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Chapter 12


THE PRISON SILENCE

How many convicts, during the past twenty years, have served their terms
and been released? and yet what does the public know of the real inside
of prisons? This used to perplex me at first. My fellow prisoners with
whom I talked were bitter and voluble enough in denouncing the
conditions; but no sooner had they passed the gates to freedom than they
became strangely silent. Some of them even were quoted in the local
papers as praising and upholding what they had just before condemned.

There was a Japanese prisoner, for example, the only man of his nation
there, I think, who gained attention by copies of well-known pictures
which he made, to be hung on the walls of the chapel, and by designing
back and side scenes for the stage. I never talked personally with him,
or saw him but at a distance, as he hastened along the corridor; but men
who knew him said that he was especially savage in his diatribes against
the prison and its keepers, and had promised, as soon as he was freed,
to make numerous ugly disclosures to the world. But when we searched the
local papers after his release, what we found was a hearty and explicit
laudation of the prison and its officials. Had it been written by the
warden himself, it could not have been more sunny and satisfied.

Again, there was a man with us who had been sentenced for life on a
murder charge of a singularly revolting kind; he had been in confinement
seventeen years when I first knew him, but had always consistently
protested his innocence. He applied for parole, and his application was
granted. At this time he occupied a large cell containing eleven other
prisoners, of whom I was one; and he attached himself very closely to
me, and upon coming in from his work each evening, would sit beside my
cot and hold my hand and pour out his heart to me in lamentations,
asseverations of his innocence, picturings of the horrors of his long
confinement, forecastings of what he meant to do when he was freed--to
address audiences from the pulpit and rostrum, and convince the world of
the horrors of penal imprisonment. He was deeply religious, and had the
moral courage to kneel down, before all the men in the cell, and spend
five minutes or more in prayer every evening before going to bed. Every
one believed that he had been wrongly convicted, if for no better
reason, because he had never once wavered from his claim of innocence
during those seventeen years, and because his conduct and bearing in the
prison had always been exemplary. He was a man of powerful body and
strong, impressive mind; his speech was simple and convincing, and I
told him that I thought he would succeed as an avatar of prison
iniquities. He professed an ardent affection for me, and expressed
enthusiastic anticipations as to the outcome of my own projects for
calling public attention to the evils in question.

This man was tortured for five or six weeks by unexplained delay in
fulfilling the promise of his parole, during which time it fell to my
daily lot to comfort and encourage him; and I suffered no little
emotional stress myself from this constant drain on my sympathies. Every
evening, sitting beside my cot, he would repeat over and over again the
same lamentations and speculations, interjecting at the end of each
apostrophe, "It's terrible--terrible!" until at last I felt that I would
gladly give up my own "good time" for the sake of seeing him freed
without further procrastination. I was convinced, and so told him, that
the delay could be due to nothing but neglect, inadvertent or criminal,
on the part of LaDow, the President of the Parole Board, or of the
Attorney-General himself; the papers had been thrust into a pigeonhole,
and been forgotten or ignored.

What were the tortures of a man imprisoned for seventeen years, and now
standing on the brink of salvation or despair, to a supercilious
official up in Washington?

Finally, without explanation or apology, the order for release came; and
for me and his other friends, as well as for him, it was a day of
rejoicing and thanksgiving. But, remembering that he was on parole, and
therefore liable, on the least infringement of discipline, to be thrust
back in his cell, none of us expected that he would venture to denounce
the wrongs and expose the miseries of the imprisoned; we were glad to
learn that he had secured a position paying him twenty or thirty dollars
a month, with a chance of better things later, and that he had announced
his purpose of running down the real perpetrator of the crime for which
he had suffered, and forcing him to confess. For a few days, one or two
local papers gave him half a column, and then there was silence.

I had been denied parole, and the restrictions thereof did not apply to
me when my own day of freedom arrived; and I gave a short interview to a
reporter, in which I said that the warden was unfit for his position,
that the food was abominable, and that punishment in dark cells and
otherwise was still practised, though under cover.

The next day the newspapers printed an interview with my late friend, in
which he was quoted as declaring that every statement I had made was a
malicious lie, that the warden was in all respects the best, kindest and
most lovable man he had ever met, and that the men in confinement had
all the food they asked for, of the best quality, and that all tales of
hardships and cruel punishments were false and wicked.

Is it conceivable that these statements were really given out by him? It
seemed more likely that the words had been put into his mouth, under a
threat, should he disavow them, of being sent back to prison. From such
a threat the bravest man might shrink. But that statement of his still
stands unmodified. And whether made spontaneously, or under the
compulsion of a threat, its motive seems to have been fear of punishment
for telling the truth. Such is the power of the System over its victims!

