Picturing PA highlights moments in Pennsylvania history through photographs in the extensive collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

On a rainy night in 1978 in Lewisburg, Union County, 1,400 men crowded into a boxing arena. In the ring they watched Clarence Miller take on the reigning 125-pound state champ, Ronald “Bartender” Barr. Of the 10 matches that Saturday, this was the only championship matchup, and the crowd was dazzled by the thrilling fight. Barr narrowly defeated Miller and was voted outstanding boxer of the night.

These men were no ordinary boxers. They were all members of a new rehabilitative prison boxing program that operated in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the match was the first live sporting entertainment the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg had ever hosted.

The 1970s were uncertain times for Pennsylvania prisons. Tough law-and-order politics was putting Pennsylvanians behind bars at rates higher than ever before. Demoralized officers complained that the staff-to-inmate ratio was growing dangerously disproportionate. Prisons were aging and in disrepair, making living conditions difficult and hazardous for most inmates.

With reverberations still in the air from the recent 1971 Attica prison riot in New York and several outbreaks of violence in their own prisons, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) officials looked for ways to ease tensions and maintain order among nearly 2,000 staff members and 8,000 inmates. The boxing program was the brainchild of newly appointed commissioner William Robinson. An amateur boxer in his younger days, Robinson hoped the sport would provide a physical and emotional outlet and prevent confrontations between frustrated inmates and officers.

In just a few years, more than 1,400 inmates across the state took part in the boxing program. The best boxers from each state correctional institution were even invited to travel and compete against each other in exhibition matches held everywhere from the Allentown State Fair to Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

One of the most successful fighters to come out of the state prison boxing program was Bernard Hopkins, who would later win multiple world championships in the middleweight and light heavyweight classes. Incarcerated from 1983 to 1987, the Philadelphia native discovered boxing in his cell block at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford. “When I saw a guy murdered for a lousy pack of cigarettes, something in me snapped,” he later told the Philadelphia Daily News. “I knew that I had to be responsible for turning my life around.” Hopkins found a trainer and mentor in cellblock neighbor Michael Wilson, a former prison boxing champion himself. Wilson’s rigorous training regimen and Hopkins’ own experience boxing at SCI Graterford prepared him for what would be one of the longest and most successful professional boxing careers of all time.

The boxing program was short-lived and quietly ended in the mid-1980s after a 1981 hostage situation and a 1983 general strike by discontented inmates. The state’s lawmakers and policy writers didn’t want to appear “soft on crime” and ended prison programs like boxing in favor of more punitive measures that strictly controlled inmate life. Instead of boxing, DOC has shifted its rehabilitative efforts into new programs like drug treatment, community work programs, and boot camp training.

Even in its heyday, boxing could never have solved all of the problems in Pennsylvania’s prisons. Overcrowding, dangerous living and working conditions, and budget issues were simply too much for the boxing program to knock out on its own. Nevertheless, officials did believe that it helped keep prison assaults and misconducts down by more than 50 percent.

The Pennsylvania State Archives has a large collection of records from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and state prisons, which can be found in Record Groups 15 and 58.


Tyler Stump is an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.