Howard B. Gill: Architect of the Fallen Community Prison Model

Howard B. Gill, founding warden of Norfolk Prison Colony Courtesy of: Howard Belding Gill papers, MS.1995.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Dining facility at Norfolk Prison, 1934 Courtesy of: Howard Belding Gill papers, MS.1995.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Norfolk school principal Carlo Geromini said inside walls you didn't know you were in prison. Courtesy of: Howard Belding Gill papers, MS.1995.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Written by - Jennifer Roesch, Walker MacKenzie, Kyra Millard, James Parker

“What have they done to my place?” lamented Howard B. Gill, the founding warden of Norfolk Prison in the 1980s during one of his visits. He would go to chat with older inmates who had become friends and to provide guidance to younger prisoners.

Gill initially sought a business career upon graduation from Harvard University in 1914 before forging a long career in prison reform and administration. While working under then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover for the Federal Commission on Prison Labor, Gill was employed to undertake a review of prison industries, which cemented his vision for penal reform. He stated in 1929 that “prison ideas have changed, the theory now is to individualize. A man is deprived of his liberty because he has been abnormal socially, economically, or physically. It is our task to bring that man back to normal. We must keep him from degenerating and rehabilitate him.”

His vision became reality with the founding of Norfolk State Prison Colony in 1927. Under Gill’s supervision, Norfolk embodied the idea of a shared community as a “prison without bars.” The prison colony’s architecture mimicked a college campus and prisoners and guards wore civilian clothes. Public-spirited citizens also invested their time by helping educate and interact with prisoners. Gill described his prison philosophy in 1929: “Diversification is the modern idea in prisons. Prisoners are analyzed and classified. In the unit system of dormitories we plan to have the prisoners divided into groups of fifty each, each group in the charge of an officer... In our shops we will try to get the greatest possible variety of occupations possible.”

His theory was based upon the belief that positive experience trumps negative, and that rehabilitative policies would better enable prisoners to reintegrate into society. His education programs were designed not just to aid the inmates academically but also to provide the opportunity to interact with people from the outside. He preferred civilian clothes to create a walled society not drastically different from that outside. It was Gill’s belief that these policies would reduce rates of recidivism.

Gill’s tenure at Norfolk ended in 1934 due to controversy stemming from the escape of inmates. However, his vision continued via the leadership of his successors through the 1980s. Besides the Debating Society, there were other notable undertakings including degree programs, a theater project, and sports clubs. The prison administration eventually abolished all of these programs.

Why was the Debating Society shut down? One major factor was the national shift in attitudes towards prisons and prisoners. Further, the team’s success had always depended on a core group of prisoners (sometime as small as two or three) and the devotion of advocates inside the prison community and beyond. Coleman Bender, Emerson College professor, served as team coach for 21 years. His successor, Haig der Marderosian, stayed on until 1982, just two years before his death. Carlo Geromini, Norfolk Prison School principal, retired in 1989. By the end of the 1980s, a combination of factors – the loss of key administrators and facilitators, the waning popularity of debate, and a national emphasis on more punitive policies – burdened the debating society to the point where it could no longer survive.

Gill’s philosophy at Norfolk collapsed under the weight of the national tough on crime policies. In Massachusetts, Republican Governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci steered prison policies in a very different direction from Gill’s emphasis. A 1987 inmate action at Norfolk protested against, in part, overcrowding and the lack of educational and vocational opportunities. These governors can be viewed as part of the national movement towards a narrative of rhetoric and fear mongering characterizing prisoners as an irredeemable strata of society. They implemented budget cuts for prison programs, an end to furlough programs, and reductions of early releases. Governor Weld argued that prisons should be a “tour through the circles of hell,” where inmates should learn only “the joys of busting rocks.”

Although the architecture of the original Prison Colony remains today, the prison has fundamentally changed. The ideal of redemption through education and community no longer prevails at Norfolk.