Tag Archives: University Press Week

What Prisoners Tell Us: The Making of Concrete Mama

Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla, by Ethan Hoffman and John McCoy, won the Washington State Book Award in 1981 for its stark, sympathetic portrayal of life inside the maximum-security prison. The University of Washington Press is publishing a new edition of the book, long out of print but as relevant as ever.

McCoy was recently interviewed by prison scholar Dan Berger, who wrote the book’s new introduction, in Berger’s class at the University of Washington Bothell. For University Press Week, here are some edited highlights from the interview about our neighbors behind bars.


DAN BERGER: Why did you decide to write about the prison?

JOHN MCCOY: My first glimpse of the penitentiary was as a cub newspaper reporter at the Walla Walla Union Bulletin. At that time—this was 1977—the State Penitentiary was ending a reform experiment in which prisoners were allowed a fair amount of autonomy inside the walls and allowed outside furloughs. The theory was that the more contact that prisoners have with the outside world, the better the chances are that they can be safely returned to society. But this reform project was failing. I wondered why.

So you and Ethan Hoffman, a photographer at the paper, quit your newspaper jobs to do a book on the penitentiary?

The guard in 9-tower, his rifle ready, watches as new prisoners arrive “on the chain,” a bus that carries them shackled from the state corrections reception center in Shelton.

Yes. Ethan and I spent four months in the fall and winter of 1978-79 inside the prison. We were allowed to come in as early as 5:00 in the morning and stay as late as 10:00 p.m. We were unescorted, which was absolutely crucial. If we walked around with a guard, we were not going to get any information from prisoners. Then, towards the end of our time there, we spent some time with guards, which was interesting, because some prisoners who had talked to us earlier ceased talking to us. It’s a very polarized world inside prison.

How did you approach doing the book?

As journalists. Ethan and I were not prison experts. We simply wanted to photograph and report on what we saw inside the walls. Here’s what prisoners tell us. Here’s what their day-to-day life is like depending on whether they’re tough or vulnerable, men or women, black, white, or brown. Here’s what the Parole Board members say. Here’s what the warden says. Here’s the guards.

Besides the warden, did you have to talk to others to get access?

Not to get access—but politically, I had to talk to the head of the guards’ union and the prisoners who served on the Resident Council, the elected representatives of the general population.

One thing that helped pave our way with prisoners was Ethan’s decision to give anyone who asked a nice 8-by-10-inch black-and-white portrait photo of themselves. So Ethan had guys posing with weights, stripped to the waist, displaying all their tattoos. He took pictures of whatever they wanted, but one picture only. And in return, they signed a release form that said we could use these pictures in the book. Ethan spent a lot of nights in the darkroom because prisoners wanted quick results. Nonetheless, the decision created a lot of goodwill and gave us great access.

Kim, right, spends time with Leomy, his “inside lady” and a member of Men Against Sexism, a club popular with prison gays and queens.

At this time, there were all kinds of areas that were off limits to guards. So, in order to enter these areas, we had to have either the president of the Lifers’ Club, or the Chicano Club, or the Meditation Group, or Men Against Sexism, or some other prison leader, either accompany or approve us. We had to tread cautiously. If we got crosswise with any particular group, we would be out of there, or we could have caused harm to ourselves. There were certainly some tense situations with both prisoners and guards.

Could you describe an average day in those four months you were there?

Prisoners were locked in their cells overnight. The day began with morning chow, about 7:00, for the general population—those not confined in the segregation unit or in protective custody.

Prisoners were released by tiers and walked to the chow hall—an ugly, cold brick building with a lot of cold metal tables and metal serving trays. Sometimes there were fights in the chow hall, or food was thrown, and guards intervened.

Some prisoners spend hours playing dominoes in the black prisoners’ club room.

After chow, most prisoners had nothing to do. There were certainly not enough jobs to employ even a minority of the 1,400 prisoners. So they were free to go back to their cells or wander the breezeways. There was recreation time in the gym, the weight room, and the Big Yard, where prisoners played baseball, card games, and smoked weed. On occasion, the bikers were permitted to race their motorcycles around the inside perimeter. There was also a limited education program—which soon ended when the Legislature withdrew funding—in which prisoners could complete their GED or get community college credits or university credits. Occasionally, there were movies or shows in the auditorium.

Some prisoners hung out at their private club rooms. Although you could get an infraction for smoking weed, it was basically tolerated. And there was heroin and other drugs smuggled in from outside.

You could work if you could find a job in the kitchen, chow hall, laundry, license plate shop, or elsewhere. Pay was pitiful—a few cents an hour. The primary advantage of a job was access to things you could steal and then exchange or sell.

