Pubdate: Fri, 14 Apr 2000
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2000 Houston Chronicle
Contact:  Viewpoints Editor, P.O. Box 4260 Houston, Texas 77210-4260
Fax: (713) 220-3575
Author: Thom Marshall


Today, a retired prison warden joins our ongoing discussion and debate
regarding the state's criminal-justice system.

Lon Bennett Glenn retired in 1995 after three decades in the Texas
Department of Criminal Justice, working his way up from guard. For the
past three years he has been working on a book about the TDCJ. The
50,000-word project, with a working title of The Largest Hotel Chain
in Texas, is in the final stages of editing, and he is looking for a

Based upon chapters he provided me, I join in hoping the book finds
wide distribution, but I want to elaborate on that.

Like Glenn, I believe his experiences and observations could help
inform the general public on a subject too many of us know too little
about. Furthermore, when visiting with him prior to reading any of his
manuscript, I found myself nodding in agreement with many of his comments.

He said that after spending years "in the front line of the drug war,"
he is convinced it is futile. He said that if wardens can't keep their
own officers from smuggling drugs into maximum security prisons -- and
they can't -- what chance does the government have of stopping the
drug flow across the borders? And as for all the prisoners of the drug
war, he said that "locking people up for 20 or 30 years is just dumb.
You're going to need those cells for violent offenders."

Several sticking points

Glenn talked about the shortage of guards, their lack of training and
experience, and their low pay. He has kept in touch with many friends
who still work for the department and he said, "as I listen to them
talk, I am more convinced with each passing day that the system is
very close to the meltdown point," with a potential for riots worse
than those experienced at Attica, N.Y., and New Mexico.

Although we agreed on several points during our conversation, a little
later, when reading some of the opinions expressed in his book, it was
obvious that we also disagree on several points.

He wrote, for example: "Retaliation rather than rehabilitation should
be the focus of the criminal-justice system. Prison should be intended
to inflict pain, primarily psychological and social pain, but also the
physical pain of work. Let me be absolutely clear on this point. By
`pain' I do not mean physical torture, physical abuse or mental abuse;
I mean rather, the true pain of legitimate punishment."

Elsewhere, he described punishment as it was practiced in the early
part of his career:

If an officer thought an inmate wasn't working hard enough, it might
result in four hours on the rail, meaning the inmate had to stand on
the edge of a 2-by-4. If he lost his balance or stepped down without
first getting permission, the time started over.

If an inmate didn't pick enough cotton, he might have to stand on a
55-gallon barrel for four or five hours, usually with two or three
other convicts and if any fell off, their time started over.

As another common punishment, "Convicts were compelled to hold their
arms as high as possible overhead. Handcuffs were placed through the
bars and on each wrist. The inmate was compelled to stand facing the
bars, with his toes but not his heels touching the floor for several

Rule of the warden

Glenn described the great power wielded by wardens under the old
system (before federal control in 1981) and he told how prison
employees might benefit by gaining the warden's favor:

"He could give them merit raises, free food, free housing, free
laundry service, $2 per month haircuts, shaves, shoeshines, and yard
service. For sergeants and above, a houseboy, in the form of a convict
servant, could be assigned. A houseboy's job description varied
depending on what the employee wanted the inmate to do. Some were
hired as cooks, waiters, and yard hands, or to do the laundry for the
family of an employee. They were always on call and had to be ready to
serve at the beck and call of the employee."

Glenn's description of the old system's solitary confinement cells,
his opinions about educating prisoners, and some of his other views
must wait for other days.

"I can say in hindsight that I've seen the job done both ways," Glenn
wrote, "and as politically incorrect as it may sound, the old methods
clearly had some advantages."

Perhaps his book could win supporters for returning to old methods.
But my reason for wanting to see it published is I believe it would
convince even more readers that the past Glenn describes is best kept
behind us.
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MAP posted-by: Derek Rea