Wardens’ Reform

Courtesy of Denver Public Library - Western History Museum; Wayne Patterson (left) and Harry Tinsley (right)
Courtesy of Denver Public Library – Western History Museum; Wayne Patterson (left) and Harry Tinsley (right)

In striking contrast to Roy Best was Harry Tinsley, who served as warden at CSP between 1952 and 1965.[1] Tinsley’s penology replaced the Old Gray Mare of Best’s day with confidence in human reparability. He was averse to the term “rehabilitation” because it suggested that CSP should operate with limitedly rehabilitative programs rather than assertively improve the capabilities of its inmates. For Tinsley, the goal of rincareceration should be to “send the men out of [the prison] better than they came in.” In that effort, Tinsley implemented a system of classification based on the specific traits of each incoming individual, noting how best to help him, in large part through meaningful work.[2] National trends in criminology pushed toward industrialization in the prison, and Tinsley supported this tendency, believing that more opportunities for vocational development amounted to more effective rehabilitation.[3]

In his relationships with inmates, Tinsley acted with compassion and humanity. By trying to empathize with incarcerated individuals, he crossed the boundary between punisher and prisoner to form a deep personal relationship.[4] This empathy is seen in the relationship between the Tinsley family and “Jackson,” an inmate imprisoned for murder. According to an oral memoir by Jody Tinsley Jacobshagen, the warden’s daughter, Jackson was the family’s guard and butler.[5]  Harry Tinsley also employed infamous escapee Jim Sherbondy as the house dishwasher and murderer Joe Sam Walker as the gardener. When Jody got married, the reception party of the wedding was inside the walls of the prison at her childhood home. Inmates were present as guests even as others provided food service.[6] Such relationships between inmates and the Tinsley family reflect the trust and compassion of the warden himself.

The stark contrast in philosophies between Roy Best and Harry Tinsley had led some to claim that Harry Tinsley was “too kind” to be a prison warden.  Resistance to Tinsley suggested that a warden of an intermediate temperament, neither too harsh nor too soft, might more successfully manage CSP.[7]  Critics of the prison system envisioned a compromise, ultimately allowing reform efforts to be acknowledged and take prominence.[8]  Tinsley’s successor Wayne K. Patterson (1965-1975) indeed developed reform efforts, although with a distinctive tone different from Tinsley’s approach, according to his own notion that “the prisoners . . . are just like other people.”[9]  In his commitment to the rehabilitative potential of CSP’s inmates, Patterson in some regards went beyond his immediate predecessor.


Wayne K. Patterson

As Patterson was aware, CSP under his leadership was effectively a city of its own. Patterson’s co-author Betty Alt notes in Keeper of the Keys, a study of CSP in the 1960s, the warden’s role was similar to that of a mayor or a city manager. Unlike a mayor, however, the warden had no “group of commissioners who offer advice” on the administration of the prison, but rather “civil servants” to carry out executive duties, essentially giving him absolute power over this separated community.[10]  A distinct set of challenges therefore arose for Patterson given his total authority over Cañon City’s leading corrections facility—challenges unique to being head of an enclosed community.

Tall and burly, Patterson nonetheless depended on a  kind and open manner in his role as warden. His subordinates described him as a “good, sound, sensitive man” known for creating an “excellent program.”[11] Through the employment of a psychologist, the initiation of a county jail expansion program, the establishment of a training program for guards, and application for a federal grant for further prison improvement within his first year, Patterson forcsfully introduced his “humanistic approach.”[12] His seemingly natural ability to gain public support and implement new programs was supported by his prior two decades of government service.  Patterson had begun his career as a Colorado State patrolman in 1941. In 1944, he joined the U.S. Navy. He later developed connections with Colorado statesmen by serving as a personal driver for two Colorado governors, Ralph Carr and John Vivian, who then promoted his appointment to the Civil Service Commission in 1947.  Three years later, in 1950, Patterson was appointed as the Commission president, then became the executive director of the Colorado Parole Department in 1951, earning him the title of the “Father of Parole.”[13]  In 1957, Patterson took over as warden of the Colorado State Reformatory immediately after a large, widely destructive riot had taken place.  In CSR’s reconstruction, Patterson developed reformist notions that later permeated his work at Colorado State Penitentiary.[14]


