Full 1972 Clinton CF report photo viewing courts from basketball level.

 'the courts' of clinton prison
 (part 7: discussion)

by Ron Roizen

The fundamental deprivation of prison life is the loss of liberty and self-determination -- it has a master effect on the structuring of inmate behavior. Several kinds of strategies are available for the reduction of this deprivation.

  • Inmates may develop or maintain strong ties to outside sources of influence such as family or legal assistance;
  • inmates may attempt to achieve spiritual or intellectual detachment from the immediate circilmstances;
  • inmates may withdraw from staff-sanctioned behaviors and rewards;
  • inmates may involve themselves in the inmate social system;
  • inmates may attempt to pursue legal appeals;
  • inmates may attempt to cultivate staff-sanctioned behaviors and rewards.

The above "zoom-in" close-up detail was sliced from the far right of the 1972 report's photo showing North Yard's basketball level and the courts area (at the top of this web page). A guard chair can be seen in foreground.

A mix of these tactics is common. Regardless of the mix, however, the goal is substantially the same. Inmate behavior is structured to reduce the impact of capricious and dangerous interventions upon his person (by either staff or other inmates); it is structured to develop a protective envelope of social organization and interlocking obligations (either with staff or inmates or both); it is structured to maximize individual autonomy insofar as autonomy is a necessary condition for the capacity to respond effectively to,threatening circumstances and events.

Typically, the behavior patterns of various inmates are attributed by staff to intrinsic characteristics of the inmate in question. Thus, an inmate who drags his feet on the job is seen as unmotivated, an inmate who denies infractions for which he has been proved responsible is seen as untruthful, a distant and solitudinous inmate is seen as anti-social, and so forth.

While we do not doubt the importance of psychological factors in the selection of autonomy-maximizing strategies, it is important to see that these strategies are "rational" efforts toward more or less defined goals. Moreover, the selection and emphasis of a particular set of strategies may reflect the strategy resources of the inmate in question as much as his psychological predisposition for various sorts of action.

In practice, a kind of type-casting takes place in which the collective definition of a particular inmate -- derived for the most part from his known reputation before arrival or his dominant response-mode subsequent to arrival--is affixed to him. This type-casting may set up a vicious cycle in which the behavior response pattern of a particular mode of adaptation is reinforced.

Key to a well-rounded strategy for inmate autonomy-maximizing is the notion of flexibility within the strategies themselves. We suggest that only in rare cases or as the consequence of an aggravated vicious cycle, will an inmate risk putting all of his eggs in one mode of behavior. it is a poor strategy that consists of only one tactic. However, a consequence of this flexibility is the apparent marginality of inmates with respect to others making competing demands upon them.

The emphasis in recent years on the prison as a total institution has perhaps downplayed the importance of multiple reference groups within and outside the prison walls. While it is true that this institution may be characterized as totalitarian, having a wide gap between staff and inmates in terms of legitimate authority, and so forth, the institution is neither devoid of internal nodes of organization nor cut off from events and organizations on the outside.

One is reminded of the gap between the 1929 riots and the strenuous contribution of the prison to World War II production in estimating the importance of external events to the equilibrium of the prison. [#18] Currently, it appears to us that events in Albany concerning prisoner rights and privileges are watched with great interest and compared to operating procedures of the local administration. Any discrepancies -- and many are perceived -- become sources of strain within the institution.

With these factors in mind, the role of the courts in Clinton prison appears to be pluralist in character. Formal sanction for small inmate groups, the legitimizing of inmate territories, and the structuring of indigenous authority through the manager system has over the years created an institution which serves to diffuse inmate leadership, minimize formal control, achieve socialization to prison life, and overlays on the prison's social organization yet another context or reference group which may be "moved upon" in terms of the auton omy maximizing strategies of each inmate.

The importance of the courts in the inmate social system may be to some extent manipulated by controlling access to the courts, shortening or lengthening daily use time, and by altering courts rules and procedures. The most important feature of the courts is that they constitute an experiment in the shift from control through the suppression of inmate social organization to control through the manipulation and legitimization of inmate groups.

Part of a house can be seen over the wall in the above "zoom- in" close-up detail sliced from the left half of 1972 Clinton CF report photo showing field & courts from yard entrance (the image at top of Part 4 page).

