Frank Elli discusses his time as a prisoner and his novel "The Riot"
BROADCAST: 1968 | DURATION: 00:45:16
Begins with a reading by Frank Eli from the opening of the book "The Riot." Mr. Elli discusses his early life, his time in three different prisons, and the writing of his book "The Riot," a personal account of a riot in Walla Walla Prison. (Note: last 5 minutes missing)
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Williams.
Frank Elli "On the surface it was a lazy Monday morning in a state penitentiary. The only motion in sight was smoke spiraling from the towering [Parros?] chimney and gliding over the southeast gun tower. The only sound in the air was the listless drone of machinery. It was early. The 30-foot east wall still shaded the lawn in front of Cellhouse Eight. But it was hot, the glowering July sun was already swallowing the 22 walled-in acres of earth."
Studs Terkel And, thus, a novel begins--a most unusual one, a remarkable one indeed, called The Riot, and the author is reading it, Frank Elli, our guest this morning, and this is the Coward-McCann award-winning novel of the year 1967. What's remarkable isn't so much the book itself, the writing, the description, but the author too, because Frank Elli has been there. He's been there and gone. Frank, you yourself, this is a book--you start reading, it's a certain day when a riot takes place at a prison, and this you know well, because you've been away in San Quentin, Walla Walla, and where's Stillwater?
Frank Elli The past 20 years I've been inside 17, so, and this novel is, is actually based on an experience that I went through in the state of Washington. Walla Walla. The characters are fictitious, and a few of the incidents are, but basically the novel is a riot, a two-day riot in a maximum security prison.
Studs Terkel What impressed me about your book, Frank, is it's not only people behind bars in a prison, but it seems as though there are people outside, too. You know, there was a riot. Something happened. They--there was a certain sadistic guy you call Andy Gump. And he made a mistake in opening the door, a door was opened, we grabbed him. And so a number of hostages, and suddenly the guys who are--have had no freedom, the prisoners, suddenly find they have power over someone else who had power over them.
Frank Elli And what you said at the beginning there, is I think it boils down to these people happen to be convicts, and in this convict society there are values and they conform to them. To most of them.
Studs Terkel But those values they conform to--you know there's a, there's a fellow who's been on the program before, Jimmy Blake, who's a writer who's been a con for a long time, most of his life in Southern prisons. And Jimmy Blake's observation is that life on a prison to him is like life in a town outside too, the same kind of hierarchy, the same kind of different status symbols. Do you find this the case, Frank?
Frank Elli Yes. The type of con that does what is called in prison "does his own time," he doesn't bother himself with what the other guy is doing. He's in there on usually a thieving rap, burglary or robbery, maybe forgery. He's more or less in the "in group." When another con does something, he looks over there and he sees that this guy, he does it right in front of him because he's not worried about him, he's one of the boys. And then, I'd say, in a lower social status is a. is a sex crime, and these guys are looked at kind of weird and the average con wonders, the thief, wonders why they aren't put in a hospital instead of in our city, you know, in our town. And then you have just the oddball that just can't adjust to this prison life, just like a, a parolee getting out finds it pretty tough to adjust to his life out here, because of different values, and that's about this.
Studs Terkel Well, you know, as Frank Elli is talking, you would think he's talking, and he, I think he is talking about life itself, our own life, the life of the non-convict. When I say the non-convict, this is not meant in any self-righteous way. Someone who has not been sent to prison, but the same status symbols, the in group, the out group, a snobbism, all this applies, does it not, there to own values?
