Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas In Prison, 1977

I'm reposting this so hopefully it can link to my new website address.

I don't pass though a holiday season without thinking of this improbable story I witnessed in 1977.

Donald Bordenkircher, the Warden of the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, had a problem. The prison needed some major improvements and the inmates were unwilling to let the projects proceed. He formed a negotiation team to find a compromise. An agreement between the warden and the inmate representatives was eventually reached: the work project could begin and in return the inmates would be allowed to organize and hold the first-ever "open house" on Christmas Eve, 1977. Families and friends would be allowed to come in to any area of the prison, except for the maximum security wing.

The western Kentucky correspondent for the Louisville Courier-Journal got a tip about the event and was invited along with me to come in and do a story. The CJ photo department at that time had its own single engine plane. Billy Davis was the pilot. We flew from Louisville early that morning to Eddyville. I had a couple of Nikons and my Leica. Once inside I was told I could go unescorted anywhere I wanted to go. I was the only photojournalist to cover the event. Security screening for all entering the facility was conducted and it was nothing like modern security measures of today. There were guards around in street clothes. The open house was a party atmosphere in the most unlikely scenario.

For the next four hours I watched many touching moments between wives, children, parents, and the inmates. A motorcycle gang came with several "girlfriends." We flew back to Louisville in the late afternoon to make deadline for the December 25th issue of the paper.

The open house was considered a success and was held for a few more years in a much more contained environment, but never again as free-wheeling as the first one.

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