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Security: Norman Carlson, Forceful Head of U.S. Prisons, Dies at 86

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He created the model for today’s super-maximum security prisons and oversaw a near doubling of federal facilities. He also insisted on cleanliness and decent food.

Credit…Roger Strong/The New York Times

It was an inmate at the Iowa State Penitentiary who first suggested to Norman Carlson that he get a job at the federal Bureau of Prisons. It was more progressive than the state system, the inmate said, and might be a better fit.

At the time, in the late 1950s, Mr. Carlson was on the staff of the Iowa prison. The inmate, whose name and crime are lost to history, apparently had an eye for talent and far more experience in the penal system than the 24-year-old Mr. Carlson.

Mr. Carlson followed his advice, joining the federal bureau and eventually becoming one of its most consequential directors.

He died on Aug. 9 at a hospital in Phoenix at 86. His daughter, Cindy Gustafson, said the cause was lymphoma.

Mr. Carlson, a large man with a stark crew cut, directed the bureau from 1970 until he retired in 1987, serving under 11 attorneys general and four presidents from both parties. He was appointed director by John N. Mitchell, the Nixon administration attorney general, who was subsequently convicted in the Watergate scandal and sent to federal prison, where he was under Mr. Carlson’s custody.

Among Mr. Carlson’s most lasting legacies were his expansion of the prison system in response to severe overcrowding and his establishment of the model for the super-maximum security prisons of today.

Starting in the early 1980s, government policies like the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing had led to mass incarceration, swelling inmate populations in both state and federal systems. Aiming to ease the stress on penitentiary inmates and staff, Mr. Carlson favored building more prisons; during his tenure, he created 20 new facilities, nearly doubling the existing number.

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Credit…Chris Mclean/The Pueblo Chieftain, via Associated Press

And in Marion, Ill., he established a tough new system of solitary confinement that became the model on which future supermax penitentiaries were based. These included the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo., known as the ADX; it is the toughest prison in the federal system, housing those who have been labeled the “worst of the worst.”

Mr. Carlson devised the supermax system after the infamous murders of two corrections officers by two different inmates in the same prison on the same day in 1983. The killers were members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist organization based in prisons.

“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,” Pete Earley, a former Washington Post reporter and author of “The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison” (1992), wrote in a recent tribute to Mr. Carlson.

To punish these killers, Mr. Carlson revived the concept of solitary confinement, which by then had fallen out of favor in the United States. (He renamed it “no human contact status.”) He converted the Marion penitentiary into the first modern all-lockdown facility, with prisoners isolated for nearly 23 hours a day. Shortly thereafter, the states, led by California, began building their own lockdowns based on the Marion model, though they were denounced by human rights groups.

“The renewed use of solitary coincided with the era of mass incarceration and the widespread closing of state-run mental-health facilities,” the journalist Mark Binelli wrote in 2015 in an article about the ADX in The New York Times Magazine. “The supermax became the most expedient method of controlling an increasingly overcrowded and psychologically volatile prison population.”

Mr. Carlson was credited with professionalizing the Bureau of Prisons. He disciplined officers who beat inmates, setting a policy of zero tolerance for prisoner abuse. Guards were to call themselves corrections officers, and assistant wardens were to wear suits and ties. He often ate with prisoners and brought along his wife and children, to show that prison food was good enough for his own family.

And he was a stickler for cleanliness.

“Mr. Carlson viewed a dirty prison as a sign of poor management; consequently floors were highly polished and walls kept painted,” Mr. Earley wrote. He said that one warden was so eager to please the director that when the snow outside had turned muddy and brown, the warden had his staff sprinkle flour on it to make it look whiter before Mr. Carlson arrived.

Norman Albert Carlson was born on Aug. 10, 1933, in Sioux City, Iowa. His father, Albert Noah Carlson, was an insurance broker, and his mother, Esther (Hollander) Carlson, was a homemaker.

Mr. Carlson grew up in Sioux City and majored in sociology at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., graduating in 1955. He earned his master’s degree in criminology at Iowa State University in 1957.

He married Patricia Musser, his college sweetheart, in 1956. She died in 1994. He married Phyllis (Ideker) Rohan in 1997; she died in 2019. In addition to his daughter, Ms. Gustafson, Mr. Carlson is survived by a son, Gary, and three grandsons.

Mr. Carlson worked at the Iowa State Penitentiary, in Fort Madison, while studying for his master’s degree. Following the inmate’s advice that he join the federal Bureau of Prisons, he transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. He worked briefly at the federal correctional institution in Ashland, Ky., before moving to the bureau’s central office in Washington in 1960. In 1970, at the age of 36, he replaced Myrl E. Alexander as director.

In his new position, Mr. Carlson turned away from the bureau’s previous models of rehabilitation, convinced that there was no 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,” Mr. Carlson told Mr. Earley. “We don’t. All we can do is provide opportunities for inmates who want to change.”

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