Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2004 | Features

A Sentence in Diversity

By Paul Becker

The Korean War was on when I got the call that immersed me in a cauldron of cosmopolitan humanity such as I had never known before. I am a surgeon and at that time I was also a commissioned officer in the Reserve Corps of the United States Public Health Service (USPHS). In late 1952, I was called to active duty and ordered to report to the USPHS Hospital located inside the walls of the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, as chief of surgery.

My initial reaction was negative; however, after my wife and I considered the possibilities, the assignment became rather intriguing. Both Betsy and I had grown up in rural and small-town settings in the Midwest. This would be a two-year interlude in a large city in the Deep South. The 117-bed prison hospital served as a surgery referral center for federal prisons east of the Mississippi River, suggesting an assignment there would yield plenty of surgery cases. In short, by the time we were packed and on the road, we were looking forward to a new experience. Those two years, immersed in a totally diverse society, turned out to be far more interesting than either of us had anticipated.

The guard led me across a portion of the prison yard and into the freestanding red brick hospital where several more doors were unlocked for us before we finally arrived at the operating suite.

We had barely started unpacking our car at our assigned house on the government reservation in Atlanta, when I received a call requesting I come to the penitentiary. An inmate had a perforated duodenal ulcer. Emergency surgery was in order.

Later I came and went as I pleased, but on that first day I was escorted through multiple massive steel gates that clanged shut as they were locked behind me, reverberating with a knell of finality. The guard led me past the cellblocks with their stacked tiers of cells, through a crowd of inmates milling about in front of the mess hall, across a portion of the prison yard, and into the freestanding red brick hospital where several more doors were unlocked for us before we finally arrived at the operating suite.

The patient was lying on a gurney, his abdomen rigid in response to the gastric juices spilling into his peritoneal cavity. All the necessary laboratory and X-ray studies had been completed. I examined the inmate and concurred in the diagnosis. The operating room (OR) personnel were capped and masked. The scrub nurse was scrubbed, gowned, and gloved and had laid out all the necessary sterile instruments. The patient was anesthetized.

I made my incision. Making conversation, I asked my assistants where they had received their training. Muted chuckles escaped from behind the three masks as they replied in unison, “Here!” Startled, I realized I was surrounded by convicts! My circulating nurse was incarcerated for murder, as was my OR orderly. My scrub nurse/surgical assistant was an ebullient Wall Street stockbroker whose activities had earned him a lengthy prison sentence. These three were some of the best OR help I have had in more than 40 years of surgical experience.

At that time, selected inmates with long sentences were trained in various medically related duties. Inmates considered work in the hospital a choice assignment so there was a long list of willing applicants. It could be argued that the two murders perpetrated by my OR workers were committed in self-defense, but the World War II courts-martial had judged otherwise. The senior inmate lab technician was a bank robber who had shot it out with the populace of the small town where his most recent robbery had been perpetrated, and to whose armed citizens he had surrendered. Our chief X-ray technician was, in fact, a well-trained X-ray tech who for nearly two years had passed himself off as a physician in a Nebraska panhandle town. His narcotic prescriptions with a deceased physician’s DEA number eventually exposed him as an imposter. After his arrest, citizens of that town signed a petition requesting he be allowed to stay; they felt he had provided exemplary service to their town, which had been without a physician for some time.

A convicted counterfeiter fitted inmates with proper eyeglasses. We had “paperhangers” (prisoners convicted of passing worthless checks), safe crackers, and a wide variety of other criminals working under supervision in our hospital as secretaries, nurses, and in various other capacities.

The inmate population, my surgical clientele, was a polyglot mixture of male humanity. There were African Americans from the rural South and the steel belt Midwest, Sicilian gangsters from Chicago, Native Americans from Indian reservations, Puerto Ricans and other Spanish Americans, as well as foreigners of various nationalities and ethnicity. Included were spies, murderers, robbers, burglars, smugglers, drug dealers, terrorists, anarchists, car thieves, Communists, moonshiners, income tax evaders, and a variety of other white-collar criminals. In the mix were sociopaths and psychotics, illiterates and college graduates with advanced degrees, the destitute and the multimillionaires, agnostics and adherents of various religious creeds, persons of the far right political spectrum and those from the far left, men from good families and those from broken homes, broken families, and broken marriages. Enclosed within the gray granite and reinforced concrete walls of the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, these prisoners were all “doing time.” All also serving sentences in diversity.

I was determined to treat these felons as fellow human beings, to not show favoritism, to not be overtly judgmental, to be as friendly, kind, and considerate as I had been to the private patients I had left behind. I tried to learn as much as I could about each inmate’s background, his experiences, hopes, and concerns, whatever had shaped him into who he was. It could be very frustrating, but overall my time at the penitentiary was a fabulous experience! I had a busy and varied surgical practice that also provided a postgraduate education in learning to get along with the most diverse people imaginable, both inside and outside the prison walls.

Unusual mementoes Unusual mementoes remind Paul Becker of his time "behind bars," where he learned so much about human nature.

It was a learning experience in national and ethnic cultural customs, as well as various religious beliefs and practices. I learned to get along with manipulators and malingerers inside the prison and with U.S. senators and representatives, government bureaucrats, judges, and lawyers, plus the media, outside. Living in the segregated Deep South provided an added exercise in diversity. At the conclusion of my two years, I had learned to cope with individuals and groups from a broad strata of society—and I had a new appreciation for the melting pot that is America. Although half a century has passed, I still have vivid memories of and mementoes from the convicts I worked on and with. Gifts of any value were prohibited, but inmate patients often tried to show their gratitude.

A Kentucky moonshiner offered me a lifetime supply of bourbon, “not that 85- or 100-proof stuff you buy in a store, but honest-to-God 200-proof White Lightning!” I had to dissuade the head of an interstate car theft ring from leaving a new, but also “hot,” Cadillac in my driveway, complete with papers to prove I was the owner. Scarface Al Capone’s alleged triggerman, who had used a submachine gun to execute seven members of the rival Bugs Moran gang during the Saint Valentine Day Massacre in Chicago, was also a member of Murder, Inc. In gratitude for relieving him of disabling pain, he offered to do anything for me “inside or outside prison walls—you tell me, I’ll get it done!”

The African violet plant, originally raised by Machine Gun Kelly’s mother, died decades ago, but I still have the monkey, intricately carved from a peach seed, that a Puerto Rican inmate gave me after another prisoner bit off a goodly portion of his nose. I appreciated the tribute to me printed in The Atlantian, a slick-paper inmate quarterly that Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell financially supported to encourage literary expression by inmates. I was the first non-inmate so featured in that magazine. The certificate the penitentiary print shop inmates made designating me an “Honorary Ex-Convict of the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta” still hangs on a wall in our home. A favorite memento is an original poem, an ode to me, written on ruled tablet paper by an inmate patient. Most prized are letters from a diverse group of ex-convicts who “went straight” (in a law-abiding way) after their release.

These mementoes, these memories, are only some of the residue from my two-year “sentence in diversity.”