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Chapter 13


The walls of jails are good non-conductors of what goes on behind them,
and this applies to other prisons as well as to that at Atlanta. Yet
once in a while a groan or protest, or a partial account of some
outbreak, finds its way through; and in many cases the gist of the story
is to the effect that the food is bad or scanty. Other things the men
behind the bars suffer stoically, or not so stoically; but lack of food
arouses them to despair and frenzy. We have lately heard reports from
Sing Sing illustrative of this condition there; and many another jail
could echo the complaints of the unfortunates in that gloomy

Convicts know that they are to be punished, that the government has
sentenced them, that it is the law; and though they may find cause to
disagree with the decree that consigns them to hopeless and useless
servitude, they accept it as at least legal and incident to the game as
played. But they do not believe that the government has condemned them
to starvation, or to poisoning (and the condition in which food often
comes to the convicts' table is practically poisonous). They know that
no such punishment is included in the statutes; and they can only
conclude, therefore, that it is an arbitrary and illegal piece of
cruelty or neglect on the part of the warden or commissary officer. They
are prone to think that these persons profit financially by cutting down
their supplies; and that they are careful to conceal the fact in their
reports to the Department, or to disguise it as a meritorious economy.
At the same time, they are conscious that there is no regular channel
through which they can make their injury known to the authorities, and
that nothing is more readily denied, or more easily concealed from
inspectors, than is this very abuse.

But the suffering which it occasions is constant and cumulative. They
are still required to perform their labor, as if in full physical vigor.
They are punished if physical weakness causes them to fall short in
their tasks. They feel their vitality ebbing, they find themselves ever
less able to resist the inroads of disease, their appeals to the doctors
are often met with sneers and even animosity; and what marvel is it that
stoicism and patience at last give way, and they break out in some wild
and savage excess which justifies the resort by their masters to the
dungeon and the bullet? But death may well seem to the rebels preferable
to the lingering pains of the alternative fate.

The under nourishment and malnourishment of convicts is, in fact, one of
the worst crimes of the many which their despots perpetrate upon them.
From any point of view, it is barbarous and wicked--the crime of a
Weyler upon the defenseless Cuban revolutionists, which, as much as the
destruction of the Maine, impelled this country to declare war. Yet,
knowing as we do that it is perpetrated upon the human beings in our
prisons, we sit supine and acquiescent, and thereby make the crime our

Have you not imagination enough to put yourself for a moment in the
predicament of the prisoner? There you sit in the narrow gloom of your
cell, or you toil in the stifling confinement of your work room, and
such is not only your state to-day, but for years to come it will be
unchanged. You are isolated from sight of and association with every man
and woman in the world who cares for you or thinks kindly of you;
silence and rigid obedience are imposed upon you; you meet no looks that
are not harsh, and hear no words but sharp commands or angry menaces.
Your very toil is idle and unpaid, and its diligent performance brings
you no credit or hope, except treacherous promises of a good constantly
delayed. And then picture yourself when, after wearisome hours, the
whistle blows that means intermission of labor and the renewal of
strength by food. Yet that summons, instead of cheering you, does but
make the burden of your misery heavier.

Sullenly and heavily, in the endless line, you tramp into the huge,
comfortless hall, with its hideous tables and benches, and as you pass
up the aisles you glance abhorrently at the dirty scraps and masses of
provender dumped carelessly out of noisome buckets by the filthy hands
of the servers upon plates still rough and foul with the hardened grease
of foregoing meals. You are faint for lack of nourishment, yet the sight
of what is provided, and the unclean smell of it, nauseate instead of
inviting you. Eat you must, if you would live and have strength to work,
yet if you eat you invite sickness and suffering, and if you could eat
all, and assimilate it, you would still leave the table but half fed.

Every tyro in physiology knows the effect upon the general organism of
dejection and resentment at meals. Prisoners more than men in any other
condition need abundance to eat and good cheer while eating; but the
food they get, and the circumstances in which they get it, causes them
to degenerate physically, and the body affects the mind. Physical
disease breeds the disease of evil thoughts and impulses. Criminals
might be generated by prison food alone, without taking account of their
previous records and future prospects.

