Emily Nagisa Keehn and Dana Walters Co-Author Article on Progressive 1940s Prison in The Conversation

On June 14, HRP’s Emily Nagisa Keehn and Dana Walters published an article in The Conversation titled, “When America had an open prison – the story of Kenyon Scudder and his ‘prison without walls.’ ” The article discusses the prison reformer Kenyon Scudder and the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino, California, founded in 1941. An “open” prison, CIM was more progressive than many minimum security institutions today.

As the authors state:

“At the time, California’s maximum security institutions in San Quentin and Folsom were, as one newspaper put it, “powder kegs ready to explode.” Violence was rampant, particularly between guards and convicts, and California was considered to have one of the most oppressive penal systems in the nation.

To alleviate the draconian and overcrowded conditions at San Quentin and Folsom, in 1935 the California state legislature decided to build a new prison.

Kenyon J. Scudder, a veteran penologist who had a raft of ideas for how to change a prison system he viewed as archaic and inhumane, was hired to head Chino.

The California Institution for Men didn’t use terms like “warden” or “guards.” There was the “superintendent” – Scudder – and his “supervisors,” the vast majority of whom were college educated.

In fact, Scudder intentionally avoided hiring supervisors who had previously worked in prisons: He didn’t want staff members with punitive mindsets. Instead of relying on batons and guns, he trained this new staff in judo for self-defense. Weapons were reserved for absolute emergencies, and Scudder emphasized the development of conflict resolution skills.

Those being held wouldn’t have their identities reduced to a number. They could choose their own clothing and which jobs to do and what to study. Their cells had locks, but accounts indicate they weren’t used. The original plans for the prison called for a 25-foot perimeter wall with eight gun towers. Scudder put a halt to this; instead, he convinced the Board of Prison Directors to erect only a five-strand barbed wire livestock fence.

Scudder encouraged family members to regularly visit, allowed inmates to have picnics on the grounds and even permitted some physical contact.

He also refused to segregate anyone along racial lines, an unusual policy at the time.”

Keehn and Walters wrote the piece from research on United Nations criminal justice policy and a resolution on open prisons adopted in 1955 at the First Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders. At preparatory discussions for the resolution, penal experts discussed open prisons in the U.S., with the American delegate calling them “the contribution of this generation” to modern prison management. This sparked the authors interest in historical U.S. use of open prisons.

Learn more about the Chino facility and read the rest of the article at The Conversation.