The Big House Goes Coed

It’s hard to tell who’s a prisoner and who’s not at the federal pen in Fort Worth, where men and women together is just one of the unique things going on.

March 1974By Comments

It’s December, and the only man ever to sit down in an electric chair and rise up again is painting Peanuts characters to decorate the doors of the staff for Christmas. His name is Bob, he seems to be at some imprecise point in his fifties, and he has an interesting technique of supporting the wrist of his brush hand as he moves in for the broad strokes on Lucy Brown’s dress. As he talks above the elaborate attention he pays to his work the electric chair story becomes a little less romantic: it seems he was a trustee in Florida at the time, on a work crew that was installing the chair and he sat down in it on a dare that cost him some time in solitary but earned him write-ups in the local newspapers.

If this were the office of a junior high school guidance counselor, which it resembles, Bob would make a perfect handyman, the kind of cheerful, neutral adult with an enormous ring of keys that kids can afford to be friendly with. But it’s not a school, it’s a prison—The Federal Correctional Institution of Fort Worth—and though there’s no denying the fact that Bob is a prisoner, here in his own home he’s called a “resident,” one of the many courtesies (no, dignties) afforded to the population of this two-year-old, quietly revolutionary institution.

Most of the sensationalism for this article is supposed to stem from the fact that we’re talking about the nation’s first and, at the moment, only “coed prison.” But though no one at FCI is ready to deny that that aspect of the institution is crucially important, they’re very eager to point out that it’s only part of the story, and it’s a little less salacious, by the way, than we angle-mongers insistently report to keep our readers salivating.

The fact is that 101 of the 524 residents at FCI are women, and they and the male population are allowed to, in the least resonant sense of the word, “interact.” Chastity is enforced and, except in what are apparently rare cases, maintained. Men and women can talk together, hold hands, learn how to act around an entire sex from whom, in many instances, they have long been shut off. Residents who are married are allowed to go together on brief “furloughs,” though inside the prison they must live in separate buildings the same as the other residents.

But the proximity in confinement of men and women is only one vital facet in the function of FCI, which is, as more than one person is to tell me, a “decompression chamber” in which a resident can gradually adapt to the outside world. It’s a sort of penal mock-up of society, designed to reintroduce people who have been trying to survive in penitentiaries into a bigger world where the definition of survival is more elusive, a world that more often than not throws them and their prison-learned coping schemes off, like a body rejecting a transplanted organ. Nearly half the residents at FCI are in prison on drug-related charges. All are at least two years “short,” meaning they have two years or less remaining on their sentences. When they have six months or less to go they’re eligible for furloughs, community programs, family programs and other chaperoned sorties into the outside world.

The prison itself has a kind of hoary, blockhouse appeal; on a foggy night the FCI “facility” probably looks a little like Orson Welles’ version of Xanadu, the way it perches on the summit of a blank, Moorish hill five or six miles removed from the heart of Fort Worth, at once cozy and darkly eccentric. It was built in the Thirties as a federal mental health institution, its buildings connected by a series of eerie underground tunnels that didn’t help dispel any myths about the mentally ill as zombies. The Federal Bureau of Prisons acquired it in October, 1971, and after six months of reorganizing and fence building, deemed it suitable for a minimum-security prison.

By daylight its charm can best be appreciated by a military strategist with an eye out for defensible positions. It’s a stoic set of buildings, blockish, not entirely unfriendly; and it looks, with its huddled consistent Spanish Bauhaus architecture and high but wispish hurricane fence, like a college under siege. Indeed, it takes a while to realize that the fence and the barren slope are there for a purpose, that all the patrollable ground is not intended simply to afford the inhabitants an uncluttered vista of Fort Worth.

CHICKEN SOUP AND OTHER RECIPES

“It might be a good idea to keep your mind open to other things that might have more significance,” says Alan Baird in quashing my “coed” angle. A former Mormon prison chaplain from Utah, Baird is a reticent, likeable man with an implicit ministerial handsomeness. He’s the director of community programs at FCI. From what I can gather, this is partly a PR role, though he seems a little too serious and preoccupied to fool with that. He sits and answers my questions with a restlessness that now and again peeps out of the folds of his courtesy. He gives me some literature about FCI, some copies of the resident organ Que Paso (one featuring a metaphorical recipe for chicken soup: “The chubby, sponge-like matzo ball, not unlike the unconscious, lies 90 percent below the surface of the soup”), and some photostated newspaper articles, including one dealing with the family visitation program Baird has initiated, in which local families can “adopt” residents to help them adjust to reentering society.