We of Atlanta penitentiary used to hear occasionally of the
bills-of-fare of our repasts in the prison that were daily forwarded to
Washington, by way of reassuring the Department of Justice, and whom
else it might concern, as to the substance and excellence of our
nourishment. These alimentary documents might be compared with like
lists at Delmonico's and the Waldorf, and the names of the viands would
be found to be identical. The inference, to the legal mind, not to speak
of the penological one, was plain: the convicts at the penitentiary
fared as sumptuously as do the banqueters of the Four Hundred--at no
cost, moreover, to themselves, not even waiters' tips.

For here were rich soups and gravies, substantial roast beef, succulent
steaks and chops, the renowned baked beans of legend, comforting hashes,
pies and puddings, fresh vegetables, including the famous sweet potato
of the South in its pride; and long draughts of milk from the tranquil
cows of the pasture, together with tea and coffee from the Orient,
sugar, mustard, salt and pepper and vinegar, enough to beguile the most
squeamish appetite, and, to top off with, fruits in their season, led by
the incomparable Georgia watermelon. I may have inadvertently omitted
some items from this toothsome list, but it is enough as it stands to
make an epicure's mouth water. And if any skeptic were still
unconvinced, a photographer would be admitted with his undeniable camera
at certain seasons--Christmas and Fourth of July, for example--who would
place a picture of the revelry and the revelers on the everlasting
records, with garlands and festive decorations, and actual dishes of
some sort on the groaning boards, and serried rows of plump felons ready
to fall to.

The fame of all this went forth into the world, and Atlanta
Penitentiary, its warden, its guards, and its cooks shine in penal
annals as the acme and ideal of modern humanitarian ideas upon the
reclamation of convicts through gentleness and love, and a full stomach.

I found opportunity to study some of these historic scrolls, and was so
much impressed by them that I caused a suggestion to be conveyed to the
warden. Instead of sending all the menus to Washington, and to admiring
friends in the Atlanta neighborhood, let one or two of them be placed at
each meal upon the tables of the diners, to the end that they might be
stimulated, by the perusal of these literary masterpieces, to choke down
their gullets the actual garbage which was furnished in the name
thereof. But the warden's views seem not to have been in harmony with
mine on this occasion. I am glad to learn, however, from certain
graduates of the institution since my own departure from it, that the
food has greatly improved in quantity and somewhat even in quality,
since these chapters began to appear in newspapers.

I need not attempt to fathom the reason. If it were incomparable before,
why or how better it?

It could hardly have been done at the instance of the old and warm
personal friend of the warden and the Attorney-General who was sent to
Atlanta recently in the guise of a Spartan inspector of the alleged
abuses; because, for one thing, the improvement had set in long before
he made his investigation, and the investigator, in his report, appears
to have discovered no room for improvement anywhere. It must have just
happened--one of those miracles in the way of gilding refined gold and
painting the lily which are so common nowhere else as in our model penal

I had ample opportunity to study the subject personally while a guest at
the prison table, and to compare my impressions with those of my fellow
prisoners, as well as to enlarge them by conferences with persons
employed in the kitchen and commissary department. Men who had served in
other prisons--and their combined experiences covered a great many--were
unanimous and emphatic in declaring that the table at Atlanta was the
worst they had ever known, not only as to scantness of supply, but as to
the unwholesomeness or positively poisonous quality of the food
furnished. But let me tell a little of what I saw and knew myself.

When the change was made from long tables and benches to tables seating
eight and chairs, it was announced that table cloths would also be
supplied, and napkins. That was two or three years ago, but table cloths
have not yet appeared, and the eaters still wipe their mouths on the
backs of their hands in the good old way. Pepper and salt were on the
table, and a bottle of something that looked like beer and was supposed
to be vinegar, but was sampled only by the more reckless or
inexperienced convicts. Sugar was not provided except on rare occasions,
and to "diet" prisoners--men who were restricted to bread and milk and
oatmeal. Some beverage that dishonored the name of tea was served about
once a fortnight; a brown, semi-transparent rinsing of dirty kettles,
sugarless, thin and bitter, called coffee, came every day; but if your
stomach rejected either of these, you could fill up on plain water.

