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Chapter 14


The subterranean brotherhood waxes curiously indignant over being lied
to by prison officials. For why should criminals, whose success in their
trade must depend largely on lies either spoken or acted, be resentful
when they are paid back in their own base coin? I am inclined to think
that the anomaly may be due to some survival in prisoners of the old
belief, that honor and fair play do, or should, exist in officers of
justice; although their own experience should admonish them that
officers of prisons, at least, cultivate the art and practise of
fighting the devil with fire (as we say), and so far from ever thinking
of keeping faith with a convict, study the art of deceiving and
hoodwinking him, and appear to derive no small amusement from their
results. Indeed, any tendency on the part of a guard or other official
in a prison to deal honestly and above board with their charges would at
once awaken suspicion of his loyalty to the "system," and his superiors
would be apt to improve the first opportunity of getting rid of him.

The lies told to prisoners are sometimes told for art's sake merely--for
the delight of the artist in his fabrication. There is fun in overcoming
the suspicions and skepticism of some old timer, and beguiling him into
the belief that for once, and at last, he really is getting trustworthy
information--that he has finally succeeded in touching the elusive hem
of the robe of Truth. But commonly the official liar has some practical
object in view. This object is usually the tightening of the prison's
grip upon the convict; not only to strengthen the bonds which confine
his body, but to bring his spirit or soul under more complete subjection
and to make him feel that so far from moral reform being the end sought
in his incarceration, he will best consult his private interests by
abandoning all thoughts of decency and honor, and acting, with the
officials, against the welfare and hopes of his own fellows.

The consequence of the falsehood policy in prisons is, for one thing,
that the men most worthless morally are uniformly those who get most
favors. Men of unbroken spirit are handled in a hostile manner, and are
subjected to a régimen calculated either to kill or cure their obstinacy
and themselves. "You have no right to do this--there is no law for it!"
the convict may protest. The reply is a sneer: "What are you going to do
about it?" What do you think you would do in such circumstances?--write
to the President, or to some Senator or Congressman? awaken the country
to these iniquities? The warden and the clerk will smile over your
letter, and drop it in the waste-basket, or will make it the basis of an
adverse report against you to the Department,--insubordination,
incorrigibility, insanity perhaps.

Or, if you reserve your protest till after you get out, and can then
find any medium for ventilating it, the prison authorities will promptly
and smilingly "welcome an investigation"; and the Department will
eagerly send down some old friend and boon companion of the officials,
to make a "strict investigation," "without fear or favor." Now, at last,
the truth shall be known, let it hurt whom it may! So the severe and
incorruptible inspector comes down; and after snubbing and insulting a
few prisoners, and taking notes of the information of a few snitches,
and dining and wining with the officials, and inspecting the country in
the government automobile, he goes back to Washington with the
reassuring news that the reports of abuses, where they were not absolute
fabrications, were gross exaggerations.

Is this an imaginative sketch--or colored a little--or a good deal? How
shall it be determined?--for I am only an ex-convict, and we all know
what an ex-convict's word is worth. I can only suggest that, for your
own individual satisfaction at any rate, you commit a bona fide crime
and get sentenced to prison for it. If you survive, we can converse
further on the subject. Or--to offer a bolder suggestion yet--perhaps
the head of the Department himself might take a hand; perhaps he would
oblige us by breaking a law. Let him be handcuffed and brought to
Atlanta or elsewhere--we are not particular--and there be numbered and
U.S.P.'d and set to work. After a ten years' experience, or, if his time
be valuable, a year and a day might do, let him write his report, and I
for one will abide by it.

The prison policy of falsehood may be illustrated by the uses to which
the parole law is put. This unfortunate measure was no doubt conceived
by its parents in love and charity, to supply prisoners with a stimulus
to reform by rewarding them for it with early release from imprisonment.
If a man's conduct while serving his sentence had been orderly and
obedient to rules, he was to be freed after serving about one-third of
his appointed time; but he was required, for a reasonable period
thereafter, to make monthly reports to the prison, and to show that he
was usefully employed and was not frequenting drinking saloons or
otherwise going astray. A parole board was appointed to carry out the
law and to look after the paroled prisoner, helping him if necessary to
get employment. Meetings of the board were to be held at stated times,
to pass upon applications for parole; it was to consist of the warden
and the doctor of the prison, together with the president of the parole
board, who officiated at all Federal prisons, and who would, naturally,
be the superior official of the three. But two members of the board
would form a quorum; and meetings of the board at times other than those
regularly required could be held if thought desirable.

