Sixty thousand years at SIUE: Lewis E. Lawes and the interdisciplinary imperative


By Gregory Vogel


A reflection and directed reading

on the nature of interdisciplinarity,

prison reform,
environmental studies,
and few other things that happen to come to mind.


            Certain words come and go in academia.  In archaeology these days,interdisciplinary is in vogue: projects that are labeled interdisciplinary are seen as more progressive, more sophisticated, and, importantly, more likely to receive funding than "just plain" archaeology.  There is good reason for this.  Archaeology has always borrowed methods and theories from other disciplines, particularly the historical and environmental sciences.  In archaeology we study the things people have left behind: their tools and toys, their drawings and religious icons, remains of their houses and farm fields, even the remains of their bodies themselves.  Archaeology in North America is commonly referred to as "anthropological archaeology" because it is usually taught within the context of four distinct sub-fields of anthropology: cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, linguistics, and archaeology.

            Because archaeology is such a wide-ranging endeavor, we can benefit greatly from cooperating with researchers in other fields.  Our ideas can also contribute to many different fields of study.  Environmental issues are a big topic these days, for example.  In order to understand our current relationship with the environment, we need to understand the history of how we have interacted with it in the past.  If we have no grasp of this history, we risk the delusion that earlier people lived in perfect harmony with nature, or that the human/environment relationships of today can be effectively projected back into the past.  To understand the history of our environmental adaptations, we need to apply methods and theories from many different fields.  We need to be interdisciplinary.  

            True "interdisciplinarity" is not easy.  It requires that individuals cross methodological and theoretical boundaries to communicate effectively with researchers from other fields.  Projects are sometimes derided as "multidisciplinary" instead of interdisciplinary, meaning that while they may involve several fields of study, the work from each field is not really integrated.  Many researchers and many ideas maybe, but no true synthesis between them.  

            Here we get to Lewis E. Lawes, warden of Sing Sing Prison from 1920 to 1941.  Lawes was an advocate of prison reform, and instituted policies to help rehabilitate prisoners instead of simply punishing them (I'm afraid our prison system in the U.S. may have lost track of rehabilitation since then).  

            Lawes was multitalented and truly interdisciplinary; he made a study of many different disciplines and successfully combined ideas from them in his reform efforts.  The title of his famous book, Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, comes from the aggregate sum of prison sentences being served under his wardenship at any given time.  He multiplied the number of his wards by their average sentence, and came up with twenty thousand as a conservative estimate of all the time served.  Twenty thousand years behind bars that could have been better spent.  Thus his focus on reform.  

            The title of this reflection, Sixty Thousand Years at SIUE, comes from the aggregate sum of semesters spent in education at SIUE by students at any given time.  With something close to 14,000 students, and well over four years to graduate on average, sixty thousand also is a conservative estimate.  Sixty thousand years in classrooms that, if we as instructors do a good job, could hardly be better spent.  Thus SIUE's focus on education, and my focus on interdisciplinarity.  

            Two brief quotations explain much about Lawes.  The book opens: "I have been directed to kill lawfully one hundred and fifty men and one woman. ... My experience has convinced me of the futility of capital punishment."  And his dedication: "To those tens of thousands of my former wards who have justified my faith in human nature."  

            I'm grateful that my tasks here aren't as grave or mortal as Lawes' at Sing Sing, but I certainly take them as serious matters with the potential that all significant endeavors hold.  I'm not warden of all sixty thousand years at SIUE, or truly warden of even a single semester for that matter.  But here, and at several other institutions of higher learning, I have lawfully educated hundreds of men and women.  I'm glad to report that my experience has convinced me these efforts are not at all futile, and the students have indeed justified my faith in human nature.

            Much of Lawes' time and effort were spent trying to convince people that it was useful to combine ideas from many different fields.  Prison wardens could learn lessons from and work with law enforcement officials, educators, psychologists, physicians, social workers, economists, clergy, and anyone else whose experience may be brought to bear on the question of reforming prisoners.  Note that he didn't include anthropologists in his list of experts on human behavior – as a discipline, of course, we were concentrating on "the other" at the time.  Lawes was also a great advocate of outreach: prison wardens should learn lessons from and work with anyone whose lives were in any way affected by crime.  John Q. Public.  This includes all of us. 

