This Week in the Archive: College Communities and Prison Problems

by Collin Kavanaugh

Collin Kavanaugh is a senior from East Hampton, New York, majoring in Leadership Studies at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.  Collin has enjoyed finding connections between the Race and Racism Project and Michel Foucault’s theories of history making. This project has inspired him to continue researching forgotten history at the University of Richmond. This post was written as a part of Digital Memory & the Archive, a course offered in Fall 2017.

“Tour of the Penal System Reveals Much to be Done”, written in The Collegian by Jim Winders in December of 1970, expresses significant surprise and discontent with the information he has researched in regards to the prison penal system of the 20th century. Winders chose to write the piece following a tour of the Virginia State Penitentiary sponsored by the Department of Psychology and reading Philip Hirschkop and M. A. Milleman’s article in the Virginia Law Review entitled “Unconstitutionality of Prison Life”. The article’s presentation of these prison rights abuses as essentially “new information” is indicative of the lack of understanding many University of Richmond students had in regards to the historically common trend of human rights violations in United States prisons.

Winders outlines the barbaric and racially segregated conditions of the state penitentiaries, discussing various prison realities like work gang segregation and “writ-writers”. “Writ-writers” are inmates who write on behalf of illiterate inmates, often in response to claims of prison abuse. In most instances, nothing positive came from these letters however, as the Director of the Department of Welfare and Institutions, Otis L. Brown testified that he never speaks to individual prisoners and prefers to speak with superintendents in matters of prison abuse. Two “writ-writers” by the name of Robert Landman and Calvin Arey were even punished for writing letters on behalf of abused inmates to state Senator Henry Howell. Winders’ writes that this trend of punishment for speaking out is common, and Leroy Mason and Thomas Wansley faced similar punishments for speaking out against chain gang segregation. He additionally outlines a torture device known as the “Tucker Phone” which was used in Arkansas prisons which electrocutes the genitals and feet of inmates. Winders asserts that the general policy of the civil system in response to these allegations of abuse is non-intervention, despite cases like that of Weems v. The United States (1910) which sought to extend Eighth Amendment protections to prisoners. In Weems v. The United States (1910), the Court deemed that hard and painful labor constituted “cruel and unusual punish” which the 8th amendment protects against.

Prison abuses are problematic in and of themselves, but additionally so because of the current racialized nature of our prison system. According to The Sentencing Project, a non-profit group dedicated to criminal justice reform, “blacks are incarcerated at a rate that is 5.1 times that of whites” (Nellis). Thus African American’s are additionally being subjected to violent prison abuses at disproportionate rates. While today’s more modern prison system is not as likely as those in the 1960s and 1970s to employ physical torture devices on its inmates, it is significantly more likely to utilize solitary confinement which many psychologists consider a form of psychological torture. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) writes, “the damaging effects of solitary confinement, even on persons with no prior history of mental illness, have long been well known.” (Abuse of the Human Rights of Prisoners in the United States: Solitary Confinement). Furthermore, and more in line with the issues discussed by Winder’s “Prisoners in solitary confinement are more likely to be subject to the use of excessive force and other forms of physical abuse” (Abuse of the Human Rights of Prisoners in the United States: Solitary Confinement).

Winder’s surprise in 1970 regarding prison rights abuses would likely be similar to that of current University of Richmond Students if presented with the human rights atrocities of today’s prisons. Seeing as the vast majority of UR students, and university students in general, are part of an elite and wealthy class that is separated from the carceral state along cultural, institutional, and racial lines it makes sense that they would be unaware of these issues. Perhaps the role of a university, like that of the University of Richmond, should be to educate its students in regards to aspects of life that they are least likely to understand. This article highlights the educational benefits of getting students to leave the “Richmond Bubble”, and recent academic trends have begun to realize this as well. With programs like the Bonner Scholars and classes like Justice and Civil Society, both of which have large community service components, perhaps the gap between University of Richmond students and their surrounding communities is beginning to close.