It is a state of things nothing less than nauseating. It is bad enough
that men should be held in prison and maltreated; but that the truth
should be imprisoned with them, gagged and terrified into silence, is a
grave matter indeed. New York is complaining just now of the strength in
corruption of its police system; but it seems almost trivial compared
with this, for while the police ring profits by cooperating with the
criminals they are paid to suppress, the prison ring profits by maiming
or destroying human lives entrusted to their care to be restrained for a
season from their own evil impulses, and thus if possible reformed; and,
when they are released, it guards itself against exposure by the menace
of revenge more formidable still. The parole and the indeterminate
sentence, framed to open the way to reform of prisoners, is used by
prison officials to intimidate and debase them; and if any ex-convict
ventures to defy this fortified despotism, the immediate rejoinder is,
"Who can believe a jail-bird? A man wicked enough to steal or murder is
wicked enough to lie, and is not the malicious motive of the lie
apparent?"

That rejoinder has been brought, and will continue to be brought against
me. Among those who protested against the statements in my interview
above mentioned was a lady whom I never spoke to--it is strictly against
rules for a prisoner to speak with a visitor--and never knowingly saw,
though I understand she was wont to sit on the stage during the Sunday
exercises. She is thus quoted: "Julian Hawthorne is nothing more than an
old grouch. A short time ago this old man told me himself that he was
getting plenty to eat and had no complaint to make of his own or anybody
else's treatment in the prison.... When he says such things as he is
reported to have said, he should be made to prove them, or keep his
mouth shut." Warden Moyer himself, less imaginative than this lady,
contented himself with denying all charges and courting investigation,
and added that he bore me no grudge, believed me to have been the dupe
of malignant guards (since dismissed) and considers my motive to have
been mainly the desire to make a little money. "The Department attaches
little importance to these outbreaks," he remarked, "and I consider it
unnecessary to place my word against that of convicts."

This may seem feeble; it is the mere instinctive stuttering of persons
in a disturbed frame of mind. But the System will not depend for its
defense upon persons of this kind. It has many strong forces at its
command, of which the Secret Service, and the favorable prejudgments of
the Government and of a large part of the public are but part. Any one
opposing it may expect to be kept under strict surveillance in all his
movements, his mail will be violated, his words, written or overheard,
will be scrutinized for material that can be used against him. Nor is
the line drawn there. While I was in prison, I received the confidences
of many prisoners as to their own experiences, among others that of a
Maine boy who had been convicted of robbing a postoffice. He had been
arrested in the first instance as a vagrant, and while in the local jail
had been approached by a postoffice inspector who charged him with the
post-office crime. The boy had never been in the state in which the
crime was committed; but he was told that, if he would plead guilty to
it, he would be sent to Atlanta for a short term, whereas, should he
refuse, he could be kept in jail awaiting trial for a year, and would
then receive at least six months on the vagrancy charge. "Do as I tell
you, and I will see that you get off easy," the inspector, who posed as
a friend, told him. When he finally acquiesced, however, the judge
imposed on him a sentence of five years, the inspector having testified
that he was an old offender, implicated in many other crimes. The fact
was, of course, that the real perpetrators of this postoffice robbery
had not been caught, but it was expedient for the reputation and welfare
of the detectives that a perpetrator should be produced--if not the real
one, then one manufactured for the purpose. I learned of many cases
similar to this--it is a common routine practise with the System.
Moreover, when this innocent youth has completed his term, he will be
thenceforth a marked man--"an habitual criminal," with a record against
him; and he can be rearrested on general principles at any time. He will
be given no opportunity to earn an honest livelihood, and it would be
surprising indeed if his wrongs, not to speak of his empty stomach and
hopeless circumstances did not make him a bona fide criminal ere long.
Obviously, meanwhile, such a man is effectively gagged; if he be asked
whether prison be a paradise, he will reply ardently in the affirmative,
though his whole body and soul know it as a hell. For if, having
blasphemed the Holy System, he is returned to the cell whence he came,
every word of his rash revelation will be avenged upon him in torture
and misery.

Am I attempting to retaliate upon the System for personal indignities
and mishandling; or am I the dupe and tool of designing
miscreants--convicts, guards or foremen--who plied me with false
statements to wreak revenges of their own? I have already said that I
was never harshly treated by any of the prison officials, and after the
two first months indulgences were allowed me beyond the customary prison
usage. During my two first months, to be sure, it seemed unlikely that I
could live out my term, because I was kept at work in an underground
place without ventilation or other than artificial light, and permeated
with the hot-water pipes which supplied the buildings with heat and
power. I was also unable to eat the prison fare, and was slowly
perishing for lack of food. I never complained of this treatment, for it
was in the ordinary prison course; but when the consequences of it
became visible in my physical appearance, I was put on a diet of oatmeal
and milk, morning and evening, and allowed to exercise in the open air.
I voluntarily, during this period, went without dinner, being unwilling
to poison myself with the rancid grease and garbage served under that
name; but I made the most of the simple but nourishing milk diet, though
it was insufficient in quantity; and I improved to the utmost the
outdoor privileges, besides adhering resolutely to a régimen of daily
calisthenic exercises; so that, when I was set at liberty at the end of
six or seven months, I was in physical condition quite as good as when I
went in. I was never denied leave to write "special letters," and my
intercourse with the warden and his deputies, though always as seldom
and brief as I could make it, was uniformly suave and smiling. The
reasons for all which I shall have occasion to discuss later.