This looked humane and innocent, and raised great hopes in prisoners;
and an improvement in their general demeanor was soon observable.
Question soon arising as to whether life prisoners could be brought
under the new law, it was decided that lifers who had served fifteen
years were eligible, if of good record,--not an extravagant act of
mercy,--and in obtaining this concession it was made known that the
warden of Atlanta Penitentiary was instrumental. Of course the
reputation of Atlanta as a model and humane prison was greatly enhanced

But the prisoners, and perhaps the framers of the law also, had
overlooked one little word in the language of the law, which grew to
have a large significance afterward. The language is, that if the
prisoner's conduct has been correct, etc., he may be granted parole. If,
for that harmless looking "may," had been substituted "shall," or
"must," the secret annals of federal prisons since then would have been
spared much rascality, corruption, cruelty, torture and death; and
prisoners would not have hated and distrusted their keepers as they do
now, and subordination on one side and humanity on the other would have
received an impetus.

That "may" rendered it optional with the board to grant or to refuse
parole in any given case; they might not only determine whether or not
the conduct of the applicant had been, while serving his sentence, good
enough to justify clemency; but also whether, even then, it were
expedient to exercise it. No matter how unexceptionable the behavior of
a prisoner were shown to be, it was open to the board to say to him, "We
hold that your liberation would be inimical to the welfare of society,
and we cannot therefore recommend it to the Department."

The prisoner, going before the board unsupported by the advice of
counsel, had no further recourse; he must go back to his cell feeling
that all his efforts to be obedient (persisted in through what
discouragements only prisoners know) had been futile; that he was not a
whit better off than was a man who had defied every regulation, and was
worse off in so far as he had taken all his pains and indulged all his
hopes for nothing. He must serve out his time; for if he renewed his
application at the next meeting of the board, he was told that nothing
could be done in his case except upon the presentation of "new

New evidence of what? The obstacle he had to meet was the arbitrary
opinion, or fiat, of the board that it would not be a good thing to set
him free; with what argument, except his good conduct, which had already
proved unavailing, could he hope to reverse it? The decision left him
helpless and hopeless, and with a sense of despotic injustice on the
part of the authorities which was anything but conducive to good
discipline in him or in his comrades who were conversant with his fate.

Obviously, however, there was a weak point in this kind of arbitrary
rulings of the board; it was conceivable that some enterprising
Attorney-General might want to know why the board had not held the good
conduct specified in the law to be sufficient ground for freeing the
man. To guard against this, the services of a subordinate called the
parole officer were called in. This person's normal functions as
indicated in the law were to help paroled men to procure employment, to
aid them in general in their efforts toward a better life, and to stand
by them as an authoritative and kindly friend. But he was now required
to play a very different part.

As soon as a man applied for parole, the parole officer betook himself
to the place where the applicant had formerly lived or been known, and
there busied himself in unearthing whatever gossip and scandal of a
hostile nature any enemy might be willing to supply. There was no time
limit on these revelations, nor were any apparent precautions taken to
determine whether the evil reports were founded in fact; the tale bearer
was not compelled to testify under oath, and his story might refer to
incidents which had happened years before, and which had nothing to do
with the crime for which the prisoner was now undergoing sentence. With
this budget of information the parole officer returned to his superiors,
who were now prepared for any contingency.

When the prisoner comes up for examination, and has handed in his report
of good conduct while incarcerated, the president of the board fixes a
distrustful eye upon him, and says in effect, "Your behavior here seems
to have been unobjectionable; but the board cannot take the
responsibility of granting parole on that ground alone. It desires to be
informed what you were doing in such and such a place, in such and such
a year? Is it not true that you were arrested in this or that year for
this or that offense? Has your career, in short, been absolutely
blameless during the whole course of your life? Because, unless you can
prove such to be the case, it will indicate a predisposition to
law-breaking on your part which will render it imprudent for the board
to recommend you for parole to the Department."