Frank Elli Oh yeah. In fact, when you first go into a prison, and I've been in, in four prisons, say you don't know anyone to begin with. Well, most of the time, if you've been around, you run into somebody you know from another prison, but say you just hit there cold, you don't really know anyone. So the first night around, you sort of sense who your guys are, and maybe somebody'll come up, you'll notice the over-friendly guy and then you're suspicious. You wonder how come he, you know, here you find out he's been there a year or two, how come he hasn't got his clickers, why is he coming up to a stranger and you shy away because you think what kind of a rap is this guy in on and you don't ask him questions right away, and then pretty soon you run into one of your guys and he says, "Well, I saw you talking on the yard last night with that creep," this guy's in for that, and forget it. I don't know if he's a stoolie, but he could be, you know, and he just sort of starts falling in. And you, once you're used to it from another prison, you finally start, you know, you get back into it again. And this is a, a society that you know, that you more or less feel comfortable in, rather than the one when they open the door maybe five years later and walk out, you're walking out into a, a society that has different values really, and you feel sort of uncomfortable around these people. And the, and the sad part is, before you get to feel comfortable around these people, you usually do something to violate a parole and you're right back where you started from again. And you can get on this merry-go-round, in prison you'll see a lot of guys that have, build up in and out 25 years. You know? That's a lifetime.
Studs Terkel Before I ask about the, go further into the book itself, The Riot, the Coward-McCann, about Frank Elli, how you became the writer. This is interesting. The realization, now you spent time in San Quentin. You spent time in Walla, Walla, Washington, which is the basis of the book where a riot similar to this took place, and in Stillwater, Minnesota, and somewhere someone said about a certain psychic revelation. One day you recognized something, right?
Frank Elli Yes. Now, I don't know if you can imagine how I felt, but I was 34 years old. I had a ten to 80-year sentence, and I hit Stillwater. Now, Stillwater was sort of a different prison than I had been in before, it was a, a real maximum security prison. And right away I sensed there wasn't this comradeship among certain guys, you know. Well, I came in at noon, and cons' general population was in a main mess hall, so I was taken into the rear of a cellblock. And it was in this part of cellblock where the old lifers that were too old and infirm to work were kept. And these men were 60 and in their 70s, and you know, they gathered around a table. How much time did you bring in with you and all that, and they start pointing out guys to me that had been in there anywhere from 35 to 48 years. And here's this one old guy groping his way along a cell, he's blind, and he was pointed out to me he's got 48 years in here. And gee, I don't know, it just hit me a real weird feeling that I had a ten to 80, I was 34 years old, I knew that I would be paroled sooner or later and I'd probably be in my early 40s when this happened, and that another jolt could put me in the same boat. And that really hit me. Then I remember either it was the first or second night, they keep you sort of segregated when you're first in until they get you processed and everything. And the man came along with the library catalog, and I went through the library catalog and wondering what I could get out of this library catalog, that would somehow or another change my direction once I left that front gate. And I came across these books on how to write, and there were quite a few of them because an outside group, the Minneapolis Writers Workshop used to come in and meet with an inside group called the Ink Weavers, and they had donated these books.
Frank Elli Uh-huh. So I just filled my library card with the numbers of all these books and started reading them. And I think it was about four months later, I used to go up to this Ink Weavers group and I'd listen to the stuff, you know, you get to read your stuff and have it criticized, and I used to listen 'til I thought, gee, what is this guy doing in prison, he sounds like--everything's sounding like Hemingway or someone, you know, real great, because I had never written before and never thought of being
