Research

Behind Bars

Noise echoed up to the third-floor classroom. Steel clanging. Yelled profanities. An occasional scream. The window framed stain-blackened turrets jutting from adjacent angles of the building into soft blue sky, and the Juniata River splayed with light, and between them, the chain-link fence crowned with concertina wire.

B&W photo of man with glasses, sitting in chair in “listening” position

It was the first day of sociology class at the maximum security State Correctional Institution in Huntingdon (SCIH), Pennsylvania, 1975, and the inmates—in standard-issue off-white shirts, maroon trousers, and pallid skins—were unusually quiet. They were watching the teacher with the kind of feigned indifference that registers movement in the hour hand of a clock. Buddy Martin, P-1176, sat near the front. On the streets where he'd been schooled, you learned to read a person if you wanted to survive. This teacher, who couldn't be a day over 30, had a long, gaunt face full of angles. Big forearms. Flannel shirt, corduroy pants, work boots. He looked, Martin thought, like a damn lumberjack. He was talking quietly to two guards, motioning toward the door. Martin knew that for guards to sit in the room during these classes was S.O.P. Standard Operating Procedure. Martin was on death row for three counts of murder. He'd survived in the prison system for years—a feat he hadn't accomplished, he liked to say, by playing pattycake—and there were inmates he was afraid of. Some would slit your throat for a pack of cigarettes, and enjoy it. That's why Martin couldn't believe it when the guards left the room.

The lumberjack shut the door. "Would you guys like to know why you're in here?" he said.

They looked at each other—was this guy for real?—then back at him. A gruff but resounding chorus of yeah's.

"Because you don't know how to manipulate in a socially acceptable manner."

Martin searched for any discrepancy between the voice and the look in his eyes.

"Everybody manipulates," the teacher continued. "From the way you dress and comb your hair to the way you try to attract and influence people. We all manipulate. But some of us are better at it than others." He smiled then, and his eyes, panning slowly across the room, took them all in. "You guys are doing REE-al bad."

Martin's mind worked fast. "Manipulator" had always been a contemptuous tag the guards and counselors used for an inmate who stayed out of trouble and took part in the rehabilitation programs, who, in short, played by the rules. They saw it as just another attempt to "get over on the system." Of course, if an inmate hardened—a difficult route to avoid in a place where violence defined relationships, and murderers were not merely feared but admired—they said he was beyond rehabilitating. This teacher had just made manipulation respectable.

Over the next several years at SCIH, the unorthodox tactics of teacher Ted Alleman would annoy some, outrage others, and leave still others cheering. If, in his classes—offered through Penn State's Altoona campus as part of a continuing education program—he wasn't teaching inmates how to manipulate in a socially acceptable manner, he was leading discussions on "why prisons fail," or pushing his students to earn college degrees—"which is more education than a lot of prison personnel want you to have," says Martin, "because then you're someone who can hold them accountable, challenge their control." But it was Alleman's founding of Tower Press in 1985 to publish prisoners'-eye views of prison (Martin's Caesar's Gladiator Pit was the first) that made SCIH administrators decide not to renew his contract.

When recent Penn State graduate Alleman first came to SCIH in 1975 to teach, he didn't know what to expect. He'd shoved into the back of his mind the "boogeyman" images offered by the media. Shoved, too, the suggestions in sociological literature that people could not be rehabilitated. His training in behavioral science made him believe that they could be and that education was, quite literally, the key.

Alleman didn't consider himself naive. He would not, for instance, "buy stock in the basic goodness of mankind," he says. "I mean, there were inmates I wouldn't turn my back on." But he believed that if you treated a man like a human being regardless of his past, you'd get a good response. At Huntingdon—while assessing, running-back style, the clearest path to the door—he told the men that when they entered the classroom they were no longer to think of themselves as prisoners, but as students.

"I respected each inmate as an individual, meanwhile stressing the importance of their experiences for gaining insight into their own lives and the lives of others," he says. "They responded enthusiastically." Tales of poverty, family trauma, and drug abuse poured out; it was not long before crime, delinquency, and prison dominated discussions. The class evolved into a forum in which sociological theory was tested against experience. Says Alleman, "Often, I felt that I was the one who was learning."

red, blue and black drawing or painting with red and white border

Huntingdon's inmates were typical of American prisoners. About 60 to 65 percent were in for property crimes; 40 percent for drugs or antisocial behavior. The average inmate was young (21 to 26), poor, often a minority, a school dropout (the average level of education was sixth grade and 35 percent were functionally illiterate), and was often addicted to drugs (usually alcohol or heroin). ""In prison, people with violent tendencies, sexual maladjustments, and drug addictions do nothing for five or more years but sit," Alleman says. "Their problems amplify."

