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.

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

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