Frank Elli No. Never. Maybe a letter or two, and that amounted to it, yes. So finally it was Christmastime and they have an annual Christmas story contest called the O. Henry Christmas Contest, and I wrote a short story about a skid row character who, the bars close early on Christmas Eve, he fell asleep in a bar room, and when he woke up the place was closed and there he was, all alone with all this booze. And he had a couple of drinks, and he starts feeling lonely, he called the boys from the flophouse down, and they had a little party, Christmas Eve. Well, finally they got loud. The police were called or notified about this party going on, well, this guy had passed out again and he was back in a booth sleeping, and anyway he misses the pinch again and winds up with the owner giving him a bottle of whiskey because he thinks that he had just come in instead of which he was just leaving. [cough] Pardon me. Anyway, this won that story contest and it was like the Pulitzer Prize to me, I remember, you know, and I think I wrote every night I was in prison after that. I had to, after about three and a half years on my own, I had what I thought a completed novel and about 200,000 words in another, and I was sort of lost in the story. I applied for a correspondence course because at that time General Mills had granted the University of Minnesota a -- money for correspondence courses for men in prison, state prison. And this Professor Alford who I, who I have dedicated my book to, was the instructor. Well, I didn't have the prerequisites for this course but I sent him a short story, one of my short stories, and he accepted me. And then during this course one of the lessons called for first person--or, 300 words on a personal experience. And I wrote about this riot that I had been sort of involved in, in Washington, and he suggested in his little note back that I develop this into a novel. Well, I finished that course, started to go back to work on a book I was writing on, or had been writing on, and was still lost. So I applied for another course in a novel. Well, the University of Minnesota didn't have one, but Professor Alford said that he would get me a course and he got me one on playwriting, and he said, "You write your novel," which I did and I finished it about two months before my parole board appearance. I was paroled, took the novel out with me and I went right from--I had never met Professor Alford, in fact, at the time I was released he and his family were in California on Christmas vacation, but he had it fixed so that the key to his house was turned over to me, and I went from a cage in prison to a 12-room home on, on Kenwood Parkway and I was all alone in the place. Kind of sweated it out, too, 'cause it was around Christmastime and there were some burglaries in that area. People had gone down to Florida and California and I thought, well, if the place got knocked over while I am there, not a very good setup, you know. But I met Professor Alford after he came back, and he's really a great guy.
Frank Elli Right.
Studs Terkel Unless there was another way, there--you were looking for another way of life, and out of it came your readings and then the correspondence with Professor Alford and finally his house and this book.
Frank Elli Well, see, also, never before had I done much reading in the other prisons. I was always on some other kick. Health kick, working out, boxing, things like that or, or in Walla Walla I was putting out baseball, football, basketball tickets you know, betting, and through this reading, you, you, you do a little thinking then, you know? So I more or less came to the conclusion that this was it, there was no life hereafter, and where was I going to spend mine, in a cage? And I thought I wanted something out of life, and it wasn't the punching a time clock, carrying a lunch bucket because I thought I'm just not going to make it, I'm almost as miserable--
Studs Terkel Instructional.
Studs Terkel When you talk, you're interested in boxing, you know, it occurs to me the central figure of your book, our guest is Frank Elli and the novel is The Riot, and the central figure is a guy named Cully Briston. In a way, Cully Briston is partly you, too, to some extent, isn't it?
Frank Elli Well, as far as that I tried to imagine myself in his situation and I had my character do what I would have liked to do and, and I had him feel the way I would have felt if I had been in this situation. See, this guy's torn between the society he lives in and he has to get along with these cons, and he has to do something about the outside, too, because these are the people that are keeping him in there, and he's in a position where he can't win. There's no way he can win. He's going to--actually, both sides are going to be down on
Studs Terkel Well, this is interesting. Cully Briston is involved with this riot, Cully's the one figure of sanity, perhaps you might say, in a crazy sort of world both outside and inside. He becomes involved, you know. Cully is a guy who, he's an ex-fighter, an interesting man, this Cully Briston, and when this brutal guard whom you call Andy Gump--sorry, Grossman. Andy Gump opens. Cully suddenly is found right in the middle of this riot, right? He does. But in the --but on his side with the cons also have strange figures. You have a leader, a guy named Fletcher, right? This young guy who is the leader. You also have a wild Indian figure, you know, who's, who's -- kind of can't help himself, reflex with the knife. And then your question is, to me, and the question is you gotta to save the hostages, you've got the hostages including the sadistic figure as well as others. You also -- interesting guy named, that Assistant Warden Fisk.
Frank Elli Yeah.