Prisoners are in prison for a reason, Alleman's critics said. It's not supposed to be Club Med for Delinquents.

Alleman hit them with the facts. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (USDJ), 98 percent of inmates will eventually be released; within two years of release, 67 percent will return. The successive crimes are almost always worse than the originals. Rather than reducing crime, prisons are producing it—and churning out more effective criminals to boot.

So don't let them out.

Most prisons are already terribly overcrowded (Huntingdon is filled to 160 percent capacity).

Build more prisons.

According to the federal government, it costs $60,000 per bed to build a prison and $15-20,000 a year to house one inmate. In a dollars-and-cents world, prisons are one of the fastest growing industries; but instead of fueling the economy, they are draining it.

One last statistic from the USDJ: Two-thirds of inmates can be worked with, and one-third can become productive and will never return to crime.

Alleman bristled at the label of bleeding-heart liberal: "I believe in some type of incarceration, and I don't think it should be pleasant." But the current prison system wasn't working: "Prisoners are locked up only to face more violence. Eventually, they stop caring and begin to hate the system." Previous prison reform movements such as those of Johnson's Great Society in the late '60s and '70s had certainly improved conditions. But they'd relied too heavily on sociological literature written by ""experts" who had never been inside a prison. The people most qualified to point out the flaws in the system, Alleman felt, were the prisoners. The problem was that nobody was listening.

During the five years he was on death row and the prosecution battled in court to have him executed, Buddy Martin says he was "really schizzed out." He claimed he was innocent of the 1969 contract murders of United Mine Workers of America insurgent Jock Yablonski and his wife and daughter. So uncontrollable was his behavior—snarling, defiant, hateful, frightened, and paranoid, went the reports—that he was placed in solitary confinement much of the time.

The turning point came in 1974. One night, according to Martin, two state policemen appeared in his cell. They took him to the visitor's room and forced him to strip. "They said they were afraid of me and wanted to make sure I wasn't concealing a weapon," he told a reporter later. "You have no idea how vulnerable you feel standing nude in a cold cell." Then they served him with a subpoena to appear the following morning at the trial of Tony Boyle, the deposed president of the UMW who was eventually convicted of masterminding the murders. When Martin demanded to see his lawyer, they said he would be in the courtroom the next day.

Next day, no lawyer. "They put me in a holding cell outside the courtroom, and I was so enraged that I ripped the sink right out of the wall by jumping on it. From the courtroom I heard someone shout, ‘There's a barbarian out there.’ "

The newspapers reported that Martin, handcuffed to two policemen and screaming, was dragged into the courtroom. He spat at prosecutor Richard Sprague. After Paul Gilly, one of his companions on the night of the murders, identified him as the main triggerman, Martin was dragged from the room shouting, "Your honor, I've been kidnapped and brought here against my will! I demand to see my lawyer!"

Martin told the reporter, "When I saw the drawings of the scene in the papers the next day, I was moved. That madman was me, and I vowed that I would learn to communicate how I feel by getting an education."

Back in his cell, he started reading: self-help pamphlets and book-club paperbacks that he obtained surreptitiously and hid underneath his mattress. The other inmates were amused when he started studying for the high- school-equivalency exam. "They'd say, ‘They're gonna execute you. What the hell do you think you're doing?' " Martin passed the exam and enrolled in the college classes offered at the prison.

Though he sat in the front row of Alleman's class, Martin didn't talk much at first, the teacher remembers. Just sat there taking in everything with those pale blue eyes as if he were trying to memorize it. He absorbed all that was said, from sociological theories to anecdotes and factual tidbits. Knowledge was something he grabbed at like a game-show shopper who had only a minute to dash down the aisle of a grocery store and fill a cart.

"Buddy has an innately high IQ," Alleman says. "He'd always been able to pick locks and break out of jail, but he never understood how he was able to do that. When his mind started to develop, it literally exploded."

Months later, the Supreme Court reduced Martin's death sentence to three life sentences, no possibility of parole. He started to open up. Leaning forward in his seat, he would use his hands for emphasis as he offered, in the accent of an autodidact, an impassioned opinion.

On criminals: "Most people look at a criminal and see a victimizer. But when I talk to him about his history and the way he was raised, I see a victim. If you are continuously brutalized, then sooner or later it's going to dawn on you that it's OK to brutalize."

