The A.A. Prison Group Founded
in 1944 at the Indiana State Prison
at Michigan City
Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana)
Source: The following material was put together by Glenn C. (South Bend IN) and is taken from the Northern Indiana Archival Bulletin, Vol. 1 (1998) No. 2, published in South Bend (Michiana Central Service Office, 814 E. Jefferson Ave., South Bend, IN 46617). These bulletins were produced under the auspices of the Archives Committee for Northern Indiana Area 22 of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1998 the members of the Archives Committee included: Floyd P., chair (Frankton IN), Klaus K. (Fort Wayne IN), Big Al M. (Milford IN), Frank N. (Syracuse IN), and Glenn C., bulletin editor (South Bend IN).
For further background information: Additional material about Nick Kowalski and the beginnings of A.A. in the St. Joseph river valley (northwestern Indiana and southwestern Michigan) can be found in the account of the Lives and Teachings of the A.A. Old Timers originally put together by Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana) for the Michiana A.A. Conference held to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the bringing of A.A. to northern Indiana. In the second edition (2005) the work is divided into two volumes, entitled The Factory Owner & the Convict (in which Nick Kowalski and the South Bend factory owner Ken Merrill play a major role) and The St. Louis Gambler & the Railroad Man (where the former professional gambler and night club emcee referred to in the title was the great Indiana black A.A. leader Brownie and the railroad man was the beloved Ed Pike).
Editor's introduction: The A.A. prison group at Michigan City in Indiana (founded in 1944) together with the A.A. prison group at San Quentin in California (founded in 1942) were the two best known groups for alcoholic convicts in the United States during the early years. The one at San Quentin (where Clinton T. Duffy was the warden) was the first, and there were additional successful attempts to set up groups at other prisons during the following two years, but Warden Alfred F. "Al" Dowd at the Indiana State Prison highly publicized the enormous success of the Indiana group among the prison wardens all over the country, and raised the Indiana program to national prominence.
The major part of the story is told here by Nick Kowalski, one of the best story tellers and most important spiritual teachers of early Hoosier A.A., who had been sent to the Indiana State Prison for a murder which he committed in a confused alcoholic rage in a house of prostitution located in the seamy district along South Michigan Street in South Bend where a good many of the city's bars and places with nude dancers could be found. He had been brought up in an orphanage and had a deformed chest from the vitamin deficiency disease called rickets which he had developed from the inadequate diet at the orphanage. Not long after the last of several suicide attempts, Nick became one of the founding members of the little A.A. prison group, but only because they got him to that first meeting by promising him, a piece of raisin pie smuggled from the prison kitchen.
But we must let him explain all this in his own words. No one has ever been able to tell a tale better than Nick, and few people can match him for the depth of his insights into human psychology and the spiritual life.
|Editor's note: This material is transcribed from the tape recording of a lead given by Nick Kowalski at Ann Arbor, Michigan on February 26, 1976, contributed by Molly S., who lived with Nick in the last years of his life. Nick was in prison for murder at the time the A.A. group was started there, joined the new group, and became one of their first big success stories. After his release from prison, he not only continued to work with ex-cons for the rest of his life, but was also for many years a major leader and spiritual guide within the A.A. program in the South Bend/Mishawaka area.|
In 1944, the new A.A. group in South Bend, barely a year old, was presented with a unique challenge -- a request by Tim Costello, a convict at the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City, to bring the A.A. program to him there at the penitentiary. There was only one other prison group in the United States at that time (at San Quentin in California, under Warden Duffy), but none of the Indianans at the time knew of even that single precedent. As far as they knew, this was a journey onto completely uncharted ground.
We must also remember that early A.A., coming out of the Oxford Group, was definitely slanted at that time towards the upper social groups. Bill W. had been a wealthy Wall Street stockbroker before the Great Depression, and Dr. Bob was a skilled surgeon. In South Bend, Ken M. was a well-to-do factory owner and a widely published author, and Soo C. was an engineer who served as a sales representative for a major firm. Could a program tailored to people like these make sense at all in the totally different context of hardened convicts incarcerated in a state penitentiary?
Yet the plea for help had come. A convict had written a letter crying for aid. The twelfth step had said that we must give the program away in order to keep it, and the Big Book warned all who read it: "half measures availed us nothing." Nothing less than a total and fearless commitment could maintain the alcoholic's sobriety.
