John O. Boone Returns to Massachusetts
Cambridge, MA Apr 10, 2008 On Thursday, April 17, John Boone will attend an event commemorating the re-emergence of some forgotten--or buried--local history at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. The talk will be held from 5:30 to 8:30 pm in Washburn Hall. Other participants include the co-authors of the book When the Prisoners Ran Walpole: Jamie Bissonette, Robert Dellelo, and the Canon Missioner Edward Rodman.
In 1971, in the wake of the slaughter in the Attica prison yards, Republican governor Francis Sargent recognized the need for reform in the Massachusetts prison system. He appointed John O. Boone, a man with a proven track record in achieving rehabilitation, as the first Black commissioner of corrections in the US. Boone, who had helped craft national legislation aimed at providing resources for reform (LEAA), implemented a number of successful reforms, including work releases and the infamous furlough program later to be a flashpoint in Michael Dukakis's bid for presidential election.
Today, the system is overcrowded and failing by most measures; Framingham State Prison for Women alone is stuffed to 300 percent of capacity, and overall recidivism is heading for 65 percent. Before Boone was run out of his position in 1973, recidivism had dropped from 60 to 23 percent. The prison population as a whole had been reduced by 15 percent, and with fewer than 30 women remaining at the Framingham facility, it had to be made co-ed.
While Boone made remarkable improvements within the troubled system, his tenure in Massachusetts was fraught with racial tension. The day before he was appointed, the US Supreme Court handed down its decision that the segregation of Boston public schools was unconstitutional. Boone had barely begun his work before he was made the target of the guards' union, of a public infuriated that their carefully maintained racial hierarchy was being dismantled, and of too many members of the local media. In those days before Hub airwaves had heard anything akin to shock jocks like Howie Carr, the Boston Herald was printing fabricated stories and incendiary headlines, like this one: "Boone the Coon." The Herald ultimately claimed credit for Boone's ouster.
It did not take long for the old guard to re-establish chaos. Thirty-five years after political pressure forced the removal of the first Black commissioner of prisons, the need for the reforms he advocated--and successfully implemented--is more severe than ever. And John Boone is coming back to take us to task for it. His return to Massachusetts is possible because, after all, the reforms he undertook were realized by a broad swath of people, from the prisoners themselves to the dedicated priests in the Catholic Priests' Senate and other progressive religious leaders. Some of the people involved are still here, still working for reform.
Many understood that they were participating in a moment of great historical significance--and that the lessons they learned would likely need to be taught again. Long after the radical changes they had enacted within the system had been eroded, they preserved the careful notes they'd taken on their work. Three decades later, their documentation landed on the desk of Jamie Bissonette, director of the Criminal Justice Program of the American Friends Service Committee.
Riveted by this story of the triumph of human potential, Bissonette seized on the opportunity to make it available to a wider audience--a national audience hungry for a solution to prison systems that are gobbling up all the resources needed to make a community livable, with bottom lines that outstrip the budgets for education, affordable housing, and sometimes even local policing, and yet stubbornly refusing to provide the rehabilitative services that would return former convicts to the streets capable and ready to live in them without committing more crimes.
The book that emerged from Bissonette's treasure trove of first-person documentation has just been released. It reveals a complex history, gleaned from present-day interviews as well as grocery bags and bankers' boxes full of archival material--letters between officials, logs kept by civilian observers of guard strikes and prisoners' takeovers, activists' strategies scribbled on napkins and receipts, diary entries revealing prisoners' renewed faith, and newspaper clippings exposing both the hope for and the fear of change.
When the Prisoners Ran Walpole brings much overdue attention to the achievements for the reform of the Massachusetts prison system made by the Massachusetts citizenry, inmate and out, under the seasoned leadership of John Boone. Yet such revelations cannot be made without also exposing the violent backlash visited on the prisoners, also by Massachusetts citizens and leaders. The book does not attempt to gloss over the political compromises that were made, sometimes at the expense of careers. Nor does it hide the fact that such compromises are always at the expense of the prisoners' basic rights. And sometimes their lives.
For more information on the book, visit South End Press <http://rs6.net/tn.jsp?e=0015tRBIvGj-G9bWbLo0qOFRv75VpgMKopSm8FPAUEa6DkHiyFoqzuAUjNJ0rDEF9izCzjlInd9
South End Press Asha Tall