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Chapter 11


THE GRASP OF THE TENTACLES

I have spoken of punishments inside the prison. When a man has served
his time and is set free (as it is called) another punishment begins,
which may be worse and more disheartening than the suffering endured
inside the walls.

As I listened, on Saturday afternoons, or at other times, to the stories
hurriedly and guardedly told me by my fellow convicts who had served
more terms than one, I said to myself, "The wrong of prison is bad
enough; but this of what happens to a man after prison is worse, and
monstrous." The endless tentacles follow him, reach out after him,
surround him, fasten upon him, and draw him back whence he came. And not
that only, but they mark him and isolate him, disable him from free
action, make honesty impossible for him. No citizen of whatever
integrity and standing, if so pursued, maligned and undermined, would
have any choice left him but either to perish or to break the laws. The
spies of the government, with the prestige and power of the government
behind them (however despicable and vicious they may be in themselves),
can ruin any man; but ex-convicts are their staple food.

In the latter part of June, 1913, a federal judge named Emory Speer was
accused of evil deeds on the bench, and a congressional investigation
was announced. The judge was taken ill, and at this writing the
investigation still hangs fire. Now, the evidence against him had been
collected, it would appear, by the agency of government spies, and this
fact caused great indignation in some quarters. Here was a man not
convicted of felony, but a pillar of the state, being pursued by
detectives just as if for all the world he were an ordinary person--an
obscure private citizen, say, or an ex-convict! The judge himself was
very indignant, and his friends on the local press were rasping in their
comments. In a long editorial entitled "The Shadow of the Spy," one
Atlanta paper denounced the proceedings root and branch. It affirmed
that the governmental spy system had assumed such proportions during the
past few years as to threaten one of the mainstays of free government.

All this interested my comrades, not because the spy system was news to
them, but because no public notice had been taken of it until it began
to wring the withers of persons who had hitherto supposed themselves to
be in the position of promoters instead of victims of the practise. A
federal judge had never protested against pursuing with spies men
suspected of crimes, or men who, having served time upon conviction, had
then gone out into the world and attempted to lead a new life. The spy
system, so conducted, seemed to such persons proper and normal. But the
moment they found their own acts investigated, their own footsteps
dogged, they became indignant, and denounced the whole principle of the
thing.

No man convicted in a federal or state court, or set free after having
done his time in prison, but is abundantly conversant with the methods
of the American spy.

As we all know, the first thing done with a new prisoner is to take his
bertillons, and the record of these measurements and observations,
together with two photographs of him, or with four, if he had a beard
when convicted, is sent to every police office in the country, and is
there studied by the detectives and police. The intention, of course, is
to render easier the recognition of "old offenders," and to curtail
their future industries. It is generally affirmed that bertillons cannot
be mistaken; but in a Detroit court, on January both, 1914, an expert
declared that "a difference of one-eighth of an inch in the laying on of
the fingers made an entirely different impression"; and "judgment was
awarded against the bank," which, relying upon the infallibility of the
finger record, had brought the action. At any rate, the bertillon is
still a potent weapon with the police, and when they want a man for a
crime committed, or when they desire to drive out of any given place on
the face of the earth a man who has been previously a convict, they have
but to point to his bertillons, and the thing is done.

Let us see how this may work out in practise. A convict, having served
his term, is presented by the United States (or a state, as the case may
be) with a suit of new clothes, and with a five dollar bill. He also
gets a ticket on the railway to the place of his destination, and,
though he is in theory a free man from the moment that he passes the
prison gates, as a matter of fact an official is assigned to take charge
of him and put him on his train; he cannot remain in Atlanta (supposing
for the once that Atlanta Penitentiary has been his abiding place during
his sentence) on penalty, if he do, of forfeiting his ticket and having
to pay his own way. This may be a provision of the law, or it may be
simply a measure to prevent ex-convicts from talking to newspaper
reporters or other enquiring persons. The thing is invariably done,
unless the man's residence happens to be Atlanta itself.