The latter, however, like the "diet" milk and oatmeal and the drinkables
generally, had to be taken out of metal mugs covered with white enamel,
minute particles of which chipped off and mingled with what you drank.
These particles were hard and sharp, like pure glass, and they cut and
lodged in the intestines, causing, with other things, an excessive
predisposition to appendicitis--a frequent disease in the penitentiary.
This was also promoted by the bread, which was made of the poorest grade
of white flour, without nourishing quality, the value per loaf being
about two cents; the flour was ground in steel mills, and microscopic
particles of steel were rubbed off into it--this fact I had from a
physician who had examined it. The flour, when received at the prison,
was frequently full of weevils, most of which but not all were sifted
out before it was used. The bread was tasteless and light; it was baked
in large quantities, and what was not consumed by the prisoners was sold

It is not provided in the prison regulations that officials shall be fed
at the expense of the prisoners. Nevertheless, a separate and superior
grade of flour is purchased at government expense, and is used to make
bread which is given to the officials; the loaves are placed in the
outer corridor, and are taken away by guards and others every day.
Separate cooks are also assigned to prepare the officials' food on the
prison ranges; the meats and vegetables are of a grade much better than
is supplied to prisoners; but some favored prisoners participate in
their consumption. The higher officials have the best food the market
affords and in such ample abundance that certain prison pets, usually
negroes, get their main subsistence from the surplus.

The beef given to prisoners was of the third grade--the worst on the
market--it is cow or bull beef, never heifer or steer, and often it is
rotten, and must be treated chemically before being offered even to
prisoners. It used to come on the table in gristly and bony gobbets,
after having lain on the kitchen ranges for hours, until it was reduced
to a hardness which resisted all but the most efficient and vigorous
teeth (which, except with negroes, are rare in prison). I used to
compare these "steaks" and other pieces with old blackened boot heels;
they were hardly less eatable and nourishing. Often it smelt so that
nature rebelled against it; but complaints were liable to be met by
committal to the solitary cells.

But groups of visitors used to appear in the dining room occasionally;
they were lined up along the wall adjoining the door, and were not
allowed to walk between the tables, so that the only food they could see
was what was put on the tables nearest the door; and this was always of
a quality superior to the rest, and there was more of it per man. It was
one of the little tricks employed to maintain the entente cordiale, by
which the prisoners who sat at those tables benefited, and the visitors
went forth to sing the praises of our warm hearted warden. On the days
when the bread was sour or the meat stank, visitors were headed away
from the dining room, and their attention directed to more important

The hash, which often made the breakfast, was composed of fragments of
gristle and refuse left on the prisoners' plates after dinner, mixed
with potatoes and rancid grease; this, and the soups and gravies, which
had a similar origin, gave out a most nauseating smell. The men would
gulp it down--it was that, or starve--trying to help it on its way with
all the condiments they could lay hands on; but the effect of it, and of
the food generally, upon the digestive tract was so disastrous in most
cases that they might better have left it alone. I myself retired from
the enterprise in my second or third week, and would have literally died
of inanition had not the doctor, moved by I know not what suggestion
(not mine), put me on the milk and oatmeal diet during the remainder of
my sojourn. This applied for breakfast and supper; I sat at dinner, but
satisfied myself with nibbling bread crusts, and witnessing the forlorn
and perilous efforts of my friends to walk the line between starvation
and acute indigestion. Not many were successful.

For vegetables we had Irish and sweet potatoes, turnip tops (uneatable),
black-eyed beans, bitter and greasy, and once a month, perhaps, a
tomato. The butter was made of an inferior quality of lard, and
cottonseed oil--a substance which entered into many other of our viands,
and of which, with grease, it was calculated by an expert in the
kitchen, we were offered as much as one pound per man every day. It
produced a calamitous effect upon the digestive tract, inasmuch as there
was hardly a white man in the prison who did not suffer chronically from
stomach troubles--constant suffering, often becoming acute. The
strongest digestions would resist for a while, but finally succumb.