Lockup in the evening came early, right after dinner, unless you had a permit to be out for work or prison business.

Because most of the population spent most of their time in four-man, 10-by-12-foot cells, your cellmates were very important. The Resident Council ostensibly helped prisoners find compatible cellmates. But there were powerful guys in the prison who really controlled the cells. Often, you had to buy a cell. Sometimes you’d get a cell equipped with a television, a nice mattress, and so on, but you paid for that. And you paid for that with money, drugs, sex, cigarettes, pruno—which is prison-brewed liquor—or other things.

What did you expect to find at the prison and did you find it?

First of all, we knew it was a good and unexpected story. Look, these guys are in motorcycle gangs, and they’re in prison, and they’re racing their Harleys? We knew Ethan could get fabulous pictures. I mean, a sweat lodge—I’d never been to a sweat lodge before, and certainly not one inside a prison. A casino night at the Chicano Club. There were transgender or cross-dressing dancers. There was sex, there was drugs. So, without making a judgment call, we had to ask: What’s happening here? And why?

“Nert,” left, and “Kickstand” are bikers, cellmates and tattoo enthusiasts.

Our hope was to do a fair, balanced, and accurate account of life inside a state penitentiary—a notorious state penitentiary, perhaps—at a time in which hard questions continued to be asked about the purpose of prison.

How do you know you got at the truth?

Ethan had it easier, because photos don’t lie. I had to pursue multiple sources. Sometimes I heard prisoners explain their crimes and protest their innocence in ways that were preposterous. Fortunately, a helpful prison trustee was willing to share confidential records with me. And a prison attorney was quietly willing to access court records for me. I was able to verify prison stories and eventually developed a pretty good BS detector.

How did the experience of those four months in the prison affect you?

I went away humbled by the experience. I left with the strong feeling that this is really a destructive place. It’s destructive for those who are there, both keepers and the kept. It’s dangerous. It does little to help people adjust to the real world. In fact, it destroys a lot of prisoners’ chances of having a successful transition.

And it picks on the poor, the less educated, and the mentally ill. Incarcerated people are disproportionally poor and minorities. They have unaddressed behavioral issues; learning issues; addiction issues. Their keepers, at Walla Walla and prisons elsewhere, tend to be disproportionally white, rural, with a high school education, often veterans, and with limited understanding of those they are charged with “correcting.”

Why is Concrete Mama relevant 40 years later?

Ed Mead, a founder of the radical George Jackson Brigade and a Marxist revolutionary serving time for armed assault on a bank, is confined to the “intensive segregation unit” commonly known as “the hole.”

For two reasons: First, prison life doesn’t change much. Prisoners spend most of their time caged. They have little to do. They band together for protection and personal gain. And they generally leave prison more alienated and damaged than when they came in. As a result, two-thirds of them return.

Secondly, starting in the early 1970s, Washington State had tried to reform its prisons by emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment. That meant giving prisoners a good deal of autonomy with the expectation that if they could make something of themselves inside, they could be successful on the outside. For a variety reasons, it was a failure. Ethan and I were there as the experiment finally fell apart. But you have to ask, what have we done since?


John A. McCoy is the author of A Still and Quiet Conscience, a biography of Seattle Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen. He was a reporter and editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and has taught writing courses at the University of Washington-Tacoma and Seattle University.

Dan Berger is associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, and an interdisciplinary historian focusing on critical prison studies. He is the author of several books, including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, and coauthor most recently of Rethinking the American Prison Movement.

To learn more about Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla or to buy your copy of the book, click here.

#UPWeek 2017 Blog Tour: Libraries and Librarians Helping Us All #LookItUP

We’re now approaching the end of the sixth annual University Press Week 2017 and UP Week Blog Tour! Thank you and our university press colleagues for celebrating the value of our books and expertise of our authors with this year’s theme, #LookItUP: Knowledge Matters.

Each day this week university presses blogged about why facts, knowledge, and expertise matter. Today’s final day of posts explores how libraries, librarians, and university presses work together to promote scholarship.

Catch up on all of the posts from the UP Week Blog Tour and see you on social media with the #LookItUP and #ReadUP hashtags!

Friday: Libraries and Librarians Helping Us All #LookItUP

University of Missouri Press
The Lanford Wilson Collection at MU Libraries Special Collections and Rare Books

University of Nebraska Press
Introducing Lincoln’s Most Passionate Reader

University Press of Florida
Q&A with Digital Scholarship Librarian Laurie Taylor on New Open Books Series

University of Georgia Press
Librarians are our First Line of Defense against Fake News

University of Alabama Press
University Press Week: Knowledge Matters – Q&A with Associate Dean for Research and Technology Tom Wilson

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#UPWeek 2017 Blog Tour: #TwitterStorm

Welcome back to the sixth annual University Press Week 2017 and day four of the UP Week Blog Tour. We are thrilled to join fellow university presses to celebrate the value of our books and expertise of our authors with this year’s theme, #LookItUP: Knowledge Matters.

