Norman Carlson: A Leader in Modern Day Corrections and A Man I Greatly Admired Has Died

(8-11-20) I am sad to report that Norman Carlson, who served as director of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) from 1970 to 1987, died Sunday at the Mayo Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Yesterday would have been his 87th birthday, his daughter, Cindy Gustafson, told me in an email. He died from aggressive lymphoma.

I first met and came to greatly admire Mr. Carlson in the mid-1980s while working as a reporter for The Washington Post and later when I spent time interviewing him for several days at his former home in Minnesota about his career for my bestselling book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison.

He was regarded as one of the best federal managers in Washington and a leader in modern day corrections. He was also a remarkable man.

In a biography of Mr. Carlson, entitled A Model of Correctional Leadership: The Career of Norman A. Carlson, author Clemens Bartollas noted that he’d interviewed 80 individuals who knew Mr. Carlson well. The interviewees “in one way or the other, reported the same message – it was a honor to work for and with this individual: he was a remarkable human being, an amazing leader, and a great man,” Bartollas wrote.

Mr. Carlson looked exactly like what one would expect of a prison warden. Tall with broad shoulders, he had close cropped hair and no nonsense demeanor. But the harsh stereotypes that usually accompany that image belied a basic goodness in him. I remember during our first meeting when he explained to me that it was not the BOP’s job to punish inmates. Punishment was removal from society as ordered by a judge and courts. A correctional officer was responsible for keeping an inmate safe, locked up, and given what he/she was due.

Before Carlson took charge as director, the federal prison system was a series of fiefdoms each operated by an all powerful warden who tended to do whatever he wanted and much of that was not good. Much like McDonalds changed fast food by standardizing menus, quality and service, Carlson unified the bureau and introduced and enforced high standards of employee conduct and services.

As part of his drive for professionalism, he encouraged his employees to see themselves as “correctional officers” not guards. Prison assistant wardens were expected to wear suits and ties, and told to make themselves available by standing “mainline.” Each day during the noon meal, all a prison’s senior officials were required to stand in the dining hall while inmates ate. This provided inmates an opportunity to talk to staff members without being accused of being a snitch. In the old days, convicts always went in pairs to speak to a prison official. This enabled them to vouch for each other when they returned to the cell house, thus assuring other inmates that neither had snitched. Now because convicts could walk up to a prison official in the dining hall and talk in full sight of everyone, there was no need for a witness. If others suspected an inmate of snitching, they could walk up beside him and overhear what he was saying to staff. There was another more subtle reason for standing mainline. It was a reminder that despite the fact that the staff was vastly outnumbered and completely unarmed, they were in charge.

Shortly after being named director, Carlson disciplined officers who’d beaten an inmate, sending a clear message that he had zero tolerance for prisoner abuse.

Another managerial hallmark of his tenure was cleanliness and order. Mr. Carlson viewed a dirty prison as a sign of poor management, consequently floors were highly polished and walls kept painted. One legendary story described how a warden in the Northeast had his staff sprinkle flour on freshly fallen snow before the director’s visit because some of the snow had turned muddy and brown. The warden in Leavenworth, when I spent a year there, cleared everything – including his phone – off the top of his desk before leaving each night.

Mr. Carlson regularly visited prisons, often with his family, and insisted on eating with prisoners, to show that the food was good enough for his own family.

Murder of Two Officers Tested Director

Mr. Carlson was tested several times during his directorship, but I came to believe that no event caused him more personal anguish than what happened October 22, 1983 in Marion, Illinois, then the highest security federal prison in the nation. Officer Merle Eugene Clutts was ambushed and stabbed to death inside the prison by inmate Thomas Silverstein, a reputed member of the Aryan Brotherhood, after a personal animas developed between them. Eight hours after Officer Clutts was murdered, Silverstein’s friend and fellow AB gang member, Clayton Fountain, fatally stabbed Officer Robert L. Hoffman Sr.. reportedly yelling that he hadn’t wanted Silverstein to get ahead of him when it came to “dead bodies.”

Never before in the history of the federal prison system had two officers been murdered on the same day in the same prison. At the time, there was no federal death penalty for federal prisons who’d murdered officers, so Mr. Carlson announced an entirely new level of punishment to discourage assaults. It was known inside the BOP as “no human contact status” and was intended to completely cut off both Silverstein and Fountain from the outside world. The two inmates were given only the necessities required by law – 2,400 to 2,800 calories per day and a 70 to a 100 foot cell. Silverstein, whom I interview in 1987 and later corresponded with until his death in May 2019, spent the first six months of “no human contact status” dressed only in boxers and an empty cell with the lights on 24 hours per day with no outside communication.

Mr. Carlson took the deaths of the two officers personally. “It shook him deeply,” a friend of his confided to me.