So much for the "grouch." As for being made the dupe of designing
persons among the lower officials, and my fellow prisoners,--beyond
replying tersely to questions put to me, I never had any communication
with the former, and never heard or spoke a word with them reflecting
upon the prison management. But what of my fellow prisoners?

They looked me over keenly and thoroughly to begin with; and no
inquisitors have more sensitive intuitions or are quicker to suspect
double-dealing than they. My aspect, my bearing, my speech, my
affiliations, my treatment, all came under their scrutiny, and were
debated in that secret court which prisoners hold. Not at first, nor
lightly, did they give me the honor of their confidence. I might be a
spy sent in from without, or a stool pigeon made within, or I might be
indifferent or loose-mouthed. But when they did resolve to trust
me--when I was elected a member of the "inner circle," as one of them
phrased it,--they had no reservations. I was called on to make no
protestations, to register no oaths, nor did I solicit any
communications. They came to me freely, and either by laboriously penned
or penciled letters written on surreptitious scraps of paper in
ill-lighted cells, or by circumspect word of mouth mumbled into my ear
on the baseball ground of a Saturday afternoon, they would disclose
their long hoarded and grievous facts. "I wouldn't lie to you, Mr.
Hawthorne--what would be the use? it would come back on me!" But I was
listening to the break and tremor in their voices, the hurry and awkward
indignation, the eager marshaling of insignificant details, the dreary,
apathetic recital of sordid or callous outrages, the hopelessness
striving once more to hope. "If they'd only send us an inspector who
wouldn't be always dining with the warden, and junketting in his auto,
and taking the screws' word against ours--a fellow who'd peel off his
coat and size things up independent!" Their wish was not fulfilled in my
time; the inspections were a farce and a scandal. There was a tradition
of one inspector who had really effected something--who seemed to think
of his duty, as well as of good dinners and joy rides--but that was long
ago. That he never repeated his visit would seem to indicate that his
report was found inconvenient.

Meantime, I did not need their asseverations of veracity; the truth
shone through their uncouth stories. They were widely different from the
glib patter that runs out of a crook's mouth in the presence of an
official. Some of these men were seasoned criminals; often they did not
themselves understand how iniquitous was the "deal" that had been given
them, being too much inured to the tricks and treachery of the
detectives' practises to feel special animosity regarding them; but more
or less dimly they felt that wrong was being done them that was not
contemplated or recognized by the law. The last thing to die in a man is
his sense of justice; "I'm as bad a man as you like, and I'm willing to
take my proper medicine; but they ought to give a man a square deal!"
There was a young fellow there, well educated, with an intelligent,
agreeable face and gentlemanly bearing; I got his story, not from him,
but from the reminiscences of others. One time "Bob got nutty, and
wouldn't come out of his cell, and started setting fire to his bedding.
His cell got filled with the smoke and he was near choking to death, and
fell down on the floor. A bunch of screws stood in front of his door
making fun of him, and they held a blanket up so the smoke wouldn't get
out. At last they opened the door and pulled him out, and they clubbed
him good and plenty, and then they dragged him down the stairs--he was
in an upper tier, understand--with his head bumping against every step.
They threw him into a dark cell, and left him there." There he had
leisure to recover from his "nuttiness." It was nothing much out of the
usual, only the incident happened to offer spectacular features which
served to keep the memory of it fresh. But does the Department of
Justice countenance such diversions?

