Teaching the Article

Exercise 1: Work, Welfare, and Punishment

During the 1930s, changing notions of crime, law, and the state combined with an economic crisis to create paradoxes between punishment and welfare. Like many other aspects of state and society, the politics of punishment underwent significant changes as a result of the Great Depression and the New Deal. Many Americans feared that unemployment and poverty would push more people to commit property crimes such as theft, robbery, and burglary, or to look for work in the underground economy of the liquor trade—illegal until the end of Prohibition in 1933. Others began to question the supposed deep dividing line between criminals and law-abiding citizens. Anyone who had consumed alcohol during Prohibition—including those in the working classes as well as those of the middle class and the elite—was reluctant to condemn the underground liquor trade of criminals such as Al Capone. At the same time, the fraud and schemes of Wall Street’s financial aristocracy made headlines almost daily. Americans had only resentment for unscrupulous stock market speculators while they viewed urban gangsters and interstate highway bandits such as Bonnie and Clyde with respect, sympathy, and fear.

The expected surge in crime in the 1930s never came to pass. Still, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal government responded to the growing public fear of crime and disorder in two ways. On the one hand, it professionalized the federal police force—J. Edgar Hoover’s modern Federal Bureau of Investigation acquired national fame by the mid-1930s—and offered incentives to states to modernize their prison systems. Eager to demonstrate its commitment to law and order and incorruptibility, the federal government also opened a prison on Alcatraz Island in 1934 as the punishment of last resort (most prisons at the time were extremely vulnerable to escapes).

On the other hand, crime prevention gained new importance in the New Deal administration. During the depression, more Americans understood crime and delinquency not as the product of inherent inmate characteristics, but as the unhappy outcome of social circumstances. In that regard, popular opinion was aligning itself with an academic consensus that had emerged during the 1920s: crime did not stem from the immorality of the individual, experts agreed, but instead was primarily a social disorder that required a social response. Social instability led to increasing levels of crime, they argued. As a result, the preservation and restoration of economic security for families, particularly for young men, could prevent such a dangerous trend.

Young men, especially those from cities, seemed most prone to crime and violence. It was in cities that unemployment was highest, men’s ambitions for success as family providers were most frustrated, and opportunities for crime were plentiful. You can find evidence of this philosophy in excerpts of Roosevelt legislation for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

State governments, which were responsible for the prosecution and punishment of most crimes, rarely matched in their efforts the initiatives of the federal government. However, practitioners in the field, such as Kenyon Scudder (a Los Angeles County probation officer who later became the superintendent of the state prison at Chino), recognized the impact the economic crisis was having on crime and delinquency. The growing number of youthful vagrants who arrived in Los Angeles in search for employment and new opportunities posed the same problem President Roosevelt sought to address through the CCC, except that Scudder’s young men faced jail time for vagrancy and for possibly other offenses against public order.

For many Americans, welfare comes with social stigma. It implies not just personal failure or weakness, but also the shamefulness of living off taxpayers’ money. This sentiment has a long tradition in American history, and New Deal policy makers were mindful of this. Thus, most of the government aid Americans received through New Deal agencies came in return for labor. Productive employment, most agreed, could restore or rehabilitate the damaged sense of self of the unemployed, particularly millions of men who experienced deep personal crises as they failed in their role as providers. It was wage work that gave men importance in the family and a place in the community. The New Deal did not try to change this identification, but instead bolstered it. By giving preferential treatment to men in its public works projects, the New Deal further solidified the notions that work was the foundation of male citizenship and that government had a responsibility to secure this foundation if the marketplace could not.

At first glance, labor would seem to have had a very different meaning as a form of punishment. After all, prisoners had worked on chain gangs in the South and in prison factories in the Northeast under conditions not of their own choosing and without wages. Unpaid and unable to quit, prison laborers lacked the two basic elements of freedom that workers enjoyed on the outside. In Scudder’s description of camp labor, however, you can recognize an interpretation of labor in forest camps for juvenile delinquents that seems to combine punishment with welfare.

Teaching Objectives:

Students should be able to

  1. Identify the beneficiaries of the labor camp program.
  2. Compare and contrast President Roosevelt’s welfare labor program with Scudder’s vision of disciplinary forest camps.
  3. Compare and contrast labor’s role in California’s forest camps with its purpose in New Deal welfare programs.
  4. Distinguish between the actual experiences of prisoners and the visions that politicians and penologists had of forest labor.

