By John Stickney
Updated June 29, 1981 12:00 PM

Eight years ago, as president of Haverford College, John Coleman startled the academic world by moonlighting as a garbageman, a ditchdigger and a short-order cook—work that became the basis for his book Blue Collar Journal. Today Coleman, 60, is president of the New York-based Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which last year granted $3 million to promote reforms in the criminal justice system. To learn about the problems firsthand—the same problems that contributed to recent disturbances at penitentiaries in Michigan, New York and New Jersey—Coleman has been working incognito again. Since 1977, with the cooperation of prison officials, he has posed as an inmate or guard at seven prisons around the U.S. “Every one is a rotten place, “he reports, “each for a different reason.” Twice divorced, Coleman lives with two of his five children (aged 20 to 31) in Manhattan, where he works twice a week as an auxiliary policeman, and is co-authoring a book entitled And Throw Away the Key. Not long ago he discussed his prison experiences with John Stickney of PEOPLE.

Why do you risk going undercover?

I like finding things out for myself. The state and federal prison population in the U.S. is now 314,000, up from 204,000 in 1973, the sharpest rise ever. Because most of those prisoners are coming outside again someday, we ought to be concerned about what’s happening to them while they’re inside.

Doesn’t going behind bars scare you?

I’m horrified by what I see, but I’m no longer frightened. I know now I’m relatively safe because of my age. There’s pity for an older inmate, a feeling that, hey, this guy’s got enough going against him already. Besides, no warden who felt a riot was brewing would let me in. Inside I don’t come on strong, and I observe the code of honor; no way would I snitch or get close to the guards. The code also says, if you’ve got any special schooling, you’d better use it on behalf of your fellow inmates, maybe by helping them read law books or prepare a writ.

What was the toughest adjustment?

The loss of autonomy was devastating. After four or five days inside in Minnesota I hit on a scheme of unscrewing the lightbulb in my cell, then crouching behind my bunk so the guard on noon count had to look twice to find me. It was my way of saying, “You’ve got a man in here, not an animal.” My last 26 hours there I spent in solitary because somebody along the line was tipped off to my phony admission forms. In the hole two guys kept me up all night by screaming chess moves at the top of their lungs from cell to cell across the block. Only afterward did I learn that the warden was testing me to see if I’d go the distance.

Hasn’t anybody discovered your ruse?

Even the psychologist who examined me at Minnesota came away believing I was a transfer prisoner from Pennsylvania serving seven years for embezzlement. I told him the truth, though, about my fears—it was my first time in prison. He advised me, “You shouldn’t have trouble if you link up with the murderers. A lot of them committed a crime of passion and they won’t repeat it. They just want to pull their time in peace.” By no accident, I’m sure, my cell was next door to an inmate who fit that description exactly.

Are there other prison subcultures?

Race, age and drug use set groups apart. By sight I couldn’t tell bank robbers from white-collar criminals. In Texas, at Huntsville, the homosexuals are kept in a separate area. Child molesters are the lowest caste in prison, with rapists nearly as untouchable. Most of them choose protective custody, which means they’re under special guard. One inmate who’s served 19 years in New York state prisons told me his world wouldn’t even let him say hello to a rapist. In the Kansas State Penitentiary, which had the ugliest inmates I’ve ever seen, along with some of the gentlest, 150 of the 1,100 prisoners have opted for protective custody.

Have you been attacked in prison?

In Kansas one night after chow this guy glared at me—I don’t know why—and started toward me with something in his hand. I backed up, but other inmates hustled him away. Then at Wateree River Correctional Institution in South Carolina I deserved trouble; I accidentally hosed down one of my fellow prison dairy workers while we were cleaning cow udders. And I had to fight off a homosexual advance at Wateree once. In every case inmates rescued me.

In which prison were you least comfortable?

At Wateree, only because I’m sensitive to noise. I shared a 75-by-35-foot ward with 70 other inmates, most of whom had a TV or radio or both, all competing in volume well into the wee hours every day and louder and later on weekends. In Texas, by contrast, each cellblock dayroom is allowed only one TV. But that’s a tinderbox because of the most explosive issue in any prison: race hatred. Everywhere you see the same color breakdown at meals, in the yard or the gym. Of course the prisons don’t create the problem, they’re just forced to pack it into a tight space.

What did working as a guard teach you?

How to rob a person of dignity. At Huntsville another guard and I rode horseback overseeing a gang of 20 inmates chopping cotton on a six-hour shift in 90-degree heat. If one of them wanted to straighten up and mop his brow, he had to ask permission: “Wiping it off, boss.” Likewise if he wanted to urinate: “Pouring it out, boss.” When we returned from the fields the men had to strip, be frisked, then dash naked across the yard to the showers. I felt as degraded as they were.

Of the prisons you’ve gone into, which strikes you as the best, and the worst?

In Minnesota I had some say over my outfit, haircut, cell decoration and movement through the cellblock. Most important, I could get a pretty good job in the prison foundry and earn up to $2.65 a day. In Texas you can wear any color you like so long as it’s white. Your hair has to be the same length as the warden’s. You can’t earn any pay. Both Minnesota and Texas are known as successful prisons with capable administrators, but the Huntsville killings of a warden and one of his staff last April didn’t surprise me.

How can prisons be made more humane?

Anything that preserves dignity is a plus. At Wateree conjugal visits are allowed. In Kansas I saw a ward with about as many inmates, TVs and radios as in mine at Wateree, but it was silent, simply because of earphones. In Minnesota you have a reasonable freedom of choice, the privacy of your own cell and a chance at a steady job that’s transferable to the outside world. Idleness was the most frequent gripe I heard from inmates elsewhere. If these reforms seem like luxuries, think of them from a warden’s vantage point: You’ll have an easier time with the prison population if there are rewards for obeying the rules.

Whatever happened to rehabilitation?

You don’t hear much talk about it anymore, as if it’s just another futile hope. And there’s no clear evidence that prisons are deterring crime, either. But as an auxiliary cop I’ve seen crime’s impact up close and I believe in punishment. I no longer automatically equate punishment with prison, though. With the cost of a new federal prison cell at $35,000 and an inmate’s annual upkeep there at $13,000, we’ve got to think of alternatives.

Such as?

Most wardens tell me half their prison population is in the wrong place. They’re talking about nonviolent offenders, not Son of Sam. At Wateree I met a civil engineer who was serving seven years for passing a $66 bad check. Think what that kind of sentence costs the taxpayers.

Where should such prisoners be?

Many would be better off in drug or alcohol treatment centers. Others might join work-release programs—going to a job during the day, returning to a halfway house at night and on weekends. Some should be serving restitution orders, working to pay back their victims. Whatever the alternatives, they have to be tough. But those already under way around the country are much cheaper than prison.

How do these reforms square with the national get-tough mood about crime?

Prison is necessary, but liberals and conservatives would agree that you can’t ruin people through violence, idleness and degradation and then expect them to walk tall and straight back on the streets. In Minnesota an inmate told me, “The free world’s got to live with us at some point and we’ve got to live with them. They choose the terms. Then we choose the response.”