            The excerpt below is Chapter XI from Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, titled "Groping . . ."  The chapter is a thought experiment in multidisciplinarity.  Lawes imagines himself at a conference of experts from different fields, trying to get them to communicate, to cooperate, to devise a synthesis that will actually help his newest ward.  I don't think I'm giving anything away when I tell you he was not completely successful.  Twenty thousand years?  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, over seven million Americans are in prison or on parole these days: more than 1 in 50 of us.  This is the highest rate of incarceration anywhere in the world.  If only our rates of education could be so startlingly high.  

            Analogies between Lawes' work, archaeology, and the environment are obvious and cliché: we are prisoners of our past, prisoners of our environment.  We risk imposing a death sentence upon ourselves.  Humanity requires environmental reform instead of punishment.  Metaphors aside, Lawes' writing is powerful and contains lessons for any field.


            The imperative of effective, successful interdisciplinary work in prison reform has never been clearer.  This is equally true for archaeology and the environmental sciences.  If we don't know where we've been environmentally, how can we tell where we're headed?  Lawes' chapter is a 75-year-old call to action that never came.  The call for interdisciplinary action in environmental issues began at least 45 years ago, with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.  Crime and the environment are both issues that affect us all, directly and indirectly.  While certain words come and go in academia, the problems they seek to address rarely do. 


(Excerpt from Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, by Warden Lewis E. Lawes, 1932.  The New Home Library, New York.)


