Ghosts of Western Penitentiary

Not much changes in prison.

Each day, the same faces follow the same routines while wearing the same colors. As the caption accompanying a 1970 picture of the Western Penitentiary recreation yard puts so bluntly, “Bocci consumes one hour in a day that seems to last forever.”

But even as days blended together for the people behind Western Pen.’s 40-foot wall, Post-Gazette interviews with inmates dating back to the 1930s show an acute awareness of one thing: how the public perceives them. It’s never been a very positive image, and they knew it. They also knew that image was incomplete.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced in January that Western Pen., known today as State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, would close by June 30. When its gates close for the final time, so too will the 135-year history of Pennsylvania’s oldest operating prison. We at The Digs couldn’t let that milestone pass without looking inside a building that qualifies as a Pittsburgh institution in every sense of the word.

While several of the prison’s darker moments, including numerous protests and breakouts, have earned their own Digs entries over the years, it’s easy to forget that SCI Pittsburgh has been home to nearly 1,800 people at any given time. At its peak, more than 800 employees roamed its 21-acre complex.

We’ve looked through our archives for scenes of what daily life was like for these people, and the photographs we found capture some of the emotional complexity that comes with life behind bars. Now we’re sharing these pictures with you to add some dimension to whatever images you may hold of the people society hides from view, sometimes until their final days.

 

When the inmates of Western Pen. woke up on Christmas Eve 1970, they discovered a new bridge to the outside world. It came in the form of a small newsletter called Vibrations. Typed in an unheated warehouse closet by hands warmed on a small hotplate, Vibrations was an entirely inmate-run publication distributed weekly.

Though it began with a small staff of 12 and was initially limited to circulation within the prison, the hope among the staff was always to take Vibrations public. By April 1971, at least 12,000 people were having Vibrations mailed to their homes, with the newsletter building significant support within the prison reform movement.

“We want to dispel a lot of the myths and prejudices that the free community associates with this institution,” one unnamed Vibrations writer told The Pittsburgh Press in March 1971. “We want our paper to let society know that we’re not animals. We’re human beings who need to communicate our ideas.”

Insisting on the humanity of incarcerated people was easily the most common sentiment in the prison interviews we came across. It appears in descriptions of an inmate art festival organized in 1975 and in publicity for the prison’s annual variety show. George Thomas of The Pittsburgh Press interviewed Warden Joseph R. Brierly in 1969 and asked why one of his early changes was to create a prison chess league and invite local clubs to compete. His chief goal?

“Having prisoners view outsiders as fellow players and friends. And having outsiders realize that convicts are not animals,” Brierly said.

During his term at Western Penitentiary, which lasted from 1969 through 1971, Brierly reshaped the prison to place a heavier emphasis on rehabilitation. Many of the programs covered here are a direct result of his changes. In one anecdote, his wife mentions that he voluntarily spent most holidays at work, preferring to be there for inmates missing home and their families.

Along with creating the chess club, Brierly’s first action as warden was to double visiting privileges. He would eventually lay the groundwork for a radical redesign of the visiting room to help improve morale.  The first of its kind at a maximum-security facility, somber rows of metal tables with built-in dividers progressively became an open space filled with soft chairs. Inmates could hold their loved ones while their children played in a new daycare area.

The only pictures with more obvious sign of relaxation come from a dance organized in 1972 by the Vanguard Jaycees, a nationwide inmate group that taught members about the importance of philanthropy. Spouses arrived with dress clothes to replace their loved ones’ faded uniforms and danced until the early morning.

“It’s just good to be with the one you love,” one inmate’s wife said. Pittsburgh Press reporter Joseph Barsotti continued, “Different prisoners, different wives all said the same thing, but with different words. Some found it hard to say anything at all. They just smiled or cried and you knew what they meant.”

Though the inmates’ moments of emotional escape were always fleeting, they also found more structured ways to fill time. In 1973, former Pittsburgh Steeler Leo Nobile joined Western Penitentiary as director of activities and athletics. Nobile, most famous for being the only NFL player to nearly drown during a game, started an inmate football team and joined the Pittsburgh Semi-Pro Club League.

And thus, the Western Penitentiary Stealers were born.

One of the lines always attached to the Stealers is that “they never played away games.” But that didn’t always prevent problems when they squared off against outsiders. The team was suspended for two years in 1975 after numerous games ended in brawls, no doubt egged on by the regular crowd of inmate spectators. It’s worth noting the other Stealers truism: Nobody cheered the home team. Ever.

Football was just part of a larger strategy to help prisoners rejoin society. At the tip of this spear was a pioneering educational program established in 1969. Enrolled inmates could take college courses for credit at the Community College of Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh. Some even got permission to travel off-site and attend real classes in person. The program also included primary and vocational schooling, and most of the instructors were graduate students or professors at local universities.

“There is no question in my mind that they are capable of handling academic affairs and their own affairs, too,” John Bolton, assistant dean of faculty at CCAC and one of the prison’s English teachers, told The Pittsburgh Press. “There is unimpeachable evidence that when these men are treated as human beings their attitude changes from hopelessness to optimism.”

Unfortunately, some of these initiatives and programs didn’t last as Western Penitentiary aged and grew. For instance, the Greater Pittsburgh Football League shut down in 1989 and the Stealers’ football field was paved over to build a new cell block.

Vibrations didn’t fare much better. Staff members returned to their office on April 29, 1971, only to find it padlocked shut and their files destroyed under the orders of a new, stricter warden. Ten days later, a Post-Gazette letter to the editor claimed that most of the Vibrations members had since been “snatched away” to solitary confinement or transferred. Some of the inmates sued prison officials for infringing on their free speech, but a Third Circuit Appeals judge deferred to the warden’s judgement.

Western Penitentiary has gone through many phases, an inevitability for a facility that dates back to the Reconstruction era. The prison was mothballed in January 2005, functionally closed down but not gutted. It reopened in June 2007 as a site for low-level offenders and inmates requiring substance abuse treatment.

As the final days of Western Penitentiary approach, all that will eventually remain are the stories of thousands who never wished to be there. While not much changes about life in prison, there is one clear constant.

It’s complicated.

— Matt Moret

A prison orator gives a philosophical speech during lunch. Photo published Nov. 5, 1978. (Pittsburgh Press)

 

3 Comments

  1. Garry Benford
    6/17/2017
    Reply

    I remember competing in powerlifting competitions there while in college in the 70’s organized by Leo Nobile. The meet was called the West Penn Open and lifters came from all over to compete with the inmates. The inmates were all respectful and cordial with us wanting to talk about training and how to improve their lifts.
    I can also vividly remember the sounds of the steel bars closing on the doors entering the prison as we checked in for the day. It certainly made me appreciate my freedom.

  2. Mike Knezovich
    6/17/2017
    Reply

    The Sam Abbotts Softball team from Brighton Road played a three game series vs. the inmates in the early 80’s. Even though the players were cordial, it was a very intimidating experience. “F’ing freeboys” was yelled at us as we entered the yard. We were called names as we played. But it was a very valuable experience for all of us young men: do not do anything that will even remotely give you the chance to end-up in there! Thank you for this great article!

  3. Jim Dandy
    6/20/2017
    Reply

    “the people society hides from view, sometimes until their final days.”

    Hey LIBERALS. These people who you seek to glorify are CRIMINALS. Morons.

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