In my own case (to cite an instance) the regular procedure was observed,
with only one accidental modification. I received my suit of clothes, my
five dollars, and my railway ticket--at least, the latter was given to
the guard detailed to accompany me to the station, to be by him
delivered to the conductor of my train. But I had previously made up my
mind to say a few things to the reporter of a certain local newspaper,
and I was ready, in case of necessity, to abandon my eleemosynary ticket
and to pay my own way to New York on a later train. I had money of my
own to do this with; most ex-prisoners, of course, have not. But the
sacrifice was avoided by the circumstance that Mr. Moyer, the warden,
was absent at the moment in Indianapolis, and the deputy incautiously
let me out an hour or more before my train started. I lost no time in
meeting my reporter, and during the next forty minutes, in an automobile
provided for the occasion, we drove about the streets of Atlanta, while
I imparted to his astonished ears my reasons for thinking that the
penitentiary was not the paradise on earth that it had hitherto been
believed to be. He brought me to the railway station in season for my
train, and I got safely away, leaving mischief behind me.

That was my good luck. On the other hand, a friend of mine recently
released told me that the warden had called him into his office at the
last moment, and had extracted from him a promise not to talk to any
reporter in the town before leaving. That is the usual way; but it is
the exception, sometimes, that counts.

Let us return to our average convict, just out, and with the world
before him, where to choose to display his prison-made garments and to
spend his five dollars. It not seldom happens, to begin with, that he is
not so much out as he had imagined. Our present method with convicts has
peculiarities. Here is a common example.

A man was convicted and jailed for robbing a postoffice. The sentence
was five years. The specific charge was of stealing postage stamps.
Having done his bit in the federal penitentiary, he was given his outfit
and the gates were opened. He was proceeding joyfully on his way, when a
sheriff laid a hand on his shoulder, and informed him that he was his
prisoner. What for? The sheriff smilingly explained that the sentence he
had just served was for a federal offense; he was wanted now on a state
charge of breaking into the grocery store in which the postoffice was
housed. For this, the state prison accommodated him with lodging for
five years more. The man outlived that, and fatuously imagined that his
payment of that debt was fully discharged. He was awakened by the hand
on his shoulder again. What was the matter now? Why, he had, while in
the grocery store, and in addition to stealing the federal postage
stamps, possessed himself unlawfully of a box of matches, thereby
committing a second state crime, involving a further detention in the
state prison of five years more.

This is an example of our cat-and-mouse way with convicts, and is, of
course, much more destructive to the victim than an outright sentence of
the same length would have been. But in what manner it tends to reform a
man, or to protect a community, does not clearly appear.

Sometimes, the sheriff is dilatory in arriving to make the second or
third arrest, and it would seem that the prisoner might have a chance to
escape. But in such a case the warden himself would take a hand in the
game. In an instance of which I heard a good deal, the man's sentence
expired, we will say, on June 1st. The warden had been apprised that he
was to be re-arrested, but the sheriff was not on hand--could not get
there for two days. But the law, or prison regulations, or something,
enables a warden to detain a prisoner beyond his fixed time, in the
event of his committing some prison irregularity. The warden informed
the man that he was reported to have broken a plate in the dining room,
the penalty for which was three days more in his cell. Before the three
days were up, the sheriff had arrived, the man was re-arrested, and
justice was satisfied. We will suppose, however, that our man has no
second or third or other indictments hanging over him, and that he
really does get clean away. What will be his adventures?

If the weather be not rainy he reaches his train unscathed. But if that
new suit, with "jail-bird" written all over it in characters which all
detectives and police, at least, can read as they run, chance to get
wet, the raw shoddy forthwith shrivels miserably up, and the wearer's
ankles and wrists stick out so betrayingly that a mere child might
recognize the sinister source of the garments. But, anyhow, a few days'
wear will so wrinkle and crease and deform the suit that it becomes
unwearable, and the man might as conveniently and more prudently go
about in shirt and drawers. Should he present himself in it requesting a
job from some virtuous citizen, the latter is less likely to grant it
than to step to the 'phone and call up the police station. "There's a
suspicious character here--better look him over!" The officer looks him
over accordingly, and either advises him to betake himself promptly
elsewhere, or, if a crime happen to have been committed recently in that
neighborhood, the perpetrators of which are still at large, he takes the
man into custody on suspicion.