There was a poultry farm on the grounds, donated by outside benefactors
specifically and exclusively for the benefit of prisoners, beginning
with the tuberculous patients. After it got going, there may have been
an average of six hundred fowls on the place. Of these, not one ever
appeared on the prison tables. With the exception of a possible few that
were stolen by prisoners having access to the yard, all were
appropriated by higher officials, and the eggs as well.

One official gave frequent dinner parties to his friends, and was said
to use as many as five or six chickens a day, though I cannot vouch for
that--it seems excessive. He certainly, sometimes, commandeered as many
as fourteen or more at one time. There was a story of a great cake which
he had made for some festival, into the composition of which entered one
hundred and four eggs from our farm. To neither chickens nor eggs had
he, of course, any title more legitimate than have you who read these
lines. He had a large and hungry household, and many guests--among them,
commonly, such government inspectors as were sent down from Washington,
to see whether he and his fellow officials were honestly discharging
their functions.

As for the tuberculous patients, I was never able to find any of them
who had eaten chicken from the farm, or any part of one. Some chicken
soup was at one time ordered for a patient by the doctor; a prisoner (a
famous physician), a deputy of the doctor, happened to be at the
tuberculosis camp when the soup arrived from the kitchen. It consisted
of some warm water with the shank--not the drumstick, but the shank and
foot--of a fowl in it. This aroused his interest, and twice again he was
present when a chicken soup prescribed appeared at the camp. On both
occasions--he stands ready so to testify under oath--he found the same
foot and shank in it, but nothing else recalling chicken. The foot was
identified by an imperfection in one of its toes.

Eggs were indeed provided for the hospital prisoners (never for the
general mass), but they were cold storage eggs, the cheapest grade that
could be bought in the market, and that is saying much for this sort of
product nowadays. Out of one mess of eight that were served in the
hospital, and of which I gained authentic news from the prisoner
physician already referred to, six were bad. I am informed that these
notes and comments of mine are not permitted to be read by the
prisoners; but perhaps the original donors of the poultry farm may see
them, and be prompted to inquire into their accuracy. Let us return to
the dining room.

Sweet potatoes abound in the South, and subsistence upon them
exclusively would reduce the cost of living; the only trouble is that
the human stomach refuses to cooperate in this economy. Sweet potatoes
were served at Atlanta during the season three times a day, baked,
boiled and in pies; the men were hungry enough, and the supply of
potatoes was adequate; but had they been of the finest instead of the
worst quality in the market, the experiment would have failed;
starvation proved preferable; we could not get them down. That soft,
slimy sweetness, foul with dirt and often tainted with decay,
reappearing day after day at every meal for weeks on end, outdid
endurance, nor could we be stimulated by the argument that the
Government was saving money by it. Had the sweet potato season lasted
the year round, the warden would have lost his job from mere dearth of
prisoners to earn his salary on.

I do not forget the corn, either; it was of the brand fed to farm
animals; but this enumeration becomes monotonous. We had apple pies once
a week or so; and I was told by an employee in the kitchen, who had been
a farmer in his time, that the apples were such as could be bought at a
dollar a barrel, and that the charge appearing in bills submitted to the
Government was five dollars. The quality of the apples in the pies
supports my informant's contention. As for the watermelons--a benefactor
of the prisoners bought a consignment of them sufficient for the prison
population, to be eaten on the Fourth of July, 1913. The contract was
for the best melons obtainable; and Georgia is famous for good melons. A
day or two before the Fourth, the benefactor called at the prison, and
asked to see the melons, which had been delivered some time before.
Examination showed them to be of an inferior grade, such as farmers used
for cattle and poultry. It was too late, however, to get a fresh supply,
and the benefactor had the mortification of seeing the kindly meant gift
dishonored. It is pertinent, here, that there is said to be an
individual in Atlanta not officially connected with the penitentiary who
is commissioned to make all purchases for the prison--food, tobacco, and
other supplies. He buys the stuff, and hands in his bills; but the bills
he pays are not submitted. It is conceivable that there may be a
discrepancy between the two amounts, and it might be interesting to
learn whether he alone benefits by it.

