A.A. “Behind The Walls”
Bill W. at the St.Louis Convention told with obvious glee how what he called “A.A.’s first prison group” came about in 1942. Even prior to that time, Bill said, “San Quentin’s enlightened and liberal warden, Clinton T. Duffy, had given much thought to the urgent and pressing problem of prison reform, including the special needs of the inmates imprisoned for crimes committed while drinking. As Warden Duffy said, the program he proposed ‘would include’ education, vocational training, medicine, psychiatry and religion. But the alcoholic did not’ seem to fit completely into this program…all the rest would not help him if the problems which drove him to drink were not solved.. . In line with this new approach to rehabilitation, I looked upon Alcoholics Anonymous as a tool to help us rebuild lives.’
“To Warden Duffy’ s aid came Warren T. and other members in ‘the San Francisco area,” Bill continued. “As Warden Duffy has since said, ‘Had it not been for the regular help and understanding given by our A.A. friends outside, the San Quentin chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous would most assuredly have failed. And by the same token, if it had not been for the persistence of that first group of alcoholic inmates who realized their serious problem and their need for help, we never could have continued beyond the first few meetings.’
“But even with such enthusiasm and willingness, there were formidable problems to solve,” Bill pointed out to the St. Louis audience. “A.A. meetings would bring carloads of A.A.’s from the outside running in and out of prison. [They] would probably draw the ridicule of other prisoners. Those penologists who still thought hard-boiled methods to be the only way and those skeptics who thought A.A. only a ‘useless fad’ would shake their heads. It would mean large gatherings of prisoners unattended by guards. The risks we re great, but Warden Duffy took them, and his faith was justified. A.A. soon won the respect of other prisoners A.A.’s came and went freely. . . The meetings had only one guard stationed outside the meeting room.” The clincher came, according to Bill, when the recidivism rate of alcoholic prisoners “suddenly dropped from the usual 80 percent to a spectacular 20 percent, and held that way. Skeptics everywhere were convinced. This piece of pioneering made A.A. history.” Bill spoke at San Quentin’s A.A. group meeting on November 28, 1943.
What made this event particularly important to Bill was undoubtedly that the initiative had come from Warden Duffy. Actually, as the Fellowship spread in the early years, pioneer members usually tried to carry the message “behind the walls” of jails and prisons wherever they were—but not always with such success. After all, the standard treatment for drunks for a century or more was to throw them in jail. And on occasion, as was chronicled in early A.A. stories, the drunk would awake to find that this time he was not charged with public intoxication disorderly conduct, but with a far more serious crime—assault robbery or even murder—that he had committed in a blackout or during temporary alcoholic insanity. So penal institutions were one of the likeliest places to find alcoholics who needed help—and A.A. members responded accordingly without direction from anybody, but acting out of their compassion and desire to work the Twelfth Step.
A few of the efforts in the 1940’s, culled’ at random from local archival records, were these. As early as September 1940, only seven months after the first meeting in Philadelphia, the members there paid their first visit to the local house of corrections. It had a fast pay-off, for the first “convert” [their word] from the institution joined the A.A. group a few weeks later. At the Westchester County (N.Y.) Penitentiary, a group of Westchester A.A.’s carried the message inside the walls in mid-1941 and a prison group was started – (pre-dating San Quentin), but may not have lasted. In northern New Jersey in late 1943, Bill W. spoke at the Clinton Farms Reformatory for Girls. As a result, he was invited to address a luncheon of superintendents of other correctional institutions. And on April 18, 1944, Walter B. and five others from the Morristown A.A. group spoke again at the Clinton Farms Reformatory, founding a group which is still going. February 1945 marked the first meeting of the group in the New Jersey State Prison at Trenton. Also in April ’45, from the “Kansas City [Mo.] #1” group, Ken S. and two others started a group in the Federal Penitentiary at nearby Leavenworth, Kansas. Not only is it still in existence, but “Kansas City #1” is still sponsoring it.
