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Voices from a Southern Prison

Voices from a Southern Prison

Lloyd C. Anderson
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Voices from a Southern Prison
    Book Description:

    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 towel. 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."

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4275-7
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xx)

    America has conducted a “war on crime” for more than three decades. This war has consisted largely of legislation creating new crimes and mandating longer prison sentences for violent and drug offenses. For example, some states have passed “three strikes and out” laws, under which a person convicted of three felonies automatically spends the rest of his or her life in prison. At the federal level, Congress passed sentencing-guidelines legislation that deprived federal judges of most of their discretion in imposing sentences for federal crimes and assigned to a special commission the authority to set strict guidelines for sentences.


  5. Shorty
    (pp. 1-21)

    Shorty got fed up with the bugs and the rats. They were everywhere. Cockroaches were the worst. When the lights clicked on in the morning at 6:00, the roaches were crawling on his blanket. He knew they had been crawling on him all night long. It made his skin creep. He rose from his bunk, pulled his clothes off the wall hook, and shook them. Bugs came tumbling out. The other guys were getting up and shaking out their clothes. Flap! Flap! Flap! These were the sounds of morning on a cold November day in 1978 at the Kentucky State...

  6. Judge Johnstone
    (pp. 22-39)

    Shorty’s handwritten petition was assigned to Judge Edward H. Johnstone of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky in a roundabout way. The petition arrived in the clerk’s office at the federal courthouse in Louisville on November 30, 1978. A clerk opened the envelope and read it. There was a time when that clerk might have shaken his head, stuck Shorty’s complaint into a dead file, or maybe even pitched it into a wastebasket, never to be seen again. In those days, people who filed civil rights lawsuits sometimes got a hostile reception in the clerk’s office...

  7. Wilgus
    (pp. 40-63)

    Wilgus Haddix arrived at KSR soon after Judge Johnstone made the procedural rulings that transformed Shorty’s petition into a major class-action lawsuit. Wilgus was eager to do something about conditions in the prison by joining the lawsuit, all because of a blanket. He was doing hard time at the penitentiary in Eddyville when he met Jerald Kendrick, the inmate who had brought the penitentiary lawsuit.

    I was in cell 4D21. I was next to Jerald Kendrick…. He was a little comical, ordinary, plain, everyday-looking person.

    So it got on up into the wintertime. It was twelve below zero, and I...

  8. Walter
    (pp. 64-90)

    Walter Harris joined the Plaintiffs’ Committee about the same time Wilgus Haddix did. Walter had already served nearly six years at KSR as part of a life sentence for murder and armed robbery. He had stayed out of trouble all six years in prison, and he wanted to keep it that way. Walter’s rule was to stay out of sight and blend into the woodwork. He wanted no part of any lawsuit against the prison because he did not want to be transferred back to the Eddyville penitentiary. Walter had, however, received a job at the KSR inmate legal office,...

  9. Politics and Litigation
    (pp. 91-106)

    Prison-reform litigation in America is a widespread but extremely complicated process that, unlike ordinary litigation, involves numerous key participants and decision makers. In particular, improvements in inmates’ living conditions to even the minimum levels of decency mandated by the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment typically require massive new expenditures of public money.¹ Long-accepted principles of federalism, however, prohibit the federal judiciary from directly ordering state and local governments to appropriate funds to remedy constitutional violations unless there is no permissible alternative that would provide the remedy.² In the context of prison-reform litigation, these principles severely limit the authority...

  10. Judge Johnstone Visits LaGrange
    (pp. 107-114)

    On January 24, 1980, the day before Governor John Y. Brown publicly announced George Wilson’s appointment as the new commissioner of corrections, Judge Edward Johnstone held a pretrial conference at the federal courthouse in Louisville. The primary reason for this conference was that the state’s lawyers had formally requested to delay the trial set for April 7. They argued that Kentucky had a new governor, and the new administration needed more time to formulate its policies toward the prisons and to lobby the legislature to approve the governor’s proposed increase in corrections funding.

    The prisoners’ lawyers, unaware of the link...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. Negotiation and Settlement
    (pp. 115-145)

    All the participants in the litigation believed that Judge Edward Johnstone would attempt to encourage a settlement. Nearly a year earlier, when he appointed the author of this book to represent Shorty and the other named plaintiffs, the big man had pointed his huge right index finger at the lawyer and rumbled in his deep western Kentucky drawl, “I want a consent decree.” Johnstone, likely influenced by his talk with Judge Frank Johnson in Alabama, believed the chances for true reform were greater if the state willingly agreed to change the prisons than if change was imposed from the federal...

  13. Compliance: Obstacles and Impact
    (pp. 146-170)

    Prison-reform litigation in America has been marked by major obstacles, both purposeful and unintended, to full compliance with federal court orders. In the Texas case, for example, state officials fiercely resisted any changes that limited the discretion of security personnel.¹ Recalcitrant state officials in Alabama erected similar obstacles to compliance with Judge Frank Johnson’s orders.² The Georgia litigation, while also dogged by delays in implementing the consent decree approved by Judge Anthony Alaimo, featured state officials who were largely willing to comply with the order but were hampered by unforeseen events and the complexity of achieving systemic reform in a...

  14. Personal Struggles
    (pp. 171-198)

    During the corrections administration’s struggle to implement the consent decree, the lives of the three inmates who played key roles in the litigation followed a similar mixed pattern of progress and setback. Wilgus Haddix and Shorty Thompson ceased active participation in the litigation because they left KSR, and Walter Harris emerged as the prisoners’ designated leader in their effort to enforce the decree. The lives of all three, however, remained entwined with the litigation as they continued their individual struggles to rise above the squalid conditions to which they had been subjected and to achieve a measure of human dignity....

  15. Substantial Compliance and Collateral Litigation
    (pp. 199-220)

    An important hearing was scheduled to begin at the federal courthouse in Louisville on July 8, 1986. The consent decree was now six years old. The state had filed a motion to terminate the federal court’s supervision of the two prisons on the ground that the state had fully complied with the decree. Judge Edward Johnstone scheduled a hearing on this motion at which both sides would present testimony concerning the state’s efforts to comply with the decree as reflected in the current living conditions at KSR and the penitentiary. The state had good reason to be optimistic about the...

  16. Aftermath
    (pp. 221-238)

    The litigation was completed by 1989, ten years after it had begun. Much of the literature on prison-reform litigation has analyzed its impact on the operation of prison systems, but there has been little examination of the major participants’ lives in the aftermath of such litigation. The Kentucky litigation had a significant impact on the lives of several of the people featured in this study, particularly Walter Harris.

    Kentucky elected a new governor in 1987, and he appointed a new secretary of corrections to replace George Wilson. For eight years, Wilson had presided over the greatest expansion of resources for...

  17. Epilogue
    (pp. 239-244)

    The Thompson and Kendrick cases ended with vastly improved living conditions for the inmates, but the state’s prison population continued to skyrocket. When Judge Edward Johnstone placed Shorty’s case on the inactive docket in 1986, 4,513 men were incarcerated in Kentucky.¹ That number had more than tripled to 15,107 by mid-1998.² Kentucky followed the pattern of the nation as a whole. In 1986, 544,972 people—male and female—were incarcerated in American prisons and jails, and by mid-1998 that number had reached 1,802,496.³ At this rate, well over 2 million people will be imprisoned in the United States come the...

  18. Appendix A: Methodology
    (pp. 245-246)
  19. Appendix B: Direct Observations
    (pp. 247-248)
  20. Appendix C: Court Records and Other Legal Documents
    (pp. 249-260)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 261-268)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-274)
  23. Index
    (pp. 275-278)