That the man is utterly innocent makes small difference; his status as
an old offender is readily established, and the rest follows almost
automatically. "You did the job all right; but, if you didn't, you're a
vagrant, without visible means of support, and they'll put you in the
lockup for six months or a year. And let me tell you, our lockup is no
joke! Likely you'll get on the chain gang, and then, God help you! If
they don't take a fancy to you, they're liable to croak you any time.
Now, I'd like to see you get out of this easy, and here's what you'd
better do. You own up to the crime, and I'll have a word with the judge,
so he'll let you off with a short sentence in a place where they treat
men right, and you'll get out in about three or four months. That's what
you'd best do; and if you don't, I wash my hands of you! What do you
say?"

What would you do? Stand on your rights, demand a full and fair trial,
prove your innocence, and be acquitted without a stain on your
character? That is the proper and righteous course for a free and
independent American citizen.

But you are not a citizen, in the first place; your civic rights are
gone for good, and instead of your innocence being assumed till your
guilt is proved, it is the other way about. Your friend the detective is
prepared, for one, to swear that to the "best of his knowledge and
belief," you are the culprit; and there is commonly a number of other
easy swearers hanging about the court room to support him. You have no
friends; on the contrary, every eye you meet is hostile. You have no
money to hire a lawyer, for that five dollars had gone before you had
mustered courage to ask for the job that got you into this trouble. And
above all, your spirit is cowed and prostrate from years in prison; you
have known the long, sterile bitterness of penal servitude, and you have
no stomach for a fight. No, you will not fight--you cannot. You will
stand up in the dock and confess to something you never did, and throw
yourself on the mercy of the court. Your friend the detective whispers
to the judge--"He's an incorrigible--he ought to get the limit!" And His
Honor gives you ten years. It is less than a week since you put off
stripes, and went out into the world resolved to make good. If you
outlive your undeserved sentence, will you ever resolve to make good
again?

Can such things be? Indeed they can, and they are. There is poor C. in
Atlanta now, the victim of such a deal; and S., and H., and many more.
C., indeed, told me, and I believe him, that he never committed any
crime at all, other than to get drunk and to sleep out on the road; he
was apprehended for vagrancy, then charged with a post-office robbery in
another state (which he had never visited), advised by the detective who
"took an interest" in him to confess, upon the promise of being let off
with a light sentence; he got the limit, and will wear out his youth in
jail, while the detective is complimented for his efficiency.

The Government is extravagant. What is the use of spending money on a
shoddy suit of clothes for each one of thousands of convicts every year,
and giving each of them a five dollar bill, with the certainty that, in
a large majority of cases, they will be back in their cells in a few
days or weeks, or months? Look up, if you please, the statistics as to
the number of convicts who are second or third offenders. Nay, the
Government is itself the prime and most effective cause of their getting
back, since it is government spies that provide the evidence that sends
them up.

But can we afford to trust ex-convicts? Must we not keep a strict eye on
them? If the strict eye were also a friendly one, it might be of some
avail. But our hand is against them, and we need not wonder that theirs
is against us. Not only are we their enemies when they emerge from jail,
but (as has been repeated interminably by every investigator who has
been qualified to speak on the subject) jails are the best and only
schools of crime. In other words, we first educate men to be criminals
by putting them in places where they can learn nothing else, and then we
keep them criminals by shutting against them, when freed, every
opportunity to earn food and lodging in legitimate ways. And then we
complain that they are not to be trusted.