Guards walk up and down the aisles between the tables, during meals, to
keep order and also to attend to complaints or requests from prisoners.
There is also the man in the window with the loaded magazine rifle,
ready to settle any complaints that become too insistent. The common
protest is against the badness of a specific piece of food, or against
some example of dirt. The former seldom get relief; in the latter case,
the dish or cup is sometimes changed.

A prisoner at my table called the guard's attention to a quid of tobacco
which had got into his soup. The guard, who was of a humorous turn,
replied, smiling, "Well, you use tobacco, don't you?" and passed on.
This was the same guard who assaulted and clubbed a prisoner whom he was
taking downstairs, as described in a previous chapter. On another
occasion, a prisoner complained that there was a beetle in his hash. An
examination was made; but whether the beetle was alive and got away, or
whether the prisoner himself had "bugs," as the slang is, at any rate
the examiners reported no beetle. The matter was then brought before the
authorities, who ordered the complainant to the dark hole.

Another day, following some months of constant deterioration in the
food, and diminution in the quantity of it, a dinner of hash and bread
was served, and both bread and hash were sour. The air of the room was
full of the sour smell; the captain came down the aisle near mine, and a
prisoner had the boldness to stop him and hold up his plate. "It's sour,
Captain!" said he. The captain looked the man in the eye and replied
sternly, "It is not sour!" "But, Captain--" "I say it is not sour!" the
other repeated with a threatening look. It was either submit, or the
hole; the man sat down.

But a few minutes later, some one hissed; before he could be identified,
hisses came from every part of the room. It was a critical juncture. The
captain ordered the band to play, and play it did at the top of its
compass; but the hissing was audible and continued through the playing.
Presently the men got up and began to march out; it was then that a
group of guards from the smoking room below came running up the stairs
armed with clubs and revolvers and tried to get through the barred door
at the stair head, but were checked by the captain, who was a wise
tactician. The men went to their cells, and there began to howl and
screech like a crazy menagerie, and kept it up for hours. Twenty or
thirty of the supposed ringleaders were sent to the dark holes; but the
revolt was not checked until the warden personally promised reforms, and
gave his word that no further punishments should be inflicted--fair
promises, made to be broken.

The dining room windows were protected by wire netting; but there were
many holes in it, as large as a man's head, through which the flies, in
summer, entered in swarms; and there was no provision for keeping them
out of the kitchen, which opened into the dining room. Complaints were
constantly made, but the holes were never mended, and no means were
taken to kill the flies. Food sometimes was placed on the tables hours
before the men sat down to their meals, and the flies, not having the
same delicacy of appetite as the men, feasted freely in the meanwhile.
There was also frequent protest against the bits of loose enamel in the
bowls; many of these were made direct to the doctor; but he did nothing.
If a man whose digestion had given way called on him for help, a dose of
salts was the only reply, and several deaths, while I was there,
unquestionably had their beginning in this neglect. Upon the whole,
contentment with starvation was the most prudent policy in Atlanta

I am not a sybarite or an epicure. For fifteen years before I was sent
to prison I lived on the hardest and most Spartan diet, eating as little
food as possible and that of the simplest kind. Wheat, milk, a few green
vegetables, and fruit made my menus. I was therefore better fortified
against hardships than the majority of prisoners; I could hold out
against starvation longer; but against the poison of rotten or bad food
I had no protection.

The wardens and the chief clerks of prisons often wish, for motives of
their own, to make an economical showing, and perhaps do not much care
if it is made at the expense of the health or lives of prisoners. Some
friends of mine in Atlanta prison and myself made an attempt to
determine just what was paid out per man in the prison for subsistence;
we quietly obtained statements from men in the kitchen and commissary
departments, and made our calculations. After careful revision, the
figures showed that we were being fed at the rate of from eight to
eleven cents per head, a day.