Tim Costello was the convict who wrote the letters that started the process. Alfred F. "Al" Dowd was the warden at Michigan City at that time. There were two members of the South Bend, Indiana, group who came to the prison to work with the group during its earliest period: Harry Stevens, who seems to have played the most important role, is mentioned in this lead. Although Jim McN.'s name was not given in this particular talk, Nick K.'s handwritten list of early A.A. figures which he prepared later on (see appendix to The Factory Worker and the Convict, a volume available through the South Bend and Elkhart Central Service Offices) says "The Michigan City A.A. prison group was started by Harry S. and Jim Mc. after talking with warden Dowd and a lot of work was done by these men to keep it going." Both Harry Stevens and Jim McNeil are also listed in Ken Merrill's letter of February 4, 1960, in which he lists the first twenty members of the South Bend A.A. group who had achieved longterm, continuing sobriety during the first two or three years (1943–6).
Although Nick seems to have been unaware of it, Ken M.'s daughter Martha P. says that her father was also visiting the warden, weekend after weekend, during the period when they were trying to talk him into letting them try forming a prison A.A. group.
One South Bend A.A. member whose memory goes back a number of years said that there was tension between Ken M., who was more psychoanalytically oriented in his understanding of the A.A. program, and Harry Stevens -- a tension which eventually produced the first split in South Bend A.A. So perhaps it seemed best there in 1944 to let Harry S. take the prison group as his own special project, especially once it got going. He served as the official sponsor for the group from its beginnings down to 1952.
Few people could tell a tale better than Nick, so perhaps it is best to let him relate the story of the beginnings of the A.A. prison group in his own words:
In 1944, a guy named Tim Costello, long dead, tore a fascinating, wonderful, God-gifted trail through the prison's A.A. program . . . We had the second one in the world, due to Tim Costello. And I got to talk to you a little about Tim, because he showed me what God gives everyone:
In this room tonight, there're people here who never seem to accomplish much in the world, because they're always busy around here, washing the dishes and cleaning up, and putting things together. And you get mad at 'em, a lot of the time, 'cause they've got pretty strict ideas about how the program works, and they'll argue, and talk to you about the things you should do, and the things you shouldn't do. And you raise hell with 'em, and say "Lousy no good so-and-so's," and this and that. But they're always here.
About two weeks after they're dead, you realized they saved your life maybe fifty times. Hadn't have been for their sternness with themselves, and with you and me, their candid honesty that we need from time to time -- if you're like me, clear up to tonight, including tonight -- I'd have often gone off the deep end.
We need 'em and we love 'em. And those of them that are here would know that nothing you say to 'em can pay them back, because God pays them for doing that. They don't need things from us, they need [only] the spirit of God. In the sobriety they obtain, and their companionship, and even telling you the candid truth, they gain a kind of grandeur that God gives few people on the face of the earth.
But I think sometimes we should remember them while they're alive, and give them thanks, because if it wasn't for them, we might wouldn't be here tonight.
And Tim was one of these people. And God provides them, you know that. He's got one for you and one for me, and here's a consummate value.
|On March 1, 1941 an issue of the Saturday Evening Post appeared all over America, with Jack Alexander's story as its lead article: "Alcoholics Anonymous: Freed Slaves of Drink, Now they Free Others." The article gave the New York A.A. address to which people could write for more information. Now, three years later, Tim Costello, a convict in the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City, read that article in an old copy of the magazine that was lying around, and realized that this was the only thing that could save his life.|
Tim went to the warden and asked if he could write a letter to A.A., and the warden said, "What's that?" He said, "Well, it tells you here, read the article." And the warden said, "I ain't reading no article about alcoholics, I got a whole damn prison full of 'em!" [Laughter] Well Tim says, "Can I write a letter?" "Hell no, they're not related to you. This is a maximum security prison. The only people you can write to are relatives."
So Tim went back to his cell, and wrote a kite -- some of you know what a kite is, it goes under the wall. It went out -- in this case, the priest is dead too -- it went out through a Catholic priest, then to New York. And then they got it in New York, and they sent it to South Bend, where there were four men sober -- I could name 'em for you, God love 'em, here right now.
One was named Harry Stevens. God provides that second guy, that guy for assistance -- the little, mild-mannered man, who like the fish in the dam, keeps butting against the wall. Couldn't turn his head. Harry Stevens just died a few years ago, had a stack of cards this high. If he ever got a call from you -- ever -- he wrote your name, address, and phone number down. Once a month, he sat down and wrote you a postcard. Said, "I was just setting down here tonight thinking about you, wondering how you are. If you ever feel like it, give me a call, I'd like to see you again." Didn't make any difference, [if] some of them guys [wouldn't respond at first]. He wrote them cards for years. Lots of guys, four or five years later, when they got ready to come, they knew who to call. He'd be there, he'd come, he'd go. He didn't worry about himself, he put together a pretty good life.