On punishment: "I believe human beings have to face a reckoning. But if you take a man who's impoverished, uneducated, and holding a real primitive set of values, you can verbally abuse and whip and isolate him as much as you want, but if you don't provide him with a positive alternative, he's not going to change. You can't satisfy the equation by denying him the very same thing you demand from him. Punishment without correction becomes brutality."

On prison: "I see the administrators working in a system that's so out of control that they just hope like hell they can get through the day without some major destruction."

On rehabilitation: "I prefer the word ‘habilitate' because it means you build a person from the ground up. ‘Rehabilitate' implies that you're returning someone to the positive and productive state in which they once lived. Listening to people's tales in here, I don't get the impression that they've ever had any positive or productive states in their lives."

An ubrane Wayne "Buddy" Martin was born in a mountain hollow in Madison, West Virginia, where people mined coal and grew their own gardens. Instead of electricity, there was coal in an old potbellied stove. His family—mother, father, three sisters, and three brothers—was poor, but then, so was everyone around them; poverty seemed like man's natural state.

Once, a well-heeled city uncle came to visit. At the end of the visit, while the uncle was getting into his car, Martin asked his father for a nickel to buy a bag of peanuts. "Now, a nickel was a lot of money to us, and my dad didn't have one on him," Martin says. "When my uncle turned around and handed me a quarter, my dad was humiliated." After the uncle drove away, Martin's father got a switch. He grabbed the boy's hand and started whipping him. "He whipped me real hard on my back and arms and legs. I was running around in a circle trying to get away, but he only held tighter. It was hurting so bad that I clawed at his fingers. Then I started biting his knuckles. When he let go, I ran into the woods and hid and I thought, Jesus Christ, all I wanted was a nickel!"

Another time, Martin and his mother were sitting in the house when she suddenly jumped up and started locking the doors and lowering the blinds. "I peeked out the window and saw a guy getting out of a car. I hollered, ‘Mom, someone's coming.' Well, she already knew. When I went to open the door, she pulled me back and told me to be quiet. I looked out the window again and watched the guy coming up the walk. He wore a suit and a white shirt and a tie. My mom was acting real frightened now. He knocked on the door. When nobody answered, he tried to look in the windows. Finally, he left." That man, Martin's mother told him, was a bill collector. If he'd found them home, he would have taken their furniture because they were behind on the payments. "I turned and looked at the furniture then, and it was so shot and ragged, I was wondering who would want it." Later, he says, when he started getting into trouble and was sent to counselors who wore any part of the suit-white-shirt-and-tie ensemble, he was overwhelmed by anxiety. "That was the sign of the enemy. When they tried to talk to me, I was totally withdrawn. There was no communication. The only thing I had to be sure of was that they didn't close the door and lock it before I could get out of there."

When Martin was seven, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, with a vision of a better life. Better job, better home, better clothes for their children, Martin's father told his mother. In Cleveland, though, the most frequent paycheck came from welfare, and in the black ghetto where they lived, the children were taunted and beaten for being white hillbillies.

Martin's heroes became the kids who hung out on the street corners and carried switch blades, brass knuckles, and blackjacks. Rites of passage into their pack involved satanic tattoos, Lucky Strike cigarettes, and stealing; applying himself, Martin quickly gained admission.

Home life turned turbulent when Martin's parents tried to pull him away from the pack. "You go along with whoever you feel the greatest threat from," Martin says. "I always felt the greatest threat from the guys in the neighborhood. My mom and dad would scream and whip me to try and control me. Eventually, they realized that they were being extremely cruel, so they relinquished control. Then I could come and go as I pleased, and they just prayed that everything would work out."

Running away became one of Martin's favorite pastimes. He rode buses from one end of Cleveland to the other, slept in all-night laundromats. He played hookie from school to avoid fights with members of enemy gangs. "Sitting in class, I'd worry about who was waiting outside to beat me up. School was the most frightening experience, and I would try to avoid it at all costs. I'd seek out trouble just to get expelled."

Martin was first incarcerated when he was nine. His parents came home late one night, drunk and fighting. His father punched his mother in the nose, which started to bleed. She ran into the kitchen and grabbed a butcher knife. Martin picked up one of his cowboy boots from the floor. He jumped in between them, threw the boot at his father, and hit him in the head. Both parents turned on him. His father held him down while his mother called the police. When the police arrived, his parents told them Martin was a problem child and they didn't know what to do with him. "I pleaded with the cops not to take me, but they did. As we were leaving, one of the cops said, ‘You may not understand this, son, but what we're doing is for your own good.' I thought he meant they were rescuing me." Martin was incarcerated in a juvenile facility for 30 days for being "incorrigible."