Neither can men fed on poisons be trusted to be well. Jail life is
poisonous; I think it was Judge McLeland who said, last summer, "Our
million dollar reformatories offer university courses in bestiality and
crime; it is as logical to send a man to jail to make him better as to
shut him up in a garbage-can to improve his digestion. Forty per cent.
of those who go to jail, go back again," he added; "one man went back
one hundred and seventy-six times. Others are sent because they are poor
and cannot pay a fine, and they are there made real criminals."

An instance of this occurred in a Georgia chain-gang while I was in
Atlanta. A man was sentenced for playing cards for money. He could not
pay the $45 fine demanded, and in default, was sent to the chain-gang
for eight months. He wore stripes, night and day, and if contumacious,
was whipped by the guards. His work was in a stone quarry, a deep hole,
into which the summer sun poured an insufferable heat. He was forced to
do his work with a 49-pound hammer in that funnel-shaped pit, at a
hundred degrees in the shade--if he could find any shade. One day he
told the guard he was sick, and could not work any longer. The guard
shifted the quid in his mouth and remarked that he ought to have said so
that morning. But the man meant what he said, and proved it by dying a
day or two later. Probably you may have played cards for money at some
time in your life. Did it ever occur to you that you merited torture and
death for it?

Or do you think that, after such an experience (if you survived it), or
after being twice arrested for the same crime and kept in jail five
years three times over, or after doing time for a crime you never
committed--that you would come out at the end of it all, smiling, full
of energy and enterprise, loving your neighbor, eager for honest toil?
Would you embrace Mr. Moyer (or whomever your jailer was) and tell him,
with tears of gratitude, that you could never repay him for his
warm-hearted, big-brained care of you--the starving, the dungeoning, the
clubbing, and all the rest of the university course?

Would you feel like that? Or would you stare out upon the world into
which you were contemptuously tossed with dull, hating, revengeful eyes,
suspicious of all men, hopeless of good, but resolved to get even, so
far as you might, by plying the evil trades which your life of slavery
had taught you? Would you behave like Christ upon the Cross, or like an
ordinary man? Convicts are ordinary men, except that they are often, to
begin with, diseased men, or hemmed in by conditions so untoward as to
make an honest life ten or a hundred times harder than it ever was for
you.

But you did not scruple to put this diseased or unfortunate version of
yourself into the jail cauldron, to stew there with others like or worse
than himself, for doing what, in most cases, he actually could not help
doing; and when at last he was ejected like stale refuse, you were
indignant because his looks did not please you, because he bore upon him
the stains and the stench which the cauldron had fastened on him,
because he did not, in the teeth of the secret service, the postoffice
inspectors, the detective bureaus and the police, at once begin to lead
an honest life and support the commonwealth. Do you say that none of
this was your doing? But it is your doing, in just so far as you have
not striven in every way open to you to extirpate the doing of it by
this representative government.

The wonderful thing--the unexpected and pathetic thing--is, that so many
convicts come out of jail in a kindly and inoffensive state of mind.
They are men who were born weak, humble and yielding, never esteemed
themselves, were always ready to take a back seat and give precedence to
others. They do not understand the rights of the matter, but suppose it
must be all right, that penal servitude is the proper thing for them,
that laws were made by wise men and must be enforced. They admit their
stealings and their trickery, and blame themselves, observing
regretfully that they didn't seem able to help it. Next time--if they
get a next time--they will try very hard to be straight, and perhaps
they will succeed after all!

There was little J., in the barbers' gang, a cheerful, smiling, sweet
tempered fellow, who had served I know not how many terms for small
larcenies and turpitudes. "I've always been such a damned little fool,"
he would say to me, as he smoothed off my chin. "The boys would get
round me and rope me into some scheme, and I didn't seem able to keep
clear of 'em. But I'm goin' to be let out again next July, and I've made
up my mind I'll never be seen here again! No, sir! Oh, I've been talkin'
with the chaplain, too, and I've been reading the Bible, and all that,
and I'm going to be a good man. Yes, sir! I've had my fling, and I'm
through with it; when the boys get round me and tell me of some easy
job, I'll tell 'em, No! Not for J."