Each day this week university presses will be blogging about why facts, knowledge, and expertise matter. Today’s theme is #TwitterStorm, and features posts about how social media has contributed to the success of university press initiatives, titles, and scholarship.

Check back tomorrow for the final posts from the UP Week Blog Tour and join on social media with the #LookItUP and #ReadUP hashtags!

Thursday: #TwitterStorm

Harvard University Press
Social Media and Scholarship (and Impeachment)

Johns Hopkins University Press
Make Your Voice Heard in 2017’s Town Square: Tips to Effectively Participate in the Twitter Conversation

Athabasca University Press
University Press Week Blog Tour 2017: Making Publishing Visible

Beacon Press
Social Media’s Role in Lifting Up “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too” (University Press Week 2017)

#UPWeek 2017 Blog Tour: Producing the Books that Matter

Welcome back to the sixth annual University Press Week 2017 and day three of the UP Week Blog Tour. We are thrilled to join other university presses to celebrate the value of our books and expertise of our authors with this year’s theme, #LookItUP: Knowledge Matters.

Each day this week university presses will be blogging about why facts, knowledge, and expertise matter. Today’s theme is Producing the Books that Matter, and features pieces focusing on how editorial, production, and design help books succeed.

Check back throughout the week for more posts from the UP Week Blog Tour and join on social media with the #LookItUP and #ReadUP hashtags!

Wednesday: Producing the Books that Matter

University of Kansas Press
Producing Books that Matter; University Press Week, 2017

University of California Press
ASA, Interdisciplinary Associations, and American Studies Now

Georgetown University Press
UPWeek Blog Tour: Producing Books that Matter

UBC Press
Exciting times, indeed, but also nerve-wracking: UBC Press’ foray into trade publishing

University of Michigan Press
“Academic Ableism” Author Interview-Part 1

Fordham University Press
UP Week! Producing the Books that Matter

Yale University Press
Decoding the Voynich Manuscript

MIT Press
University Press Week: Inspired to be Resolutely Disobedient

#UPWeek 2017 Blog Tour: Scholarship Making a Difference and Selling the Facts

Happy sixth annual University Press Week 2017! We are thrilled to take part in this year’s UP Week Blog Tour and join other university presses to celebrate the value of our books and expertise of our authors with this year’s theme, #LookItUP: Knowledge Matters.

Each day this week university presses will be blogging about why facts, knowledge, and expertise matter. Monday featured posts about Scholarship Making a Difference. Today’s theme is Selling the Facts, and features posts from bookstores, booksellers, and other university press sales staff on selling books in today’s political climate or as a form of activism.

Check back throughout the week for more posts from the UP Week Blog Tour and join on social media with the #LookItUP and #ReadUP hashtags!

Monday: Scholarship Making a Difference

Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Why University Presses Matter by Daniel Heath Justice

Temple University Press
Celebrating University Press Week: Scholarship Making a Difference

Wayne State University Press
#UPWeek: Scholarship Makes a Difference

University Press of Colorado
Tools for Surviving in a Post-Truth World

Princeton University Press
University Press Week: Scholarship Makes a Difference

Oregon State University Press
Scholarship Making a Difference: The Alternate Route for Nuclear Disarmament

George Mason University Press
Playfair and the search for elusive truth

Cambridge University Press
The Struggle for Equality, Recognition and Reward

University of Toronto Press
Part 1: The Power of History to Galvanize and Energize
Part 2: Winning Hearts and Minds: Publishing that Matters

University of Washington Press
From the Desk of the Director: Knowledge and Facts Matter

Tuesday: Selling the Facts

University of Minnesota Press
#UPWeek: Knowing the Facts.