Exercise 2: Rural California, White Flight, and the State

The demographic and economic changes that World War II brought to the American city and the rural West set the stage for the conflict between urban, suburban, and rural Americans over prisons in the postwar years. The demand of a rapidly growing wartime economy for raw materials renewed the importance of extractive industries, such as lumber and mining. The construction of new roads and dams through New Deal projects, as well as the rapid advance in rural electrification, meant that once-remote California counties became increasingly accessible. Rural life increasingly gained appeal for urbanites, who looked for nearby areas of recreation or who believed that the dramatic changes in the city endangered family and property.

World War II had also transformed California’s cities, turning them into large industrial metropolises whose population far outstripped its housing capacity and infrastructure. The large migration of white and black Americans from the South and Midwest to the West Coast had initially been driven by the search for lucrative employment in war industries and military deployments, but the influx was sustained in the postwar years by soldiers who returned to West Coast ports from the Pacific or who reunited with families that had relocated during their time in the service. These demographic movements not only increased California’s metropolitan population, they also made the cities more diverse.

This fluid, unsettled urban landscape prompted many urban whites to look elsewhere for a more stable home life and secure property values in residential neighborhoods. Small to mid-sized towns and new suburban tract housing just outside large bustling cities such as Oakland and Los Angeles were one choice—another was small rural communities in the foothills east and north of Los Angeles, north of the Bay area, and east of Sacramento. Here, the air was still clear of the smell of ports and factories, traffic was not an issue, house lots were large, and the neighbors were white and native Californian. Thus, whatever differences existed between old settlers and new arrivals about the meaning of rural life, they shared an expectation for a racially homogenous community—something that prison camps were not. But newcomers who settled in the once rugged Sierra foothills east of Sacramento or in the forest counties north of the Bay area had a very different understanding of the quality of country life compared to older settlers. Unlike newcomers, longtime residents had a working relationship with the land and valued their environment more for its resources than its scenic beauty. As you read the documents below, consider the extent to which this understanding of the connection between land and labor made longtime residents more receptive to prison forest camps.

Teaching Objectives:

Students should be able to

  1. Identify the objections rural Californians had to camp sites and on what grounds they and others protested the closing of prison camps.
  2. Explain how different understandings of property shaped Californians’ opposition or support for the establishment of a forest prison camp in their vicinity.
  3. Analyze the relationship between local residents’ statements about family and sexuality and their position on forest prison camps.
  4. Discuss the role race seemed to play in residents’ reactions to camps.

Exercise 3: Bound for Service: The Civic Culture of Military Duty after World War II

World War II profoundly altered the place of the military in society, culture, and the states. In the mid-1930s Americans had looked with fear and worry at the involvement of the army in the organization of the Civilian Conservation Corps. A deep isolationist sentiment discouraged Americans from identifying with the armed forces, and few accepted the military as a regular institution in American life. After the war, however, millions of Americans developed a deep pride of accomplishment from their military records. The public celebration of enlisted friends and family members—whether killed in action or safely back at home—became an accepted form of patriotic display. Once the escalation of the Cold War put the nation in a permanent state of military preparedness, service in the armed forces became a normal step in the career of Americans, especially men. This was true for men who went to college with veterans’ benefits and those who prepared for the armed forces through Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and other military preparatory programs at colleges. Military service entitled veterans to assistance in homeownership and facilitated the establishment of households and families.

But the military shaped more than the lives of middle-class Americans. Veterans with few skills or opportunities made up a significant portion of new employee recruits in the Department of Corrections, where the discipline and organization of being a prison guard was comparable to life in the military. Many of the men those guards had to watch over had also spent time in the armed forces. Already in November 1945, 21 percent of California’s prisoners were former servicemen, a proportion that grew steadily in the postwar years. By 1949, the Veterans’ Administration (VA) had enough clients in San Quentin to justify a permanent representative there. At its opening, 174 out of 510 inmates at the California Vocational Institution were veterans and received assistance from VA staff on site to take advantage of further schooling opportunities under the G.I. Bill upon release. For these men, the road back from the military to life as free citizen merged with the road back from prison. The case of Kermit Owen Frazier revealed the links between the rehabilitation of a veteran and of a prisoner. An air force captain during World War II, Frazier killed a widow and severely injured her two children after their love affair turned sour. Sent to San Quentin in 1949, he was the main character of a weeklong feature in the San Francisco Chronicle on the state’s new correctional system. Frazier compared prison with army life. From food to accommodations, clothing to discipline, he found the daily routine in San Quentin “much like military life.”