The president has a sheaf of papers in his hand, which he glances over
significantly while the mind of the prisoner goes groping back over the
past, asking himself what he has done amiss in forgotten years, and who
can be his accusers. He has no counsel beside him to tell him that he is
being tried before an unauthorized tribunal, on unsupported testimony,
on charges irrelevant to that for which he is now undergoing punishment;
or to remind him that the judge who passed sentence on him had specified
that if his behavior were good while serving that sentence, he would be
eligible for parole--that he had, perhaps, given him a longer sentence
than he would otherwise have done, upon this very understanding; and
that, consequently, the parole board was now arrogating the power to
override the purpose of the federal court, and to inflict additional and
unwarranted punishment upon him for something which he may or may not
have done in the past, or for which, if he had done it and been
convicted, he may already have served sentence. He has no one to argue
thus for him; he feels that he is alone and among enemies; and he can
make no effective defense. And the parole officer stands by with a sad
countenance, as of one who had done the best he could for a protégé, but
was powerless to stem the tide of justice.

It can't be done, legally or justly; but it is done; that is the gist of
the matter. There is no one to know the wrong and to insist upon the
right; and the wrong is perpetrated. Unnumbered victims of it, in every
federal prison of the country, substantiate this fact. The parole
board--which means, in practise, its president--exercises more power
than the federal court, and there is no appeal from his decision. At his
will, a man may be tried twice for the same offense, behind closed
doors, without aid of counsel. He may be condemned, though the offense
was never committed except in the imagination of an enemy. We tell our
convicts that they have no civic rights; but it is not generally
understood, I think, that the Spanish Inquisition of the Middle Ages can
properly be reproduced in Twentieth Century America even with men behind
the bars.

But let that pass. Things are done under the parole law worse than this.
If it were used merely as a means to induce unruly men to be docile, no
one could complain; if men thus induced should after all be deprived of
the reward they had earned, we might condone it. But what if we find the
parole board turned into an accessory of the secret service or spy
system, and learn that an applicant for parole, whether or not he have
maintained good conduct during his term, may yet hope for a favorable
report on his case if he will consent to betray some man on whom the
police have not yet been able to lay their hand?

Here comes a postoffice thief, for example. He was known to have had
confederates, but they escaped. He is up for parole, with only an
indifferent prison record to plead for him. "We do not find your case
meritorious," says the president to him (in substance), "but there were
two or three others concerned in your crime. If you are able to furnish
their names to the board, with such other information as may lead to
their arrest and conviction, we might see our way to recommend leniency
in your matter." I will not guarantee that the president expresses
himself in terms quite so explicit, but he makes himself perfectly
understood, and the prisoner perfectly understands that his liberty is
purchasable at the price of treachery.

I don't know what percentage of the miserable creatures accept the
ignoble offer; but I know personally of many who refused it. And I do
not need to ask what are the prospects of an honest and worthy career
for those who chose to be traitors. If they go to ruin, is not the
parole board responsible? On the other hand, who shall blame the convict
if he accedes to the bargain? The alternative presented to him is one
which might cause even virtue to waver, and convicts are not supposed to
be virtuous, especially when such an example as this action of the board
is set them. The alternative is liberty, or continued incarceration with
the strong probability of increased severity of treatment, and always
the off chance of death.

Meanwhile, is there not something humiliating in the reflection that a
tribunal authorized and appointed by the Government of the United States
should descend to such practises? Or are we content to accept the spy
system in toto, cost what it may? Perhaps, however, the president of the
parole board is prepared to deny that he ever entered into any such
compact with a prisoner; and perhaps the Department of Justice will be
astonished to hear that he ever did. Is the thing true, or not true? I
think men exist who have excellent reasons to believe, and who may be
willing to testify, that it is.

But take the case of a prisoner who had no confederates--how does the
board deal with him? According to my information, which includes my
personal experience, question is put to the applicant whether or not he
admits himself guilty of the crime for which he is undergoing sentence?
My own reply was, "Not guilty"; and though the president was very
courteous to me, and gave me every assurance that I might expect
favorable action on my application, as a matter of fact and of record
the recommendation made to the Attorney-General was that my application
be denied, and denied it accordingly was. But in other cases nearly
contemporary with mine, which came to my knowledge, the reply of "not
guilty" called forth the rejoinder that in that case the matter was not
one for the board to pass on, but should be referred to executive
action--that is, that the President of the United States should be
petitioned for a pardon. Some men are so persistent or so infatuated as
to take the suggestion seriously; but their petition does not bear
fruit; probably its path to the President is by way of the Department of
Justice, where it is either pigeonholed, or reaches him with an
endorsement to the effect that it is not a case for clemency. But in
such cases as came to my knowledge, the President never saw the petition
at all.