Frank Elli Well, you'll find in, in most prisons now--I entered prison the first time, I believe it was 1947. Now, I found a change in attitude of men--well, for example I left San Quentin just about the time they started group therapy where the treatment department sort of got a hold on a prison a little--I mean, they got a little of it away from a security, the custody department. And when I had this group therapy, the, the cons that had been there for a while, they didn't want anything to do with it. You know, who wants to talk about rehabilitation? That's for the birds, you know? But then, I fell on Washington, I did four and a half years and I came back on parole violation, and I seen these same guys that had been affected because they were talking like sociologists more or less. You know, all these phrases about rehabilitation, so this was a change in thinking. But the only trouble is, in these prisons that have these treatment departments, I don't know about California right now because I, I think they're the most progressive, the state of California, is it's mostly a diagnostic center. There's a socialist -- a sociologist and the psychologist, you have your little interview, ten minutes before the parole board appearance or something like that, and they can pretty well peg you. But when it comes to treatment, what should be done about it, they have no facilities for this, so it's no different than say a general hospital in Chicago. You wheel somebody in and a doctor says, "Yes, he's got a broken back," and out in the street you wheel him. Somebody else sees this fellow in pain out there, wheels him back in, and the doctor said, "Yeah, it's a broken back, you know." Nothing's ever done.
Studs Terkel So what is to be done? Because this involves society itself outside, too, you know. You take a sort of whack here at the therapist, at the psychologist, in a way. You call him Murray in the book.
Frank Elli Yes. But I don't think--see, my characters are doing it, because I am trying to portray the characters in, in, in prison, how they feel about this thing. And, but if you'll notice in that one part, some of them are a little jealous because he's given more attention to this one group than to this other group, and actually, regardless of how they talk, they're actually looking for help, most men, some kind of help. They don't want to keep beating their head against the wall. The prisons are filled with guys that are in there for stupid crimes, mostly, that make little sense, though the ones that get the most publicity, the big jobs they, or something like that, they're really in a minority, these type of people that, that plan crimes and that make something from crime, you know? Big money. The rest are just--I mean, the majority are mostly just poor fish caught and don't know how to get off the hook.
Frank Elli Yes.
Frank Elli Yes, and, well, in this particular riot, the first demand in, in any disturbance or demonstration or riot in a prison is, especially if they have hostages or something to bargain with, is no reprisals. Well, I think even the cons that are, that ask this know that this is impossible because it's somehow or another the authorities have to get control of the prison again, and the only way they're going to do it is segregate these men who started
Frank Elli There are, are always reprisals, but usually now--in this, in this riot in Walla Walla in 1955, it lasted two days, it was covered by television cameras and the, and the people in the state probably for the first time in years became aware of the conditions in this prison. The newspapers wrote it up and they were told these things for two days. Well a lot of this, I was released from the prison before anyone had happened, but this prison has changed, and it's because citizens formed a committee, went to the state legislature, lobbied for--because most of the things that happen in a state prison have to come from the state legislature. A bill has to be passed first and that maybe money appropriated. But there have -- there were changes in, in, in prison. And right now, see, what I think of prisons, what we, you know, 78 percent of the 93,000 crimes that were committed during some period last year were committed by repeaters, men who had been in prison. Most of the men, paroled, are violated--of the parole violators, are violated within 90 days. See, they can't adju-adjust. And I've thought about this, and I can look back on my own case and the first time I left prison, and it's because the attitude that you develop behind this wall, you're living in this, this walled-in little city, under these different values. You're completely isolated from this other society and then suddenly they open a door and you're outside, and you just can't adjust. It's's like I said at the beginning, and -- but some states right now in the United States are, are starting what they call a work release program, where men work, live in a prison, and, and I think this is really going to change the whole concept of prisons in the United States if it happens all over, because this man is still got contact with the outside, with the people he works with and everything during the day, and he's still got one foot out there, and it's not going to be so hard to get the other foot out there once he's completely
Studs Terkel A question of connecting the outside world with men. We know for example in Mexico, I think in Russia, too, and I think in Sweden, prisoners are allowed their wives and sweethearts to visit them, you know. This is something, of course that is out here. But this is an aspect, too, still being in touch with family or society
Frank Elli Right. Now, in, in a case like this, here is a man--and another thing, the guy keeps a little self-respect. If he has a family, he's supporting his family. He's paying room and board to the state for being in this prison, and the way it is now, the man is completely isolated. If he has a family, the family, nine out of ten times he goes on ADC, welfare. The county, the city or the state is saddled with supporting his family 'til the kids are 18 years old, probably the wife after that, and when this guy gets out he goes out to nothing. He goes out to nothing. Chances are he's right back, and the state is saddled with the expense of supporting him maybe for the next 20 years in and out, so it really doesn't make any sense.
