a gnawing kind of anxiety that puts a sharp edge on all your senses. It permeates your subconscious. It catapults survival to the top of your list of priorities.

Wanting to survive in prison can make an actor out of you. There are certain roles you can play that enhance your chances of being accepted by other convicts, of being left alone, respected; and respect, ultimately, is the key to "making it" in prison.

The Missouri State Penitentiary is, and always has been, a custodial institution, one whose guiding philosophy is to minimize killings, riots and work strikes. The officials want a tranquil atmosphere.

There are programs at Jeff City-primarily education programs-but all of the programs combined involve barely one-third of the inmates. Some of the best programs were started by the inmates-in spite of official apathy, and often over official opposition.

The art class began with one man, once a death-row prisoner, named Samuel Norbert Reese. Sam was sentenced to die at age 19 for a murder committed during a holdup. Father Charles Dismas Clark took an interest in him, and with Clark's help Sam's sentence was commuted to life (actually, two lifes plus 75 years).

Sam got his hands on a painting course and developed an uncommon ability as an artist. (In 1961, because of his prison cartoons, he was featured in Time magazine).

Sam worked first as a porter in the Catholic Chapel and set up an easel in the corner. One day the warden, the late E.V. Nash, asked Sam if he would teach another, younger inmate how to paint. Sam agreed. His group grew, until he was given a corner in the library and, ultimately, a classroom in the school. One of the men he instructed was Albert Bradford, now known as Malik Hakim. The prison art group won many awards, had many exhibitions, and Reese and Bradford were recognized as possible "comers" in the art field.

Then the art class was closed by the warden, because, as he told Jan Dickerson, then art critic for The Kansas City Star, the inmates were drinking the oil paint and holding sex orgies in the art class.

Prisoners, however, said the reason was a dispute between the warden and the education director over who would get credit for what the artists accomplished.

Bradford was one of the first people I met in the prison. He had been sentenced at age 19 to life for forcible rape. By 1960, with eight years served on his sentence, he was an accomplished artist and an equally accomplished con man. He was one of eight or nine leaders among the black inmates--a Black Muslim at a time when only a few knew what a Black Muslim was.

He loved books, especially poetry, mysticism and oriental philosophy. He introduced me to Sam, and it was through talking with these two that I realized how little I knew about books.

They got me into reading, and they shared their small hoard of tempera with me. By drawing in the dirt in the yard, they showed me how to do line drills and taught me the principles of composition and perspective.

When we ran out of tempera we used instant coffee for yellow, beet juice for red, kitchen cleanser for white, crushed pencils, anything. In spite of our pleas the warden did not let us reestablish the class until 1964.

In 1961 I tried to escape. For that attempt I was given 10 days in the hole and six months in solitary. Solitary, at that time, was on the third floor of E-hall, a century-old building, now torn down.

Each of the three floors had two tiers of cells, for a total of 336 cells. The bottom floor was occupied by regular inmates; and since the E-hall cells were considered among the choicest in the prison, because of laxity of supervision, it was considered something of a politician's row. The second floor was for protective-custody cases-people who had "checked in" for protection from other inmates. The third floor was solitary confinement.

The days of true solitary confinement are largely past, although some prisons, including the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, still have cells with closed fronts. Solitary now usually consists of being put in a cell with a barred front; while you can hear your neighbor, you can't see him. You stay in that cell, except for a weekly shower and an occasional visit. Some prisons, including Jeff City, under pressure from the federal courts, have begun allowing token recreation, infrequently, but enough to keep them from losing a case in the courts.

Solitary confinement is a community of people unlike any other. It is enforced association for protracted periods of time. It is a world of mental tripping and daydreams, a world of frustrations and angers, magnified emotions and distorted responses.

The windowpanes on E-3 were painted green, so that during the day the area between the cells and outside windows was permeated with an anemic gray haze. In places where the paint had peeled from the window, shafts of sunlight cut like a knife into the cells. You could see a thin cloud of dust drifting through the sunbeams. And there were starlings. They nested in the rafters overhead, screeching constantly and fouling everything below.

Shower day was a festive time in solitary. It was then that we could actually see the people we had talked to all week. And the messages we wanted to relay to friends could then be given in person.

When we got tired of lying to each other about our fabulous lives "outside"--i.e., our fantastically successful criminal careers, our plentiful and varied amorous exploits, our feats of courage-we would play chess or "20 questions."

In order to play chess in solitary we fashioned the pieces out of soap and numbered the squares on hand-drawn boards from one to 64. Then, from 8 a.m. until lights out at 10 p.m., voices were heard all over the cell block:

"Eight to 18--12 to five--six to seven--nine to 40," punctuated occasionally by a distant voice shouting, "Why don't you punks shut up and go to sleep!"