One of the founders of the same Kansas City group, Charlie H., moved to Jefferson City, Mo., in 1946. He began visiting the Missouri State Prison there and a group began January 5, 1950. In Oklahoma, A.A.’s took the first meeting into the State Prison at McAlester in ’46. Late that year, an inmate, Nathan M., wrote out saying that he and several others were “interested in A.A.” and asked if a group could be started behind the walls. His request was endorsed by Park Anderson, the warden’s secretary. The outside A.A.’s paid a second visit and the first meeting of the group was held with 18 present. Few of these were serious, however; most were “conning the visitors and shooting the angles” according to the group’s own historian. The outside sponsors soon gave up, but the small handful of serious members inside persisted and finally got a good and lasting A.A. group going. They named it the Rock Bottom group. In Pennsylvania that same year, Upper Darby members were taking weekly meetings into the county prison farm. A group was meeting in Wallkill State Prison in ’46, and another in Attica State Prison in ’48 – both in New York.
A remarkable chain of events was taking place out west. Warren T., who had helped Warden Duffy start A. A. at San Quentin was also in touch in 1943 with Doc H., founder of the first -Portland, Oregon, group (see pp. XX-XX). Doc H. came down to S Francisco to meet with Warden Duffy and returned to meet with -Warden George Alexander of the Oregon State Penitentiary at Salt The outcome was the founding of an inside A.A. group. Working an inmate office clerk for Warden Alexander at the time was Owen L., a two-time loser, who immediately became active in the A.A. group. And on his release in 1944, he founded A.A. in Salt Lake City, Utah. (see pp. XX-XX) Two years later, Owen L. together with Mark C. and Deb P., met with Warden John E. Harris at the Utah State Prison and started the first prison group in that state.
In the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, several maximum security inmates began meeting surreptitiously in the “big yard” as early as 1942. Not knowing of this, F.C. Ott, the prison’s director of education, wrote the Alcoholic Foundation in ’43 about starting an A.A. group behind the walls, and he met Bill W. on his first trip to Seattle. In July of the following year, Les F. came to Walla Walla from Seattle with the endorsement of the Governor for the express purpose of starting a group, which he did. Early inmate members of the Pioneer group were Earl C., Oliver L., Earl H., George L., Roy H. and Barney B. Among the early outside sponsors were Howard J. and Roger S. In 1950, the group had its first annual open house, and by 1978 that event was attended by 250 inmates and 200 outside guests. In 1985, the Pioneer group had three meetings a week. The prison has another group, the Willshare, in the minimum-security building, started in 1954, which is equally active.
Also in Washington, the seeds of A.A. were planted at the McNeil Island Penitentiary in 1948 by the prison doctor, a Dr. Jannie, who had some knowledge of A.A. from a previous assignment in the East. Inmate alcoholics were identified from their records and members from Tacoma A.A. brought in the meetings – a four-hour round trip by boat. Tacoma member Charlie B. was an early spark-plug, followed by Tommy D., George D. and Mack M. The McNeil Island group was named the Retrievers; and later, the Far West group began holding separate meetings. There was a demise of A.A. at McNeil 1980-82 due to a change in. administration, but the Retrievers group has since been revived.
Pat C., founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in Minnesota, was also the co-founder, with Glen S. also from Minneapolis, of the first prison group in August 1947. The place was the State Prison at Stillwater. Charles w. was an early sponsor of the group and Chaplain Francis Miller was especially helpful from inside in getting the group going. And the ubiquitous Warren T. supported it-by mail. Within two years, the group had over 100 members! S.W. Alexander, Assistant Warden of Stillwater, was quoted as saying that 60 percent of the inmates admitted excessive use of alcohol and 60 to 70 percent of the crimes committed could be attributed in some way to alcohol. The St.Cloud, Minn., group commenced taking meetings into the reformatory in that town in 1946, and a group was eventually formed. In Montana, the State Prison at Deer Lodge inaugurated a group in ’47, and in South Dakota, a group started at the State Penitentiary in ’48. Ken carried the message from Reno to the Nevada State Prison at Cars City in ’49. The same year, in Canada’s Atlantic Provinces, the first meeting was held in Dorchester Penitentiary.