Studs Terkel So The Riot, then, if we come back to this, The Riot, that in your book, the name of the book by Frank Elli is The Riot, is really based upon this actual event in Walla Walla where you were. It was the only way in which the men behind the bars could really tell the world outside what is happening.
Frank Elli Right. On this sort of tour I've been on in the last few weeks because of the book I've written, I pulled into a, I think it was Washington D.C. just, I think it was the day after there was a riot in Maryland. You know? Well, two weeks before this, there was something in--I guess it had come out in a newspaper, complaints on how -- the mishandling in a correctional department. Well, this probably went on, there were promises of investigation and everything, and, and the cons probably began grumbling to themselves, and, and, and from what I got just from the newspaper accounts, the cons finally took over, and this is the only way actually that they could be heard, to get the press and then they hear our, their grievances. And probably this brought out news stories for two more days, and all the chances for something really happening in that state to correct these things--
Studs Terkel What impressed me about your book, Frank, Frank Elli our guest, is the nature of freedom, too. That moment that you had the hostages, you know, you guys in isolation. In the book Cully Briston and his colleagues. What to do with freedom? When kind of, why is no what there's a question of, to relieve for one thing always you were kind of bootlegging things to relieve the monotony of being in the hole, whether it be potato beer or raisin jack or bennies, you know.
Frank Elli Yes.
Frank Elli Right. And it was still there. Who was going to take charge and tell us what to do with this freedom? Even as freedom inside the walls, and somebody had to get up and lead. And as the protagonist in my book, he finds himself more and more becoming a leader that he doesn't want to be, because he's involved in this now and even in this chaos there has to be some kind of order, and pretty soon he sees himself as being responsible for restoring some order. And I, I guess it happens in, say the Russian Revolution or Cuba or anyplace else.
Studs Terkel This is a fascinating point. This is one of the keys to the book, again there are many flashing, dazzling insights in this book that concern not so much prison life as the world we live in outside. Somebody's -- people don't know quite what to do with what it is they have suddenly, are looking for a order, a certain sense, a meaning. And they was looking for some kind of leadership, too. So Cully Briston, this central figure suddenly finds himself reluctantly the leader himself because he had a certain semblance of balance in him, but because he had to do with this he was also looked upon with suspicion by his own kind.
Frank Elli Right. To take over leadership in something like that, see, you've got to play sort of both ends against the middle, and this is the position you're in. And eventually you know that you're going to be back--this is going to end, this riot, and you're back in the prison with the men you're going to have to live with under the same values you were living with before for you don't know how many years. And that's why you'll find so few men willing to be a leader in any deal like this.
Studs Terkel Afraid of the responsibility and even the question of doing something he might not want to do. For example, there was one scene that hit me. Andy Gump, this guard, was also a hangman, was getting extra money. You found out he was a hangman. He says, "Well, I got to do it. You know, I can't" or whatever the phrase is, orders, you know.
Studs Terkel "This is my job," like Eichmann says, "This is my job." But suddenly Cully Briston, when you had to put the Indian because the Indian was going wild, what's his name, Surefoot, the Indian, because he ruining--you had to put him in isolation, you didn't want to, but he was your colleague, but you had to. So that you were saying, too, "Well, I gotta do it. This is my job." Suddenly you were Andy Gump.
Frank Elli And still is, is the, this human quality in, in this character that says, he's trying to tell himself this the only reason he's doing it, but he's doing it also because he doesn't--as phony as this guard is, sadistic guard, he still doesn't want to see him killed, really.
Frank Elli Yes.