Patterson’s philosophy

While Patterson had a relatively reformist approach to prison administration, he maintained a traditional stance on social values.  Born in North Loup, Nebraska, in 1915, he grew up on his father’s ranch, prompting his life-long interests in riding horses, hunting, fishing, and simply being with his dogs.[15]  Patterson claimed that he “deplored” the disintegration of American moral values and believed that true family tradition had disappeared.[16]  In addition, Patterson lamented what he saw as an absence of discipline and dedication to showing honor and commitment to the country.  Frequently quoting General Douglas MacArthur’s speeches and the Bill of Rights, Patterson was devoted to traditionalist attitudes toward the family and nation.[17] Although he expressed empathy for the prisoners, he stood strong on the basic structural duties, like work, that individuals in society, especially prisoners, were obligated to perform.[18]  Patterson speculated about an optimal system of punishment.  He concluded that the best correctional model would require the “splitting up of the big penitentiary into smaller, regional units where a man can serve time in or near his own community, work at a job, and make restitution to whomever he may have victimized.”[19]  Patterson said “there is no sound reason to put men in prison if they can safely be handled in the community.”[20]   He understood change toward his ideal system would have been too monumental realistically to achieve, so instead he focused his energy on internal change.  His most celebrated innovation was the creation of eighteen “self-help” groups that ranged from people suffering from drug addiction or alcoholism to people with similar occupational interests.

Patterson claimed that “prisoners serving time for crimes they committed are pretty much like other people and this fact has to be recognized to deal successfully in trying to restore them to a normal life.  They are diverse, they may have committed crimes under influences and circumstances, without which they might have spent an entire life in normal living.”[21]  The warden acknowledged that there were, at the same time, other prisoners who should not be released, as they would continue to commit crimes.  He said, “I don’t like to keep books on repeaters.”[22]  Patterson accepted the reality that prison cannot be a reformative experience for everyone, but still was hopeful, almost unrealistic, in his conviction that just reform movements might alleviate some of the disadvantages in confining prisoners.[23]

In addition to working toward establishment of various self-help programs, Patterson stressed that careful preparation should be offered for prisoners ready for parole.  He believed that inmates were ready differenetially to reenter society after five, ten, or fifteen years in prison.  Recognizing the proper time for a prisoner to be released was imperative.  If the administration neglected the possibility of parole, Patterson thought the whole process of imprisonment could be counterproductive with adverse effects on inmates’ behavior.[24]  Patterson also emphasized prisoners’ rights after their release.  The stigma of being an ‘ex-con’ was a huge barrier for the men, as the warden saw, preventing them from obtaining jobs through the imposition of multiple liabilities.  Lack of support when released was a principal cause of inmates’ returning to the correctional system.  Patterson’s awareness of recidivism drove improvement of the pre-parole program easing the transition for prisoners back into society.[25]


Civil rights behind bars

Patterson’s genuine interest in the well-being of the individual prisoner was challenged by the 1960s vigorous national discussion of human and civil rights broadly speaking.  Throughout his term, he encountered much public turmoil as well as internal unrest at CSP.  As jail riots erupted throughout the country, prisoners began to challenge the absolute control of prison administrations.  One newspaper at the time, The Empire, recounted, “Militant convicts are colliding heads with rigid, old-school prison administrations—the civil rights revolution is moving in prison walls rather than on streets.”[26]  Patterson later recalled this social revolution’s impact on corrections, saying that a new wave of prisoners entered while he was in office, and these inmates were determined to assert their own rights.  Responsibility fell to him to resolve ensuing protest. Patterson noted that “lawsuits became a way of life for prison administrators” during the surge of protest in the 70s.  Patterson himself was a defendant in 142 legal actions in 1972 alone.[27]

One such lawsuit was spearheaded by CSP inmate Everett Small, one of the leaders of the new wave of prison dissent.  Small developed a connection with the Fortune Society, a non-profit New York organization dedicated to increasing public awareness of America’s prisons.  Ex-convicts composed the Fortune News, a monthly newsletter.  At CSP, Everett argued that correctional officers deliberately sabotaged his communication with the Fortune Society by seizing his personal mail.[28]  He claimed that all letters were being opened, read, and censored by prison authorities.  The administration contended that Everett’s claims were false. Patterson responded that mail was opened and inspected, but solely to make sure that there was no contraband.[29]

