Obituary: William B. Robinson / Jail warden remembered for being humane to 'residents'

Sept. 11, 1931 - June 18, 2013

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When William B. Robinson took over as warden of the Allegheny County Jail in 1967, the stench of the old, castle-like Downtown facility was one of the things that made the biggest impression on him.

The former guard who had worked in the corrections system from the bottom up -- and would go on to claim its top position in the state -- recognized that living amid foul odor with lack of recreation, books, decent food or other amenities was hardly the way to rehabilitate convicts.

In a succession of positions in charge of facilities at the county and state levels, Mr. Robinson was known as a humane administrator who preferred personal visits to check on conditions for the "residents," as he called them, to sitting behind a desk. It put his safety in jeopardy from time to time, but the solidly built former football and basketball player at Central Catholic High School didn't shy away from confrontation, which occurred during his career with some of the officials above him as well as with inmates.

Mr. Robinson, a longtime Brookline resident known as "Robbie" to many, died Tuesday of prostate cancer at Concordia of the South Hills. He was 81.

Though retired since 2000 from prison consulting work with which he closed out his lengthy career, he was in good health most of those years. Last June, he made the last of more than a dozen trips back to Ireland, from which both of his parents had emigrated, and in April he traveled to Harrisburg to be honored by the Pennsylvania Prison Wardens Association, which named its lifetime achievement award after him.

It was only by happenstance that Mr. Robinson even entered the corrections field. The athletic young man starting a family needed a job after leaving the Army in 1954, and his father had a connection to the Allegheny County Workhouse in Blawnox, where nonviolent offenders were housed.

The younger Mr. Robinson worked a dozen years there, with several promotions that eventually led to the rank of deputy superintendent. He also served in the self-created position of athletic director, a role in which he persuaded Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. to donate used football equipment to help the inmate team Mr. Robinson had organized.

The Allegheny County Jail was a much-troubled institution when he began an eight-year run as its warden. It had been plagued by escapes and allegations of brutality. Within a year, he was being credited for a turnaround, adding athletic programs, educational classes, a library, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other improvements, including a paint job and better hygiene that helped remove the old odor.

"People who say that prisoners don't want a clean place either haven't tried them, or don't understand how to work with them," Mr. Robinson told a reporter in 1968. "Treating them as beasts doesn't help them or society, either. Treat a man in prison like a beast, and when his term is up you're going to release a beast."

He started an annual July 4 boxing tournament among inmates that became popular. But his actions didn't endear him to everyone. Unionized jail guards complained at times about lax security that they said Mr. Robinson allowed. Ironically, one of those times was after a February 1972 melee when a group of inmates assaulted him and other staff and nearly threw him over a railing to a rotunda floor below.

"I thought I was a dead man," he was quoted saying afterward.

Mr. Robinson lived on to be appointed by Gov. Milton Shapp in 1975 as director of the state Bureau of Corrections, as the state prison system was then known. It was a time when the prison population was rapidly expanding, and he managed it well enough that new Gov. Dick Thornburgh kept him on in 1979 when cleaning house in Harrisburg of other Shapp appointees. Mr. Robinson had differences in 1980, however, with Attorney General Harvey Bartle, to whom he reported, and was forced out.

Allegheny County hired him back to serve from 1980-84 as executive director of the county prison board, overseeing the jail and related facilities and programs. It was a challenging time because of jail overcrowding issues that led to a federal court order to reduce the population. The strong-willed Mr. Robinson had both supporters and opponents in navigating the mounting problems, and eventually a clash with county Commissioner Barbara Hafer, who chaired the prison board, led him to resign.

"He was a man of his own convictions, and he wanted to run things the way his experience had taught him to do," said his nephew, James Robinson of Brookline, who worked in the parole field.

The ex-warden, a former member of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, remained active after leaving public service by volunteering his time for the Pennsylvania Prison Wardens Association, which he had helped create. He also worked for years for the Mellon-Stuart Corp., in charge of its programs related to prison operation or construction, before starting his own consulting firm.

For many years after Mr. Robinson left his county work, he would receive letters from former inmates thanking him for the humane treatment and chances he gave them, at a time when he was raising his family in living quarters adjacent to the jail and on call 24 hours a day, according to his daughter, Betty Ann Baum.

"There was a line there, but they always respected him," she said.

In addition to his daughter, of Wellsville, York County, Mr. Robinson is survived by a son, William W. Robinson of Brookline; five grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

Friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. today at Beinhauer, 2630 W. Liberty Ave., Dormont.

A burial Mass will be at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in Our Lady of Loreto Church, 1905 Pioneer Ave., Brookline, with burial in Queen of Heaven Cemetery.

Memorial contributions may be made to Central Catholic High School, 4720 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.

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Gary Rotstein: or 412-263-1255.

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