Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society

Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society

by James B. Jacobs

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Stateville penitentiary in Illinois has housed some of Chicago's most infamous criminals and was proclaimed to be "the world's toughest prison" by Joseph Ragen, Stateville's powerful warden from 1936 to 1961. It shares with Attica, San Quentin, and Jackson the notoriety of being one of the maximum security prisons that has shaped the public's conception of imprisonment. In Stateville James B. Jacobs, a sociologist and legal scholar, presents the first historical examination of a total prison organization—administrators, guards, prisoners, and special interest groups.

Jacobs applies Edward Shils's interpretation of the dynamics of mass society in order to explain the dramatic events of the past quarter century that have permanently altered Stateville's structure. With the extension of civil rights to previously marginal groups such as racial minorities, the poor, and, ultimately, the incarcerated, prisons have moved from society's periphery toward its center. Accordingly Stateville's control mechanisms became less authoritarian and more legalistic and bureaucratic. As prisoners' rights increased, the preogatives of the staff were sharply curtailed. By the early 1970s the administration proved incapable of dealing with politicized gangs, proliferating interest groups, unionized guards, and interventionist courts.

In addition to extensive archival research, Jacobs spent many months freely interacting with the prisoners, guards, and administrators at Stateville. His lucid presentation of Stateville's troubled history will provide fascinating reading for a wide audience of concerned readers.

". . . [an] impressive study of a complex social system."—Isidore Silver, Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226218830
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/31/2015
Series: Studies in Crime and Justice
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 300
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

James B. Jacobs is professor of law at New York University.

Read an Excerpt


The Penitentiary in Mass Society

By James B. Jacobs

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1977 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-38977-6


The Search for a Stable Equilibrium, 1925–36

Above all the cells were clean and airy. Indeed, it was the cleanliness and airiness that impressed me most about Stateville as a whole. What a contrast to the grimy, gloomy, forbidding surroundings of the old prison! Here the eye could wander hundreds of yards in one direction before being stopped by the barrier of the prison wall. From my high cell on the fourth gallery I could look over the wall to the rolling farmland beyond.

Nathan Leopold

Life Plus Ninety-nine Years

At the turn of the century the state of Illinois begat some of the most intense criminal justice reform efforts in the United States. One such effort was the construction of Stateville Penitentiary in order to ameliorate the deplorable conditions at the old Joliet prison. As for other reforms, we may note that in 1897 Illinois became one of the first states to adopt the indeterminate sentence, and in 1899, as a result of the state's Juvenile Court Act, the first juvenile court in the country was established in Illinois.

During the first year of Governor Charles Deenen's administration (1905), widespread agitation against the conditions in the old Joliet prison (built in 1860) attracted the attention of the citizens of Illinois. Investigations resulted in severe criticism of the state for maintaining "brutal and inhumane conditions." The state legislature quickly responded. In 1907, sixty-five acres were purchased in Lockport, across the river and six and one-half miles northwest of the old Joliet prison, as the site for a new, reform era penitentiary. A three-man legislative committee was sent to Europe to survey prison planning abroad. The committee was most impressed by the panopticon model laid out by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the nineteenth century. The panopticon differed from the traditional Auburn and Philadelphia prisons in its circular design so that, in theory, a single guard standing in the center of a round cell house could see clearly into every cell. The circular cell houses were placed like satellites around a huge central dining hall, to which they were connected by tunnels (spokes). A guard standing in the center of the dining room could, by rotating 360 degrees, look down each tunnel into each of the round houses.

