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Voices from a Southern Prison

Lloyd C. Anderson

Publication Year: 2000

Rats, tainted food, leaky sewage pipes: they only began to hint at the anarchy inside the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange. A barracks-style “warehouse” prison straight out of an old mobster film, KSR was three-quarters over its intended capacity by 1978. It had become a sickening, dangerous place, where an inmate could get his hands on a sawed-off shotgun more easily than a clean towel.

That year a handful of KSR prisoners managed to send a plea for help to the federal court in Louisville. The petitioners expected reprisals or, maybe worse, silence. But the letter reached a caring judge, and the prisoners had spoken up at a crucial moment in Kentucky reform politics. The signs seemed right to take on the old-boy network whose byword on prison conditions was “ain’t no riots, ain’t no problems.” The suit was settled in the KSR prisoners’ favor in 1981, paving the way for controversial, protracted, and expensive reforms.

Written by Lloyd C. Anderson, the head of the KSR prisoners’ legal team, Voices from a Southern Prison quotes extensively from recollections of many players in the case, from the judge who presided over it to the journalist who put it in the headlines. Most important, we hear from three inmates who emerged as leaders among their fellow plaintiffs: James “Shorty” Thompson, Wilgus Haddix, and Walter Harris.

As our nation’s penal system expands on an unprecedented scale, the KSR scandal offers timely lessons about entrenched attitudes toward prisons. Thus far, says Anderson, they seem lost on the strategists of our “War on Crime.”

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Research for this book was supported by a Faculty Improvement Leave of the University of Akron School of Law and by a David L. Brennan Summer Research Fellowship. Richard Aynes of the School of Law offered encouragement throughout the long process of making this book a reality, and Paul Finkelman ...

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pp. xi-xix

America has conducted a "war on crime" for more than three decades. This war has consisted largely of legislation creating new crimes and mandating longer prison sentences for violent and drug offenses. For example, some states have passed "three strikes and out" laws, under which a person convicted of three ...

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pp. 1-21

Shorty got fed up with the bugs and the rats. They were everywhere. Cockroaches were the worst. When the lights clicked on in the morning at 6:00, the roaches were crawling on his blanket. He knew they had been crawling on him all night long. It made his skin creep. He rose from his bunk, pulled his clothes ...

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Judge Johnstone

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pp. 22-39

Shorty's handwritten petition was assigned to Judge Edward H. Johnstone of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky in a roundabout way. The petition arrived in the clerk's office at the federal courthouse in Louisville on November 30, 1978. A clerk opened the envelope and read it. ...

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pp. 40-63

Wilgus Haddix arrived at KSR soon after Judge Johnstone made the procedural rulings that transformed Shorty's petition into a major classaction lawsuit. Wilgus was eager to do something about conditions in the prison by joining the lawsuit, all because of a blanket. He was doing hard time at the penitentiary ...

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pp. 64-90

Walter Harris joined the Plaintiffs' Committee about the same time Wilgus Haddix did. Walter had already served nearly six years at KSR as part of a life sentence for murder and armed robbery. He had stayed out of trouble all six years in prison, and he wanted to keep it that way. Walter's rule was to stay out of sight ...

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Politics and Litigation

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pp. 91-106

Prison-reform litigation in America is a widespread but extremely complicated process that, unlike ordinary litigation, involves numerous key participants and decision makers. In particular, improvements in inmates' living conditions to even the minimum levels of decency mandated by the constitutional prohibition ...

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Judge Johnstone Visits LaGrange

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pp. 107-114

On January 24, 1980, the day before Governor John Y. Brown publicly announced George Wilson's appointment as the new commissioner of corrections, Judge Edward Johnstone held a pretrial conference at the federal courthouse in Louisville. The primary reason for this conference was that the state's lawyers had formally ...

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Negotiation and Settlement

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pp. 115-145

All the participants in the litigation believed that Judge Edward Johnstone would attempt to encourage a settlement. Nearly a year earlier, when he appointed the author of this book to represent Shorty and the other named plaintiffs, the big man had pointed his huge right index finger at the lawyer and rumbled ...

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Compliance: Obstacles and Impact

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pp. 146-170

Prison-reform litigation in America has been marked by major obstacles, both purposeful and unintended, to full compliance with federal court orders. In the Texas case, for example, state officials fiercely resisted any changes that limited the discretion of security personnel.1 Recalcitrant state officials in Alabama ...

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Personal Struggles

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pp. 171-198

During the corrections administration's struggle to implement the consent decree, the lives of the three inmates who played key roles in the litigation followed a similar mixed pattern of progress and setback. Wilgus Haddix and Shorty Thompson ceased active participation in the litigation because they left KSR, ...

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Substantial Compliance and Collateral Litigation

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pp. 199-220

An important hearing was scheduled to begin at the federal courthouse in Louisville on July 8, 1986. The consent decree was now six years old. The state had filed a motion to terminate the federal court's supervision of the two prisons on the ground that the state had fully complied with the decree. Judge Edward Johnstone ...

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pp. 221-238

The litigation was completed by 1989, ten years after it had begun. Much of the literature on prison-reform litigation has analyzed its impact on the operation of prison systems, but there has been little examination of the major participants' lives in the aftermath of such litigation. The Kentucky litigation had a ...

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pp. 239-244

The Thompson and Kendrick cases ended with vastly improved living conditions for the inmates, but the state's prison population continued to skyrocket. When Judge Edward Johnstone placed Short's case on the inactive docket in 1986, 4,513 men were incarcerated in Kentucky.1 That number had more than tripled ...

Appendix A: Methodology

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pp. 245-246

Appendix B: Direct Observations

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pp. 247-248

Appendix C: Court Records and Other Legal Documents

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pp. 249-260


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pp. 261-268


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pp. 269-274


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pp. 275-278

E-ISBN-13: 9780820342757
E-ISBN-10: 0820342750
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820322353
Print-ISBN-10: 0820322350

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 9 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2000

OCLC Number: 759160183
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Voices from a Southern Prison

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Subject Headings

  • Prison reformers -- Kentucky -- La Grange.
  • Prisoners -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- Kentucky -- La Grange.
  • Prisoners -- Kentucky -- La Grange.
  • Prisons -- Law and legislation -- Kentucky -- La Grange.
  • Prisons -- Kentucky -- La Grange.
  • Kentucky. State Reformatory.
  • Kentucky. State Reformatory -- Trials, litigation, etc.
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