Frank Elli Well, it puts him in a spot as far as the---also he was new in the prison, that the old guard or whatever they call it still had control of this prison. You know, even before this riot, and he was the type that was sort of a--and you'll find this in prisons, that the guards that have been there 15 and 20 years, they sort of resent these sociologists coming in or, or even an associate warden who has a, a degree in, in sociology because they had their views on how a prison should be run securely. The reason we had this prison built here, and the people I've just told, the reason we're working here is to keep these guys from getting out. Now, what they do when they get out is no concern of ours. That's the policeman's concern. I mean, this is the way they think. But the sociologist doesn't think this way. He thinks, "Well, what are we going to do for these men while they're here so they don't come back?" And I think you'll find that in almost every prison system in this country, in every state prison system. It's sort of different in a federal because you've got a central organization and a director of prisons who can come up with something and say we're going to try this, we're going to experiment with this, but you can't do that in all the states, you know.
Studs Terkel So ba -- well basically it comes down to the person, it comes down to prison life or, you know, a brutalizing both, not only the guy who was in it, but also the, the, the men who were in charge, too, the brutalization works two ways.
Frank Elli Yes, it does. Because by, say, society isolating these men, they're harming themselves, really. Actually, it boils down to this: that this system is, is stupid the way things are run right now. So either when a man commits a crime, kill him. I mean, it almost boils down to that, "Kill him immediately," and then he's not going to come back and commit a more serious crime, or he's not going to be committing any more crimes. Or else do something for the man. Give him a -- opportunities to, to find some other interest while in prison. Give him some contact with people from the outside so that when he leaves that prison he's not lost.
Frank Elli Yes. In fact, that the, I don't know if President Kennedy started it, but it's called the President's Commission on Delinquency and Crime for, I think it's been going three years, and in the last 18 months they've compiled all these statistics on different things you know, and it boils down to a lot of what I said, that, that most of the money being spent is being spent on keeping a man locked up. Now, and most of the cases, most of the crimes are probation, are men on probation and less money is being spent here, considerably less money, and, and this is where the supervision should be. These are the guys that you don't want to have violate this probation and wind up in prison and then have them back and forth. And, but now that they've compiled all this, who actually is going to listen? See? It's, it's almost as if society wants to see this punishment, they're not, it's not--
Frank Elli Yes, vengeance. And, and a guy's on a, a calling-in program, and this woman had just come from one of these meetings of these so-called enlightened people at this group and she says, on this work release program that I was talking about, she said, "Well, I don't think this man will feel punished if we let him do this." I says, "Well, if this isn't punishment enough, where you work eight hours a day and when you're done with work you have to go to a prison. You have to get yourself locked up 'til tomorrow morning when you go to work again, I don't know what punishment is."
Studs Terkel Yeah, but the fact this woman, that's revealing. This -- now we're talking now about the world outside, this woman representing for the moment a big portion of quote unquote respectable society, is saying he doesn't feel punished.
Frank Elli And also this thought that any man that commits a crime should feel repentant, see? Well, now here's an example that I know of a young guy. First offense was car theft, he was released, he got a, he committed a, a bar robbery, he held up a bar. All right. I think he got 300 and some dollars out of there. The bar owner claimed 600 and some dollars and probably got that much from the insurance company, this happens quite often. The kid wound up with a 10 to 80 year sentence. All right. Here's what he thinks: first of all, I only got half that money. The guy that owned the bar got the other half, and I'm getting 10 to 80 years for it, what's he getting for stealing his half? All right. Then, he gets before the parole board and he's, he's had a few run-ins, disciplinary run-ins in the prison, and they say, "Well, this man's attitude isn't right, he isn't repentant." Well, this is ridiculous. This kid's got a 10 to 80 year sentence and he's getting this 10 to 80 years for a three hundred and some dollar robbery where the victim made as much as he did. And, and, and this attitude or, expecting this man to feel repentant is about like feeling, asking a man as he's being whipped, "Don't you feel a little sorry or a little sympathy for the whipper? Look at his sweat. You know? He's tired and he has to whip you." And that's what about it amounts to, and this kid is never going to feel repentant, he's just going to get more bitter as the time goes on, and he's going to get more time in the prison because of this attitude.
Studs Terkel And as, as you say this, Frank, I'm thinking, too, about what happens in the prison, the indignities heaped upon indignities to the individual, and the beefs being aired at the end when the newspaper man comes in. When they ask him, "Okay, why the riot? What are your beefs?" And the beefs are very strange. Some guy says, "Bad dental work."
