Skip navigation

Open Prison: Lessons from the Past

Open prison is unthinkable today in the United States, though in Scandinavia such institutions are heralded as models of civility and rehabilitation. The U.S. experimented with open prisons back in 1941, which proved there were better ways to rehabilitate and reduce recidivism. Unfortunately, those lessons were short-lived.

In California, then as now, maximum-security institutions like San Quentin and Folsom were dens of tension and violence. In 1935, the California State Legislature wanted to try something different. A veteran penologist named Kenyon J. Scudder was enlisted to open a new prison at Chino. It would become the California Institution for Men, and the only one of its kind.

Scudder laid down some conditions. He wanted control over the selection and training of staff, and over how much freedom the prisoners would be permitted while incarcerated. To avoid punitive mindsets, he refused to hire staff who had previously worked within the system.

Instead, his jailers (“supervisors”) would have college degrees. They would carry no batons or guns, and weapons would only be a means of last resort. Prisoners would be able to choose what to wear, which jobs they preferred and what to study. Numbers identifying prisoners would no longer be assigned, and Scudder adopted a theme that would become the title of his published memoir, Prisoners are People.

Though original plans called for a 25-foot perimeter wall with eight gun towers, Scudder convinced prison directors to erect only a five-strand barbed wire fence. He believed that by treating the men with dignity, they would respect the rules and develop their own productive way back to society.

The idea worked in the early years, and received praise. In 1955, a book written about the Chino experiment was adapted into the movie Unchained. Though the movie has been described as sappy and idealized, it does depict the reality of prisoners working to make Scudder’s idea successful, and it offered an awakening perhaps of the alternative if it failed.

Inevitably, it did fail, or more accurately, and as a result of America’s desire for punitive measures, it morphed into a more recognizable U.S. prison. Scudder, unwilling to play the state’s political games, came under fire and faced severe criticism from politicians. By the time of his death in 1977, Chino had become just another typical correctional complex with three maximum security facilities. Its legacy fell victim to a barrage of draconian laws and now, with 3,766 prisoners, operates at 25 percent over capacity.

It is possible that Scudder’s experiment was just a fluke — until one takes a serious look at the America recidivism rate and compares it to that of Scandinavia or other countries with open prison systems. For now, in the United States, this concept simply remains “locked away.”