In 1973, Nixon loyalist G. Gordon Liddy was convicted on charges of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping for his role in the break-ins the previous year at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. On Dec. 30, 1973, Liddy began serving his 20-year sentence at the minimum-security Federal Correction Institute in Danbury, Connecticut. (In April 1977 President Jimmy Carter commuted Liddy's sentence to 8 years, making him eligible for earlier parole. He was released on Sep. 7, 1977, and went on to a long and high-profile media career as a conservative political pundit, talk-radio host, actor and author.)
Liddy wrote this short opinion article, which was published in the February 1977 issue of Connecticut Magazine, during his time at Danbury. Titled simply "Inside Danbury Prison," it explains how his experience of being incarcerated had reinforced some of his law-and-order beliefs, such as his staunch opposition to gun control. On the other hand, he developed a much more critical view of the prison model, as well as the court system's ability to protect the rights of the people it tries. "Before going to prison I believed that criticism of the criminal justice system for its treatment of the poor was so much liberal bleating and bunk," he writes at the beginning. "I was wrong."
This article is being posted to the web in February 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
The editors of Connecticut have asked me to state succinctly how, if at all, my views of “law and order” have been modified by my experiences as a convict. At the risk of oversimplification, here are some brief observations.
Before going to prison I believed that criticism of the criminal justice system for its treatment of the poor was so much liberal bleating and bunk. I was wrong.
For forty-one months, fellow prisoners, the majority of them poor, have been coming to me for legal advice. To accommodate them intelligently it was necessary that I study what, if anything, had been done for them by their “street lawyers”—members of the bar.
Although there have been some outstanding exceptions, such as the work of young associates of topflight law firms serving by court appointment, an occasional excellent public defender system or postconviction program such as Yale’s Danbury project, I have found the quality of the legal services accorded to the poor to be disgraceful. When one adds to poverty blackness or first generation Hispanic origin, both carrying with them language difficulty and the perception of self as one abroad in an alien culture, there is created a situation appreciated best by Kafka.
On the other hand, my prison experience has reenforced my preconfinement belief that arguments for gun control are so much liberal bleating and bunk. My preprison view (that laws requiring the registration of firearms or prohibiting their private ownership are a fraud upon the public from the points of view of crime prevention, detection, or prosecution) was the result of my experience as a law enforcement officer, executive, and prosecutor.
In prison, I have had numerous conversations with murderers, armed robbers, hijackers, and burglars. Those professional criminals who make use of firearms and do not view gun control as a joke, endorse it strongly. To quote one of the latter, who raised his right hand in the manner of one taking an oath as he spoke: “On my mother, when I go on a piece of work I don’t look to hurt nobody. But God forbid something goes wrong and I gotta do what I gotta do and the sucker’s got a piece [gun]. I mean it ain’t all that cut and dried you know—he could end up whackin’ me out. I hope they take away all them guns from all them legitimate schmucks. Me? Forget about it. I’ll always have a pistol when I need one.”
When I speak of “professional criminals” I mean the majority of those persons with whom I have come in contact in prison. Before I became a prisoner I believed, to some degree, in the concepts of rehabilitation, correction, and parole. I was of the opinion that many abuses existed, but that if those abuses were corrected and the system reformed, it could be sufficiently effective as to make the system worthwhile in terms of the reorientation of convicts toward a law-abiding life. I was wrong again.
Prisons do not rehabilitate. They educate in the techniques and mechanics of criminal activity and indoctrinate in the mores of the criminal subculture. Prisons serve as a proving ground for the young convict and as a talent pool for recruiting by the mature.
Prison never “corrected” anyone. Occasionally a prisoner determines on his own initiative to discontinue his life of crime; but not often. Most are planning the next big “score.” Those few who gave up crime do so for a variety of reasons, but most often because they have been so unsuccessful at it that they are completely discouraged. Such prisoners are derided by the majority as “so stupid he’ll hafta go straight.”
The problems of our nation’s prisons are too manifold to address adequately here. I should mention, however, that I have found that among the root causes of prison unrest, sometimes breaking into violence, is the continuing futile attempt to operate the postconviction criminal justice system according to the archaic notions I shared with the public before my own incarceration: correction, rehabilitation, and parole.
All that efforts to “correct” and “rehabilitate” prisoners accomplish is to generate tension and stir up trouble in our prisons. Convicts, I have found, just want to be left alone to do their time in peace. They resent “treatment teams” composed of ex-guards with third-rate educations—who carry on with the female help, drink to excess, and steal food from the mess hall—writing “progress reports” condemning convicts who are visited by more than one woman, drink home brew, and steal food from the mess hall as “unrehabilitated.”
To the trouble stirred up in prisons by the “corrections” nonsense must be added the turmoil generated by the concept of parole. I have appeared before a parole board as a representative and handled many a parole appeal. Prior to my own imprisonment I had no idea of the bankruptcy of the concept or the trouble the board causes in trying to be a source of police intelligence by interrogating candidates who resent board pressure on them to “rat” to prove they are “corrected” and to maintain the pretense of being able to predict when a prisoner may be released to rejoin society as “rehabilitated.”
Both the prisoner and the board know that all involved are perpetrating a hoax. The only one being fooled here is the American public, and I suspect that it is becoming increasingly aware of how thoroughly it has been gulled.
Before I went to prison in 1973, I shared the orientation of law enforcement executives, much of the Congress, and most of the public as to the financial priorities to be maintained in the criminal justice system. Not without good reason, the frontline forces, the police departments upon which we rely for crime prevention and detection, have for years received the lion’s share of available financial resources. I believe an adjustment is in order.
The criminal justice system is breaking down because we, as a nation, have for too long neglected to nourish its heart— the court systems of our country. Those systems include not only the judges and courthouses, but the supporting staffs of the courts, the prosecutors, and the public defenders.
This is a subject worthy of serious exposition for which I have not the space here. But look at it this way: The criminal justice system may be likened to an airline. The judges are the pilots. We keep pouring accused passengers into the terminals and demanding that the too few pilots fly too many hours in too few planes for which we provide too few instruments and insufficient ground crews. We seem oblivious to the fact that when such a plane crashes it is not just the accused passengers who perish. That plane comes right down in the midst of society on the ground below.
And you might give thought to this: Fate, right now, could be buying you, or someone close to you, a ticket on the next flight.
G. Gordon Liddy, J.D., former general counsel of the Committee to Reelect the President and the Finance Committee to Reelect the President, is currently serving time in federal prison for his role in the Watergate affair.