A personal history of the Norfolk prison
Joel Winslow, 78, is probably the only guy you’ll ever meet who’s nostalgic for the time he spent in prison. That’s because he grew up at MCI-Norfolk, where his father, Maurice, served as prison superintendent from 1934 until 1950.
At his house in Oxford, Winslow has stacks of curled, black-and-white photographs that show how the prison was built with inmate labor in the 1930s. There are brown manila folders full of correspondence between his father and state officials, internal memos, and letters from inmates and politicians. His father’s diary details some of the incidents that took place behind the prison walls. Next
A rare glimpse into MCI-Norfolk
Winslow’s records – never before released to the public – offer a rare glimpse into life at the first “community-based” prison in the United States.
The Norfolk State Prison Colony (as it was then called) had its own debate team, orchestra, and newspaper. Inmates took classes and served on committees and councils, and many volunteered to serve their country during wartime.
Several well-known figures did time at Norfolk during the 1940s, including Malcolm X (who was on Norfolk’s debate team,) big-time bookmaker Harry “Doc” Sagansky of Brookline, legendary mob boss Raymond Patriarca and Cocoanut Grove nightclub owner Barney Welansky. Next
New state prison constructed
Norfolk State Prison Colony construction began in June 1927, when a dozen inmates from the notoriously overcrowded Charlestown State Prison were driven out to a wooded area in Norfolk.
On 36 acres of state-owned land near the Walpole town line, they began building what would become the state’s largest prison.
Pictured: Inmates laid electric cables at the prison in June 1932. Next
Inmate labor constructs prison
Inmates installed water and sewer pipes and laid down electric cables. They poured concrete and trundled wheelbarrows filled with gravel and sand.
Pictured: Work crews excavate for a drain line at the Norfolk State Prison Colony in April 1933. Next
Inmates trained to construct prison
Inmates were trained to become bricklayers, steamfitters, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and welders. They swung picks over their heads and plunged shovels into the ground to dig foundations and tunnels.
Pictured: Crews of men dig ditches at the Norfolk State Prison Colony. Next
Prison opens in 1932
The Norfolk State Prison was completed in August 1932.
Much of the prison was built using inmate labor. Next
Prisoners encouraged to master trade
Inmates at Norfolk were encouraged to learn a trade, so they would be able to find employment when they were released.
When he was young, Winslow would wait for inmates in horse-drawn wagons to drive down the dirt road and pick him up and take him to the prison farm.
“They grew most of everything they ate essentially,” said Winslow. “They had 120 milkers. Pigs. Chickens. They grew hay and alfalfa to feed the livestock. Garbage for the hogs was no problem; that came right from the prison. They grew peas, beans, corn, potatoes…all kinds of vegetables.”
Pictured: The woodworking shop at the Norfolk State Prison Colony, circa 1932 Next
The massive, mile-long prison wall was nine inches thick and stood over 19 feet tall. Electrified barbed wires stretched along the top.
One prisoner used a curved shower head as a hook to scale the wall, and rubber sheets from the prison hospital to hoist himself over the wires safely, Winslow recalls.
Pictured: Inmates working on the grading along the north wall of the prison in March 1934 Next
A ‘country club’ prison
With dormitories, athletic fields, and a quad with plenty of open space, the layout of the penitentiary was reminiscent of a college campus. This novel design was supposed to foster a sense of community and responsibility among the inmates.
While critics called the experimental prison a “country club,” others hailed Norfolk as the “prison of the future” and a model for the next generation of correctional institutions.
Winslow said both the guards and the inmates treated him and his older brother well.
“You could drop a dollar bill in that prison, and someone would tap you on the shoulder and say ‘here, you dropped this,”’ Winslow said.
Pictured: Winslow holds one of his father's old pictures of the Norfolk State Prison Colony. Next
A winning debate team
Winslow remembered another unique aspect of Norfolk: the prison’s debate team.
Founded in the 1930s by Cerise C. Jack, a progressive reformer from Walpole, Norfolk’s all-inmate squad competed against students from Harvard, MIT, Princeton and other top colleges. Inmates presented eloquent arguments on topics such as free trade, capital punishment and the legality of wiretapping, and compiled an impressive record of victories against the collegiate teams.
“They had some tremendous debaters,” said Winslow. “They were consistent winners.” Next
The baseball team
The Norfolk State Prison Colony fielded a baseball team that played against other local town teams.
Boxing matches were also held on occasion. Winslow recalls one time a boxing ring was set up outside one of the cellblock dormitories.
“It was a slug fest,” said Winslow, “Tensions run rather high in prison on occasion. It was a way to relieve frustration. They used big fat boxing gloves, so they wouldn’t kill each other.” Next
Medical experiments on inmates
Arthur St. Germain was one of the inmates who volunteered to participate in medical experiments at Norfolk State Prison Colony.
St. Germain fell ill after being injected with an experimental serum. He died at the prison in November 1942. Next
Winslow’s collection of records includes this 12-page booklet titled, “They Did Their Share, 1942-1945.”
The report, written by eight inmates on Norfolk’s War Effort Committee, provides long-forgotten details of how Norfolk inmates contributed to the war effort during World War II. Next
The prison today
The prison that Winslow’s father helped build still operates to this day, but bearing a different name: the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Norfolk, better known as MCI-Norfolk.
The medium-security facility is home to 1,524 inmates, and it’s the largest facility of its kind in the state. Back to the beginning
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