Out of Control: Chapter 13–We Confront the Head of the Bureau of Prisons, 1988 Continued

When the Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Quinlan came to Chicago for the November 1988 American Society of Criminology (ASC) conference, we planned a demonstration outside the Marriott Hotel where the conference was being held. Sponsored by CEML and the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican POWs, it was also endorsed by six other groups. But the real drama took place inside the conference when Michael Quinlan and his entourage made a mad dash for the door and the airport!

Members of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown and supporters confronted him during his workshop presentation entitled “Auditing, Evaluating, and Planning in the Bureau of Prisons.” While not a title that would have ordinarily drawn our attention, it offered a rare opportunity to come face-to-face with the chief of the BOP and hold him responsible for the brutal and racist reality of Marion.

Our plan had been simple. I would stand up, as a representative of the Committee, toward the beginning of the workshop, and explain that Marion is a matter of life and death, and a discussion about Marion had to take precedence over the planned topic. Several of us would then express our concerns about the situation at Marion and the proliferation of Control Units in general. We would display our banner and hand out our explanatory leaflet. Finally, we would present Quinlan with the over one thousand signatures we had obtained on petitions. We would then be on our way, leaving the workshop to distribute more leaflets and talk with as many conference participants as possible. The best laid plans . . .

What actually happened was quite different. The BOP panelists, all white men and one woman, were introduced by the moderator of the workshop. Then Bernard Headley, on behalf of the Progressive Caucus of the American Society of Criminology (ASC), most politely and with great dignity, gained recognition from the moderator. He presented a petition to Quinlan from members of the Society calling for an end to the lockdown at Marion.

Following Professor Headley’s presentation, I stood up and began to speak. Public speaking always makes me nervous and this did especially. I felt like a “mere” citizen without any criminology credentials, and Quinlan had quite a posse of huge white men surrounding him. But I was determined to speak up for the prisoners who had no voice at this workshop and because I had promised my friends I would do so. So I mustered my courage and began.

Well, all that I was able to say was, “I am not a rude person,” at which point pandemonium broke loose. BOP personnel began shouting and screaming. The woman from the BOP firmly shoved a woman photographer in an attempt to stop her from recording the events. Above the din could be heard the cry of “Quinlan, you’re the real criminal!” In the midst of all this, Quinlan and his colleagues slunk out the door, and the workshop was terminated.

It was apparent to most of us present that the response of the BOP was characteristic of that institution and the people who run it. In the face of the mildest opposition, they responded immediately with no allowance of dissent, no pretense of dialogue. To them, we were the enemy. It took some of us by surprise. We had listened to Quinlan’s speech on National Public Radio the day before. We understood that he considered himself a liberal. He had recently written to the Nation magazine a defense of the situation at Lexington Prison.

I later wrote in the Critical Criminologist, newsletter of the Progressive Caucus of the American Society of Criminology, that we “were fortunate to be in the midst of an academic conference, and not in the belly of one of their institutions. You can imagine what kind of ‘liberal’ control they exert there!”

In addition to the satisfaction of confronting Quinlan, who was usually in his protective cocoon, there were further positive reverberations. The Chicago Tribune reported on the event, as did the Chicago Defender, quoting the ASC president, William Chambliss, as stating that, “I’m going to try to talk to Quinlan and find out what’s going on.” Perhaps most heartening was the response to our ASC workshop about Marion the following day. The room was jammed with people, over 50 attendees. This stood in sharp contrast to the 10–15 non-protesting people who had attended the Quinlan workshop.

It felt good to take pleasure in the confrontation, but as the year ended, it became increasingly clear that we were fighting an enormously uphill battle. Reports were coming in that the Bureau of Prisons was looking into building a “Better Marion” (Southern Illinoisan, Dec. 3, 1988, p.1). Their idea of “better” was frightening to contemplate. The Bureau of Prisons was forced to admit there were problems with Marion, but they drew different conclusions.

Marion, they said, was not built to hold prisoners in their cells around the clock. A new prison could be built from the ground up, a prison designed to hold people, single-celled, for most of the day, day in and day out. A task force of federal prison officials was appointed to decide whether or not to build such a new super-secure facility, which would be, according to Warden Henman, a “better Marion.” We feared that what he meant by “better” could only be even worse.

Next: Toxins on Tap 
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