And what happens if our man pleads guilty? Why, in that event he is told
that such a person as he should not have made application for
parole--that he has not been sufficiently punished--that the best he
should hope for is to serve out his sentence, less the regular allowance
for good time. It is a case, in short, of heads the board wins, tails
the convict loses; and he withdraws, wondering, perhaps, what the board
is for. But let him beware of becoming restive under his disappointment,
or he may forfeit his good time too.

That the parole law is interpreted, under all conditions, as being a
favor or privilege and not a right earned by good conduct, is perhaps no
more than one might expect; but no prisoner who lacks powerful friends,
or whose parole does not in some way inure to the advantage of the
prison quite as much as to his own, can make his application with
assured hope of success. Upon the whole, prisoners feel that parole will
not be granted if any means can be found or devised to prevent it; the
good report of an entire county where a man formerly lived will not
prevail against the adverse report of some inspector--one enemy of a
prisoner outweighs, in the board's estimation, the favorable words of
many friends.

Moreover, men released on parole live in constant dread of the secret
service, for they know that unjust and trivial pretexts are often made
the occasion of their re-arrest; and a paroled man re-arrested must
serve out his whole time without rebate, and not including the period
during which he was at liberty. Some supervision by the Government is of
course proper; but the men feel it to be hostile, not friendly or
helpful; that any error they fall into or mishap they meet with will be
construed against them, not in their favor. In short, under the outward
forms of liberty, they are still in prison, and are often discouraged
from doing their best by this sleepless fear of the prowling spy.

Atlanta prison records show that out of one thousand prisoners who
applied for parole up to June 30th, 1913, two hundred and seventy were
successful. These applicants were serving terms of from one year and a
day to twenty-one years. The two hundred and seventy who were paroled
had served an aggregate of eighty-three years beyond the period when
they were eligible for parole (that is, after one-third of their
original sentence), or an average of about 112 days each, and with an
average of from twenty-five to forty per cent, of the time contemplated
for them to reestablish and rehabilitate themselves.

The one-year-one-day men lost about thirty-three per cent. of their time
during which they might have labored to reform themselves; and there
were about one hundred of the two hundred and seventy whose sentences
ran for a year and a day. Some sixty-five of the two hundred and seventy
had sentences of more than a year and a day and less than two years;
about thirty-five had over two years and under three years; from which
it would appear that short term men, convicted of minor offenses, were
given preference for parole over long term men. Yet it would seem to the
ordinary intelligence that it should be the long term men who most
needed parole and, if their conduct had been good, best deserved it. It
often happened that men would be paroled when they had but a few weeks
or even days yet to serve of their full sentence. In such cases, the
prison got whatever credit may belong to granting parole, but the men
got rather less than nothing, for they stood the risk of re-arrest and
further confinement.

When an applicant goes before the board for examination, he is sometimes
turned down summarily; but more often he goes out ignorant whether or
not he will succeed, and, as I have already shown, he is not seldom kept
in this torturing uncertainty until the day when he is either turned
loose or told that he has been rejected. This seems unnecessary, and
often appears to be due to sheer carelessness; the papers are not
promptly submitted to the Attorney-General, or they are pigeonholed and
forgotten. It may be true that the law does not categorically demand
that a prisoner shall be released immediately upon a favorable report;
but there is no obvious reason why he should not be, and it is cruel to
keep him in suspense.

There was a young fellow while I was there, a well educated and
agreeable man, whose conduct had always been unexceptionable; he applied
when eligible for parole, and was informed that he would be released.
Every morning thereafter for three weeks he arose with the hope that the
release would come that day; every night he went to bed with a heart
heavy with disappointment. He could not eat or sleep, he could not talk
connectedly, he trembled and turned pale, and was on the way to becoming
a nervous wreck; but no explanation was vouchsafed him. At last he was
suddenly told that he might go. The sole reason that I ever heard for
the delay was that the papers had been overlooked. There are a great
many government employees at Washington; it might be worth while to
appoint one more, charged with the duty of seeing that the overlooking
of parole papers be henceforth avoided. This was a very mild instance; I
have related how poor Dennis lingered for six months and finally died
from the same inattention or indifference.

There was a friend of mine, M., a highly intelligent, good natured
fellow, active and efficient in his prison duties, always courteous and
obliging; he was serving a sentence of five years, I think, for some
theft or confidence game. He had "done time" some six or seven years
previously, but during the interval had lived straight. At the time of
his last arrest he had been kept in the local jail, somewhere in New
England, after conviction, for four months before being transferred to
Atlanta. Time spent in a local jail before conviction is not counted in
the prisoner's favor; for example, I was arrested several months before
my conviction, and the trial itself lasted four months, and after the
trial I spent ten days in the Tombs.