Stateville officially opened on 9 March 1925. Although located several miles from its sister prison in Joliet, both institutions were administered by a single warden whose main office was soon permanently moved to Stateville. The four "round houses" (each with four tiers of exterior cells) maximized air and light and boasted such conveniences as flush toilets. (The old Joliet prison made do with slop buckets until it was finally remodeled in 1956). Instead of completing the two remaining round houses during a period of economic depression, the state chose to construct the largest rectangular cell house (B) in existence. B House contained 600 cells and, by 1932, 1,300 inmates. While Stateville had been built in order to relieve the overcrowding at the Joliet prison, by 1935 it held almost 4,000 inmates and the Joliet prison population had not been reduced. The overcrowding was not alleviated until the late 1960s, when a different moral climate favorable to probation and other "diversion" programs had achieved wide public acceptance (see table 1).

Beyond affecting the very decision to build Stateville, the reform energies of the period touched the prison in several ways. The Illinois Division of the State Criminologist was established in 1917. The state criminologist and his staff were charged with responsibility for "diagnostic evaluation" of the felon upon his entrance into the prison system and with treating mental problems among the prisoners. That the first state criminologist, Herman Adler (professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School), was a psychiatrist, indicates that the medical model was introduced early into the Illinois prisons. However, from the beginning the Division of the Criminologist maintained a multi-disciplinary approach. Social histories, psychological testing, and psychiatric interviews were all used in the preparation of reports which advised the Parole Board on the background of each offender.

The Division of the Criminologist included the research-oriented Institute for Juvenile Research as well as the Joliet Diagnostic Depot (across the street from the old Joliet prison). The fact that the Division of the Criminologist was established independent of the Stateville/Joliet organization demonstrates from the outset the organizational strategy used to blunt the blade of reform. Over the years, reforms which have introduced into the prison new roles and personnel have been consistently accompanied by the establishment of new departments with narrow responsibility. Such departments have generally been isolated from the locus of decision making rather than integrating professionals into the chain of command.

In its first decade, Stateville was weakly integrated with its institutional environment. Local autonomy was almost complete, but certain decisions, like the expansion or creation of new prison industries, could only be made by the Department of Public Welfare in Springfield. Before 1917, each Illinois prison was run independently by the warden and a board of trustees which exercised little or no control. In 1917, the Illinois prisons were placed under the Department of Public Welfare with the Superintendent of Prisons having nominal supervisory authority over the system. In practice, local autonomy prevailed almost totally, and the superintendent exercised little decision-making authority. In 1933, the Illinois prisons were coordinated under the Classification Act into the Illinois State Penitentiary, the intention being that each institution would serve a different "type" of offender.

Here was another example of how the prison system could be parceled out to different interest groups simultaneously. The Classification Act was consistent with the belief of "professionals" and reformers that inmates should be separated according to their treatment needs. But the professionals and reformers were given no authority either over prison programs or over prison transfers. At best, the criminologist's staff at the Diagnostic Depot could "recommend" institutional placement, but in general the professionals were unfamiliar with the programs available at the different prisons. In fact, the prisons might be distinguished from one another at any point in time only by the strictness with which inmates were being controlled. Perhaps the most significant effect of the Classification Act was to transform a prison "system" whose institutions were autonomous into a hierarchically organized prison system where the possibility of transfer from one prison to another reinforced social control for the prison system as a whole. In addition, social control was bolstered in 1920 when the legislature approved the Progressive Merit System, which tied "good time" deductions from the prisoner's sentence to overall participation and conformity to the institutional programs.

During Stateville's first decade, there were no institutionalized pressure groups or watchdog agencies impinging upon the prison. The most significant outside pressures came from a press that became increasingly concerned about "coddling criminals" as the violence on the streets during the Depression years continued to rise. Escapes, riots, and general violence periodically alerted press attention. Intellectuals related to the prison segmentally and intermittently. Nathan Leopold reports assisting one of Clifford Shaw's graduate students in a study of a professional criminal career. (In exchange for the assistance, the researcher supplied tailormade cigarettes on the sly.) The same convict also describes visits from Professors Burgess and Sutherland of the University of Chicago's Department of Sociology.