To return to my theme--I came to feel that whether or not I was handled
softly, others as deserving as I, or less deserving, or more deserving,
were not; and that if I had no personal grounds for complaint, they had.
I could not adopt the point of view of one of the "better" class of
convicts: "The warden has always treated me decently, and I don't mean
to bite the hand that caressed me." I need not affirm, either, that my
good fortune was due to an expectation that I would respond in kind;
that would be an unverifiable inference. But it was plain that the
officials took interest in the prison paper as a medium for advertising
and gaining credit for the penitentiary; and that when I began to write
for it, newspapers all over the country quoted the articles and
commented kindly on them. My name was given a prominence, unwelcome,
though well meant; accounts of my doings and condition, entirely
apocryphal (for I never saw a newspaper man during my stay, or gave out
any form of interview), were published and featured from time to time; I
was kept more or less in the public eye. If, now, I were to be starved
and clubbed, dungeoned and otherwise maltreated, not only would I be
incapacitated from contributing to the paper, but some hint of the facts
might leak out and impair the reputation of Atlanta Penitentiary as a
Gentleman's Club and Humane Paradise. Accordingly, if I were found
smoking out of hours, or were missing from count,--"Never mind--it's
only Hawthorne!" It may be, of course, that my personal charm was so
irresistible that every official from the warden down fell victim to it,
and would rather prove recreant to their oath of office than interfere
with me; my vanity craves to believe so, yet I hesitate. At any rate,
with whatever sugar the gag was sweetened, or whether the suggestion of
it was inadvertent, I did not feel justified in accepting it; and when I
got out, the waiting reporters at last obtained what they had so long
awaited. But though my eight hundred comrades seem to have been
gratified with my words, I cannot think that they were equally
satisfactory to the officials; for I am informed that Hawthorne's
writings are henceforth barred from the penitentiary. I must have hurt
their feelings in some way; no one can please everybody.

The naive surprise expressed in some local quarters outside the
penitentiary went to show how unexpected and almost incredible my
statements appeared to be--or, from another point of view, how
successfully hitherto the truth had been suppressed. The truth being
once unshackled, I was anxious to get the widest possible circulation
for it, and therefore arranged for its publication in various newspapers
distributed over the country; but I was not altogether sanguine that my
plan of public enlightenment would prove an unqualified success. The
System, as I have indicated, had several guns which it might bring to
bear, and it was conceivable that some of the editors who had subscribed
to the syndicate might find reason to regard the articles as not adapted
to the taste of their readers, and decline to risk offending them any
further. If other guns of the System should prove inadequate, there was
always the great gun to be depended upon, known as the Law for Libel. I
took what precautions I could with respect to this formidable and most
respectable weapon; I stipulated that a competent lawyer should read
each article before it was offered for publication, and inform me of any
passage in any of them which might be obnoxious to the provisions of
this law, in order that such passages might be modified or expunged. He
carefully discharged his function; and if any reader should detect a
lack of continuity or explicitness in any of my statements, he may
charitably ascribe it to the consequences of the lawyer's advice; since,
even in this free country, the proprieties must be observed. If I were
fortunate enough to escape the missiles of the Libel gun, I had still to
be on my guard against more obscure and personal weapons; I am an
ex-convict, and any lenity of treatment which I had hitherto enjoyed is
not to be looked for in the future. If I were sent back to prison, my
shrift was likely to be short; and I could only hope, in that event, to
have been able to say enough to afford my entertainers ample provocation
for giving me, as my comrades would say, the limit.

"You would have only yourself to blame!"--I hear that comment. If you
are kicked, be like the puppy--roll over on your back and hold up your
paws for mercy. But if canine models are in question, I feel more
inclination to the thoroughbred bulldog, who does what he can and would
do more if he could. I have undertaken a heavy responsibility, and must
make the best showing I may with it. I no longer have a lifetime before
me, but I have learned while I have been alive that the methods of the
puppy are not remunerative in the end. Every natural instinct in me
calls out for rest and peace, and to forget the valleys of grief and
humiliation; but there is another voice which summons me to other
issues. I am sensible of my lack of strength and fitness for the
enterprise; but I believe that it was no idle circumstance that called
me to it; I believe in a Divine government of the world, which chooses
sometimes to use unlikely instruments to accomplish its will. The little
I can do may inspire worthier deeds by more powerful hands. Emerson
found simple words for a mighty thought--


"One accent of the Holy Ghost
The heedless world hath never lost!"


The prophets of old had no dignity or weight in themselves, but they
delivered messages which changed the world. "What! that old numskull be
the mouthpiece of Jehovah?" his townsfolk might exclaim. But so it was.
What is any one of us in himself?

However, I don't wish to bear too hard on this pedal. It is easier to
look at things from the commonplace standpoint. One thing or another
prevented any of my companions in the jail from doing what it was
desirable to do, and circumstances quite unforeseen opened a way for me
to do it. What I have said above was with a view of showing how
difficult it may ordinarily be to bring prison facts to light; and if,
by chance, some individual should find means to his hand to open a
window, he would be a poltroon if he forbore to do it. I am under no
illusions as to the obstacles in my way, nor do I anticipate that what I
am trying to do will result in prompt or vital changes for the better in
prison management. The facts I adduce may be discredited, but if they
are true they will not be lost. My eight hundred inarticulate comrades
are always present in my thoughts. I have left them in the body, but I
see their faces wherever I turn. It is a crime that any human beings
should be arbitrarily kept in the conditions which surround them, and if
I can loosen one stone of the Bastile which, at Atlanta and elsewhere,
annually engulfs and destroys so many of them, I shall be content.

Julian Hawthorne

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