Remembering Charlestown’s forgotten prison


Malcolm X was imprisoned there. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed there, as were the last people ever to receive capital punishment doled out by the Commonwealth. Yet when you visit the site of the old Charlestown State Prison, where Bunker Hill Community College now sits, there’s no sign of the penitentiary that once stood there. When you visit the Bunker Hill Monument Museum, just half a mile away, you’ll find no sign of the penitentiary’s past on the walls there either.

Massachusetts is a state that’s proud of its history, and not just in a patriotic sense. Take one trip out to Georges Island, former home of Fort Warren, and you’ll be well-steeped in the geeky delight this state takes in its past. And while a state prison doesn’t exactly tickle the same sense of entitlement, it has its own stories that are worth noting.

There were escapes, like that of bank robber Theodore Green in 1953, who snuck out the old-fashioned way — in a packing case of rags taken out by a delivery truck. Another escape attempt that same year brought itself to an end when four prisoners’ homemade ladder didn’t stand up to the job. In 1892, an escape attempt that earned nine prisoners the nickname the “Sewer Gang” commenced when the crew went through a manhole in pursuit of freedom.

These, of course, are some of the more pulp fiction bullet points of Charlestown’s 100-year history that seem, perhaps, a little more friendly with time and a side glance from under a fedora. But they also raise questions about the way we consider our past. In 1937, for example, riots broke out over allegations that “rotten frankfurts” were being served in the mess hall. Today in Michigan, more than 1,000 prisoners are protesting rotten food on their plates. Similarly, Boston’s notorious pen was known for near-constant violence toward the end of its existence, prompting one one op-ed writer to remark, “Rioting, murder and sudden death have become routine news items from Charlestown Prison.”

They go on: “The observant citizen outside the walls has long been forced to the conclusion that the grim institution does not perform its primary purpose, which is removing convicted criminals from society and preventing them from doing harm.” Likewise, when we look at the state of the American prison system nowadays, we see something concrete, bland, beige and overcrowded. Or we see nothing at all. Because that’s how America’s prison system — and its operators — would prefer.

It’s important to look backwards if we are going to look forwards. The Charlestown State Prison is an important part of our history, one that we continue to repeat. And it’s worth knowing enough to ask why.

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Free Radical is a biweekly column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Copyright 2016 Emily Hopkins. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.