Paul G., who joined A.A. in San Francisco in 1946 and later served as secretary of the Central Office there (see pp. XX-XX), testifies that prison work, like any other Twelfth Step work, benefits the sponsor as much or more than the sponsee. Paul was a constant visitor to San Quentin during his first five years (in fact, he treasures an I.D. card for San Quentin dated January 18, 1951.) After this stint he was one of “Four Horsemen” as they were dubbed by the inmates who had requested they come in once a month and talk about the A.A. program rather than giving drunkalogs. He had a similar experience with the steering committee of the group, who asked him to attend one of their meetings. Paul explains, “They wanted to know why when God was mentioned by a visiting A.A., the person always hurried on to another subject. They explained that God was indeed in ‘Q’ and they would like to have outside visitors explain God in their lives. Another thing they did not like was the use of profanity and obscenities by outside members, including dirty stories. They pointed out there was a plethora of such muck in prison without having it brought in by outsiders.”
Paul G. was also very involved at Folsom Prison. He cites just two instances of many that, he says, “made all those trips to both institutions very worthwhile. At an A.A. conference, a man came up to me and asked if I remembered him. I didn’t. He re¬introduced himself as an ex-con from San Quentin who had been an A.A. member since his release. He then introduced me to his wife and two little daughters. Another time, the same thing happened and the man introduced himself as Mac, the former secretary of the San Quentin group. He was living in San Diego and was about to celebrate his fifth A.A. anniversary. At his invitation, my wife and I drove 550 miles down – there, stayed two nights in. a, motel, and drove back again just to present him with his birthday cake.”
The 1950’s saw many other prison groups, begin, including: in New York, the Dannernora State Prison; in Wyoming, the Rawlins State Prison; in Minnesota, the Shakopee Correctional Facility for Women and the Sandstone Federal Prison.
Canadian A. A.’s have long been proud of their work behind the walls. The first prison group in Western Canada and certainly a model for any correctional institution was the Nor-Kel group in the Saskatchewan Penitentiary near Prince Albert, which started in May 1950. Warden W.A. Everitt had asked local A.A. members for their help, and when Dr. George Little, who had helped found A.A. in Canada, came from Toronto to address the first public meeting of A.A. in Saskatchewan, they had him go with them to talk- to interested inmates. This was the first meeting of the A.A. group that has met continually ever since. “
Two nonalcoholic staff officers named Norfield and Kelly were assigned to supervise the group, and from them it took its name. John Norfield recalls that when they announced over the cell block address system that a meeting would e held for anyone with a drinking problem, only three inmates showed up. And it was not easy for them, for they were taunted and jeered at by the other inmates – a true test of their sincerity,” Norfield calls it. But the original three each brought friends, and the little meeting began to grow. The counselors who chaired the meetings openly discussed the difference between “a con who drank and a drunk who became a con man” – i.e., between the sincere members and those who were using A.A. as a means of getting parole. With the help of an inmate co-chairman and of many outside A.A. members, they also tried to include all the members in some participation.
By 1954, the Nor-Kel group averaged 23 members. By 1985, about 200 inmates were regular participants in the seven groups that meet each week—nearly 40 percent of the total inmate—population of the Saskatchewan Penitentiary. Two Round-ups were now held each year in which over 90 A.A. members from throughout Canada and the U.S. participated in open meetings with the Nor-Kel members. And from the A.A. meetings, a three-stage plan for alcoholic rehabilitation has evolved. In stage one, new inmates are questioned to ascertain whether they are alcoholics or not. If they are, they are invited to join a beginner’s group, called the Novalco (short for “novice alcoholic”) group. There, for 14 weeks, they are instructed in the fundamentals of the program and taken through the Twelve Steps in order. If they are ready, they are then allowed to join the regular Nor-Kel group, (stage two) where they become acquainted with the Big Book, hear talks by inside and outside A.A.’s and learn in general how to put their lives on a spiritual basis and “practice these principles in all their affairs.” The alcoholic inmate is then ready for stage three, which is post-release sponsorship aimed to get him immediately active in outside A.A. without giving him a chance to go back to his old associates and old habits. In the Nor-Kel plan, Alberta and Saskatchewan are divided into zones, each with an overall sponsor responsible for selecting an individual member to sponsor and help each released criminal alcoholic. The same plan extends into the Yukon and Northwest Territories, when needed. As a very large percentage of the prison population is Native American, their assimilation into society on their release presents a special challenge, which has been accomplished with outstanding success.