Insofar as -- on the courts -- this system achieves valuable ends for both parties with a minimum of friction, the experiment is interesting and full of possibilities. The viability of the courts system, however, depends upon larger things. The willingness of staff and inmates to enter into this colonizing arrangement is dependent

  • on the value placed on the rewards of the courts by inmates,
  • the perceived threat and distrust extant between inmates and staff,
  • the impact of external events which are salient to the conduct of prison life,
  • changing sentence lengths and mixes of inmate groups, and
  • the changing matrix of inmate strategies and tactics in the autonomy game.

In the simplest terms, the courts appear to reflect a relatively stable bargain struck between staff and inmates and each derives something of value from the bargain. This fact, alone, is something of a curiosity in American penal institutions. An endemic problem of the prison scene is that it affords staff few valuable rewards to offer to inmates and, likewise, affords inmates few valuable rewards to offer to staff. Thus, the bargaining powers of both groups are limited and mutually beneficial contracts are simply not particularly beneficial.

Perhaps the most odious consequence of this joint bargaining weakness is that both groups may come to depend on negative or coercive bargaining power. Although the positive rewards of the prison are in short supply, considerable coercive power or threats thereof can be mustered by either group.

At Clinton, however, it would seem that -- perhaps by historical accident -- something of negotiable value serendipitously was created. At a time when many Clinton inmates were serving long sentences and the level of moral consensus surrounding notions of American justice was, perhaps, higher, the opportunity for a plot of land on which to spend part of the day relatively free from the cellblock or the shop may have appeared to be relatively attractive.

The courts thrived -- perhaps, even too well -- and the system became structured. This structure, which surely evolved over a considerable portion of a forty-year history of the courts, contained several equilibrium-serving features. Property rights, leadership and responsibility succession, and so forth, were worked out in a manner that maximized continuity.

The structure of the courts system, however, had to be worked out in such a way that the skeleton of rules and operating procedures did not vitiate the things that made the courts valuable to inmates in the first place. This would have undercut the system by robbing it of the very thing that made its existence possible. We presume that various kinds of controls could have been applied to the courts in their formative stages.

The particular membership of the court could have been controlled, for example, instead of the structure of succession; or the direct suppression of contraband could have been attempted rather than the control through the structure of penalties for disruptive behavior on the courts.

Controlling membership and the accrual of household goods (including, inevitably, some contraband) would have reduced the inmates' envaluation of the courts, however, and we can only suggest that -- seeing a good thing -- the court structure was codified in a form that preserved the maximum possible inmate envaluation of them.

Part of a tree & mounttain- side can be seen over the wall in the above "zoom- in" close-up detail sliced from the left half of 1972 Clinton CF report photo showing field & courts from yard entrance (the image at top of Part 4 page).

It seems that that value was -- in the last analysis -- tied up with the freedom to select one's court companions, relative freedom to acquire and enhance the court surroundings, and doubtlessly some other subrosa freedoms (gambling, etc.). Clearly, the structure which evolved more or less avoids control through these dimensions.

Moreover, the administration broadened the supply of raw materials available to court builders. The list of investments in the courts development is rather remarkable when they are collected together: sinks were placed in several locations, seeds were proffered for gardens, manure was provided, wood-fuel provided, the selection of goods in the commissary was expanded along with increased buying privileges, oil drums were procured, construction raw materials were provided.

One respondent reported that knitting became fashionable for a time -- inmates were knitting winter clothes to permit themselves more time on the courts during the winter. At the time, this respondent continued, yarn was stocked and proffered by the prison administration. On a broader level, pilfering of the shops or the mess hall for articles or food in the names of the courts was "overlooked." In turn, cooking utensils and other "technical" contraband were permitted on the courts, broadening, through the necessities of these households, the interpretations of contraband restrictions.

The broadening of the resources supply to the courts served to maximize the inmates' envaluation of their properties. Also, insofar as the accumulation of goods supplied the wherewithal for broadening activities, the availability of autonomy increased.

The inmate role became less passive through cooking, gardening, furniture construction, pilfering and so forth. But for property to accrue, a wide variety of resources were needed; over the years these needs were met.

Several respondents -- inmates and staff -- reported that the courts were "not as nice as, they used to be." The stated reasons for, this "decline" of the courts were the influx of "City Men" or prisoners boarded at Clinton for New York City's jails. These men may have sentences as short as 90 days, and the commitment to the patio benefits of the courts are less salient to them because of that.