Then Baird leaves me awaiting arrival of the first in a series of escorts who will relay me about the prison each to each. No one seems to want to say directly that even members of legitimate press are considered potential security risks: after all, anybody could have a couple of lids of grass contrabanded somewhere about their person. There’s a tacit agreement during my stay that I’m not to wander about the grounds on my own, though I’m free to talk privately with any resident.

So I wait in a corridor of the administration building, which is pleasantly remodeled along the lines of a small but plush hotel. A stream of people, most of whom I later realize are residents, issues out of a long row of offices decorated with some of Bob’s Peanuts cutouts.

Sitting there a while, I begin to realize how steeped I am in traditional TV prison lore: when a Dean Jagger look-alike walks by I immediately assume he’s the warden; I find myself looking for scars, tattoos, sneers, something to identify prisoners. But that won’t work: the stereotype shatters partly because residents are allowed to wear their own clothes, grow their hair to whatever length they want, even, in one case, to affect another gender. The whole basis for the guard-prisoner relationship seems to be changed. Between the people I finally identify as resident and staff there is no air of authority , condescension or contempt. That huge gulf between those who have power and those who do not seems curiously at ebb here.

Lunch, which costs a dollar for the unincarcerated and is served in the prototype of every institutional dining hall in the world, seems to be some sort of beef stew/chow mein melange which, despite an alarming amount of onions that keep floating to the top of the bowl like jellyfish, doesn’t taste bad at all. By and large the food in this institution is looked on with respect. After all, Pat Thompson eats here and she’s a fully-enfranchised citizen, free to go anywhere she wants for lunch. But then that’s an academic concept: this is the kind of woman who would eat weevily hardtack with galley slaves.

A quiet, ingratiating person of maybe 40, with a soupbowl/activist haircut and facial features that express emotions from a fixed, visible base of compassion, Thompson is an intern at FCI working on her master’s in criminology. She speaks enthusiastically, in a language studded with phrases from pop psychology: “sharing,” “relating,” “interacting,” and references to a “white elephant” which I don’t yet understand. Gestalt therapy, transactional analysis and other therapeutic programs make up a big hunk of the rehabilitation pie at FCI. All residents are required to spend at least two hours a week in a “group” of some sort, and there is one living unit of 26 people which is a permanent community monkishly devoted to the therapeutic life.

The 4-4 unit, as this community is known, is one of five autonomous living units for men, each with its own counselors, caseworkers, and specific programs. Besides 4-4, which is open to residents from other units, there are the Comprehensive Health Unit (CHU), for residents with medical problems, most of whom are middle-aged; the NARA unit (Narcotics Addict Rehabilitation Act), for heroin addicts; DAPS (Drug Abuse Prevention), for people convicted of drug-related crimes other than heroin; and STAR (Steps Toward Alcoholic Rehabilitation). The Women’s Unit is a separate entity with its own treatment programs, unfortunately positioned at the bottom of prison information sheets, right beneath alcoholics and drug addicts.

Glancing around the dining hall I perceive a strong resemblance between this place and that periodically notorious watering hole, the University of Texas Chuckwagon in Austin: in fact, I’m astonished to find that in a few instances the clientele overlaps. Over in a corner I see a girl with whom I once floated down the Colorado river on a raft, during the late Psychedelic Age. I remember now hearing she was apprehended for a moderately enterprising drug deal: it’s one of those cases where cause and effect become chillingly clear, like descending into purgatory to a convention of people who’ve wafted out of your life. I’m not clear why I decide against walking over to talk to her.

But back to the facts. Pat Thompson is telling me how FCI isn’t that much stricter than, say, TCU in terms of sexual restrictions. And God knows how they deal with fornicators there, but when it happens here the coitus interruptees are put into “segregation,” which is milder than solitary but stronger than “Go to your room!” People who consistently work against the rules, or whose displays of overt violence constitute a pattern than cannot be controlled, are liable to be shipped off to other, less idyllic, prisons. The emphasis in retransfers is not punitive, says Thompson, more a painful admission that FCI is neither equipped nor staffed to handle those kinds of problems.