Just as A. A. ‘s in the U.S. and Canada began carrying the message behind the walls almost as soon as groups were established, so A.A.’s in other countries did likewise. And for the same reason: because that’s where alcoholics needing help were sure to be found. By the 1950’s, Ireland and Finland were engaged in prison work, the latter country perhaps having relatively the largest number of correctional institution groups anywhere (See pp. XX-XX). Groups began in. New South Wales and in Magpie Prison in Freemantle, Australia. In Western England, four members who called themselves the “Bristol Prison Sponsors” (Jacko, Rion,Humphrey H. and Travers C.) started many prison groups from ’59 on: at Dorchester, Leyhill, Camp Hill Prison on the Isle of Wight, Shepton Mallet, Horfjeld, Dartmoor, The Verne; and Borsta. At the First European Convention in. Bristol in 1971 (see pp. XX-JCX), 400 persons interested in prison work attended A.A. meetings behind the walls of nearby institutions. And when Dr. Jack Norris returned from visiting England in. 1974, he singled out their prison work for special mention. Norway got its first group In Oslo Prison in ’62 after much time and energy trying. France acquired its first prison group at Rouen in February 1971. In Mexico, Central America and South America, prison work was a part of the service structure as soon as possible: in Guatemala in ’62 in Columbia, by ’69. Information on carrying the message behind the walls is shared at World Service Meetings.
In the (U.S./Canada, the groups’ activities in reaching alcoholics in jails and prisons was coordinated by Intergroups and Central Offices as soon as they came into being; and by area committees as well, when the Service Structure was formed. The election in 1949 of Austin MacCormick, world-renowned penologist, as a trustee signaled the importance placed on this work by the Alcoholic Foundation at that time. Austin resigned two years later, only to be re-elected trustee in 1961 to serve until 1976, when he became Trustee Emeritus (see Chap. XX on the G.S.B.). Known and respected by correctional institution officials, Austin was of considerable help in making them aware of A.A. s record of success behind the walls. Upon Austin’s retirement from the Board, he was replaced by W.J. “Jim” Estelle, Jr., director of corrections for the state of Texas and another nationally recognized authority in the field, whose term ended in. 1986.
The General Service Board also had the benefit of the personal experience of A.A. trustees who either had concentrated on correctional facilities service or who were themselves ex-¬inmates. Don A. from Chappell Hill, Texas, (trustee, 1971-75) was a notable example of the former. Serving in various volunteer leadership positions in the alcoholism and corrections fields, Don was a close friend and associate of both MacCormick and Estelle. Virginia H., East Central Regional trustee 1977-81, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had spent 13 years behind bars before reaching A.A. Exemplifying A.A.’s twin goals of love and service, she guided the trustees’ correctional facilities committee. Performing the same role beginning in 1985 was Don P., trustee-at-large, U.S., from Colorado, who found Alcoholics Anonymous in the Colorado State Penitentiary in 1968. That prison was Don’s third and he was judged incorrigible before he reached A.A. But he had been 15 1/2 years free when he was elected Trustee.
The 1966 Conference voted to establish a Conference Institution Committee, and recommended the following year that an Institutional Bulletin be started by G.S.O. The policy was also established that A.A.’s carrying the message into institutions should abide the regulations of the institution and should cooperate with the personnel.