About that time, a great scientific discovery was announced by the chief
steward. Food, he had been informed, contained a certain amount of heat
and power; and these heat units, called calories, could be estimated for
any given article of diet. (As I write this, an editorial on the subject
in a recent issue of a New York newspaper states the matter in terms
which I am happy to reproduce.) "Physiologists have determined by
repeated experiments that a definite quantity of certain foods furnishes
a definite number of calories or heat units, which produce a certain
quantity of energy in the animal or human body.... In twenty-four hours
a normal man of about one hundred and thirty pounds at rest, needs 1680
calories or heat units, while a man doing severe physical labor would
require sufficient food to produce 3000 calories.... Since the
efficiency of labor depends upon the energy of the body and this energy
or power is produced by the food, it is not difficult to calculate the
actual outlay required for this purpose.... The household requirements
of a family where two servants are kept would at this rate be from $1.00
to $1.40 a day, a sum sufficient to furnish all the energy for all
purposes of normal maintenance."

Such being the case, our steward figured that the convicts could be well
enough supported by about 2500 calories apiece; and upon making a
scientific estimate of the calories in our average bill-of-fare, he
found that we were being overfed rather than the contrary. Meat, so many
calories; soup, so many; sweet potatoes, so many; bread, so many; and so
on. It was found possible, on this basis, to retrench here and there;
the bills were reduced--it was hoped that we might ultimately beat even
eight cents. The sole difficulty appeared to be that the men, the
subjects of the experiment, began incomprehensibly and perhaps
maliciously to starve.

I was fortunate enough to have access to a physician (a fellow
prisoner), of forty years' eminence in his profession, who solved the
enigma for me. The sum of his comment was this: "Put a Delmonico dinner
in one bucket, and an equal bulk of swill or garbage in another; the
number of calories may be the same in both. The steward, in his
calculation, has forgotten to consider the condition in which the food
is served--its eatableness, in short. If men could devour swill, it
would be all right; but if they cannot, they will starve in spite of

So the steward's calories became a byword and a mockery in the prison
for many weeks afterward.

Similar conditions, perhaps due to the same cause, seem to have obtained
at Sing Sing and elsewhere. It is not enough that prison food should be
sufficient in amount; it must also be of a quality such that the men are
able to get it down their throats. Nor are the doctor's salts a remedy;
their violent and abnormal action finally paralyze the excretory and
digestive powers of the organism, and the man dies from poisons
generated by indigestible food in his own system. Even keeping him in
the dark hole fails to recuperate him, though it has been constantly
tried at Atlanta, and very likely in other reformatory institutions.

Plenty of vigorous and hearty outdoor exercise would help much; not the
exercise of prison toil, which but deepens the darkness of the heart;
but exercise for its own sake, for the cheer and excitement of it. Much
has been said of the baseball at Atlanta Penitentiary; and doubtless it
has been of benefit. But only a handful of the prisoners, and
nine-tenths of them negroes, play the game; the others can only stand
and look on. The games occur, weather permitting, once a week, on
Saturdays. From Saturday at half past three until Monday morning at half
past seven, the men are locked in their cells, absolutely inactive in
body, and abandoned to such mental activities as, for the most part,
breed no good either for themselves or others. The only outlet is the
Sunday church service hour--a crowded session in a blank hall, with
rifles ready to subdue any disorder. A very apostle might fail in his
efforts under such circumstances; and very apostles are few.

A man who is sick and sad day after day and year after year, and
conscious of his impotence to amend his state, is in no mood for moral
reform. Much of the sickness might be averted if the medical treatment
at the outset of disease were such as to encourage the patients to avail
themselves of advice. But each man, as he comes up in the sick line
every morning, is met with indifference or insults; he is presumed to be
a malingerer unless he can prove himself genuine on the instant; the
only other recourse is to become so sick as to be beyond help of
medicine, and then, taken belated to the hospital, to die outright. The
consequence is that the men will suffer silently in their cells rather
than appeal to the doctor; and many diseases become ineradicable from
this cause.

Even a convict, when he is miserable and weak from illness, shrinks from
facing rough and unsympathetic handling and words in the doctor's room,
with a good chance of being sent to the hole if he remonstrates. The
doctor of a prison could be its good angel, if he would.

Julian Hawthorne

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