Carlson told me several times that he had no choice but to isolate Silverstein because the inmate had committed two brutal murders in Marion before killing Officer Clutts while Fountain, another convicted murderer, had repeatedly assaulted staff. That double killing and Mr. Carlson’s response to it lead to the creation of the BOP’s “Super Max” penitentiary in Florence, where the so-called “worst of the worst” are housed under the bureau’s most stringent conditions. States began creating their own Super Max prisons following the federal governments actions.

His job came with risks. At one point, gun shots were fired into his Virginia suburban house and his office received frequent threats.

Inmate Suggested Carlson Join the BOP

Mr. Carlson was 24 years- old and working as an officer at the Iowa State Penitentiary while earning a Master’s Degree in criminology when an inmate suggested in 1957 that he join the federal BOP because it was more progressive. Following that advice, Mr. Carlson was hired at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas a few months later. He moved to the BOP’s central office in Washington D.C. in 1960 and in 1970, he replaced Myrl E. Alexander as BOP director during the Nixon administration.

Established in 1930, the federal BOP had only three directors prior to Mr. Carlson. His immediate two predecessors, James V. Bennett and Alexander, had been avid reformers. Bennett had become convinced during his 27 years as director that it was possible for prisoners to be rehabilitated and he’d endorsed the “medical model of rehabilitation” that declared a criminal was “sick” and,  just like a person who was physically ill, could be “cured.” During the 1960s, Bennett had the bureau test inmates upon admission to determine if their criminal behavioral was based on a lack of education, a bad home environment, no job skills or poor self-image, and then calculated how many hours of education, vocational training, and psychotherapy an inmate would have to compete to be “cured.” Bennett retired in 1964 and Alexander was forced by poor health to retire six years later.

If Bennett had been the bureau’s idealistic reformer hoping to cure inmates, Mr. Carlson quickly became its pragmatic administrator. Only 36 years old when he was put in charge, Mr. Carlson abandoned the “medical model” by 1975, telling me during an interview, “None of the (rehabilitation) programs in themselves was a failure. The failure was that we assumed there would be a magical cure for crime and delinquency. We have to divorce ourselves from the notion that we can change human behavior, that we have the power to change inmates. We don’t. All we can do is provide opportunities for inmates who want to change.”

Under his leadership, Carlson shifted emphasis and focused on modernizing the bureau, changing it from Bennett’s one man dynasty into a solidly run and effective non political bureaucracy during his tenure. He divided it into five regions and delegated much of his authority to regional directors who then formed his executive staff. Despite tremendous opposition, he launched an aggressive construction program (Bennett had closed and stopped construction of new prisons arguing they weren’t necessary because inmate numbers would fall once the medical model was implemented). Mr. Carlson added twenty new prisons, nearly doubling the existing number at the time, to ease overcrowding. He implemented better training and higher standards. He created a stepladder prison system that ranked prisons from one to six based on the dangerousness of the inmates sent there. (States quickly followed his example.) He required his managers to frequently move, in some cases every three years, to avoid them staying too long in one facility, and he demanded they retire at age 55 – a fate he applied to himself despite efforts by others to extend his tenure.

Family Man With Deep Roots

In a New York Times profile of Mr. Carlson published on March 26th, 1970, shortly after he was named director, his predecessor, Myrl Alexander, was quoted saying:

“He’s (Carlson) a tall Swede who works hard day and night, who came out of a typical Scandinavian family, went to a Swedish-Lutheran school, and was raised in Iowa under the Swedish influence of strong family ties.”

The article continued:

“Norman Albert Carlson was born on Aug. 10, 1933, in Sioux City, Iowa, the second of two children. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. A. N. Carlson, still live there. He attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and received a degree in sociology in 1955. In 1957, he received a master’s degree in criminology from the University of Iowa.  He married his college sweetheart, the former Patricia Musser, in 1956. They live in the Washington suburb of Springfield, Va., with their children, Gary and Cindy.

Mr. Carlson is an avid golfer who shoot in the 90’s and frequently goes to the links with his co-workers on Saturdays.

His neighbors describe Mr. Carlson as a friendly person whose life revolves around the old American virtues found in the home, the church and work. A weekly routine for Mr. Carlson and a neighbor is to gather up their children and go to a nearby gymnasium, where they play volley ball or basketball with the youngsters.

When a new family moved into the neighborhood recently, Mr. Carlson organized a dinner party for the new comers and invited all the neighbors to his house, a gesture that may be increasingly unusual in an impersonal America but far from surprising to the friends of Norman Carlson.

Mr. Carlson was President of the American Correctional Association from 1978 to 1980 and after retiring from the BOP was the Adjunct Professor for the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota for 11 years (1987–98). In 1978, he was awarded the Roger W. Jones Award for Executive Leadership for his leadership in the training of federal government managers and executives and in his organizational abilities. After his first wife passed in 1994, Mr. Carlson married Phyllis Ideker and eventually settled in Arizona. She died in September 2019.

The reason why I came to admire Mr. Carlson was because he was honest, didn’t care about politics, and despite his skill as a manager and leader, always presented himself as a regular guy without ego even though he did more to improve corrections in our nation than anyone else in recent memory.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.