He come up to the prison, said that "I'd like to talk to an inmate named Tim Costello." The warden said, "How do you know him?" He said, "I got a letter from him." [Laughter] The warden said, "No, you can't get a letter from him." He says, "I can't? I got it right here." So the warden went in, and he said to Tim, "How'd you get that letter out, Tim?" Tim said, "Hell, I'd never get another one out if I tell you that." [Laughter] And he said, "You're going into the hole." And in the hole he went, three days in the hole.
Seventy-two hours later, he comes out, walks around the prison saying, "I don't know what the hell went wrong," sat down and wrote another letter. [Laughter] To New York, went back to Harry Stevens. Harry Stevens gets the letter, he comes up to the prison, he says, "Warden, I got to talk to that guy, I got another letter from him." [Laughter] "By gosh, you did, you're not gonna see him." Goes inside, threw Tim back in the hole. [Laughter] When you was a real bad guy, they used to shave your head -- shave your head, and they put you in a big checkered wool suit, and they put a little red card on your cell. That meant you were a bad man. And they locked your cell before you went out for privileges, whether it was recreation, you know, or visitors. Four months without privileges. Had lots of time, so he wrote another letter. [Laughter] God gave us some wonderful power!
You know, a lot of people in this room once thought they were junk. And they tried to make junk out of a pretty damn good piece of equipment. You beat it to death, you ran it over a cliff, you busted up cars, you busted yourself up, you got in tragic situations. Still works pretty good! He didn't make junk. When you turn yourself over to him, he'll make you a talented man.
And he needs every one of you, and brings you here because he needs you. And he needs you here, not to be me or somebody, or Jack or Jim or somebody, but to be YOU. Because of a special quality you have, he brings you to these tables. It ain't something that I aren't or you aren't -- he brings you here 'cause he needs that quality [which you already have]. The difference in your fingerprints and mine. And he wants you to bring it, and put it on the table, and talk about it, and converse with it, and work with us, so that there will be, between us, the quality that's open to everybody.
So Tim writes another letter -- goes to New York, comes back to Harry Stevens, Harry opens the letter, it said, "I don't know what you guys are doing, but don't do that, you're killing me!" [Laughter] That's the kind of innocence we talk about in A.A., that kind of wonderful openness, that we do things that people will not try.
Harry comes back up to the warden, he says, "I can't sleep, I got to see that guy." The warden says, "You better learn to sleep, 'cause you ain't gonna see him." Harry says, "Well, I'd like to talk to 'im."
The warden later became a fan of ours. He says, "That damn Harry Stevens showed up at my house every night, quarter of five. I'll go home at five o'clock, my usual evening, watch the radio, boob tube, whatever. Then I go to sleep. He comes, he's standing out on the porch waiting for me when I come home. I tried being late, he's still there; get there early, he's still there. Can't miss. I'm not gonna give him anything. He can't take my martinis -- he'll think I'm one of these damned drunks he's always talking about! [Laughter] I'm not gonna feed him!"
|Although Nick apparently did not know about it, Ken M. was also going a number of miles over to Michigan City every weekend to work on Warden Dowd too. Harry S. and Ken M. together finally wore him down, and he agreed to let Tim try to get an A.A. group together there in the prison. Nick himself was one of the original group whom Tim assembled. He was in the prison hospital at the time -- this presumably was the result of his last, almost successful, suicide attempt.|
Tim was trying to bleed me away from that, so he come talked to me. When I got out of the hospital, he said, "We're gonna have a meeting in the prison hospital, about Alcoholics Anonymous." And I said, "What the hell is Alcoholics Anonymous? I'm doing a life sentence in penitentiary, I hate going anyplace, I don't give a damn what I am. I should worry about Alcoholics Anonymous?" He said, "Please come."
He said, "I've been trying to work with you, and I think you owe me a favor." And he said, "I'll tell you two things. One: if you don't go, I'm gonna take you off of them other books you had charged to the library, and put you back on western stories. [Laughter] And secondly, if you do come," he said, "I got a connection in the prison dining room for raisin pie."
I still have a passion for good raisin pie. And he said, "I'll get a raisin pie, and we'll have it at the meeting." And this guy, he would go and take two packs of Camels to the guy in the kitchen, one of the other kind, to make him a raisin pie. They're illegal as hell!!! [Laughter] Now Tim's gotta get in there, and get this pie -- some of you cons know how that goes -- and get back to the education department without getting caught. And [the pie's still] hot. And he goes in there, and opens his shirt, and puts that pie down there. [Laughter]
And they had a screw there named Cokey Joe, who was crazier than Tim -- he went around like that naturally. [Laughter] And . . . Cokey Joe called him over, and said, "Come over here, Tim." And he stands there talking to him. [Laughter] You know, how the White Sox are doing, who's gonna win the election, and Tim's standing there. And finally, when he gets done talking to him, "See you later buddy," and he reaches out to hit Tim on his belly. [Laughter] And so he almost took off like an arrow, from that raisin spreading, took off for the education department!!! [Laughter]
So I went to my first meeting, because . . . to get a cut of that pie, and to keep from getting put back on [having nothing to read but those cheap western pulp novels].