After he was expelled from the sixth grade for punching a teacher, a juvenile judge sent him to a private school. There, Martin left a map on which he'd marked the route back to Cleveland—and then fled in the opposite direction. A week later, the police found him, starving and exhausted, at the candy counter of an all-night bowling alley in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He refused to tell them who he was until one of the men produced a bag filled with hamburgers and French fries. "I took one whiff and said, ‘My name is Buddy Martin and I'm from Cleveland, Ohio!’"

Martin supported himself as a burglar from his early teens. But it was only after he'd spent years in reformatories and lost several legitimate jobs that he began to see himself as a professional. That's when he joined the burglary ring of Claude Vealey and Paul Gilly that took him, at 21, to the rural area around Clarksville in southwestern Pennsylvania on December 30, 1969. Drinking beer and smoking, the men kept a vigil on the old fieldstone farmhouse of Jock Yablonski, who a few weeks earlier had lost a bitter election for the UMW presidency to Tony Boyle. (Boyle was accused of ruling the union with an iron fist, and union reformists had pressured the Labor Department to investigate the election.) The trio waited until about midnight when they were sure that Yablonski, 59, his wife, Margaret, 57, and their daughter, Charlotte, 25, were asleep.

The accounts of what happened next differ among the three men. Martin, from his arrest, swore he knew nothing of a murder plot. He'd only agreed to a routine burglary, he said. His job was to stay with the car and stand guard while the other two men entered the farmhouse and stole a $50,000-coin collection. He fell asleep in the car several hundred yards from the house, he said, and he didn't even know until several days later that anyone had been killed.

According to Vealey, whose testimony alone convicted Martin, all three men entered the Yablonski home by dismantling a side storm door, then crept upstairs. Martin carried a .38; he was to kill the daughter. Vealey and Gilley, who shared an M-1 rifle, were responsible for Jock and Margaret.

Martin entered the daughter's bedroom, Vealey and Gilly the other. Vealey said Martin fired twice. In the other bedroom, no shots were fired. The rifle had jammed. Vealey said Margaret was sitting up in bed screaming, and Jock was struggling to get up. A shotgun was propped against the wall in a corner of the room. "Buddy stepped inside the door and fired four times," Vealey testified. "After he shot, the woman made no more sounds, and I could hear Jock gurgling."

The jury of seven women and five men took 72 minutes to find Martin guilty of three counts of murder, and an additional 45 minutes to recommend death.

In prison, Martin was plunged into an environment where "suicide, homosexual rape, violence, intimidation, boredom, and meaningless employment make up the daily round of life." His efforts to be "positive and constructive" through education and art—he'd fallen in love with painting while assigned to the prison craftshop—were squelched: The administrators called him a manipulator and denied him art supplies. What Martin wanted more than anything else was to tell his side of the story.

In 1982, Martin, who had entered prison with a seventh-grade education, became the first inmate at SCIH to earn an associate's degree (in sociology) from Penn State. Encouraged by Alleman, he sat down to write an account of his prison experience; 32 days later, he presented the teacher with Caesar's Gladiator Pit.

"I couldn't believe it," Alleman says. "It wasn't Pulitzer Prize material, but it captured the conflicts and emotions in prison, and it was authentic."

The book contains large doses of sociological speculation in the stilted prose of abstracts—for example, "Emotional input with negative probabilities should not be allowed expression." But when Martin draws from his own experience, he finds a voice that is utterly compelling:

In the cell block . . . I observed a man moving up quickly behind another who was bent over the water fountain drinking . . . I watched a sharp blade stab its way through space . . . With great force he drove the dull- gray blade into the right side of his victim's chest. The powerful thrust spread the rib cage and plowed its way toward the unsuspecting beating heart. When the hilt of the blade slammed against the chest, there was a loud, dull thud. It sounded like a man had been punched in the chest real hard. He pulled it out just as quickly as he had driven it in. The man drinking the water quickly rose and spun around to face his attacker. He thought he had been punched in the chest. Not realizing he had been stabbed, he threw up his fists and charged his assailant.

Blood squirted from his chest like water from a ruptured pipe. It squirted and splashed everywhere. I looked deeply into his eyes as he finally comprehended his imminent death . . . the shock spread across his face. I watched the man collapse onto the butt-covered cold cement floor. He lay there having convulsions and then slid into the dark sea of death. I watched as God pulled him away from shore.