            Four hundred thousand men and women fill our prisons and jails throughout the country; one hundred and twenty-five thousand of them in our major state and federal prisons.  Every prisoner has been tried and convicted of a criminal act.  The law decrees the manner of his atonement.  During the period of atonement he must be segregated from kith and kin.  He must do hard labor; he must become a penitent.  The theory of the law is that the convicted prisoner shall return to society straightened out in thought and vision: repentent of his sins; respectful of authority; with the desire for conformity.  The law aims still further.  It has evolved an elaborate system of procedure and penalties intended to act first as warnings and admonitions, secondly as chastisement and punishment; thirdly as reformative influences.
            Has the law attained its objectives in all or any of these purposes?  The answer is to be found in the ever-increasing number of penal and correctional institutions, and in the constantly increasing ranks of prisoners within their walls.
            What is this thing Law that brands man with the indelible insignia of shame from which he can never escape?
            Law is the process by which one section of the people tries to impose its will upon another.
            In the name of the Law, a crimson trail has established itself in the wake of our civilization.
            Law is the product of lawyers whose breath of life is precedent and tradition to which they have pinioned government in an ever tightening knot.
            Law has encased itself in lifeless tomes, in marble palaces wherein funeral garbed intellects pronounce its decrees in solemn monotony.
            Law seeks to regulate human conduct.  It is failing in its objective because it disregards and is utterly insensible of human emotions.  It has set itself up as the symbol of authority, demanding respect and obedience, not because it is just and honest but because it is the Law.  To put it more clearly, Law has lost its moral tone.  That, more than anything else, is responsible for our climbing crime rates.  
            A warden ponders on this while observing the men whom the Law has given into his care.  The wheels of justice grind unceasingly.  With each turn a new prisoner is dropped within his domain.  Who are these men?  What is their fault?  Wherein have they failed?  What to do with them?
            In the quite of my chambers, I call a meeting of shades – not ghosts – but opinions.  It is an august assembly.  The Law is there.  So also the Church, the School, and all the Sciences, Medical, Social, Mental.  All that have to do with the human mind and body.
            We are organized into a clinic.  We shall try to do our analyzing and dissecting together.  Our subject stands before us.  He has been tried by a court and found guilty of a crime.  He has been sentenced to prison.  I open the session.
            "Let us have a complete record," I suggest.  "Let us find out first who this man is.  Not merely his name and pedigree.  We want to know his thoughts, his ideals, if he has any, his views on life and its problems."
            The Law is fidgety.  Shakes its head in impatient disagreement.
            "We are not concerned with all that.  This man has broken the accepted precepts of government.  I don't care about motives, or thoughts or ideals.  He does not fit in.  He has been found guilty and deserves his punishment.  So far as I am concerned, I am through with him.  I am no longer interested."
            A chill descends upon the meeting.  The Law settles down into its seat, unconcerned with the reactions of the conference towards its view.  Cold glances are exchanged.  Each waits for the other to take the floor.  I prompt them on.
            "I believe a word or two from our colleague, the Church, might be in order."
            There is no immediate response.  The Church is meditating.  It seems to be lost in thought.  It turns its full gaze upon the subject standing before the meeting.
            "I deem myself hardly competent to discuss this situation.  I have never seen this man before.  He has never entered the portals of my sanctuary.  He was never, apparently, a regular attendant.  I might have seen his mother at services, but I could not have known of her intimate troubles.  You see, we did not have time for that sort of thing.  We have all we can do to take care of the routine of the Church organization.  It has become so large and our overhead so big.  No, I do not think I can help.
            "Now, if he were a regular communicant – But, we seem unable to get the young people to come to us."
            We progress slowly.  There is no enthusiasm.  My guests are wary.  They need coaxing.  I turn toward a complacent member of the group.  He seems well satisfied with life.  And unworried.  "How about you, School?"  I ask.  "Can we hear from you?"
            The guest rises quickly in his place.
            "I know this fellow.  He gave me quite some trouble.  He was one of our bad boys.  Was absent a great deal.  Played truant.  We had to send him to truant school.  Then he came back to us and he got into some difficulties and he was sent to a Protectory for a time.  He returned again but in a short while was sent to a Children's Home.  After a year or so he was discharged and we had him once more.  We let him go as he pleased.  We had no interest in him.  We anticipated that he would come to no good end and I am not surprised to find him here.  We hurried him through school to the eighth grade and then he dropped out of sight.  Now, I guess, he is too far gone.  There is nothing the School can do for him.  If he had attended his classes regularly and been a good boy, he would never have been here."
            School sat down with his usual complacency.  His remarks were followed by a low murmur among the rest of the group.  Each turned to his neighbor and engaged in serious conversation.  I noticed that School and Law talked with each other, wholly ignoring Church who sat between them.
            There was a sudden hush as the Doctor asked to be heard.  "I want to ask a question," he announced.
            "Has this man ever been examined for his tonsils?  Is he in perfect health?  How about his glands?  Are they functioning normally?  I would like to look him over.  I am quite sure you will find something wrong with him physically.  And if we do, I would like to correct it.  He will be rejuvenated.  You ought to give us a chance.  I am anxious to try."