He was a man of forty, as naive and "innocent" (in the unmoral sense) as
a child; and he had been in jail off and on since he was ten years old.
I happened to be in the front office at the moment when J. was signing
receipts and receiving his property preparatory to leaving. He was
dressed in a neat business suit of his own--not a prison-made
monstrosity. He was clean and smooth and bright, and tremulous with
excitement. He signed his papers with a shaking hand, he took up and put
down again his well packed gripsack, he shook hands with a sort of
clinging, appealing grasp, as if he were afraid of being left alone, he
giggled and looked profoundly solemn by turns. The officials stood
about, indifferent and contemptuous, the men who had been hard and cruel
to him, and those who had not been so hard.

It was a bright, beautiful day, full of sunshine; J. picked up his grip
and marched down the corridor and out into the free air. He wore a brave
air of hope and determination, but one could detect underneath it
symptoms of misgiving. He had vowed to be good, but could he keep the
vow, when "the boys got round him"? I wished him good luck with all my
heart. Six months have passed, and J. is not back in jail yet, so far as
I have heard. But the spies are watching him, and he won't be safe till
he is dead.

A man with whom chance brought me frequently in contact was H., a yegg,
as the term is.

When a guard is escorting a batch of visitors about the prison, he
speaks of the yeggs in an ominous tone, as if they were some deadly
monster, hardly to be even looked at with impunity. But yeggs, as a
body, are the best men in the prison; they have a code of honor, and
strength of character. Outside, they blow open safes, and do other risky
jobs; and they will shoot to kill on the occasions when it is their life
or the other man's. They will do this, because they know what a prison
is, and also what spies outside prison are. But they will spare your
life, if possible; not because they care for you--they hate and despise
you, as being a man who would be and have in the past been merciless to
them, and as a hypocrite who is either a rascal on the sly or would be
if you possessed the courage or were subjected to the temptation--they
spare you not from mercy but a settled policy; killing is bad business,
and means sooner or later a violent end for the killer.

Most yeggs are men of more than average intelligence, and sometimes of
fair education; they were not born outlaws; but, if you can win them to
speak of themselves, you will generally find that they have undergone
things both in and out of prison enough to make an outlaw out of a
saint. Most men succumb under such things, and either die, or become
cowed in spirit; the yeggs have survived, and their spirit is unbroken.
They hold the highest place in the estimation of their fellow prisoners;
and the warden and the guards fear them. By that I mean that they fear
to inflict severities upon them except upon some pretext at least
plausible; for the yeggs know the rules, and though they will submit
without a whimper to the crudest punishments if cause can be alleged for
it, yet wanton liberties, such as prisoners less well informed or more
pusillanimous submit to, cannot safely be taken with them.

The yeggs stand together; they have esprit de corps, and if, as happened
last summer at Atlanta, the food supply drops actually to the starvation
point in both quantity and quality, they stand forward--as they did
then--as champions for the rest of the men; they protest openly, they
will not be wheedled or terrorized, and they go to the hole as one man.
Nor will they come out thence until the warden comes to them and
promises improvement. The warden promises, not because he desires
improvements, but because he fears the scandal of mutiny in the
prison--an inconvenient thing when one is supposed to be conducting a
model institution; and even an easy going public, which will tolerate
other forms of cruelty to convicts, feels compunction about starving
them, especially when it is taxed to provide them with wholesome and
sufficient food.

About my friend H.--I have no space here to tell his story, nor to
outline it even; it is a terrible one. I may be able, some time, in
another place, to present it in full. I will say now only that he was
once confined for three years in a contract labor jail which has the
worst features conceivable in any prison of to-day or of a hundred years
ago, and men are killed there by overwork and punishments as a matter of
routine; few survive the treatment so long as H. did. Once during his
three years he uttered three words aloud; for that he was punished so
long and so savagely that the horror of it yet remains with him.
Prisoners constantly maim their hands voluntarily in the machinery in
order to be quit of the torture of the work; the bleeding stumps of
their fingers or hands are roughly bound up, and they are driven back to
their machines. The warden is an oily, comfortable rogue, who beams upon
visitors and fools the prison commission to the top of its bent, and he
bears an excellent reputation for the large amount of work he gets out
of his prisoners; "They just love it, my boys do," he avers; "nothing
like work to keep men happy, you know." And then, when the coast is
clear, he turns upon his boys like a bloodthirsty tiger.

