Inmate Morale
and Special Custody Problems

by James V. Bennett
Director, Bureau of Prisons

  • Inmate morale on the whole continued high although there was some increase in group disturbances. None of these got out of hand, however, or resulted in deaths or serious injuries. The disturbances stemmed mainly from pressures built up in certain of our institutions by younger or more reckless prisoners whose numbers had increased substantially. We gained valuable knowledge concerning the nature, causes, and methods of control of group disorders, and we hope to make use of what we learned to lessen the tensions which were back of the difficulties. Particularly the institutions which receive younger offenders are modifying their programs in order to better meet the needs of these individuals.
  • Inmate

  • Increasingly in recent years certain groups of prisoners have required an inordinate amount of attention from Bureau and institution officials. One group includes persons whose careers have been widely publicized because of the status they have attained in civic, political or business affairs, or because of their wealth. Numberous requests are made in behalf of such prisoners that we relax regulations which apply to all prisoners. In some cases there is a continuous demand for special visits and special correspondence privileges. In others the [22] prisoner and his friends and associates feel he should be permitted to continue the direction of his business affairs while in prison. In still others a corps of attorneys is employed who request almost daily visits with the inmate to discuss legal, business and personal matters. In such cases the interest of the press does not cease with the commitment of the offender and there are requests for interviews, photographs, information on the prisoner's daily activities, and special information about the institution in which he is confined. Frequently charges are made that a prisoner is confined in a "country club," that he is receiving privileges not available to other prisoners, or, equally unfounded, that he is being persecuted and is not accorded usual privileges and treatment.

    The policy and practice of the Bureau and its institutions are, of course, that all prisoners shall be treated on their individual merits. No special privileges are granted because of any special status a prisoner may have acquired in the community, or for other reasons. The millionaire inmate is governed by the same regulations as is the one who is penniless. He may have no more nor fewer persons who may visit or correspond with him; he may not operate or direct his business or other activities from prison although he, like other prisoners, is permitted to do what is necessary to protect his resources while confined. Attorney visits must be kept to a minimum consistent with the need to protect the legal rights of the individual.

  • Prominent

  • Another group who require an unusual amount of attention are the litigious and contentious individuals most of whose waking hours are devoted to the planning and preparation of writs, suits, and demands for investigations. We are not referring to the few prisoners who sincerely believe they are illegally confined or that some condition exists which adversely affects their interests and should be remedied. Those of whom we speak often seem to be suffering from paranoid conditions and to feel that they have been and are being persecuted by everyone associated with their confinement. Frequently such persons claim that their parents mistreated them, their teachers [23] mishandled them, that they were "framed" by the police, that the prosecuting agency, the district attorney, the judge, and the jury all conspired to get them into prison, and that now the prison authorities are mistreating or illegally confining them.
  • Litigious

  • A typical example of such a problem case is that of a prisoner who during his seven years of confinement has almost continually had petitions for writs or civil suits pending against Government officials. He claims that the agency which investigated his case used unethical methods, and that similar tactics were employed by the United States Attorney and the sentencing judge. He has persistently accused officials of the Bureau of denying him his legal rights and access to the courts, despite the fact that hundreds of letters he has written to judges, clerks of court, district attorneys, Congressmen, and his own attorneys have been promptly forwarded. Anyone who refuses his demands or is too slow in responding, he immediately classifies as his enemy. He has even castigated members of his own family who have not taken sufficiently frequent trips to Washington, or written enough letters to suit him. He has employed and discharged several attorneys, and has threatened to sue those whom he thought were not active enough in his behalf. He has accused his Warden and Associate Warden and the Director of the Bureau of Prisons of misfeasance of office and has entered civil suits against them. When petitions for writs were denied, he attacked the judges. He has even threatened to bring his Congressman into court for not bringing about his discharge from prison.

    This is only one example of the prisoners who flood the Bureau, the Department of Justice, the courts, and Congressmen with demands. Some prisoners present petitions for writs of habeas corpus without any exception or hope of obtaining their release, but merely in order to obtain a trip or to be placed in a local jail from which they think escape might be easier. Others hope that the charges they make, although they are without foundation, will somehow result in changes which will benefit them. [24]

    To be sure the legal activity carried on by inmates occasionally proves successful. However, a recent survey covering a 10-year period up to 1946 showed that of 1,912 petitions for writs of habeas corpus submitted by inmates of the Alcatraz, Atlanta, and Leavenworth penitentiaries, only 119 or 6 percent raised questions which had legal merit.

    We have noticed that most of the Prisoners' Mail Box letters which complain about institution personnel or practices are written by members of the group of litigious inmates we have been discussing. These letters, which constituted only 2 percent of the 18,609 uncensored prisoners' letters received this year from the institutions through the Prisoners' Mail Box, tied up more staff time in the Bureau and in the instituions than the remaining 98 percent of the letters. Fortunately the number of such litigious inmates is not large, but the time required by institution officials to review and process their requests and demands is tremendous. This time usually must come from that which would otherwise be devoted by the officials to rehabilitative activities.

  • A Typical

    [FEDERAL OFFENDERS 1947: pp. 21-24]