As warden, Patterson appeared to be conflicted on how to handle lawsuits such as Everett’s because he was an active participant in a system that he condemned.  In talking about his reformist practices, he noted that “prisons are not good, by definition.”[30]  Patterson thus envisioned a correctional system that was different from the rigid confinement of all inmates, so arguing for a system framed in notions of restorative rather than retributive justice.  He acknowledged the need to recognize the humanity of prisoners by publicizing that genuinely dangerous individuals among them made up a mere ten to fifteen percent, and that the other eighty-five to ninety percent was made up of non-violent offenders charged mostly with drug or alcohol-related crimes. But Patterson understood that the prisons were necessary to protect society from those who have broken the laws and are dangerous.[31]  Therefore, faced with many lawsuits regarding issues ranging from a prisoner’s right to a good brand of peanut butter to adequate health care, he expressed much frustration. He acknowledged that his attenpts at reform addressed an inherently broken system. Patterson expressed his frustration in his autobiography, stating that he considered his administration a “beneficent dictatorship” and represented the “forefront of prison modernization at that time,” so that he took offense at the numerous lawsuits.[32]

Not only were these effective reproaches emotionally draining, but the damages in lawsuits overwhelmed him.  He says in his memoir, “it wouldn’t scare me if an inmate walked in here and threatened my life.  Because of my size I’ve never been bothered much like that, even when I used to be the State Patrol.  But when they start going after my pocketbook, that scares me.”[33]  Throughout the country, prisons had been losing money, tens of thousands of dollars, to reparations from lawsuits filed by prisoners and human rights advocates, causing wardens to reevaluate their authority in a different, more cautious way.[34]

Lawsuits against penal systems and their officers created widespread public awareness of injuries consequent to confinement as punishment. The bloody uprising at New York’s Attica State Prison in 1971 was another element in rising public consciousness of prison conditions.  After 2,200 inmates seized control of the Attica facility, taking forty-two officers hostage for a span of two weeks, interest in penology surged, querying the fundamental purpose of American prisons and their efficacy.  Public discussion identified the brokenness of the correctional system, leading some critics to dismiss the possibility of any improvement.   One inmate recounted life at the Colorado State Penitentiary during Patterson’s last year, saying, “There isn’t much change going to come about with these walls here.  They don’t bust heads any more.  They don’t take you to the ‘horse.’  That’s about the only change I’ve seen, and I’ve been here on and off since 1943.”[35]  The inmate’s disheartening account raised inquiry as to whether reform and confinement were compatible at all.


Criticism of Patterson’s reform

The sudden increase of concern with penology in the late 1960s and 1970s led to attacks on the efficacy of Patterson’s efforts.  A grand jury in Denver noted how the current warden’s programs had “great public relations appeal but little genuine rehabilitative content.”[36] In the grand jury’s eyes, Patterson’s reforms suggested a defect of realism and common sense within the prison.  Prisoners and officers together created upheaval as the warden’s reforms changed the traditional power dynamics at CSP, leaving officers out of control and prisoners feeling vulnerable. The grand jury’s ultimately critical report stated that Patterson had an “emperor complex” and had established a “one-man rule,” questioning the efficacy of his reconstruction of correctional structures and policies.[37]  The state of the prison in 1973 was, in this view, unimproved.  One hundred and fifty of the line officers on the correctional staff at the Colorado State Penitentiary submitted a list of demands to improve safety for themselves as well as the inmates.  The guards believed the prison had grown accustomed to “allowing the inmate to do whatever he pleases rather than changing his mental attitude towards society.”[38]  Although some considered Patterson the most progressive warden in the U.S., his reform programs evidently had negative effects as well.

Patterson’s view on capital punishment provides insight into his critics’ perspective.  Despite publicly condemning the death penalty, he was the last warden to carry out a legal execution in Colorado.  Louis Monge, doing time for the murder of his wife after she found out about his incestuous relationship with their sixteen-year-old daughter, was executed by the gas chamber on June 2, 1967.  Patterson wrote about his experience of Monge in The Keeper of the Keys.  The warden’s own mother, to whom he dedicates a chapter in his book, had formed a friendship with Monge.  She sent the convict letters about maintaining religious faith on Death Row, reminding him that the state can “take away your bodies but it can’t take away your soul.”[39]  Mrs. Patterson’s religious background led her to adamantly believe that human life should be preserved.  As Monge walked towards the gas chamber, he held a picture of Christ at the Crucifixion framed in cigarette wrappings.  In his memoir, Patterson recalls Monge asking him to “Give this to your mother and God bless her.  She wanted us all to live.  You are a good man and good warden. Good bye.”[40] Patterson provided the back-story to a sensational execution, describing it as emotionally wrenching.[41] While his exercise of the death penalty reflected his stern commitment to his job, for Patterson process was emotional, revealing his sympathetic and humanitarian side.

