Friday, 24 April 2015

Keele students visit Pendleton Correctional Facility

By Dr Guy Woolnough, Criminology Teaching Fellow  

In April 2015, twelve Criminology students, accompanied by Dr Guy Woolnough, visited Ball State University, Indiana. The visit was hosted by Professor Mike Brown of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Ball State University.

 Pendleton Correctional Facility, Indiana (1)

This is cross-posted from

We would like to thank the staff and inmates of Pendleton Correctional Facility for their generous welcome, for their interest and consideration, and for helping us to understand the challenging problems addressed by the criminal justice system.

The visit to an Indiana prison was a highlight of our visit to Ball State University, organised by Professor Mike Brown of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. There was a sense of awful excitement in our party for we seemed to be like tourists visiting an exclusive attraction, but we could not be unaware of its serious nature, for we were required to leave everything but photo id outside the prison. Admission entailed rigorous searching and checking before we were allowed to pass through a series of steel gates which clunked with an ominous finality behind us. We were to discover from our visit how humanity can survive in the extremest of conditions, and we were able to explore the profound differences in penal cultures and philosophies across the Atlantic.
Pendleton Correctional Facility (2) is a high security prison, housing serious male offenders serving lengthy or whole-life terms. We were struck by the preponderance of middle aged and elderly inmates who one supposes will only leave Pendleton upon their death. They have been convicted of murder, rape, child abuse, robbery etc. The facility was built in the 1920s, and the most well known inmate was perhaps John Dillinger, who entered the facility as a petty robber and left nine years later in 1933 as a murdering bank-robber.

Despite the desperate men inside, and despite the appalling crimes they have committed, one is immediately struck by the ordered calm, almost serenity of the prison. On a beautiful day, the spacious central yard with its wide lawns, the warm-coloured brick of the classically proportioned architecture might have reminded one of a prestigious university, were it not for the razor wire, barred windows and eight sinister watch towers. Bentham’s panopticon was envisioned here with a modern twist and all-but invisible CCTV.

Our guide was a member of staff, not a uniformed officer, who showed us many parts of the prison. We were able to sample food in the dining hall, see cell blocks which Dillinger might have recognised, look into dormitories and examine the infirmary, all of which met our grim expectations. In almost every part we saw inmates who were politely deferential and compliant to our guide’s requests. Yes, they were requests and not orders, but one felt that inmates had internalised the necessity for immediate compliance. Only one man was seen leering at the young women in our party. This grinning prisoner revealed his heavily tattooed torso but his comments were inaudible through the heavy double glazing of the infirmary windows.

We were able to speak to prisoners. In most cases it was a civil ‘Hi’ and a nod, but a couple of exchanges were more lengthy. In the infirmary, two inmates were on watch outside locked cells recording, every five minutes, the risk status of the men inside. These observers were trusted prisoners, and one was very willing to talk. A man now aged 50, he had served 26 years, intimating that his offences had been gang-related. He spoke of how he had turned his life around in those years, and was now looking forward to release: his case was up for review in September but he could trust in the Lord and knew that he could face the further eight years of his term with equanimity if that is what God willed.

In the law library we met Pearl (3), who explained that the books and computers enabled inmates to research their cases. Pearl was eloquent and had gained law degrees during her incarceration but complained that she was now unable to go further with her education. The State of Indiana had changed the rules in recent years so that the only educational courses available to inmates were now vocational: plumbing, carpentry, electrician etc. Pearl was clearly angry at this decision, and at the State’s refusal to accept her gender preference, but she remained perfectly calm and civil. Our guide promised to explain when we left the library, which he did: the State had faced angry protests from voters, that it was wrong that the law-abiding sons and daughters of taxpayers faced increasingly onerous college fees whereas convicted felons could enrol at the tax-payers’ expense. So the Legislature voted to terminate college education for prisoners.