But violence (judging from both official and resident sources) is sufficiently rare as to be only an occasional individual problem. Homosexual attacks, common in penitentiaries, are rarer still, and according to quite a few of the residents homosexuality itself is almost insignificant. The population being fairly evenly divided between Chicanos, blacks and whites, there is racial identification without a great amount of racial tension: here in the dining hall the tables tend to be territorial in terms of race and culture (young blacks at one, white hippies at another, one with Chicanos, one with the elderly, etc.) but there are enough mixed tables to stifle any theories about ironclad racial alliances.

As we gather up our dishes and trays to take back in true summer-camp fashion to the conveyer belt slit to be washed, Thompson tells me about visitation privileges: a resident can have as many visitors as he or she wants, as long as the resident submits a list of approved visitors. Visiting hours are from 3:30 to 9:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends. There are, of course, no physical restraints between residents and their families or friends, and a lot of picnicking and strolling takes place on the collegiate lawn.

It’s tour time, and Pat Thompson takes me first to the Education Building, one of four rather chunky edifices that form an impenetrable quadrangle in the center of the prison. The education “building” is really only a sizable section of a building which has a variety of identities. We walk into a classroom that looks like a language lab, with tape machines in individual carrels. Here residents can work toward their high-school equivalency degrees, using an elaborate array of audio-visual gadgetry, including cassettes that provide self-scoring and pacing. Except for a full-time tutor, the classroom is run by residents. Residents, in a scaled-down Sony-equipped TV studio down the halls, also produce some instruction tapes: “Hi, I’m Linda, and I’m here to tell you about vitamin D.”

In other areas of the building are the printshop where Que Paso is produced, a typing and data processing training room, a chapel that serves the needs of a multitude of officially-sanctioned religions, and a coffeehouse. Near the coffeehouse is an outlet for one of the tunnels that connect the buildings. At night, when the residents are not allowed outside, they travel underground like vampires through this spooky and disorienting matrix that looks, from one end to another, as endless and claustrophobic as the Holland Tunnel. For the first time since I’ve been here I can feel the throbbing dullness of incarceration, and I want out.

In the CHU unit, the health unit mostly peopled by middle-aged and elderly residents, a man named Rocky invites us into his room. Like the others on the floor it is private, a small window in the door reinforced with chicken wire the only hint that it’s not a college dorm room. Rocky (he, like most people in prison, doesn’t want his last name mentioned) has a heart bad enough to keep him more or less restricted to his room. His hair is as white as his T-shirt but he has the kind of face that doesn’t age. He makes jokes about the Playmate pin-ups on the walls, as though that recent trend to show pubic hair embarrasses him, and talks about Leavenworth, where he’d been since 1959. His years of prison seem to have made him eccentrically domestic, so he resembles, inside his tight, neat room, with his photographs and books like Mysteries of the Sea by Robert de la Croix and The White Cheyenne by Max Brand, a bowerbird turning around and around in its nest.

“In case you don’t know it, this is a jail,” he laughs.

There is a Social Education class in progress down the hall, a lecture about “Attitude” for people from the Vocational Training Program, mostly carpenters and painters, mostly black. It’s taught by a tall, thin ex-resident who, with his goatee, looks like the stereotype of The Professor in a Beach Party movie.

“An idea is intangible, something you cannot touch,” he says as he makes stray marks on the blackboard for emphasis. “Now—Have I told you about the White Elephant?”

A few of the students, who are listening with an attention that seems rather curious, nod their heads earnestly. They’ve heard it. For the second time I miss connections with the White Elephant parable.

“FUNKY BEHAVIOR”

“I really don’t think it’d be fair of me not to tell you about this,” says Pat Thompson, rummaging a little mournfully through a file to produce a small clipping from the Fort Worth Paper, “you’d probably hear about it anyway, and I think it’d be best if you heard about it from us.”

The clipping is about a man who was found dead in his girlfriend’s apartment closet of multiple stab wounds and blows to the head. The suspect they arrested over the weekend was a 27-year-old resident from FCI on furlough.

“Do you think he did it?” I ask her.

“Well, he’s confessed. I don’t know. I just won’t be convinced until I know the whole story. I know him very well, he used to come in all the time with these drawings.”

The drawings are mostly sentimental, wide-eyed cartoons; one of them is an empty birdcage with a bird flying around outside and the word “Free” written in the corner .

As she talks an accumulation of hope drains from her eyes: apart from its potential for institutional damage, such a crime is a bitterly personal blow. At FCI it’s called “funky behavior.”

“If he’s convicted they’ll probably just send him back to Huntsville,” she sighs. “What do you say when you hurt for someone?”

Down near the base of the hill an ornate Victorian silo, a relic of the days when the mental health facility was a working farm, lurks out of a brewing dust storm. And what I at first take to be a setting, refracted sun turns out to be the full moon rising ponderously through the dusk.

CONVERSATIONS

Prefacing what is to work itself into a near two-hour diatribe, Sam Pollard (“Sure you can use my last name—put it in there: P-O-L-L-A-R-D!”), a thirty-ish resident wearing a slinky red T-shirt and plaid pants, pronounces “In the past two hundred years everything our society has done about felons has been WRONG!”

I manage to ask, before he takes off in a spurt of articulation in which he incorporates a bogus note by Bob Hope, if that judgment includes FCI.

“No,” he says, “this is a PROPER, EXPERIMENTAL SETTING! whoever came up with this idea is LOOKING into the FUTURE of AMERICA!”

And other than some negative feelings about some members of the staff (“They haven’t been THROUGH what we have. We should use ex-offenders as staff!”) Sam’s enthusiasm is untarnished and delivered in a kind of super-charged transactional dialect.

“The answers are in the communities, not in the prisons. The gates have to swing BOTH ways!”

And tonight the gate is scheduled to swing out when Sam goes to Baylor University to deliver a lecture to a group of criminologists.

“It’s pretty equal here”, says Susan, who, with her severely cut black hair and green fingernails, looks a little like Liza Minnelli. Pretty equal, she feels, even though women, being the most conspicuous minority in this prison, feel the brunt of the sexual security precautions. Women are always accounted for, always escorted at night above ground while the men range about in the tunnels beneath them.

I ask her if it bothers her that the machinery at FCI stops short of anything resembling sexual freedom.

“It could be more lenient,” she replies, “I think a lot of people here could handle it.”

There are some other improvements she can think of as well: the institution is understaffed, she’s unhappy with her “group,” the women’s unit needs repair work, and there aren’t enough activities for the high school graduates who are ineligible to take courses at nearby Tarrant County Junior College (to do that you have to be six months short).

“But really ,” she says, “everything runs pretty smooth here. If somebody had told me about this place I wouldn’t have believed them.”

Tattoos of naked women hover like archangels above the picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe breathing on Paul’s chest. He has the athletic build of an artist who, when he’s working, aims himself beyond his physical endurance. His best work shows the exertion: brooding portraits of Geronimo, of a matador, of Johnny Cash staring viciously from a prison cell, all with the paint thickly paletted on in crude, dark ridges.

Paul lives in DAPS, the non-heroin drug unit. A colorful mural in the hall is the only hint of psychedelia and from the hall the rooms have the gray metal exterior of footlockers. Inside, though, they seem comfortable enough, and Paul, who is a resident advisor, has a corner room with two sets of windows and a high-intensity lamp for when he needs more light.

This morning he’s at work on a portrait of his girlfriend, taken from a photograph and not much different from the kind of thing you can have done in those art galleries in enclosed shopping malls. But this is a favor, he says, it’s not the painting he feels most comfortable doing. He feels his real work, which is strong and vivid, can earn him a decent living once he’s released. He has an 18-month parole to work off, first, during which time he must hold at least a half-time job because he can’t convince anyone that his painting is more than a “hobby .”

“A hobby!” he sneers.

“This is the only place I’ve ever seen where if somebody’s mad at the caseworker they can tell the warden.”

Ted, a heavy man with a steady, oppressed stare, has an appointment with Warden Campbell this same afternoon to talk about his Christmas furlough that’s been canceled by his caseworker.

“It was down there in black and white, there was no question about the wording, eight men read it straight. Then two women caseworkers screwed it up. There’s no question about it: a woman don’t think like a man. In my business on the outside I hated to deal with women!”