In the regular population, you have some options-go to the yard, or stay in and read; go to school, church, join the Jaycees; go to the library, lift weights, play handball; draw a $25 coupon book and buy ice cream and cigarettes. In solitary you go nowhere. In the early years you were not allowed to have books.

On the occasions when an injudicious convict volunteered an opinion of a guard to his face, the guard would finish what he was doing-passing out mail, food, etc.-then return with a tear gas canister and empty it on the convict. The guard would then begin to unreel the firehose, but by the time the hose was unreeled the tear gas would have drifted into adjoining cells, and those men would join in to berate the guards. They would all be firehosed.

I spent my 21st birthday anniversary in the hole, in solitary, and it was that night that one of my friends from Algoa reformatory hanged himself in a nearby cell. He was within three months of going home, and he had received word that his wife was divorcing him. On the last burglary he had pulled he scrawled his name on a restaurant mirror with lipstick, and under his name the plea, "Catch me! I can't help myself!"

One way to get out of solitary for a few days was by self-mutilation. In the hospital you could score dope easily, get drunk, see people and just walk around. Seeking such a vacation, I cut my wrist after a month in solitary. Instead of hospitalization I was given 10 days in the hole and first aid for my wound.

What will put a man in solitary?

Being caught with a knife, dope, civilian money, a hack-saw blade, or other things considered serious contraband. Murder. Attempted murder. Rape, sodomy, homosexual activity in general. Escape or attempted escape. Engaging in a work or food strike. Inciting a riot (the administration decides what constitutes "inciting to riot"). And investigation. This last is often the worst, because you may spend many months in solitary and no one will tell you why you are being investigated.

At one time Black Muslim activity was sufficient to get you anywhere from six months to a year in solitary. When the courts recognized the Black Muslim faith as a genuine religion, the prison administrators resisted temporarily, predicting dire consequences, then finally admitted that the Black Muslims were generally a healthy and stabilizing influence among the black inmates.

In the 16 years and eight months I spent at Boonville, Algoa, Jefferson City, Moberly and Church Farm, I spent 2 1/2 years in solitary and 1 1/2 years more in the hole.

I went to the hole more than 30 times at Algoa and Jefferson City, and I consider those the most wasted periods of my life. The theory behind the hole goes back to the origin of prisons-deprive a man of everything he has to live for, and he will somehow repent of his sins.

I went to the hole once for "skating," which consists of being where you're not supposed to be. In my case I had walked to the front of the tier to get a glass of water for another man so he could make coffee.

Other men have gone to the hole for carrying bread from the dining room so they could snack late at night.

The hole at Jefferson City was officially designated "O-Hall." They took your shoes and put you in a bare cell containing only a toilet (it was flushed once every several hours by the guard).

There were 18 cells in the hole. The cells measure about 4 feet by 10 feet. I've seen as many as five men to a cell-two or three is relatively common. You have no toothbrush, since deprivation of personal hygiene is part of the punishment. For 10 days you do nothing.

We used to develop what we called "elephant hide" on our hips. The floor was of terrazzo tile (except for the last three feet, by the toilet, which is dark gray slate). After lying on the floor for awhile the pressure would make your hips tender, and after a few trips to the hole you would develop a dark callous.

They fed us once a day, at 11:30 a.m. We hoarded toilet paper so that we could wrap a sandwich in it for late in the evening. After six or seven days your stomach would shrink, and one meal a day would be sufficient.

The big thing in the hole was cigarettes. The inmate in charge of cleaning the hole (who also had a room there) usually could be bribed to bring cigarettes.

We didn't get cigarettes every day because some guards were more vigilant than others, and the inmate wouldn't be able to pass anything. But when we did score, you could hear such cryptic remarks as, "Man, I sure hope the sun comes out tomorrow," meaning the man talking needed a light.

A disconcerting experience was to wake up in the middle of the night with a two-inch waterbug crawling across your face. This happened frequently, especially late in the evening. If a waterbug came toward your cell, you could take off your shirt and shoo it toward someone else's cell. You didn't want to kill it-for one thing you were in your stocking feet; for another, you had to sleep on the same floor on which it was smashed.

But there is more to prison than the buildings, cells and administrative philosophy (or lack of it). The most important aspect of prison is the relationship of the inmates to each other.

Many in society believe that when a man goes to prison he should have but one thing on his mind-to be "rehabilitated." But life goes on, even in prison. You can't become a robot who has no emotional needs, a sterilized entity who thinks about nothing except an abstraction called "rehabilitation."