The 1928 Clabaugh commission, charged with evaluating the parole system and the indeterminate sentence law, is itself an example of intellectuals' interacting with the prison. The members of the commission were Judge Andrew A. Bruce, who taught at Northwestern University Law School, Albert S. Horno, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law, and Ernest W. Burgess, of the University of Chicago's Department of Sociology. John Landesco (later to achieve fame with his publication of Organized Crime in Chicago) was a young research assistant employed by the commission. The recommendations of the commission resulted in the creation of the Office of the Sociologist-Actuary in 1933, after the inauguration of the scholarly and reform-minded governor Henry Horner. This position established a "foot in the door" at Stateville for academics that was to last for decades, although, as with the state criminologist, the sociologist-actuary was not integrated within the Stateville administration but was under the separate authority of the Parole and Pardon Board. The sociologist-actuary and his staff, located at Stateville, pioneered in the development of parole prediction tables, which brought worldwide attention to the Illinois prison system. (The office was abolished in 1967, when the duties of the sociologist-actuary were incorporated into the Division of the Criminologist.)

It is a telling commentary on the organization's ability to isolate and restrict intellectual roles that men of the caliber of Ferris Laune (sociologist-actuary) and Saul Alinsky and Donald Clemmer (state criminologists) could be present at the Stateville/Joliet prisons and have no impact whatever on day-to-day operations. The narrow definition of their research roles prevented their attention from straying to questions about the daily regimen.

For decades, the intellectuals interacted with inmates rather than with officials. Essentially, their presence represented a formal co-optation of the reform elements of the society. The 1937 Illinois Prison Inquiry Commission noted in the foreword to its report:

State officials seem not to fully realize that university people can be utilized to the advantage of the officials themselves. University people are interested in social questions and will no doubt continue to visit penal and correctional institutions for factual materials. The question is, will the officials continue to look upon them as nuisances, or can these officials be brought to an understanding of the fact that university instructors and their students are capable of making valuable contributions toward the administration of public questions. It seems likely that the university men would embrace the opportunity to work for the officials and to work with them.

The prison was most closely tied to the partisan political system through both the staff and inmates. The spirit of reform in Illinois led to the passage of the Civil Service Law in 1905 and to its extension to all positions and places in state service by amendments in 1907 and 1911. Public interest waned in the next decade. In 1917, the Buck Amendment practically destroyed the significance of all previous civil service legislation. Besides adding new exemptions to the law, the Buck Amendment (1) gave the removing officer power to discharge an employee upon the mere charge that it was good for the service; (2) eliminated the opportunity for a hearing before the Civil Service Commission unless the employee stated that his discharge was due to political, racial, or religious reasons, and (3) gave the appointing officer power to make renewable temporary appointments.

Tension between the spoils system and civil service reform had profound consequences for the social organization of the prison. The Clabaugh commission bristled with criticism of pervasive partisan politics in the penitentiaries: "As it is now, our wardens and prison officers are often appointed solely for political reasons and with little regard to their qualifications." The early wardens too were political appointees, usually chosen from the ranks of local sheriffs. Under Illinois law a sheriff could not run for two successive terms. In some counties, wardenships alternated between sheriff and deputy; in others, between sheriff and prison official if both belonged to the party in power. Elmer Greene, for example, former sheriff of Lake County, became the Stateville/Joliet warden in 1926. As sheriff he had earned the indebtedness of Governor Len Small by helping the latter sway public opinion in Waukegan, where Small had been tried (and found innocent) of converting public funds to his own use. (The governor was later indicted for bribing the jury but was again acquitted.)

As warden, Greene considered it a matter of course to require employees to contribute to the governor's political party and to the payment of the $650,000 judgment that had been entered against Small in a related civil suit. The Catholic chaplain's first paycheck at Stateville in 1928 contained a bill for $5 labeled a "contribution" to that judgment. When Small was replaced in Springfield by Governor Louis Emmerson, Major Henry Hill was appointed warden. He too was without previous prison experience. When approached early in his term by the Catholic chaplain with a warning that a riot was imminent, Hill replied, "I can handle it. If there's trouble, I'll kill 'em."