It sounds like crazy things, but the important thing is, you know, you hear in A.A., "don't come unless you have an honest desire to stop drinking." Don't do that! Come, dammit, just come! If you have a drinking problem, come! And don't put in your mind classifications or rules or regulations, JUST COME! 'Cause I didn't think this thing was gonna work. Never once. I was in A.A. in prison nine years before I got out, it never occurred to me I was gonna stay sober. But I tell you what it done -- I told you, I couldn't do that time."
|When he first started going to the A.A. meetings that Tim Costello had set up, Nick says,|
I sat on the end, because I'm a big shot. And down this side they'd go, [after] they'd propose the subject. I'm sharp, you know! This guy talks -- hell, I could top that! When they come to me, I'm gonna be the biggest thing of the year -- nothing to it!
And it comes along here, gets down to the end. And they say, "Nick," I say "Pass." [Laughter] "You keep at it, coming to the meeting, can't you even say your name, you know?" [Laughter] "Damn it, you said I could pass, and I pass." [Laughter]
Down [the other side of the table, after this] I don't hear nothing. 'Cause you know why? Inside I'm saying to myself, "God! Can't you say something? You know they're nice guys, they're trying to help you. Can't you be friendly? Can't you just open up and help 'em out?" So I didn't hear a word [past that point]. Be talking to myself, inside.
|They rotated chairing the meeting each week, going around to each person in turn until everyone there had chaired a meeting, then starting over again. So the week would come when they would remind Nick that it was going to be his turn to be the chairman for the next meeting, and poor Nick was plunged into a week of agony. Whose turn it was next was an automatic, unavoidable process, done in a preestablished rota, and everyone was expected to do his share.|
You couldn't do anything, [but] I had to escape next week, you remember. They say, "Nick, next week is your week to be chairman, you know, something on the fifth step." "O.K., fine. Next week I can do it."
All week long: we're gonna have the biggest meeting, it's gonna be a drag 'em out, kill 'em dead meeting, man! Best in the world! Wrote stuff, planned stuff, read stuff -- never got up there! [Laughter] Skipped the meeting. If I could, developed influenza, or a cold or something.
They come around and say to me, "Why don't you come to the meeting " I'd say, "I'm too smart. You guys are dumb. Don't you see that Costello making notes down there all the time? And you're sharing all that good stuff about the banks and the filling stations and the robbery? When you get done doing this time, baby, you gone get some time!" [Laughter] "Tim is a stool pigeon! He's turning all that junk in."
You know, I was afraid I'd admit the truth. It's always somebody else's fault. So they'd say to me, "Well, come on back." Tim never worried about that. He'd come talk to me, "Come on up there."
|But Nick kept coming to meetings-- as long as it was not his turn to chair! -- and (as he stressed in his lead) if newcomers keep coming back, making meeting after meeting after meeting, sooner or later the same thing always happens. The right person comes along -- sent by God when you're finally ready -- and you finally make that fundamental breakthrough.|
[Sooner or later] you get that guy or that girl, so hang in there! And the guy come one day. And we're setting at meeting, they had an open meeting, and had a speaker.
And the guy said, "I got to tell you this, fellas. I don't give a damn about you, I don't care about your condition, I don't care about your position . . . . don't! I don't want it, I don't care nothing about it. UNLESS you're so sick and tired of being sick and tired that you're contemplated SUICIDE."
And I thought, "Maybe he knows a way that don't hurt?" [Laughter] So I listened. AND HE DID.
He said, "Take this little twelve-step card that pretty lady read, on how it worked and twelve steps. Take this twelve-step card into the quiet of your own mind. Sometime, you phony so-and-so, take the card and get away from everybody you're onto next, and read it. And when you read it," he said, "if you're like me, you're gonna get down through there, you're gonna say, 'Well, that might be all right for them ordinary drunks. But that won't help me.'