A large percentage of the men in prison are serving sentences of 10, 20, 30, 50, 100 years or life. The future, for them, is vague, uncertain, difficult to visualize.

How long can a man suppress his emotions and still retain the use of them?

On entering prison you are advised to "do your own time," which means that you do not meddle in the business of others. If you see a man getting killed, don't get involved. (I've known men who were thrown in solitary for "being involved in a fracas," which consisted of going to the aid of someone who was being assaulted.) There is one exception; the quickest way to make parole is to save the life of a guard who is being assaulted by a convict. The moral, which is not lost on the prisoners, is that you may go to the aid of the guards, but you may not go to the aid of your best friend.

One of the oldest sayings in prison is that "people mistake kindness for weakness." The easiest way not to show weakness is to be as cold as ice. It is a prison truism that the fewer friends you have the better off you are. (Your friends may get involved in something and drag you into it.)

Contrary to what Truman Capote said in an interview in the late 1960s, not all men in prison engage in homosexuality. Thirty to 40 percent would be a more accurate figure-and even this depends on the type of institution.

The more secure the institution, the more homosexuality there will be. The incidence reaches an apex at the maximum security prisons where there is less hope of relief. Also, in the maximum security prison, there will be more "long timers," for whom prison is a way of life. They find their memories fading; after a few years it's hard to reconstruct the faces of the girls you knew. Eventually new sex images begin to appear-those of the surrogate females that are everywhere in the prison world.

I remember celling once with a man who had been convicted on a charge of conspiracy to commit a hired killing. By that time he had been there a few years. One night he said to me, "You know, when I first came in, every time I saw one of these fags I had an urge to smack him in the mouth. But after a while I began to realize I wasn't on the streets any more, and I had to forget everything I ever learned out there if I wanted to live in here.

"In the first place, in here you never know who's who or who's what. Secondly, it doesn't make any damned difference. Out there a fag is a weak sonofabitch. In here, a fag will kill you just as quick as anyboy else. So far as I'm concerned, the only thing I want to know about a guy is if he's a snitch."

Incidentally, this man served more than 10 years without ever getting involved in any way with homosexuality.

Where is the prison administration while all this is going on? The only thing that ultimately matters to the administration is that you don't make waves. If you don't make waves, neither will they.

In general, prison personnel are not trained for the work. More often than not they are afraid of the convicts, and since they spend a large part of their time with the convicts they have a natural desire to be liked by them. To the convicts, a "good" guard is one who is interested in keeping trouble down without making life unbearable for the prisoners.

I remember one three-month period in C-hall when most of the cell doors stayed open from 8 a.m. to lights out at 10 p.m. There were no stabbings, no rapes, no robberies. The convicts knew that the guard was taking a chance, and that trouble in the hall could cause a general tightening up.

Prison employees suffer from the same sort of stereotyping that applies to convicts. The prison guards often are depicted as insensitive and slightly retarded brutes who get their kicks from breaking inmate fingers. A tiny minority fits that description. The rest are simply people.

When I first went to Jeff City The Starting salary for guards was $240 a month, and they wore no uniforms. During the summer crop planting and harvesting months, there would be many vacancies on the guard force, but once the crops were harvested the local farmers would sign on to work at the prison. Prison jobs were known among the farmer-guards as "the milk run."

There was surprisingly little guard-on-inmate brutality. One reason for this was a man named B.J. Poiry; though his actual title was senior guard captain, he was frequently addressed as "Major." He was a blocky, solid man with square chin, known to the inmates as "The Jaw."

Poiry smiled little, was zealous in the performance of his duties, and enjoyed the respect of most of the convicts. During the final years of the Nash administration at Jeff City, Poiry ran the prison. He was The Man.

In late 1964 the Jeff City prison was racked by a series of unrelated killings. Corruption was everywhere. One captain, called "Marrying Sam," was in charge of making cell changes for inmates. If you wanted a cell change you could give the captain's inmate clerk $5 and you would be moved within hours. I remember one 18-year-old boy who changed cells 18 times in a single month.

In late 1964, in a one-week period, one inmate smuggled in 14 ounces of amphetamine, another inmate 2 ounces, and another four ounces. So much dope was available, in so many hands, it was almost impossible to sell all of it. Then, in one 24-day period, four inmates were murdered.

The Nash administration at the prison ended when Warden Nash walked into his bedroom late one night and put a bullet in his brain.