Frank Elli Yes.
Studs Terkel Says a guy. Or one of the guys says, "I was framed." Or "I was double-crossed." Another guy, "The parole system is terrible," but they're things that are seemingly--oh, as well as food, of course. But it was a personal thing, too. The -- Smitty, I think, is talking about his dental work, you know? You know, it's, it's a sort of a--each person says, "Look, I'm still a man." You know? Isn't that it?
Frank Elli And you'll find that these guys are always look -- thinking, you know, I did this, but what about all the injustices that are being done to me? And say, take the character with the teeth. He had his teeth pulled. According to his way of thinking, he's a ward of the state, and the state is supposed to see that his--he has, if he has any teeth, he should have false teeth so he can eat. Well, every time he does get a hold of meat, he can't eat it. He hasn't--hasn't any dentures. So this builds up in his mind. Look what they're--look what the state is doing to me. The state is not fulfilling its part of the bargain, namely medical attention and dental attention, and everybody gets on his own kick, and for instance in the state of Minnesota. The sentencing is so unequal that there can be five men, say all five are three-time losers. All five are in there for armed robbery and they can be doing anywhere from two years to life depending on where you got sentenced, the, the attorney you had and all these other things that--you know, the fellow that gets life, he's sure going to build up some bitterness while he watches this, say this fellow that's got the two years come in and go out twice or even three times while he's doing this one sentence, you know.
Studs Terkel Your book, you know, as you're talking, your book deals with more than this riot, this two-day riot that's based on the actuality in Walla Walla when you were there, but upon freedom itself. What is freedom and what to do with it when people are dehumanized they don't quite know what to do at that moment when they have power, clout, like the raisin jack getting crazy and -- or going from cell to cell, they were moving all the time, is it--did you notice this--at, actually in Walla Walla, changing cells like people do today?
Frank Elli Oh, yeah. Because that used to be sort of a, a problem in the prison. You're on one--in the, in a cellhouse on one end of the prison, and a buddy of yours is in a cell out on the other, you'd like to--cell near your buddy, or in a same cell. So when the entire inside of the prison was taken over, they could do whatever they wanted, they'd just gathered their stuff up and everybody moveed in where they felt like moving in. So--but actually, you know, when all this confusion, like you say they don't know what to do with freedom, now almost anyone that wanted to stick his neck out could jump up and, and lead, even in all this confusion, because these people, or, or, or men, after so much time in prison, you're more or less depend on this, you know, telling them what to do. So--and they did actually start running the place, a few men did, start running. There were seventeen hundred men in this prison actually, and, and maybe about 200 were out and, and running around and in on this raisin jack and these other things, the majority stayed right in their cell.
Frank Elli Right.
Frank Elli Yes.
Studs Terkel You know, if I could use that phrase, I think literally--inside their cells. Just "Oh, let's watch and wait this out. Let's not take part in anything." This is--I notice, too, you mentioned certain kinds of criminals like the embezzlers and the forgers, the old-timers, they want nothing to do with this.
Frank Elli No. No, because they're more or less settled in this, in, in, in this prison the way it was, and they don't really want any changes, I would say. You kno -- I mean, this is my opinion and let things ride the way they are.
Studs Terkel Even though they were prisoners and there was a chance for, if not escape, at least redress of grievances. Oh, no. So, now if we can go outside the prison, because to me your book is a parable, you
Frank Elli It's an isolated society that suddenly finds itself like a, like a small country in a revolution and this confusion and chaos and what's going to happen, you're still looking for leaders, you're still looking for the same things as people in a revolt in any society are looking for.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking then--again there are some rather fantastic pages here, sequences devoted to that moment when the helmet's put on, the raisin jack, it's this, and I quote, "New Year's Eve." It's this state not quite knowing what to do. Also some of the, the reactions of the various guards, particularly of Andy Gump who grovels when he's in, in someone else's hands and suddenly becomes the same man once you go back to--
Frank Elli Well, I created a character like Andy Gump because in every prison I've been in there's always a few like him. Now, the majority of the guards are just type a guy that's got a job to do, and this is his job, and you stay out of my hair and I'll stay out of your hair, this type attitude. But there's always the dedicated punisher, too, the, the type like Andy Gump who more or less thinks that every crime committed by every man behind the walls was committed against him, and it's up to him to see that they're made miserable for this. And a few guards like this can stir up a lot of trouble in a prison. And they're kept on,, in most cases, because it's a civil service job and how are they going to fire a man from a civil service job for doing his job? He's saying, "Well, look at it. Rules are broken. Isn't that why I was hired, to see that every one of these rules were enforced?"
