In the 1970s in a Connecticut prison, a newspaper called Adelante was written by and for Spanish speakers. The paper is included in Reveal Digital’s American Prison Newspapers collection, with digitized prison newspapers that span across three centuries. Many of these contain shocking history, but a seemingly drab notice from the April 1972 issue of Adelante is, in fact, extraordinary for what it reveals about the evolution of prison policy.
Prison disciplinary procedures are historically opaque and shielded from outside review. For centuries, courts determined that how discipline and punishment were administered within prison was the realm of prisons alone and could not be brought before the courts.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, quoted in Joseph Condon’s 1971 law review article Procedural Due Process in Prison Disciplinary Actions, affirmed:
[S]o long as the punishment imposed for an infraction of the rules is not so unreasonable as to be characterized as vindictive, cruel or inhuman, there is no right of judicial review to it… Such questions have consistently been held to be nonjusticiable, for routine security measures and disciplinary action rest solely within the discretion of the prison officials…
Courts refused to intervene in matters of prison rules, regulations, or practices, believing their domain to be that of protecting the rights of the accused and not that of defining the rights of the convicted. Often referred to as the “hands off doctrine,” it gave prison officials wide discretion and little oversight.
After being reaffirmed in court decisions for decades, sentiment would evolve—if only slightly—by the early 1970s.
The 1965 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice may have contributed to the change. Formed by President Johnson, it was a response to growing social angst around crime, justice, fairness, and punishment. Ambitious in both scope and membership, it produced its completed report in 1967. The report recommended sweeping reforms, including an overhauling of the juvenile justice system, the professionalization of policing, and major modifications to corrections policies.
“Correctional agencies should develop explicit standards and administrative procedures to enable those under correctional control to test the fairness of key decisions affecting them,” read the official report. Accusations of arbitrariness abounded at the time. “These procedures should include gathering and recording facts and providing for independent monitoring and review of the actions of correctional officials.”
Problems identified in the report and more came to a head with the Attica Prison Riot of 1971, which is often cited as the impetus for finally implementing reforms. Civil rights litigation had been successful at reforming broader society; that movement finally reached prisons. Courts took a more hands-on approach and scholarly research began critically examining policies behind the walls.
Suddenly, challenges to policies that were arbitrary or unfair were being upheld. Researchers began to examine due process and racial disparities as they related to prison policies and their enforcement. As a consequence of prisoners’ litigation, correctional facilities across the US were being placed under federal court orders and consent decrees as a way of imposing strict oversight. All eyes were on policy that was once shielded from view and disregarded.
Only in that historical context does the gravity of the OFFICIAL NOTICE above that appeared in Adelante 50 years ago make sense.
Policies that had previously been designed, implemented, and enforced unilaterally, were suddenly incorporating “independent monitoring and review.” The State of Connecticut abided by the new directive wholeheartedly.
OFFICIAL NOTICE (from the Department)
On January 4th, 1972 Commissioner John R. Manson established a group to oversee the revision of all aspects of the Department of Correction’s disciplinary procedures, policies and procedures concerning the function and administration of discipline in the Department’s various institutions.
Professor Leonard Orland of the University of Connecticut School of Law, who is a member of this group, has offered to receive comments, suggestions and complaints relating to the current disciplinary procedures that directly relate to inmates. Any inmate that desires to communicate their ideas can send a sealed envelope without censoring directly to Professor Orland at the University of Connecticut at the following address: University of Connecticut School of Law, West Hartford, Conn., 06117. The letters can be unsigned; however, Professor Orland has indicated that he would prefer to know the identity of who has written because he would like to personally interview certain inmates when the situations in question justify it.
All communication with Professor Orland will be classified CONFIDENTIAL and the name of the sender will not be revealed to the other members of the group nor to any staff member of the Department of Corrections without the permission of the sender.