"But don't worry about that. If you've exhausted all the other possibilities of change, say to yourself, for one day I'm gonna pretend that this damn card is true, that somewhere there's a force, a force of creation, that cares about me. Not how, or why, just that it does. For some reason, it cares about me. It put me here for a purpose. And for that one day, I'm going to ask that force, without question, for twenty-four hours of sobriety, guidance, and direction. And then, in the process of the day, I'm going to talk to at least one other person who is attempting to walk this quiet life, about what happened. Whether it happened, or whether it don't happen. Because I've exhausted all the other possibilities, try -- pretend -- one day at a time.
"Do three things," he said. We had just got a couple of copies of the Big Book. He said, "Take this, read this Big Book. Ask God for twenty-four hours of sobriety, guidance, and direction before you leave your cell. You let God talk to you, by reading in the Big Book. There's a story! That's God's story to us, about these first hundred people, how they learned to stay sober. Read a little in there, and respond somehow to what you read. Even if it's a page a day. That's God talking to people like you and me. And then you share this by talking about the results -- honestly, without pretense -- with one other person who's attempting to walk this quiet way."
"I'll tell you what's gonna happen before you start. If you'll do this one day at a time, and just pretend: one day you'll get a day, you go to bed at night, and you have a feeling inside with which you're kind of satisfied. Somehow you feel like the day has somehow been satisfied."
And he said, "If you're like me, you never had one. You won't know what it is till you get one. Not 'Mom ain't satisfied,' or the kids, or the warden. You somehow will feel that the day has been satisfied.
"You go on a little bit further, just pretending, saying the prayers because the people who bring the message to you say that's what you do. And pretty soon, you'll get one day in which you'll feel there's a reasonable reason for being alive.
"Did you ever sit on the side of an accident, everybody bloody and running, and you been driving the car, and you ain't got a scratch? You say, how come (to yourself inside) all this guilt you got? How come all these nice people are hurt, and I ain't hurt? You know, I done that. You know? And you can swap that for a day in which you feel that there's a reasonable reason for being alive."
And he said, "Just keep pretending." He said, "If you're like me, you're great at pretending. You've been playing roles all your life. And you can pretend this one as well. You're one of the best actors in the world. Part of the way we survive. About the only marketable quality we had was the ability to pretend.
"So you can. And one day you'll look at the chair you occupy tonight, and realize you put to sleep those qualities which are making suicide necessary, in this hour. To sleep! And that you don't have to give them life again, unless you personally climb back. You climb back.
"Now," he said, "if you mistrust yourself and you disbelieve in God and you hate your fellow man -- give thanks! You've got a lot less to unlearn. Because this program positively guarantees that if you practice the proper motion, you'll create the proper emotion. If you practice the proper motion, you'll create the proper emotion."
So I went to my cell that night, I read the card, I said, "Hell, I'm insane, I'm not an alcoholic. That can't help me. I know I'm insane. Hell, I'm crazier than a fruitcake. It'll never help me. But I ain't got nothing else to try. Ain't got a friend in the world. There's nobody I can talk to, nobody I communicate with. In A.A., I'm playing all the roles, trying to be everybody's man. Can't be myself. Men can't do that."
Telling God to change me. And I don't have to change me, all I have to do is let me open up and turn me loose.
Can't do that. Can't do it.
So I decided to try. It's been a long time ago. That's the reason I'm here tonight, and the only reason.
I'm not a professional do-gooder. I don't run around the world trying to change people. But I owe Tim, and all those guys who brought me to this day, the obligation to pass that word on. It'll work for anybody in this room.
|This particular lead was being given by Nick at an Al-Anon conference, so he wanted to stress that this program worked for the Al-Anon as well as it did for someone like himself who was primarily an alcoholic. Nick was probably thinking of drug use here as well: he said that he himself preferred alcohol when he was not in prison or jail, but that it was impossible to get alcohol in the quantities he needed when he was behind bars. So while he was at Michigan City, he stayed off prison booze and used homemade drugs instead, fearsome mind-bending substances prepared by prison "chemists" from cleaning chemicals and things like that.|
And I don't really give a damn whether you're an alcoholic or not, whether you're an addict of any form -- any form of addiction. If you take that first line and change it [to say, "We admitted we were powerless over WHATEVER WE ARE STUCK ON," and] try to work with somebody who has a like problem, and follow down through the inventory steps into the knowledge and experience with God, you can get free of that problem. 'Cause you won't need it. You just won't need it any more.
What it done for me, was helped get it possible to do the time. I'm still doing time. I'm sent for doing time: God's time NOW.
Before we done our own time. I done what I wanted, when I wanted, right now, soon as I wanted, and it kept me caged so I couldn't do nothing!
But now I do God's time, and I come down here and talk to you people, and meet a few nice people, and we have a nice dinner together, and somehow life is rich and rewarding. That's it: it helped me to do time.