Does the presence of women in this prison bother him?

“Oh hell no,” he says, “but a woman just don’t think like a man!”

George, a carpenter trainee from the NARA unit, displays when I introduce myself an ethereal sort of cordiality, leaving me to wonder if I might be violating his air space. He leans his chair so his back rests on the dining hall post behind him: he’s already finished his lunch, hot dogs with that faint stinging taste of too many preservatives. I ask him if he, as a black, feels any racial tension at FCI.

“No, not really. We have an understanding here. Everybody seems to get along. It’s all right here. I’d rather have my freedom, but it’s all right here.”

Russell, a fellow NARA who looks like he might be in his late twenties, has been unloading his lunch tray at the table as we talk. He has an air of solid respectability and courtesy widely removed from any visual concepts of criminality.

“I view this whole institution as a learning center,” he says, “If I hadn’t done time I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go back to school. In fact, if I wasn’t kept away from my loved ones this would be a beautiful place.”

“Warden Campbell is the best thing that’s ever happened to this place,” he continues, leaving room for some negative rumblings about some of the staff, who, he says, “don’t have enough background to relate to drug addicts.”

Russell says treatment for addiction in the NARA unit excludes “substitute” drugs like methadone (although, according to the warden, it’s sometimes used initially); the reliance is placed heavily on Gestalt therapy and transactional analysis (“TA”).

“And I want to say something about sex,” Russell blurts out, “My wife reads all these articles that come out about this place and she thinks we have scheduled orgies up here. Now I’m not denying that sex goes on here, but it’s not so low on repercussions that you’d better not think twice about it. I wish you people would get that sex thing straight so my wife would stop writing me about it.”

All the while I’ve been here I’ve felt vaguely miscreant about not asking every inmate I meet, according to the hard-hitting reporter formula, “What’re you in for?” But that question, I notice, holds no interest for me: it’s just another way to retreat into stereotypes, as though a crime is a capsule summary of character. And it seems a mishandling of the astonishing civility and openness of virtually every resident I meet to ask to see only what is flashy and forgotten.

Warden Charles Campbell is a rangy man with a talent for appearing flawlessly groomed and approachable at the same time. Extending that impression, his office features an area of plush chairs that eschews the traditional desk barricade between Official and Person A. He’s as relaxed and open as a family doctor, with clear, droopy eyes and hair that just barely avoids creeping over the tops of his ears.

“What we call ‘mutuality’ is the most important idea of all here,” he drawls in his character actor’s voice, “exposing residents to the community and vice versa. Uh, I suppose you’ve heard about what happened with one of our people this past weekend.”

I nod, surprised that he should voluntarily broach a subject as potentially dangerous to FCI as the killing Pat Thompson told me about.

“I was very discouraged about that. Then I began thinking that in over 15,000 resident trips to the outside we’ve had only two serious incidents of violence.

“We have problems here, of course. We haven’t yet discovered all the techniques to monitor it, but we do know this place is successful in terms of climate and the lack of violence: we don’t have problems with people not being able to go to sleep at night.”

I ask him why, exactly, residents aren’t allowed to have sexual relations.

“No, I don’t think it’s so much a moral question as a pragmatic one. We’re under a great deal of scrutiny here from the rest of the community, and we deserve to be. There’s a pace you have to keep in mind with these things. Right now, for instance, we’re concentrating on married couples and what we can do in that area.”

About the estrangement and containment of the women residents in order to discourage sex, he seems genuinely concerned and a little stymied.

“Naturally, the inclination is to try to put the burden of security on the smaller group. It’s true that more of the compound is off-limits to women than it is to men, and that’s a serious problem which we don’t have the facilities at present to correct.”

Like an antebellum Southern aristocrat who refuses to own slaves, Campbell, a 19-year veteran of the Bureau of Prisons, moves through his role of warden with a gracious, human conservatism. It is high praise to any official when an interviewer can say that at the end of the conversation he did not feel dispensed with, shuffled aside for more important business. If that languid courtesy extends to Ted, who is waiting to see Campbell armed with legal ramifications of the denial of his furlough, the “revolution” at FCI may be starting from the top.