One Keele student voiced the opinion of many: surely the injustice is that college education is too expensive for most tax-payers, not that a small number of prisoners have got it for free? This question encapsulated the gulf between British and American cultures, a gulf which became clearer to us as we interacted with professionals from the American criminal justice system. We were privileged in our programme at Ball State to hear from senior prosecutors, judges, probation officers and parole officers, all of whom (quite properly) sought to protect the public, but believed that this was best achieved by moral retribution, including long sentences and stringent conditions.

Offenders in America are expected to work long and hard for their redemption, they are not guided towards rehabilitation as they might be in the UK. I concluded that a programme like the English Integrated Offender Management Scheme would be unthinkable in America, whereas social justice is fundamental for most Britons and for Keele students. They expect prison to attempt to rehabilitate, they expect opportunity to be available to all. The great majority of the American criminal justice professionals whom we met expected prison to be retributive and deterrent; it was to be punitive. American culture expects people to work for their goals; the rewards of hard work and success are accessible to all. Justice is seen as functional, it rewards the strivers but for those whose efforts are misdirected the doors are closed. For prisoners, this is literal as well as metaphorical.

The prison was pervaded by a aura of calm routine and discipline, with inmates moving in an orderly way, interacting with us and the guards in the American manner with mutual respect and informality. We were surprised to learn that the ratio of officers to inmates is approximately three to one hundred. However the fragility of appearances was brought home to us by a moment of drama when an officer showed us a shank he had just discovered. A simple stabbing blade fabricated in the workshop, it had been discarded by an inmate when he saw a random metal-detector screening. The officer was confident that the culprit would be identified and sanctioned. The rules and the security were intense, but humanity found a way of asserting itself even in this regime. For many, remaining human meant challenging the rules, by fabricating a shank, or by working in the law library to exploit any chinks in the legal armour that had locked them in. Others asserted their humanity through religion or by creating vividly powerful murals of the world outside.

Checking the history of Pendleton Correctional Facility shows how penetrable is the veneer of control. One is reminded that the weakest link in prison security is the staff who work there, some of whom have smuggled contraband into the prison. The posters encourage those who are sexually exploited to come forward: abusers have included staff at the prison. (4) 
There have been regular problems in the prison, including murders, assaults and suicides, the most serious of which was a riot in 1985 that broke out after an inmate was brutally beaten by guards. Our guide deplored such behaviour by prison officers and observed to us that his own relaxed manner was possible because he respected the prisoners, did not use his power or authority in an arbitrary fashion. It is clear that even in a situation of most extreme control, humans never lose all agency, they always retain the power to act, even if only minimally, and that even a high security prison can only function with the cooperation of the inmates. Failure to cooperate is always an option for prisoners, though the cost of that decision can take the form of beatings or further sanctions, or even the risk of death.

I am sure that tax paying citizens would benefit from visiting the prisons they fund. They could see the high cost of Pendleton’s intense security, but I doubt that this is money well spent. They could also sense the deep impact upon the human souls within its walls, on both the inmates and on those who work at Pendleton. I wonder how many of the inmates are so dangerous that we need to be protected from them for ever? I wonder how many inmates would not have drifted into serious offending if they had better education and opportunities when they were younger? My students and I found the visit to Pendleton Correctional Facility overwhelming. The clunk of heavy doors behind us, the moving sight of prisoners waiting for visits from loved ones, the civility of the staff and inmates made a deep impression. How would we cope if we or our family members faced an eternity inside? How does humanity survive?

1. Pendleton Correctional Facility, Indiana Department of Corrections, 2015. ; Accessed 18 Apr 2015
2. Pendleton is for level 3 and 4 security prisoners. the highest level is 5, ‘super-max’. William, J.E., Pendleton Correctional Facility, Wikipedia,;accessed18Apr 2015.
3. Pearl presented as female, but our guard used a male name in addressing this prisoner. I have followed Pearl’s gender preference in writing this paragraph.

4.  Prison Legal News, 18 Apr 2015,; accessed 18 Apr 2015

No comments: