Courts - From the Judge's Chamber: Prison As Industry

By Judge William C. Whitbeck

In Michigan, prisons are much on our minds. Our soaring cost per prisoner, our policies toward pardons, paroles, and early releases, our sentencing guidelines, and our overall attitude toward crime and punishment are, as they should be, the subject of almost continuous public debate.

But, as with many things, context is important. So, think for a moment about the history of the facility originally named the Michigan State Prison, later changed to the State Prison of Southern Michigan, but almost universally known in the trade as "Jacktown."

To put it bluntly, the prison was soiled from the beginning, deeply rooted in the rich, corrupt earth of early Michigan politics. Jackson was the early favorite for the prison, partly because the owner of a tract of newly purchased farmland in the area was also a member of the House committee considering the matter. To no-one's great surprise, in 1838 the Legislature whooped through a bill selecting the Jackson site, including the less-than-honorable Harry B. Lathrup's twenty acres of suddenly very valuable farmland.

In a flash of entrepreneurial insight, Benjamin Porter, the Commissioner of Construction, realized that he could construct the prison quite efficiently using convict labor while turning a tidy profit for himself. Work, Porter proclaimed, was itself a redeeming activity and under his supervision whole squadrons of sweating, cursing prisoners duly redeemed themselves each day until the structures were complete and the prison officially opened for business in January of 1839. John McIntrye, late of Detroit, became the first permanent state prisoner. McIntrye has now disappeared into the haze of history, as have most of the thousands who followed him into what, in the twentieth century, became the largest walled prison in the world.

An equal mixture of politics and profits fueled the expansion of the prison. Spurred on by a series of spectacular newspaper articles, Prohibition-era politicians discovered, practically overnight, that they were being overwhelmed by a crime wave. Inexorably, convictions began to rise and the number of prisoners at Jackson began to increase. By the end of 1923, the prison had more than 2,000 inmates and was miserably overcrowded

Providentially, Alexander Groesbeck, Michigan's bachelor governor, was busily building a network of roads throughout the state. Alongside the roads, he built a parallel system of political patronage. Convict labor, Groesbeck realized, could be used at a fraction of the cost of ordinary workers and he quickly concluded that rather than having too many inmates, he actually had too few. He cut the number of paroles and simultaneously ordered the building of a huge new prison in Jackson.

As a construction project, the prison was a disaster. Huge cracks appeared in the red brick walls, the site was a virtual swamp throughout much of the building season, the foundations continually settled and the masons gleefully laid new courses of brick and mortar to bring them level. Footings poured during the winter were recast time and time again, thousands of yards of lumber were simply discarded, sacks of cement that were left unprotected in the rain hardened into useless lumps, broken tiles ended up in the local dump, and still the money poured in.

As a patronage mill, however, the new prison was an enormous success. Warden Harry Hulbert selected the hundreds of suppliers with enormous care and each became a dues-paying member of Groesbeck's patronage machine. And Hurlbert ransacked the prison stores for goods he then sold at a tidy profit and raided the prisoners' benefit fund to pay for the elaborate furnishings at his mansion located just outside the prison walls.

But the prison -- finished years behind schedule and millions over budget -- was not just in the world, it was of it. Inmates farmed more than five thousand acres of land outside the walls and raised most of the produce, beef, chickens, and pork necessary to feed over 5,000 prisoners. And the Legislature authorized the formation of prison industries, with the explicit direction to make a profit from inmate labor.

Ever entrepreneurial, prison industries started a brick and tile works in Onondaga and even acquired working control of a cement plant in Chelsea. As business flourished, so did the underground economy both inside the prison and at the work camps outside the walls. When the inmates returned home each day after their labors, cash, liquor, drugs, weapons, and sometimes even women traveled back in with them. The guards levied a tax on the incoming flow of commerce according to a routinely updated schedule, keeping a share of the take for themselves and passing the rest up the hierarchy of prison administration.

All in all, it is such a chronicle of state capitalism, corruption, and cronyism that to modern eyes is appears so dated, so Prohibition-era politics and storybook sleaze, as to be almost comical. Prison industries no longer competes in the real world and by federal court decree and at considerable expense, Jacktown is now divided into several different facilities. But the walls remain along with the history.

So, as we consider our prison policies, Jacktown is a cautionary tale. Being the biggest simply increases the likelihood of being the biggest failure. Large scale governmental building and state-sponsored entrepreneurship is not only hideously expensive, it is also inherently risky, as the ghosts of Porter, Groesbeck, Hurlbert, and a benighted and bemused horde of Michigan taxpayers would undoubtedly testify.


Judge William C. Whitbeck is one of 28 judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals. He can be reached at JudgeWhitbeck@

Published: Tue, Mar 16, 2010