Patterson’s internal moral anguish was on ongoing difficulty for him as warden.  As a sensitive, benevolent man working in a system of suffering, he had to accept that his endeavors could only achieve so much.  He highlighted this sentiment and his ultimate fulfillment as warden nearing his retirement by saying, “I think that’s what keeps a man going in a rough job like this.  I can’t take credit of course, for all the rehabilitation successes that occur, but at least I’m happy to know that possibly I had some effect and helped some get out of prison into productive lives.”[42] Ever-changing societal views of appropriate punishment had made the job of warden difficult for Patterson as for others.  Although a warden in his time had essentially absolute control of the prison, his authority was limited by the fundamental restraints that the confinement of human beings brings.  Patterson’s work in reform has nonetheless influenced many more recent wardens in their own views on incarceration in Colorado and elsewhere.  He noted issues surrounding the prison system, such as the permanent stigma around the label of ‘ex-con,’ that are at the forefront of one of the most influential books on twenty-first century criminal justice, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  The opposition that Patterson encountered in his head-on acknowledgement of problems that are still plaguing the penal system should be no surprise. His career was defined by the complications and difficulty in achieving substantial progress within a flawed penal system.

[1] Originally research and drafted by Catherine Luchars and Ann Dargan.

[2] Jack Gaskie, Rocky Mountain News, undated, Royal Gorge Regional Museum (hereafter RGRM), “Tinsley family” folder.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Duane Noriyuki, “Understanding, Compassion Plays Important Roles,” Cañon City Daily Record, February 26, 1982.

[5] Jody Tinsley Jacobshagen with unidentified interviewer, February 16, 1992, RGRM, “Tinsley family” folder.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Wayne K. Patterson and Betty L. Alt, Keeper of the Keys (Pueblo: My Friend, The Printer Inc.), 238.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Red Fenwick, “Penitentiary Springing Pat After 6 Years,” Denver Post, February 24, 1972.

[10] Patterson and Alt, 238.

[11] “John Griffin Named Associate Warden At State Penitentiary,” unattributed fragment, 1971, RGRM, “Wardens 1970s” folder.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Fenwick.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Big Man in Big Job,” unattributed fragment, 1968, RGRM, “Wardens 1960s folder.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Fenwick.

[20] “Patterson Tells of Prison Reform Advances,” unattributed fragment, RGRM, “Wardens 1960s” folder.

[21] Fenwick.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Patterson Tells of Prison Reform Advances.”

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Warden Wayne K. Patterson Announces his Retirement,” unattributed fragment, 1972, RGRM, “Wardens 1970s” folder.

[26] “Activism Behind Bars,” The Empire, November 14, 1971.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Patterson Tells of Prison Reform Advances.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] Patterson and Alt, 197.

[33] “Activism Behind Bars.”

[34] “Inmate Litigation: Results of a National Survey,” Journal of National Institute of Corrections Large Jail Network 6, accessed July 24, 2016, https://www.law.umich.edu/facultyhome/margoschlanger/Documents/Publications/Inmate_Litigation_Results_National_Survey.pdf.

[35] Charles Carter, “Inmates Seek Prison Reform,” Denver Post, May 28, 1972.

[36] “John Griffin Named Associate Warden at State Penitentiary.”

[37] Ibid.

[38] “Prison Union Details Demands for Changes,” unattributed fragment, 1973, RGRM, “Reform” folder.

[39] Patterson and Alt, 141.

[40] Ibid., 143.

[41] Patterson did not find out that his mother was corresponding with all the condemned men on death row until one of the convicts showed him a letter from his then eighty-two-year-old mother.  He never recognized that the hopeful letters “Susie from Denver” was writing were from his mother.  As the Officer of the State, Patterson was upset when he read that his mother told the prisoners that the state was “taking away their bodies.” He still believed that he gained many of his moral sentiments from his mother and her strong ethical values. Patterson and Alt, 141-42.

[42] Fenwick.