Studs Terkel So he's doing his job. Again we come to Eichmann. You make a reference here somewhere to it, doing his job. But Cully of course, a central figure is this guy Cully Briston who despite himself becomes this leader and at the end Cully won the, when finally the riot is broken. You know, we don't know whether the grievances are going to be redressed or not, Cully is beaten up by his own colleagues because of the fact that here he took a certain responsibility.
Frank Elli He took a responsibility of turning loose Andy Gump. Releasing Andy Gump. And like I say, his way of thinking was, or how he tried to justify it is to say that if this man is killed, we'd all hang or, you know, but also he's taking, really, of--he hated to see the guy get killed.
Frank Elli The outcome of the riot, no one was hurt outside of a few black eyes and a busted lip, maybe. As far as the no reprisals, about two weeks after this riot was over, one morning the, the cell doors didn't open at breakfast time and as the cons say, the weeding crew came out and weeded out about 30 men and transported them to a county jail about 40 miles away so that the authorities could get get control of the prison again. And this didn't really work. They almost tore the county jail up, they brought them back to Walla Walla, some of the men in Walla Walla are thinking, well, this was a dirty deal, so they're ready to break these guys out I think, they came back on a Friday and they were--breakout was supposed to be on a Sunday, so at the evening meal on Sunday, 20 hostages or so were, was was taken. These hostages were taken, and but before anything could happen, see, originally when this warden, when this first riot broke out, the warden wasn't around, he was in some convention out of state or something. And the second time, the warden was there. Well, as soon as it broke out he had his prison in control in a few hours and that was the end of it, and that sort of broke the backbone of whatever rebellion was going on, you know, after that. So nothing really happened outside of this. Later on, the citizens forming this committee and going to the state legislature and changing their prison, which they did.
Studs Terkel This is the book, then, by Frank Elli. Perhaps the question to ask Frank Elli, who is now a writer, who is now on the world outside. This is your first work. You working on something now, Frank?
Frank Elli Well, I had written, like I said, a book and about 200,000 words another. I, I had been rewriting this, but as soon as this is over with, when I can settle down and write, I intend to get married and I want to spend the rest of my life writing. I think I can--before this is all over come up with something entirely new and maybe work on these other two books.
Frank Elli Right. And as far as the feeling of freedom, I was discussing this once and, and actually, the only person that's really free is the guy that's as bad off as he can possibly get. The only thing worse that could happen to him is death. Now, if you're in prison, in a hole--you know, what they call the hole, isolation--you're as bad off as you can get, and sometimes you feel pretty free there as far as there is nothing you can do to make your life any more miserable than it is. Anything you do
Studs Terkel You know, Jimmy Blake, whom I mentioned, Jimmy Blake has been in prison most of his life in the Southern prisons, writes like you do, and Jimmy Blake was saying after he was released one of the times he was riding on a bus down Chicago on State Street here in Chicago, people are shopping, and he commented. He's, "Look at the people's faces." Says, "If they are free, why do they look like that?"
Studs Terkel Well, Frank Elli, we haven't gone too much into the book, one that I would suggest that people read. It's a powerful novel, called The Riot, Coward-McCann are the publishers, winner of the Coward-McCann fellowship, the novelist award for this year. It's the first, as critics will say, the first one, really, that deals with it as it really is by one who has seen it and who, we have a new writer in America in the making of Frank Elli, and anything you care to say we haven't touched upon, Frank, in our very informal con--