Earl F. Stout
Chairman, Disciplinary Task Force
John R. Manson, the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Corrections, convened an external council on January 4th, 1972 to oversee the revision of a broad scope of policies and procedures. According to his New York Times obituary, Manson was the first official to adopt the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. (Today, the United States is perpetually identified as being in flagrant violation of these rules.) According to that obituary, he was also the first to implement a furlough and a work release program, both of which were broadly eliminated in the tough-on-crime decades to come.
Leonard Orland, a law professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, not only sought comment from the incarcerated people who would be directly impacted by these changes. He went on to publish a book titled Prisons: Houses of Darkness in 1978, which revealed the “lawlessness by which sentencing judges, prison authorities, and parole boards actually operate,” according to its publisher Simon and Schuster.
By placing a notice in Adelante, prison administrators were encouraging incarcerated people to weigh in on the policies that would be used to regulate their behavior and punish deviations. A decade prior, federal judges did not feel empowered to opine on prison policies. In 1972, incarcerated people themselves were being asked to.
Whether or not promises of anonymity were sincere is unknown, as is the final outcome of the policy review commission. What is known is that the sentiment towards transparency and oversight in prison policies was short lived.
In 2020, the United Nations decried conditions in US prisons, “These dehumanising conditions of detention, sometimes euphemistically referred to as ‘segregation,’ ‘secure housing,’ the ‘hole’ or ‘lockdown,’ are routinely used by US correctional facilities…” Going to the “hole” is an exceedingly common form of punishment in prisons and jails. The UN derides the notion that going to the “hole” is a form of “discipline” by alleging it is little more than a euphemism for psychological torture.
The UN briefing specifically denounced the Connecticut Department of Corrections. “There seems to be a State-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, which may well amount to torture,” said UN Special Rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer. Nearly 50 years ago, Commissioner Manson prided himself on the fact the department complied with the UN rules. Now, the UN is sounding the alarm that the state’s policies likely amount to torture.
Incarcerated people have diminished rights of due process, with “penological interests” often outweighing their constitutional rights. The tough-on-crime era made any talk of reform or improving prison conditions controversial. Pell Grants were repealed in 1994, decimating higher education behind bars, and population growth produced rampant overcrowding. Conditions deteriorated across the nation.
Prison administrators themselves are aggrieved by the current state of affairs, having their hands tied, their prisons overflowing, and their budgets for programming slashed. “Public sentiment and political rhetoric have often limited prison administrators’ ability to manage overcrowded prisons in ways and with tools that sound professional judgment suggests are appropriate,” complained Frank Wood, the former director of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Chase Riveland’s article in Crime and Justice interviews seven correctional administrators, Wood included, about the seismic shifts they witnessed between 1975 and 1997. An undercurrent of frustration at perceived policy regressions is present throughout the administrators’ statements. Their complaints, written in 1999, could be applied to many present-day correctional systems.
Popular discourse around prison reform seems to revolve more than it evolves. Many of the reforms proposed in the 1967 Crime Commission report never came to pass. Some of its most salient complaints are being echoed today. From the fact that women have only been provided with “inadequate imitations of the institutional programs used for males” despite having incredibly unique needs, to concerns about our juvenile justice system, to an emphasis on community-based programs and a need for rehabilitation, its findings are acutely relevant. The report admonished the federal government to lead all reforms and oversight.
Today, the federal government only infrequently intervenes in state and local justice systems. Much of the push towards reform in the 1970s was a consequence of successful prisoners’ litigation and the court orders and consent decrees that ensued, or proactive steps taken to avoid being bound to one. In 1996, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which severely restricted the ability of any incarcerated person to challenge any condition of their confinement in court. The PLRA has been accused of facilitating civil rights abuses as it further hampered the ability of federal courts to intervene and oversee matters behind bars. The Department of Justice admits that prison oversight is markedly less developed in the United States when compared to other democracies.
Buried in an issue of Adelante is evidence of yet another fleeting—but ultimately failed—attempt at reform.
“Penal institutions tend to be a kind of catch basin for a myriad of human problems not resolved elsewhere,” read the 1967 Crime Commission report.