Shortly after I arrived at the Missouri State Penitentiary, Warden Nash called me to the "control center" for an interview. "Maloney," he said, "I've reviewed your record from Algoa. You tried to escape twice, instigated a riot and cut another inmate up. If you behave like that in this prison you'll die in this prison. Either we'll kill you, the inmates will kill you or you'll die of old age. On the other hand, keep your nose clean, and you can reasonably expect to make a parole in 20 or 25 years."

At the age of 19, with many prison years in front of me, my least worry was making parole. I was far more interested in staying alive and maintaining some semblance of dignity. I felt that I had to prove myself-to not show weakness-to the inmates or the administration. This resulted in a hard-headedness that landed me in the hole many times, and in solitary five times, for trying to escape, making zip guns and allegedly stabbing another convict.

By 1965 I was beginning to think in terms of my future, and the possibility of someday making parole. This created a typical dilemma. I had invested five years toward making a "reputation," in the course of which I had also made some enemies. Now that I wanted to devote my time to studying, painting, writing and preparing for the future, I had to keep one eye on the past. Someone I had had trouble with might think I was now vulnerable (the dilemma of my friend Ronnie Westberg), and find some pretext to even an old score.

I eventually developed a frame of mind in which I would try to avoid trouble, and at the same time carry myself in such a way that those around me knew there was a point at which I would not walk away.

Fred T. Wilkinson, former assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, was appointed as the new director of corrections. Wilkinson brought in other former federal prison people, among them Harold R. Swenson, as warden. The new administration took over a prison that had been described as "the bloodiest 47 acres in America," and "a medieval twilight zone."

Under the new administration the food improved immediately. The long metal dining tables were replaced with four-man tables, recreation areas were expanded and cobble-stoned streets were blacktopped. Old buildings came down and new ones went up. "Evening yard" was started during weeknights. Radio and television sets were sold in the prison canteen.

The population at Jeff City began to drop because of the opening of the Fordland Honor Camp and the new medium security prison at Moberly, which ultimately absorbed 800 of the men who would have been assigned to Jeff City.

New dimensions of prison life began to emerge in the late '60s-food strikes; work strikes; racial tension and conflict; civil rights suits .

The first serious incident of racial violence during my years at Jeff City occurred in the summer of 1964. The administration had decided to integrate the prison. It began by moving a small group of blacks to one of the upper tiers of all-white F-hall.

Several days later, as a line of several hundred convicts was returning from the yard through the tunnel in the evening, the line was halted by several hooded men brandishing knives. Several minutes later a commotion started at the rear of the line. One black ran past me and was skewered with an 18-inch knife when he reached the front of the line. He fell dead. Three other blacks were stabbed.

For days there were rumors of an impending race riot, until a group of black leaders met with white leaders and talked the situation out.

There had always been prejudice and discrimination in the prison, but the two races had gambled together, bartered together, played together, worked together, all in relative harmony. Black-white relations were never the same after the incident in the tunnel.

On one occasion, two members of the E-Squad (guards trained in riot control) were standing in the tunnel as the inmates were returning from dinner. One guard called loudly to the other: "Hey, you grab the next nigger that comes along with one of them Afros, and I'll get the next sonofabitch wearing one of those nigger medals [Black Muslim emblems] around his neck."

It was in this kind of atmosphere that prisoners began to file civil rights suits in the federal court.

One of the first, filed by an inmate who'd been in maximum security more than three years, was instrumental in the construction of a small recreation area for the men in maximum security. A few other concessions followed.

In February, 1971, I requested a transfer to Moberly, and arrived there in March.

It was a radical departure from Jeff City. Instead of cells you had a room, and you carried a key to your own room. Instead of a green uniform you wore a grey uniform. You did not have to have a "pass" to go from one place to another-someone simply called and said "send Maloney back to the housing unit."

But it was a schizoid environment. It seemed peaceful, tranquil. When my family came to visit we were no longer separated by bars and screens, but could sit on couches and drink coffee together.

Back in the wings, which were seldom patrolled by the guards, it was a jungle. There was racial trouble of one sort or another at all times. Entire wings-70 men to a wing-would explode with violence. Young boys were raped with regularity.

From the day I entered until the day I left 18 months later I never saw anyone above the rank of guard captain in any of the wings I was assigned to.

When the day came to go to the pre-parole unit at Church Farm, I was happy to leave Moberly, even though I had been treated well there.

I was disheartened when five blacks at Church Farm raped a 22-year-old pre-release unit convict a week after I arrived. The civilian coordinator of the release unit asked me the next day if I would protect the man who'd been raped. I agreed but pointed out that in the event of violence my parole could be jeopardized.

So for the next three weeks I had to escort him to and from the dining room, the commissary, to the yard for exercise. I breathed a massive sign of relief when he went home.

No other problems arose before I, too, came home.

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