But what I wish to say here is, that when H. at last finished his term
and was thrust forth into the crowded street of the city, his legs
failed him, and he tottered along scared like a wild beast at the noise
and bustle. A man addressed him, and he stared at him blankly, and could
not command his tongue to speak words. He wandered on irregularly,
starting at imaginary dangers, unnerved at the height of the sky, the
noise, the movement. He sought the least frequented streets, but his
aspect and bearing made people look suspiciously at him, and he found
his way to the slums, where he got a room and shut himself in with a
feeling of relief. It was several days before he could school himself to
talk and act like an ordinary human being. His health was shattered,
though he was naturally a strong and hearty man; eating made him sick,
though he was faint for lack of right feeding.

He could find no steady employment, but helped himself along with odd
jobs here and there. He was resolute to keep straight, but an old pal of
his happened to meet him, did him some good turns, and finally proposed
his joining two or three men in a promising burglary. H. asked time to
think it over, and that night he left the city in a sort of panic, and
traveled to a large town a hundred miles away. Here he succeeded in
getting a good job; his spirits began to revive; he made some good
acquaintances, and prospered beyond all expectation for nearly a year.
One day he noticed a man in the street who stared hard at him; not long
after he saw the same man standing in front of the house in which he
lodged; the next morning his landlord came to him and, with some
embarrassment, said that he would have to ask him for his room; a
relative was about to visit him and he needed the accommodation.

It was as he had feared--the detectives had run him down. He put what he
possessed in a trunk and left town that evening for a place nearly a
thousand miles west. Here he was left undisturbed for fifteen months,
and made a new start in business. Then the chief of the local police
sent for him and said, "I don't want to be rough on you; but the best
thing you can do is to skip; we're on to you--understand?" "But I'm
doing a straight business," H. pleaded. "You may be; but you're a
crook," was the reply.

We need not follow him further; he was driven from one place to another.
At last he was caught with stolen goods on him, he having undertaken to
help an old friend of his out of a tight place by carrying his gripsack
from one place to another; it proved to contain some plunder from a
recent burglary. He got off with a two year sentence; but it was the end
of his attempt to reform. "Crooked or straight, I'll end in jail," he
said to me, with that strange convict smile which means such unspeakable
things. "I've got two years more here; if I last it out, they'll get me
again."

I firmly believe that he would have been an honest and successful man if
he had been let alone.

It sometimes happens that the manhood of a convict is so sapped by long
sufferings that even his desire for freedom is lost. He is afraid to be
free; he cannot live at ease outside of his cell walls. Perhaps you will
say that goes to prove the gentleness and humanity of prison discipline.
To me it seems a thing so appalling that I must be content with the bare
statement of the fact. A man is afraid to be free, afraid of the great
wonderful world, and of his fellow creatures, and can endure what he
supposes to be life only in his steel cell. What has put that fear in
him? But our laws provide no penalty for dehumanizing a fellow creature
under the forms of law. If it be legal, it must be right.

I knew a man in our prison who had been thirty-five years in
confinement, with short intervals of liberty. The best favor he could
ask was to be allowed to stay all day and all night in his cell, doing
nothing. Year after year, nothing else than this appeared to him worth
while. He was well educated, as prisoners go, quiet and inoffensive. "I
wish some doctor would examine me and tell me what is the matter with
me," he remarked to me once. "Maybe I'm crazy!"

After all, the world, in its way, is as hard a place for ex-convicts as
a jail; more cruel, perhaps, inasmuch as it seems to offer hopes that
jails deny. But can a world be called civilized that is satisfied with
that arraignment?


Julian Hawthorne

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