TALES OF TRUNKS AND THE TREATMENT MODALITY

The white elephant metaphor revealed. Standing in front of a blackboard on which he has just drawn the “I’m OK—You’re OK” scale, Robert explains it this way:

“You’ve got a white elephant on your ass: the government, the police, churches, whatever. So what do you do about it?”

There are, he says, three basic solutions: 1) the “Housewife” solution, simply lying down under the elephant and not worrying about it, which something like 84 percent of the population does; 2) the “Hip Slick” solution: you grease yourself and slide out, all but useless since there are plenty of other white elephants around waiting to sit on you; 3) the “Radical” solution, whereby you sharpen a stick and jab the elephant with it, arousing his anger and causing him to focus more attention on you; or you can 4) try the “Therapeutic” solution, in which you slip out from under, hide in the bushes and fashion yourself a white elephant rope, then harness the critter.

These options are being offered in the top floor of the men’s building, a penthouse-like dorm setting that houses the ongoing therapeutic community of FCJ, the 4-4 unit. The 4-4 program has been in existence for 16 months and, its members claim, has either started or provided the leadership for every positive program in the institution. In addition they boast of a 100 percent rate for 4-4 residents once they are released, meaning their recidivism rate, the number of people who return to prison, is nil.

That’s an impressive claim, especially since the recidivism rate nationally has been estimated as high as 80 percent. And whether or not it’s a realistic claim (based as it is on only a 16-month period) there seems to be a sense of mission among the 26 men living in the 4-4 penthouse, an unabashed and unqualified enthusiasm that fosters a sort of elitism, dividing the world into Flying Aces and Ground Crew.

That air that 4-4 has of being the most prestigious fraternity on campus seems to inspire an incredible and oddly refreshing zeal, especially on the part of Robert, the unit’s chief coordinator and resident, whose jet-propelled metabolism and long hair give him the appearance of local anarchist speed-freak.

Dave, a former accounting major in college 11 years ago, is more quiet and tense. It is he who introduces phrases like “treatment modality” into the conversation as if to complement Robert’s exuberant outbursts about “getting it on with the people.”

In the 4-4 unit there is no distinction between staff and resident.

“We are, first of all, a community,” David explains.

It is a community that spends at least 35-40 hours a week in some sort of therapeutic group activity, that has an extensive psychological library inherited from the outgoing mental health institute. This prison community actually treats people from the outside, from Fort Worth and Dallas, inside the prison once a week, a fact that seems a classic case of “mutuality.”

Members of 4-4 are recruited from all men’s units except comprehensive health. So far not that many residents have expressed a desire to get in (“People are reluctant to change that much,” says Robert) and those that have, after a series of three group sessions in which the heat is turned toward them, must be unanimously approved.

He explains how they were forced to kick out a paranoid who was “taking up so much energy that other people were falling down. I mean, we loved him, but there are some people who just have to go off and die somewhere.”

Though the symbol-making and phraseology of Gestalt and TA, all that “OK” business, seem too easy on the mental digestion, too schematized and hip, to be lasting and pat enough to be addictive, it’s applied with an urgency that is real and devastating to us armchair cynics: you can’t argue with the good graces of a convict frantically trying to understand the kind of society that got him in prison.

DECOMPRESSION

“You come here this time next year and you’ll see Haldeman out there mowing the lawn,” says Bob, taking a moment to look across the quadrangle at the strolling couples and stone-faced benchwarmers and brittle groups of residents that break apart and reform like molecules. Then he looks pensively down at his picture of Snoopy, trying to figure out exactly what’s wrong with it.

And outside, on that lawn that H. R. Haldeman mayor may not see, I notice that girl I know crossing to the dining hall and think once more how I ought to speak to her, to give the article a nice existential touch. Instead, I sit in Pat Thompson’s office for a while before I leave, watching her cut out Christmas decorations and wondering how it will go tomorrow when she gets to talk to her friend at the county jail and find out the true motives behind his funky behavior of last weekend.

At four o’clock in the afternoon all residents are required to be beside their beds for the daily count. The administration building, which guards the entrance and exit to the compound it forms with the other buildings, is sealed off from the rear. But if you’re not imprisoned here it’s an easy matter to sashay out the front door, a full-grown citizen with an ink-swollen spiral notebook and, when you think about it, astonishing good luck. The guards wave.

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