When America had an open prison – the story of Kenyon Scudder and his ‘prison without walls’

In a country with mass incarceration, horrific prison conditions and a penal system suffused with racism, some American prison reform activists wistfully look to Scandinavian institutions as beacons of humane prisons.

Many Scandinavian countries even have open prisons – minimum security institutions that rely less on force and more on trust. Some don’t even have a locked perimeter, and they emphasize rehabilitation and preparation for a return to society.

Back in the U.S., this might seem like an unattainable ideal.

But in California, nearly 80 years ago, there was an open prison.

As part of our work as human rights researchers who specialize in prisons, we were studying the United Nations resolution on open prisons, which was adopted in 1955 in Geneva. In a meeting prior to this resolution, penal experts discussed open prisons in the U.S., with the American delegate calling them “the contribution of this generation” to modern prison management.

Led by a prison reformer named Kenyon Scudder, the California Institution for Men was one of these open prisons. Scudder made the dignified treatment of its prisoners a cornerstone of his approach.

A different kind of prison

Built in 1941 in Chino, California, the California Institution for Men was founded as an experiment in progressive penal reform.

At the time, California’s maximum security institutions in San Quentin and Folsom were, as one newspaper put it, “powder kegs ready to explode.” Violence was rampant, particularly between guards and convicts, and California was considered to have one of the most oppressive penal systems in the nation.

To alleviate the draconian and overcrowded conditions at San Quentin and Folsom, in 1935 the California state legislature decided to build a new prison.

Kenyon J. Scudder, a veteran penologist who had a raft of ideas for how to change a prison system he viewed as archaic and inhumane, was hired to head Chino.

Kenyon Scudder speaks with an inmate working for the California Institution for Men’s farm program. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
Scudder accepted his appointment with conditions: He wanted to be granted the power to select and train the staff, and the autonomy to dictate how much freedom the prisoners could have.

The California Institution for Men’s first class included 34 inmates – some who had been previously convicted for violent offenses, along with others who had committed minor offenses.

Those first inmates entered an entirely different kind of prison. The California Institution for Men didn’t use terms like “warden” or “guards.” There was the “superintendent” – Scudder – and his “supervisors,” the vast majority of whom were college educated.

In fact, Scudder intentionally avoided hiring supervisors who had previously worked in prisons: He didn’t want staff members with punitive mindsets. Instead of relying on batons and guns, he trained this new staff in judo for self-defense. Weapons were reserved for absolute emergencies, and Scudder emphasized the development of conflict resolution skills.

Those being held wouldn’t have their identities reduced to a number. They could choose their own clothing and which jobs to do and what to study. Their cells had locks, but accounts indicate they weren’t used. The original plans for the prison called for a 25-foot perimeter wall with eight gun towers. Scudder put a halt to this; instead, he convinced the Board of Prison Directors to erect only a five-strand barbed wire livestock fence.

Scudder encouraged family members to regularly visit, allowed inmates to have picnics on the grounds and even permitted some physical contact.

He also refused to segregate anyone along racial lines, an unusual policy at the time.