Until about 1970 A.A. Directories were distributed to all groups, including prison groups. groups, including prison groups. Problems began to surface, however, arising from the misuse of the directories by inmate alcoholics with less than a firm grasp on honesty. G.S.R.’s and other contacts whose full names and addresses appeared in the Directories were uncomfortable when they began to receive unsolicited correspondence from convicts or were unexpectedly visited by ex-convicts cadging money or assistance. So the 1969 Conference authorized separate Correctional Institutions Directories.
With the large increase in treatment centers in the 1970’s as the result of the Hughes Bill and constant growth in prison population, with a proportionate swelling of the number of institutional groups, suggestions emanated from both the Trustees’ and Conference Institutions Committees that they should be split into the two functions. On the Trustees’ Committee particularly, members from the treatment side had almost no interests in common with members from the corrections side and vice versa. The matter came to a head on the Conference floor in 1977, when the beloved Austin MacCormick rose impulsively and moved that the existing Institutions Committee be dissolved and that two new committees be formed: one for correctional Facilities and one for Treatment Facilities. So great was the affection and respect for Austin that the decision was voted almost unanimously on the spot.
A major business of the Trustees’ and Conference Correctional Facilities Committees since their inception has been the providing of A.A. literature for inmates, including the pamphlet “It Sure Beats Sitting – in a Cell” (See Chapter XX on Literature, for more detail) and the flyer “Where Do I Go from Here?” They also determine what pamphlets will be most beneficial in the Institutions Discount Packages. The 1979 Conference recommended that the Trustees’ Committee explore the feasibility of producing a filmstrip based on “It Sure Beats Sitting in a Cell.” The Committee eventually determined that a film strip would not be the proper vehicle, as jails and prisons often
lacked filmstrip projection equipment, but by the early 1980’s they were all acquiring video players. So the Committee undertook to make film or videotape based on the pamphlet. After receiving bids from several filmmakers, they chose Crommie & Crommie, with the film scheduled for completion in 1986.
The other major business of the Committees was to oversee the work the G.S.O. staff member responsible for correctional facilities (who was also secretary of the Committees) and to decide policy matters referred to them by local Institutions Committees. The staff member has the largest correspondence load of any at G.S.O. He or she receives letters from the local committees, correctional facilities officials, “outside” A.A. sponsors—and most of all, from the inmates themselves. (“They have a lot of time to write,” explained one staff member.) In return, he or she writes (in 1985) about 500 letters a month, 6,000 a year!
This outpouring of letters is almost entirely from male inmates, which has troubled the staff members. When Cora Louise B. served on the assignment in the 1960’s, she wrote to all the women she could locate through Institutions Committees in the areas who had volunteered inside women’s prisons, to ask them why women inmates never wrote. The most frequent answer was, “They will listen to a guy, but they won’t listen to another woman.” The A.A. literature for correctional institutions, of course, is aimed at both genders.
Local Institutions Committees numbered over 400 in 1985. In addition to taking meetings into correctional facilities and sponsoring “inside” groups, their most important work is to obtain pre-release sponsorship for A.A. members “behind the walls,” and (when requested) to arrange for an A.A. member to meet the Inmate upon release. This is the crucial point in the continued sobriety (and continued freedom) of the alcoholic ex-convict. The staff member also coordinates the Institutions Correspondence Service in which 1,100 “outside” A.A.’s share by mail with “inside” A.A.’s.
The A.A. Grapevine publishes annually a special section devoted to A.A. behind the walls. It contains touching and moving stories by the “inside” A.A.’s themselves as well as articles by those engaged in institutions service. -One sociologist has observed that apart from the benefit to the individual alcoholic who is saved from self-destruction, the benefit to society is enormous from the presence of Alcoholics Anonymous behind the walls. With the average cost of maintaining a prisoner well above $20,000 annually in 1985, the cost of repeat offenders, or recidivism, is a major drain on the economy—not to mention the cost to society of the crimes of the repeaters and of ‘the cost of bringing them to justice. Hence, anything which reduces recidivism is an economic and social boon. And that is exactly what A.A. does. In 1985, there were 1,552 groups behind the walls with 46,500 members.