America’s incarceration explosion begins with young offenders. In “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison,” Nell Bernstein explores the physical and psychological abuse that occurs in these state-run correctional facilities. Her new book argues that these kids internalize an unvarnished message — “That they are at once disposable and dangerous.” The evidence is indisputable: Brutal imprisonment and stigmatized identities breed not rehabilitation but recidivism.
My alma mater is the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing. That boys’ reformatory both granted me a high school diploma and stamped my identity with an indelible stain that persists even after 50 years.
This Mennonite homeboy was born under a bad sign; by age 4, the elders had expelled me from summer Bible school for fighting. I was a precocious child; by age 12, my story had become the town’s cautionary tale about juvenile delinquency. Today, I can treat those memories with the detachment of a stand-up comic. In those days, however, my survival kit was limited to rage, violence and crime.
In 1962, at age 17, I was dispatched by the town fathers of Jackson, Minn., to what was colloquially known as the Red Wing Boys’ Reformatory. I had ambivalent feelings as I rolled across southern Minnesota, locked in the back seat of an unmarked squad car. On the one hand, I felt an existential despair that I only began to understand years later when I played the lead role in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” In Red Wing, I was always waiting, waiting for a deliverance that never arrived.
On the other hand, I felt a sense of anticipation and exhilaration. From one end of the state to the other, bad-boy wannabes (like little Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing) fantasized about making it to the big show. To understand that ambition, just listen to Bob Dylan’s “Walls of Red Wing.”
I was in for a rude awakening. In those days, Red Wing was what Erving Goffman called a “total institution.” Privacy was an idea you checked at the front gate. You ate together, you worked together, you slept together, you showered together and, without benefit of stalls, you defecated together.
Back then, few adolescents faced trial as adults. Consequently, you rubbed shoulders on a daily basis with juvenile felons who may have been burglars, sex offenders, armed robbers or even murderers. In any sort of gulag, there are predators and there is prey. I spent my stint at Red Wing avoiding becoming anyone’s prey. When paroled, I had few remaining illusions. I just knew that I was not coming back.
But back I came. There were many “cottages” (the mother of all euphemisms) at Red Wing. Resembling medieval fortresses, those jagged stone buildings were gothic dungeons. The two that housed the most hardened boys and were the toughest places to do time were McKinley and Lincoln.
This time, I drew Lincoln. I decided to live by Faulkner’s Nobel Prize motto — I would not merely endure: I would prevail. The highest status an inmate could achieve was to become a “belt” (in the old days, they literally wore belts across their chests and over their shoulders). Belts represented a combination of trustee and cottage enforcer. Two belts in each unit ran the show. Within a month, I had dispatched a cottage bully to the hospital infirmary. That made all the difference. I soon became the Lincoln belt.
Paroled once again after 10 months, I knew better than to return home. The good citizens of Jackson were just waiting to award me a scholarship to the “big house” at Stillwater state prison. That being a foregone conclusion, I packed up my 1949 Plymouth and headed for the Twin Cities.
I eventually found work in the basement of the Pillsbury Co. I spent my days mindlessly churning out office note pads and my nights drinking cheap liquor. I eventually met an attorney in the lunchroom who for some reason took interest in me. One day, he said, “Kid, you really aren’t as stupid as you sometimes appear to be. Have you ever thought of going to college?”
That conversation made all the difference. I soon found myself at Austin Junior College. To be honest, even Red Wing’s remedial courses had accomplished little. However, I did make a remarkable discovery midway through my first year of college — cultural capital. From that day forth, I was like a burglar seeking the combination to a bank vault.
Today, I am a college professor and have had the redemptive experience of giving a commencement address at Red Wing. Nevertheless, even though a half-century has passed, those incarcerations remain deeply etched in my soul.
Monte Bute teaches sociology at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul and Minneapolis.