            He hesitated a moment, then added: "And don't think I am looking for business.  I really want to accomplish something."
            He finished with an encouraging smile and looked hopefully toward our subject.  The rest of the meeting looked up with interest.  They gazed at the subject curiously.  I knew what was in their minds.  They would like the Doctor to try.  Perhaps those glands did not really function right.  That would relieve everybody and settle the problem at once and for all time.
            Another voice interrupted us.  It came from a youngish looking fellow in the rear of the room.  There was an enthusiastic appeal in his request for a hearing.  "May I say a word?" he asked. 
            "Surely, Mental Clinic.  We would all like to have the benefit of your observations."
            "The trouble with this man is that he has not been able to adjust himself.  He is not responsible.  A sort of moral imbecile.  Can't distinguish between right and wrong.  I think the Law is wrong.  You cannot punish or hold an irresponsible man accountable for his mistakes or crimes.  Had I been called in during his childhood I would have been able to diagnose his case and perhaps straighten him out.  As it is, it may be too late.  But I am willing to try.  But I don't want anyone else to interfere with my work.  I can handle this all alone."
            The speaker looked around at the others with a frown.  They stared back at him with answering frowns.  He shrugged his shoulders with a helpless gesture and sat down.  
            Seated in the corner was a modest gentleman.  He had not joined the others in their low and hushed comments.  He had listened carefully to all the speakers.  He made a move as though to rise, then changed his mind.  I called to him.  "Mr. Social Services, how about you?  Have you studied this man?  What do you make of him?  Let's hear from you."
            "Yes, I have given this some thought.  He is the result of inequality of opportunity.  This man never had his chance in life.  His home life was unsatisfactory.  His parents had no restraining influence on him.  He did not have the right kind of supervision or companionship.  He is without aim or purpose in life and lives only for the present.  He is the product of the slums.  Before we can do anything with him we shall have to help him change his mode of living.  I am willing, even anxious to help along, that is, if the others will help too.  I cannot work alone."
            He looked towards his hearers for an encouraging reply.  They smiled at him indulgently.  All but the stout gentleman in the opposite corner.  He seemed to be lost in thought.  I looked closer at him.  
            "Mr. Public," I called, "you are the only one left to be heard.  We shall all be glad to have your opinion."
            He sat up suddenly and then I noticed for the first time that he had been dozing.  He stared blankly around.  Then, apparently recollecting his surroundings, he looked toward me.  "I beg your pardon," he drawled, "I didn't quite catch your question."
            I repeated it for his benefit.
            "Well," he said, as he rose lumberingly to his feet.  "I don't know why I was called here anyway.  I don't know a thing about this.  I am perfectly willing to leave it all to you gentlemen.  You know I am a very busy man."
            He looked over at Law.  "I did hear what Law had to say.  I think he's right.  I don't see why we should spend so much time on this fellow.  He is just no good.  And he ought to be punished.  If you Doctors think you can do anything with him, it's all right with me.  But so far as I am concerned I'll wash my hands.  If he is a tough guy, the sooner we get rid of him the better; if he is insane, put him in an asylum; if he is just a plain boob, a sap who tried something and – " Mr. Public coughed in his hand, "and got caught, why he'll have to take the consequences."
            While he talked he hadn't looked at the man who was the subject of this discussion.  But as his voice rose in volume and assurance, the subject suddenly looked up at him, and started.  To the surprise of the meeting, he ran toward the speaker and clasped his arm.  "Dad!  What are you doing here?"
            The older man looked at the sallow-faced youth.  He swayed for a moment, and would have fallen over but for the support of his son.  
            "Bob!  I didn't know it was you.  How did you get into this mess?"  He laid his hand on the boy's shoulder and looked him over carefully.  
            "God!  But this is terrible.  Here I am, thinking all the while it was some poor boob from nowhere."
            There was anger in his voice as he turned toward the group.  His words sounded harsh and his fist swept the group of astonished faces.  
            "What are you all doing here?  Didn't you know this was my son?  Couldn't you have saved him from this disgrace?  I support all of you.  I pay your living.  I maintain your courts and judges, I pay fees to lawyers, and doctors, and contribute toward the upkeep of the Church.  I pay enormous school bills.  I give to charity.  What do you all give me in return?"
            He paused for breath.  Then he turned towards his son.  "Come, lad, I'll take you home with me."
            I walked over toward Mr. Public and his son.  "Sorry," I said.  "He can't go home.  He will have to stay here with me until his term is ended.  But you may rest easy.  I'll take good care of him.  I shall see that he leads a clean life.  He will be taught a trade.  We shall guide his reading and encourage him to play.  We shall have him tell us of the things that trouble his mind and weigh upon his heart.  After all, Mr. Public, you had your chance and threw it away.  The Law has had its opportunity.  The Church likewise.  So has the School.  They have all failed.  Perhaps, together, we can find a way."
            The father took hold of my hand and clasped it firmly.  He walked slowly away and out of the room.  Simultaneously the group vanished.  I was left alone.
            Four hundred thousand sons.  Four hundred thousand fathers.  Four hundred thousand mothers.  A million brothers and sisters.  They come and go.  Today it is Mr. Jones'; tomorrow Mr. Smith's.  The next day it is yours.  Another day it may be mine.  Breaks, temptations, accidents, situations . . .