Slowly, the attacker turned and looked into my eyes. In that moment I knew he weighed the possibility of also killing me. I was a witness. But, too, he glanced around farther from me and saw other men watching. He realized he couldn't kill us all. Slowly he backed up and looked for an avenue of escape. He threw his weapon behind an old steam-pipe radiator and ran down the cell block.

Tucked throughout chapters with titles such as "The Pit" and "Human Devastation" are bits of sensitivity and insight: "It had been several years, then, since I had seen a leaf. When it skidded to a halt on the hard asphalt like a child's paper plane, I was pulled to it by the magic. Tenderly, I picked up that welcomed wonderment and pondered its being. I thought I saw its tears and felt its fears of dying in a strange land."

In 1984, while trying to drum up interest in the book, Alleman discovered that the publishing world was still leery of inmates-cum-writers—had not yet recovered, that is, from the Jack Abbott incident. Abbott, incarcerated author of In the Belly of the Beast, had been coddled into print in 1981 by Norman Mailer. Mailer, seeing in Abbott a raw, burning talent, had edited his letters and sent them to his own publisher. Based on the success of Beast and on Mailer's recommendation, Abbott was released. Shortly thereafter, Abbott killed a waiter in a Los Angeles restaurant. Today, he's back behind bars.

When publishers refused Martin's book, Alleman bought posterboard, dry-transfer lettering, and a typewriter with memory. Taking the name Tower Press (the prison tower is its logo), he set up shop in a small brick storefront in Hollidaysburg. He made paste-ups of Martin's manuscript, then sent out 30 letters to printers. Thompson-Shore of Michigan responded favorably; Alleman bought 2,500 copies of the book from them. The federal government, several federal institutions, sheriff's departments, and prisons have ordered the book, which is banned from the SCIH library. Alleman has not yet recovered his investment.

In 1986, after a respite from teaching at SCIH, Alleman tried to return and discovered he was no longer welcome. "The administration feels that because of his business relationship with Buddy Martin, it wouldn't be appropriate for him to teach here," Steven G. Polte, education director at the prison, told a reporter last year.

Alleman says the prison views him as a threat because he encourages inmates to speak out and to form links with the outside world. "Their main thing is to keep these people apart from society," Alleman says. "When people like me try to go in and bridge those barriers, they don't like it."

But Alleman has not been idle. He continues to teach part-time at Penn State's Altoona campus and is working on a second book titled Why Prisons Fail. "It consists of a dozen inmates telling their stories—why they've spent their whole lives in and out of prisons, and why prisons are not rehabilitating them." To elicit the stories, Alleman circulated a memo on Tower Press letterhead; within a month, he received manuscripts from inmates from all over the country, from California State Prison to Sing Sing in New York. "I'm swamped. I don't have time to read the material. I feel like the guy who's standing there with his thumb in the dam. I need a large organization behind me. Penn State is a large organization."

Alleman is seeking funds to edit at Altoona campus a national journal for inmates. "It would be a research- oriented journal based on the idea that there's an untapped source of knowledge in our prison system. Our subscribers would include all major correctional institutions and libraries in the country. Inmates could provide them with valuable information about what kinds of juvenile and rehabilitation programs work, from the inside-out."

Simultaneously, he's trying to establish a certificate program in social commentary—a series of correspondence courses offered by Penn State. "Those inmates who don't make it into the journal will be directed to take these courses, which will enable them to write a publishable article. Each course is accredited, transferable to almost any university in the country, and each applies to an associate degree in Letters, Arts, and Sciences. We'll teach them how to think critically using philosophy and inductive and deductive reasoning, and the use and misuse of language. Then they'll redo the article and resubmit it.

"The philosophy on which I base Tower Press and the journal is that I'm providing a means for prisoners to express themselves in a positive, constructive manner, so people who run prisons can learn from them. That's at a social level. At an individual level, I also believe that anyone who gets involved in education is getting involved with a level of thinking and behaving that's incompatible with his or her previous life."

Meanwhile, Buddy Martin is establishing a reputation as an abstract artist with his intensely psychological portraits and landscapes overlaid with crosshatching, as if viewed from behind barbed wire. He regularly wins the competition among Pennsylvania prisoners for paintings to appear in the state Bureau of Corrections' calendar, and his work has been exhibited at several private and college galleries in Pennsylvania and Texas. Through his art and writing, he hopes to salvage some of his life and "become a respectable human being." Married in 1985 to a friend of a friend of an inmate, Martin says he has "no way of predicting my own destiny." The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has already reviewed his case once and denied his request for a new trial.

"I spend a lot of my time running from people who have no hope," Martin says. ""What education has done for me is that it has made me start rea