The NYC Dept. of Correction's 1969 annual report told of the agreement with NYS to have NYC's own inmates housed at Clinton State Prison.

An aerial photo of Clinton prison accompanied the 1969 NYC Dept. of Correction annual report text on the agreement with NYS to have NYC's own inmates housed at Clinton State Prison.

In fact, the decline in sentence lengths generally, it was argued, was hurting the courts system. As one respondent remarked: "If they get cold, they burn one of the chairs because they aren't here long enough to care about not having that chair around."

Several respondents suggested that only men with "flat bits" (long sentences--say "20 to life," "thirty to forty") appreciated the courts. At present almost half of the inmate population are "City Men;" hence, there is a smaller base of inmates for whom the courts retain their value.

If the value on the courts is declining for many of the new groups of inmates, the bargain struck concerning the courts gets shaky. One imagines that the courts might begin to look like a source of danger rather than equilibrium.

In recent years, however, it seems that several things have stabilized the courts situation. First of all, new investments have been made to increase the value. In part, however, these have been directed toward the yard area as a whole -- and they correspond to some new tastes. The expenditure on a sufficient number of football helmets, pads, and uniforms for four 30-man teams, for example, or the outfitting of a band court, the acquisition of exercise equipment, and so forth, are apparent in the courts.

These investments, however, do not conjure up the same sense of permanence and accrual of stability as did the courts. Instead, the attention is directed toward competitive ends. An inmate stake in the value of what is being proffered by the administration seems more problematic.

One respondent reported that barbells were taken from the yard by the staff following the Attica insurrection. Thus, it would seem that the investments which may suggest little durable value to the inmate may be subject to withdrawal when the situation seems unstable. This respondent complained that the barbells had since been returned to the exercise court but had not been re-allowed in the courts area. The exercise platforms are close to the guard concentrations in the yards; the courts, of course, are not.

A second stabilizing influence is the structure of the courts themselves. That is to say, if the time is lean for the inherent value seen in courts by inmates, then the institution is probably being carried along in part by the strength of the various parts of it that contribute to continuity.

A covered guard stand can be seen near the wall in the above "zoom- in" close-up detail sliced from the left half of 1972 Clinton CF report photo showing field & courts from yard entrance (the image at top of Part 4 page).

Regardless of the perceived worth of a chair, territory is useful: the control of access to the courts, the selection of courts members, and the recreational activities available in them retain their inmate value. Furthermore, new values may appear -- several courts for example, "belong" to civilian groups or organizations. "The Young Lords," and at least two factions of the Muslim movement have their own courts.

In this case, too, however, the value placed on the courts by the users may be rather different from that invested by the inmates a generation ago. Using the courts for political organizing for example, may indeed constitute a value of the courts for some inmates, but the bargain-enhancing prospects springing from that value are not great, in terms of the bargaining dilemma that the courts originally eased.

A third factor may involve a partial return to coercive or more direct methods of social control. Here, there is a reversal in the kind of tactic which has characterized the expanding possibilities of the courts. Fewer inmates may be allowed in the yard, time limits on yard use may be manipulated, there may be tightening up on things like contraband or the content of court activities.

In the absence of other kinds of investments or changing values which are, by their own change, producing new reasons for keeping a court, the shrinkage of the court rewards leads back to negative modes of social control.

From this perspective, the dilemma of the courts becomes clearer: they have arrived at the point of being an institution whose salutary benefits are virtually considered a right -- within the modus vivendi of Clinton prison, they are a right. At the same time, many factors have combined to reduce reward-creating powers of the courts. And new strains are being felt in the courts -- the pressure for alliance among the court members of different courts and the push for larger collectives. Whether or not the diminished reward value and the new strains will in time reduce the courts to simply an area with many fences and oil drums remains to be seen,

This is a time of crisis for state penal institutions, and the courts system has doubtless been strained although continues, nevertheless, to be equilibrium serving, in a broad sense, the equilibrium of the prison institution depends upon moral consensus surrounding incarceration, the universalism perceived in the application of prison regulations, the concordance of correctional goals expressed in Albany and correctional practices perceived in Dannemora.

An institution such as the courts reflects these things more than it creates them. Even the laudable efforts to establish something of value in the inmate community cannot withstand too great an inmate sense of injustice. Nothing in this report should be construed to suggest or imply a curtailment of the courts system in Clinton prison.

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