University of Texas Press
Selling the Facts in Independent Bookstores

University of Hawai`i Press
#LookItUP: Free Speech and the Media in UHP Journals

Johns Hopkins University Press
Ivy Bookshop: Selling the Facts and Serving the Community

Duke University Press
Selling the Facts: Sales Manager Jennifer Schaper Reports from the Frankfurt Book Fair

Columbia University Press
A Field Guide to Engaging with the World through Bookstores

University Press of Kentucky
At What Cost: Selling Books in the Age of Trump

University of Toronto Press
Selling the Books that Matter: Experiences of a Higher Ed Sales Rep

UP Staff Spotlight: Niccole Leilanionapae‘āina Coggins on community and food sovereignty

Today is UP Staff Spotlight day on the 2016 University Press Week blog tour. The fifth annual University Press Week of the American Association of University Presses (AAUP) continues all week (November 14 – 19, 2016) with the theme Community. Today’s blog tour posts feature staffers making good and doing interesting things in their local communities. Please share this and today’s other posts on social media with the #ReadUP and #UPWeek hashtags:

upweek2016_logosmallUniversity of Chicago Press

Johns Hopkins University Press

University Press of Mississippi

Seminary Co-op Bookstores

Wayne State University Press

University of Wisconsin Press

Our UP Staff Spotlight contribution to the #UPWeek blog tour offers a guest post from 2016-2017 Mellon University Press Diversity Fellow and assistant editor, Niccole Leilanionapae’aina Coggins.

Niccole Coggins staff news photoOn October 26, I attended a talk entitled, “hishuk’ish tsawalk—Everything Is One:  Revitalizing Nuu-chah-nulth Foodways and Ecological Knowledge,” by Dr. Charlotte Coté, Associate Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington. Professor Coté’s lecture was about her community, the Nuu-chah-nulth-aht, and their history of colonialism and imperialism, as well as their resistance and revival. One way that communities, and indigenous communities in particular, resist colonialism and imperialism is through food sovereignty. The Nyéléni Declaration (2007) defines food sovereignty as, “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustained methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

Coté spoke of her mother teaching her to explore and try various wild plants—minus mushrooms—like qaalh qawi (wild blackberry), may’ii (salmonberry shoots), and quilhtsuup (wild celery), even t’uts’up (sea urchin) from the ocean. Coté shared stories of her aunt going blackberry picking; the family women fishing, in the traditional way, with a net for the first time, and the buckets of salmon they caught, and the hours it took to smoke (and how good salmon jerky is). Coté also talked about her community reclaiming traditional ways of fishing and preparing salmon, kuch’as (salmon cooked over an open pit fire); and reviving the tradition of a whale hunt and the environmentalists that protested.

As Coté talked I started thinking about other communities, especially those in “food deserts,” where it’s hard to access affordable, healthy, quality food, in particular fruits and vegetables. My cousin worked at the Kaiser Permanente Center in Watts where, with the leadership of the community, a weekly farmer’s market occurs. Other KP centers adopted similar programs to access locally grown produce.

I thought about my family and the blackberry bush behind gramma’s house. My aunts and uncles gathering to eat from the bounty of the ocean:  fish, ‘opihi (Hawaiian limpet), limu (seaweed), and wana (sea urchin).

I thought about the colonialism that changed Native Hawaiians’ relationship with food and language. Food was sacred before the missionaries arrived and made food secular. Since then words associated with food do not carry the same weight of sacredness as before. The literal translation of the word hānai (foster child) is “to feed.” When food is sacred, the relationship you have with that person is sacred and carries weight. It circles back to Coté’s talk about food sovereignty, and responsibility and relationships.

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Throwback Thursday: Exploring 100 Years of UW Press History

UPW-Logo-2015It’s Throwback Thursday (#TBT) on the University Press Week blog tour. The fourth annual University Press Week of the American Association of University Presses (AAUP) continues all week (November 8-14, 2015). The University of Washington Press and more than forty other presses are participating in this year’s blog tour, which highlights the continuing value and relevance of university presses in academia and the world at large: Project MUSE celebrates its 20th anniversary. University of Minnesota Press highlights materials for its 90th birthday. University of Chicago Press throws back with a letter from 1991, the year the PDF was founded. University of Manitoba Press pulls from their 48 years of publishing. Duke University Press showcases surprising journal covers. University of Texas Press looks back through the lens of street photographer Mark Cohen. University of Michigan Press explores the evolution of their book Michigan Trees. University Press of Kansas ties in relevant books with “Today in History.” Minnesota Historical Society Press features Mike Evangelist’s Downtown: Minneapolis in the 1970s. University of California Press reflects on the 2010 publication of Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1. University of Toronto Press Journals looks at cover designs over the years. Fordham University Press takes a trip through NYC’s unbuilt subway system.

Since 2015 marks the kickoff of our centenary celebrations, our Throwback Thursday (#TBT) contribution to the #UPWeek blog tour offers a brief history of the University of Washington Press through highlights from each decade. Happy 100 years, UW Press!

1915-1924

The University of Washington Press traces its origins to the first book published by the university, Edmund Meany’s Governors of Washington, Territorial and State in 1915. Five years later, the University of Washington Press publishes The Poems of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, edited by Frederick M. Padelford, under its own imprint.

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