With the exception of the last ten days, however, I was lucky enough to
be out on bail; but none of this time was applied to the lessening of my
sojourn in Atlanta, although the judge specified in his sentence that my
imprisonment there was to count from the time when the trial began; an
injunction which, had it been observed, would have caused my release on
parole a few days after my arrival at the penitentiary. But it appears
that such rulings by a trial judge have no weight with the Department of
Justice; and I am willing to admit that the judge's ruling in my case
seemed rather like whipping the devil round the stump--an evasion of the
manifest intent of the law, which, if I were guilty, I had no right to
expect. At all events, the Attorney-General made a decision, based upon
my case, that hereafter no such evasions were to be allowed; and I
presume his authority must be superior to that of any federal judge.

But my friend's case did not come under this category. His four months
in jail came after, not before, his conviction; and yet, when he arrived
at Atlanta, he was told that this four months would not be deducted from
his penitentiary time. Turn this which way you will, you cannot escape
the conclusion that this man is getting four months more than the
sentence of the judge required. Well, M. applied for parole on the plea
of perfect conduct during his imprisonment; no denial of that was
offered; but he was informed that his conviction seven years before, for
which he had been duly punished at that time, prevented the board from
giving favorable attention to his application.

This looks to me like trying a man twice for the same offense, and twice
condemning him; and I can find nothing to warrant it in the wording of
the parole law. If every actual or alleged mis-step of a man's whole
life can be quoted against him as ground for refusing parole, it would
seem tantamount to stultifying the law for parole.

This is not done in every case; but the point is that it may be done in
any case, and thus the fate of the applicant is at the arbitrary and
absolute disposal of the board, whether or not he have complied with the
stated provisions of the law.

The president of the parole board, in my time, was a Mr. Robert LaDow. A
former deputy warden of the Leavenworth Penitentiary, one W.H. Mackay,
wrote a letter to the Attorney-General on the 6th of November, 1913,
parts of which were published in newspapers about that time. In this
letter he said that Mr. LaDow was egotistical, arrogant, negligent,
extravagant, visionary and impractical, showed favoritism to prisoners,
and was totally unfit for the position he held. He goes on as follows:

"Personally, he knows nothing of Leavenworth Federal Prison; he is too
cowardly to go among the prisoners in the yards to make a personal
investigation of conditions; he has dealt unfairly and hastily with so
many at the parole meetings that he is afraid to meet prisoners face to
face.... Prisoners will stand punishment without a murmur if there is a
just reason for it, and they will permit you to be the judge; but when
men under the law are entitled to parole, and the flimsy excuse to hold
them in confinement is made that they will be a menace to society, they
cannot see it in that way. The parole board at this time is arrogantly
dominated by LaDow; it is practically a one-man board....

"When the board meets here, the men do not know sometimes for weeks and
months afterwards what their fate is.... Instances occur here where the
board acts unanimously upon a parole. Mr. LaDow takes these cases to
Washington and holds them thirty, sixty, and even ninety days on some
flimsy pretext or other. He often claims press of business, until
finally some senator or congressman or influential politician calls on
him, and then he gets busy very suddenly....

"When he comes to a parole meeting he begins work generally with a rush
and a flurry.... Usually has about 180 cases; he rushes them at the rate
of 60 to 80 a day, without getting at the merits or giving them serious
deliberation. He brings a stenographer, his private secretary, from
Washington at a heavy expense.... Then, when they return to Washington,
the stenographer writes up the result of the meeting, while LaDow will
take a junketing trip at Government expense ... as a sort of recreation
from his arduous duties."

I had not been long in Atlanta before a guard informed me that LaDow was
the best hated man in the prison, by officials and convicts alike. Nor
did I find any prisoner there, afterward, who did not speak to the same
tune. If he be really an efficient and trustworthy official, this is
singular and unfortunate. Mr. Mackay's charges against him at
Leavenworth are almost identically the same as what may be heard against
him any day in Atlanta. If there be any basis for them, perhaps it would
be expedient for the Government to supersede him. The parole law, at its
best, seems to be rather a weak-kneed and perverse institution, and it
would be a pity to deprive it of what value it may have by committing
its dispensation to the hands of a man not peculiarly fitted by nature
and temperament to carry out its provisions. It was Napoleon's opinion
that a blunder is worse than a crime.

Julian Hawthorne

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