Carlson grew up in Sioux City, Iowa where he summered with a local ambulance crew and spent time around the police department. He attended college at the University of Iowa where he earned a master’s degree in criminology.
He acquired a job in the state of Iowa corrections department where local legend has it that a prisoner told them he should try for a job in the federal prison system. “He went to the Iowa system and had various administrative jobs ... and one of the prisoners down there told him ‘you are too smart to work in the Iowa system, you ought to go to the federal agencies and see if you can get a job there,’” said longtime friend George Lindblade. “He took that as a challenge and did — and of course worked his way up to the top job.”
Carlson ultimately was appointed director of the federal BOP by John Mitchell, Nixon administration attorney general in 1970. Mitchell was later convicted during the Watergate scandal and was remanded to prison under the custody of Carlson.
Carlson served as director under 11 attorney generals and four presidents.
He retired in 1987 after 17 years of service. Carlson was recognized as one of the BOP’s most consequential directors, although he had peculiarities. He insisted on cleanliness and food quality good enough that he could bring his wife and children to the prison to eat. He had a zero-tolerance policy for prisoner abuse, and disciplined guards who beat on prisoners. He insisted that all staff act in a professional manner, guards were to address themselves as correctional officers and upper administration were to come to work in suits and ties. He increased diversity in the workforce and developed a research branch of the BOP to monitor and track program results. His focus was on the safety of prisoners, staff and the public.
But Carlson was hardly progressive on all matters. The 1980s war on drugs and mandatory sentencing brought an explosive increase in prison population. Carlson built 20 new prisons during his tenure to handle this rise in population. After the infamous murder of two guards by two Aryan Brotherhood members in the federal prison in Marion, Illinois on October 22, 1983, Carlson turned that prison into a 23 hour per day lockdown facility, which proceeded to become the model for later supermax prisons, such as the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, known as the toughest prison in the federal system. He named it “no human contact status.”
Many states, beginning with California, began to copy the supermax model. “The renewed use of solitary coincided with the era of mass incarceration and the widespread closing of state-run mental health facilities,” wrote Mark Binelli of The New York Times. “The supermax became the most expedient method of controlling an increasingly overcrowded and psychologically volatile prison population.”
Carlson died of lymphoma carcinoma.
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