The Illinois Prison Inquiry Commission, appointed by reform governor Henry Horner after the sensational killing of Richard Loeb at Stateville in 1936, was even more pessimistic about the effect of the spoils system on the prison's ability to accomplish its goals.

The success or failure of a sound prison program rests upon the personnel selected to administer the system. The practice seems to be that with each new incoming administration, the personnel of our prison changes. This is due largely to the fact that a great number of positions in the penal system become available for political patronage regardless of the individual qualifications for the job. As a result, one can scan the pages of Illinois history and find that in nearly every administration there has been some major uprising in the penal system, riots causing a loss of many lives, and the destruction of much state property.

The guards were as closely tied to the political scene as were the senior administrators. Their jobs were allocated by patronage and were lost when the governorship passed into the hands of the rival political party. Not only was job security nonexistent, but wages were barely above subsistence. The 1928 Clabaugh commission noted:

The position of the guard is well-nigh intolerable. His salary is ridiculously low, far less than that which can be earned by even the most incompetent mechanic. His hours of labor are very long — sometimes sixteen hours a day, and he himself is a prisoner. His isolation is almost complete, as under the rules which exist at Joliet, at any rate, he is not allowed to talk with prisoners.

The guards were so poorly treated, according to Chaplain Eligius Weir, that until Warden Joseph Ragen was appointed in late 1935, there were only enough beds in the guards' quarters to accommodate half the men. When one shift was relieved, it would literally take over the bed and bedding of the shift coming on duty. Not only were the guards underpaid; they worked twelve (sometimes sixteen) hours per day six days per week in a situation of chronic understaffing. On average, 225 guards (divided between two shifts) were available to guard 3,400 inmates (1:15), compared with the current 400 guards divided among three shifts for 1,500 inmates, (1:3.75). Once again, the Clabaugh commission report illuminates the guards' plight:

The guards are on the twelve hour system. Every regulation enforced upon prisoners is a constraint upon the guard; he is under constant tension, further irritated by minute encroachment from an idle and sometimes ill-humored convict group. The life of the guard, except for his privilege of leaving at night after his twelve hour shift, is in many cases more unpleasant than that of the convict....

The guards are politically appointed, untrained for their work by even an institutional school of instruction, with no assurance of tenure or pension, underpaid, many physically unfit for the crises (escapes, mutiny, pursuit and suppression), inexperienced in prison conditions; many of them [are] called "hayseeds" by the finished Chicago criminal.

The very high levels of idleness, violence, and escape that marked this period have to be considered, in part, as a consequence of the spoils system (see table 2). Since state government was organized not so much to provide service as to provide employment in order to reinforce political constituencies, the organization was naturally plagued by inefficiency.

Many of the personnel were replaced whenever an election changed the party or faction within the party that controlled the governor's office and those who survived sacrificed their rank. At any one time, only a small cadre of trained guards was present to run the industries or to look after security properly. Rules were made up on the spot to minimize the guard's work. Discipline was arbitrary and capricious. Lockup in solitary confinement was accompanied by "stringing up," which required the inmate to stand handcuffed to the bars eight hours a day for as long as fifteen days, sometimes longer. During the ordeal, he was sustained on one slice of bread and one glass of water a day.


Excerpted from Stateville by James B. Jacobs. Copyright © 1977 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Morris Janowitz
Part I - The Authoritarian Regime
1. The Search for a Stable Equilibrium, 1925-36
2. Emergence of Personal Dominance, 1936-61
3. Challenge to Institutional Authority, 1961-70
Part II - The Search for a New Equilibrium
4. Emergence of a Professional Administration, 1970-75
5. Intrusion of the Legal System and Interest Groups
6. Penetration of the Gangs
7. Transition of the Guard Force
8. Overview: Restoration and Beyond
Appendix 1: Participant Observation among Prisoners
Appendix 2: Tables

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