Joel Winslow is probably the only guy you’ll ever meet who’s nostalgic for the time he spent in prison. That’s because he grew up at MCI-Norfolk.
“It was an interesting childhood,” said Winslow, recalling the days of his youth in Norfolk, where his father served as prison superintendent from 1934 until 1950.
Being the son of the prison warden came with advantages: Winslow and his brother, David, got to use the bowling alley in the corrections officers’ recreation hall, and pet the horses on the prison farm. They watched inmates compete in boxing matches and baseball games. They regularly got haircuts from a convict who moonlighted as a barber.
Winslow is 78 years old now. At his house in Oxford, Winslow has stacks of curled, black-and-white photographs that show how the prison was built with inmate labor, starting in the late 1920s. There are brown manila folders full of correspondence between his father and state officials, internal memos, and letters from inmates and politicians. His father’s diary details some of the incidents that took place behind the prison walls. Each page is typewritten and single-spaced on paper yellowed and made brittle by the passage of time.
The records — never released to the public — offer a rare glimpse into what life was like at an institution that made history as the first “community-based” prison in the United States.
The Norfolk State Prison Colony, as it was then called, had its own debate team, orchestra, and newspaper. Inmates took classes and served on committees and councils, and many volunteered to serve their country during wartime.
While critics called the experimental prison a “country club,” others hailed Norfolk as the “prison of the future” and a model for the next generation of correctional institutions.
For Winslow, it was home.
Many of his neighbors fell into one of two categories: convicted criminals and prison guards.
“Our gardener was a young man who had two daughters. His mother visited him every Sunday for over 30 years,” said Winslow. “He was in for murder two,” or second-degree murder.
With dormitories, athletic fields, and a quad with plenty of open space, the layout of the penitentiary was reminiscent of a college campus. The novel design was supposed to foster a sense of community and responsibility among the inmates, who were serving time for anything from larceny to murder.
Construction began in June 1927, when the first dozen inmates from the notoriously overcrowded Charlestown State Prison were driven out to a wooded area in Norfolk. There, on 36 acres of state-owned land near the Walpole town line, they were put to work building what would become the state’s largest prison.
Winslow’s father, Maurice, was initially hired to supervise the civilian foremen and inmates working on the project. Prisoners were trained as bricklayers and steamfitters, carpenters and electricians, plumbers and welders. They swung picks over their heads and plunged shovels into the ground to dig foundations and tunnels. They installed water and sewer pipes, and electric cables. They poured concrete, and trundled wheelbarrows filled with gravel and sand.
Maurice Winslow held a degree in civil engineering from Tufts, and his down-to-earth personality and modest background earned him the respect of the inmates working on the construction site.
In January 1934, when the prison’s founder, Howard B. Gill, stepped down from his position as superintendent, state officials turned to Winslow to fill the post.
The Winslow family lived outside of the prison walls, near the Walpole line. The superintendent’s house was on a hill surrounded by fields, about 150 yards from where MCI-Cedar Junction, the state Department of Correction’s maximum-security reception center, stands today.
When he was young, Joel Winslow would stand by the stone wall and wait for inmates to drive down the dirt road in horse-drawn wagons and give him a ride to the prison farm, less then a mile from his house.
“As a little boy, I used to stand by the side of the road until they came up. The inmates would lift me up, put me in the seat, and I’d spend the day in the fields with them,” he said.
Winslow said the inmates were assigned teams of horses.
“There were no tractors, because they were afraid they’d use them to escape,” he said.
Winslow said the farm was large and “pretty close to self-sustaining.
“They grew most of everything they ate, essentially,” said Winslow. “They had 120 milkers. Pigs. Chickens. They grew hay and alfalfa to feed the livestock. Garbage for the hogs was no problem; that came right from the prison. They grew peas, beans, corn, potatoes — all kinds of vegetables.”
Winslow also remembers another unique aspect of Norfolk: the prison’s debate team.
Founded in the 1930s by Cerise C. Jack, a progressive reformer from Walpole, Norfolk’s all-inmate squad competed against students from Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and other top colleges. Inmates presented eloquent arguments on topics such as free trade, capital punishment, and the legality of wiretapping, and compiled an impressive record of victories against the collegiate teams.
“They had some tremendous debaters,” said Winslow. “They were consistent winners.”
That wasn’t the only team Norfolk had. Back then, the prison fielded a baseball team that played against squads from nearby communities. Boxing matches were also held on occasion. Winslow recalls one time a ring was set up outside one of the cellblock dormitories, and he went up to the prison hospital’s X-ray room for a good view of the fight.
“It was a slugfest,” said Winslow.
“Tensions run rather high in prison on occasion,” he said. “It was a way to relieve frustration. They used big fat boxing gloves, so they wouldn’t kill each other.”
Despite the amenities and recreational offerings at Norfolk, it was still very much a prison, populated by inmates who did not want to be there. Winslow said there was usually one escape attempt a year.
“Most weren’t plotted escapes from the inside,” he said. “They were walk-aways from the farm. There was no fence or anything there.”
One night, Winslow and his brother were camping outside when they heard the escape whistle go off. They ran home as fast as they could.
“We made it back to the house in three and a half seconds,” he said, with a chuckle.
Winslow recalls only one time that an inmate successfully scaled the concrete wall that surrounded the prison. The massive, mile-long barrier was 9 inches thick and stood more than 19 feet tall. Electrified barbed wires stretched along the top. One particularly ambitious prisoner used a curved shower head as a hook to climb up the wall, and rubber sheets from the hospital to get himself over the wires safely, he said.
Prison guards were always watching out for the superintendent’s sons. Winslow remembers hanging out in the recreation hall with a friendly, red-headed guard nicknamed “Biscuits.”
“Biscuits would set up the pins” at the bowling alley, said Winslow. “We loved Biscuits. He’d do anything for you, it wasn’t just us. He was an awful nice guy.”
For Winslow, being in the company of convicted criminals was part of his normal routine. Several well-known figures did time at Norfolk during the 1940s, including Malcolm Little, a member of Norfolk’s debate team who would later take Malcolm X as his name; big-time bookmaker Harry “Doc” Sagansky of Brookline; legendary mob boss Raymond Patriarca; and Cocoanut Grove nightclub owner Barney Welansky.
Winslow said both the guards and the inmates treated him and his older brother well.
“You could drop a dollar bill in that prison, and someone would tap you on the shoulder and say ‘Here, you dropped this,’ ” he said.
The prison that Winslow’s father helped build now bears a different name: the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Norfolk, better known as MCI-Norfolk. The medium-security prison is home to 1,524 inmates, and it’s the largest facility of its kind in the state.
Joel Winslow went on to become an entrepreneur and father of five children. One of his sons, Daniel B. Winslow, followed his grandfather’s footsteps into public service: He serves as a Republican legislator in the state House of Representatives, and his district includes the town of Norfolk.
Many people don’t know the hidden history of how the Norfolk prison came to be. But Winslow knows. And Winslow has fond memories of his childhood there.
“I wouldn’t swap it with anybody,” he said.Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.