Rats, tainted food, leaky sewage pipes: they only began to
hint at the anarchy inside the Kentucky State Reformatory in La
Grange. A barracks-style "warehouse" prison straight out of an old
mobster film, KSR was three-quarters over its intended capacity by
1978. It had become a sickening, dangerous place, where an inmate
could get his hands on a sawed-off shotgun more easily than a clean
That year a handful of KSR prisoners managed to send a plea for
help to the federal court in Louisville. The petitioners expected
reprisals or, maybe worse, silence. But the letter reached a caring
judge, and the prisoners had spoken up at a crucial moment in
Kentucky reform politics. The signs seemed right to take on the
old-boy network whose byword on prison conditions was "ain't no
riots, ain't no problems." The suit was settled in the KSR
prisoners' favor in 1981, paving the way for controversial,
protracted, and expensive reforms.
Written by Lloyd C. Anderson, the head of the KSR prisoners' legal
team, Voices from a Southern Prison quotes extensively
from recollections of many players in the case, from the judge who
presided over it to the journalist who put it in the headlines.
Most important, we hear from three inmates who emerged as leaders
among their fellow plaintiffs: James "Shorty" Thompson, Wilgus
Haddix, and Walter Harris.
As our nation's penal system expands on an unprecedented scale, the
KSR scandal offers timely lessons about entrenched attitudes toward
prisons. Thus far, says Anderson, they seem lost on the strategists
of our "War on Crime."
Subjects: Political Science, Sociology, Law
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