With 850,000 veterans settling in the Golden State (with approximately 20 to 25 percent of them from out of state), California acquired the highest concentration of veterans of all states in the postwar years. Eager to give “the country back to the service man” and make “a more stable home life for all citizens,” the state legislature set aside $12 million for general veterans’ services, most of which went into programs for vocational training and rehabilitation. In addition, through provisions in the G.I. Bill, the state’s veteran population assured the flow of federal funds into California. In part, this exceptional generosity toward veterans emerged from gratitude. But fear of social disorder also drove this particular welfare reform. Sixteen million men released from the military were comparable to “a working class without jobs,” noted one veteran, unambiguously invoking the dangers of a socialist revolution. Many also feared that life in the army “trained” men “for crime,” and idleness and resentment wreaked havoc on the virtues of civil society. Nationwide, doctors testified that readjustment to freedom and the responsibilities of civilian life after years in a totalizing institution such as the military could prove a serious challenge for men. However, most Americans also considered soldiers and veterans to have “a higher rehabilitative potential than the rest of the prison population.” Imprisoned veterans made it easy to imagine criminals as deserving beneficiaries of the welfare state.

Teaching Objectives:

Students should be able to

  1. Identify why both prisoners and prison administrators saw parallels between prison sentences and military service.
  2. Discuss the extent to which notions of militarized service shaped community perspectives on prisoners in forest camps.
  3. Evaluate the plausibility of parallels between the work of prisoners on the fire line and that of soldiers in combat.
  4. Analyze how the conception of prisoners’ civil defense work in military terms benefited or harmed prisoners and the goal of rehabilitation.

Exercise 4: Crime and the City: Urban Decline and the Politics of Rehabilitation

Many experts anticipated a significant crime wave in the years following the war. Their explanations emphasized social tensions in wartime California, but they also blamed the lack of self-control and the inflexibility of black and white migrants that had come from the South and Midwest to the cities of the Golden State. Southern California’s increase in crime was the result of “poor housing conditions in ‘areas of contagion,’” they explained. They also maintained that crowded conditions in the cities were made so distasteful through two phenomena. The first was the rural behavior patterns that migrants brought with them to modern, urban settings. The second was the increasing geographic mobility of the war years, which had destroyed the discipline that home, community, church, and family had imposed in the past.

In the postwar years, white migrants to California were able to move into new suburban developments, which excluded African Americans through a variety of strategies. City officials in boomtowns such as Long Beach and Richmond quickly identified segregated black communities as “blighted” and then approached the problem in two ways. On the on hand, law enforcement officials—with the leadership of the Los Angeles Police Department—began to professionalize and militarize their policing strategies in these neighborhoods. While urban police departments were supposed to channel law breakers into prison for punishment and individual rehabilitation, California cities contemplated the possibilities of “urban rehabilitation” with the aid of federal funding. In the cases of Oakland and Los Angeles, historians have taught us, these efforts came to naught. Unemployment, overcrowding, and poor access to medical care continued to plague California’s blacks and Latinos in highly segregated urban neighborhoods. When the Rumford Housing Act promised to address the open racial discrimination that prevented nonwhite Americans from moving into white enclaves, Californians overwhelmingly voted for Proposition 14, which overturned the antidiscrimination law. At the time of the 1965 Watts riots, black Californians from Oakland to Compton had become fed up with police officers acting like occupying forces in neighborhoods that were increasingly cut off from the state’s overall prosperity.

While the state of California pursued the goal of rehabilitation in its prisons, it failed to address its urban crisis. Moreover, the former could not alleviate the latter. Instead, the urban crisis became a prison crisis, and by the 1970s the conditions that affected inner city neighborhoods—poor infrastructures in health care, education, job training, employment, and housing—had become the conditions of the state’s prison system. The sources in this exercise offer brief samples of this development and the relationship between the city and the prison.

Teaching Objectives:

Students should be able to

  1. Identify the grievances of African American and white urban residents.
  2. Analyze the role of prisons in the confrontations between white and African American Californians.
  3. Discuss the changing approach of the Reagan administration to the urban crisis.
  4. Evaluate the role of race in the confrontations between rural white residents and urban black prisoners.