THE FRUIT OF PRISONS
After weathering Cape Parole, I laid my course for the Port of Good
Time. Men whose prison records are clear are liberated after serving
two-thirds of their original sentences. This new posture of my mind
invited a review of the experience through which I had been passing, and
of the conditions with which I had become conversant, and their
significance in connection with the policy of penal imprisonment in
general. I will introduce some of these reflections in this place.
As I have just said, men whose prison records are clear are liberated
after serving two-thirds of their original sentences. But part or all of
this abridgment may be lost by imperfect conduct. One man, at least,
within my knowledge, was punished by the dark hole several months before
the expiration of his original sentence, and was kept there until that
sentence had expired. Then, out of that filthy dungeon he was thrust
abruptly forth into broad daylight and the crowded world. It was a
miracle if he survived. What have most convicts to live for? Perhaps
those who have most to live for are unlikeliest to survive--their
anxiety is greater.
On the other hand, severity itself may stimulate a convict. His human
mind cannot comprehend despair. Instinct forces him to hope. So weeks,
months, years go by, and hope seems to him more instead of less
justifiable, till at last, perhaps, he dies with the illusion still
strong in him. Real despair is un-human and possibly rare. Otherwise
prison mutinies and killings would be more frequent. The argument of
despair is, "Since I must die here anyway, I'll take two or three of
those devils with me!" But few men believe they will die in jail,
therefore the guard or other official escapes.
Not ten percent of men in jail would regard such a killing as
unjustifiable. We were taught in school that resistance to tyrants is
obedience to God, and many who had disobeyed God in other ways would
gladly obey Him in this. I speak not merely of "ignorant and brutal"
convicts, but of educated and intelligent men like you and me. Even a
sensitive conscience may condone the killing of a tyrant who is slowly
and surely destroying you, body and soul, under sanction of law. But we
punish convicts who fight for revenge or liberty, and protect the
officials who taunt and torture them into doing it.
What a hideous and almost unbelievable situation! Historians wonder that
the Aztecs of Cortez' time, with their comparatively high civilization,
tolerated human sacrifices. But their human sacrifices were merciful
compared with ours. What is cutting out a man's heart on an altar to
propitiate a god, to hounding him to death through miserable years in a
prison to placate the spite of an accuser, the justice of a court, or
the grudge of a warden or guard?
And what is the fruit of it? For pure, carefree, smiling, remorseless
wickedness nothing in human annals surpasses the young criminals--black-
mailers, bomb-throwers, gunmen--now infesting our cities. "I think no
more of killing a houseful of human beings, men, women and children,"
one of them was quoted as saying the other day, "than of crushing so
many beetles." How came such a monster to exist? Why, we bred him,
supplied him with the poisonous conditions that generate such beings and
can generate nothing else. He had intelligence enough to understand that
the established order made earning an honest living hard work; saw
thousands living well without labor apparently, other thousands robbing
under cover of legal technicalities; a legal profession living by
devising statutes to punish crimes and prosecuting the criminals thus
manufactured; often living better yet by teaching criminals to escape
the penalties which their law imposed. He saw reform schools which
instructed such children as he had been to become such men as he was;
prisons and penitentiaries which graduated such as he in the latest
devices of crime--and he made up his mind that goodness was at bottom
humbug, that only a fool would be honest or merciful when money could be
got by theft and murder.
We breed poisonous snakes and scorpions, give them no chance to be
anything but that, and then wonder they are not doves and butterflies.
Things like this gangster are infernal spirits, irreclaimable; but we
gain nothing by extirpating the individuals; the black stream which
carries them must be dammed at its source. Of the conditions which
generate them, a part is the prisons and their keepers. But we are not
yet at the root of the matter--the keepers are not primarily to blame.
It is the principle which prisons illustrate which attracts and molds
keepers till they become often as bad as the men they have charge of,
and often much worse.
Prisons mean social selfishness, the disowning of our own flesh and
blood. They segregate visible consequences of social disease; but the
disease is invisibly present in all parts of the body corporate, and
can no more be healed by cutting off the visible part than we can
heal small pox by cutting out the pustules. Prisons are not the right
remedy; they inflame and disseminate the poison we would be rid of
and prevent any chance of cure. The soul of all crime is self-seeking
in place of neighborly good will; we send men to prison to get them
out of our way, and that is criminal self seeking and ill will to the
neighbor--delegating to hirelings our own proper business.
In attempting thus selfishly to extirpate crime, we commit the crime
least of all forgivable--the denial of human brotherhood and
responsibility. For that crime, no law sends us to prison; yet it is no
sentimental notion, but the truth, that it is a crime worse than those
for which we imprison men. Prisons are brimful of men less guilty before
God than is the society that condemned them. You and I are not excused
because we are not society--we are society. Society is not numbers but
an idea--a mutual relation; we cannot shift our blame to people in the
next street. "Am I my brother's keeper?" was an argument used long ago,
and its reception was not encouraging.
Thoughts like these pass through a convict's mind when he discovers that
he is on the last leg of his disastrous voyage. He then begins to see
the whole matter in its general relations; what use was served? who is
the better for it? "Prisons make a good man bad and a bad man worse," is
the way I often heard the men at Atlanta put it. The situation, entire
and in detail, is preposterous and futile. Grown men, from all ranks of
life, or all degrees of intelligence and education, are herded
promiscuously, and treated now like wild beasts, now like children.
Discipline, in any condition of life, is a good thing, and no people
need discipline more than we do; but in prison, discipline means
punishment, and there is no discipline in the right sense of the word. A
man is "disciplined" when he is starved, or clubbed, or put in the hole,
or deprived of his good time.
Military discipline might be beneficial; it implies respect for rightful
authority, and orderly conduct of one's own life. Officials in a
penitentiary wear uniforms; prisoners wear prison clothes; but, in warm
weather, officials go about, indoors and out, in their shirts and with
the bearing of loafers; they have no official salutes, and the men are
not allowed to salute them--to do so would expose them to "discipline."
There is no drill in the prison, no soldierly bearing, no physical
control of movement. The men are "lined up" to go to work, but it is a
line of slouchers and derelicts; no spirit in it, no respect for
themselves or one another, no decent example set by the guards. And yet
armies in all ages and in all parts of the world have proved the value
of discipline--its necessity, indeed--in all proper and intelligent
handling and control of bodies of men; and it is as important for
convicts as for soldiers. It would promote cheerfulness, smartness,
efficiency; half an hour's lively drill of all the men in prison every
morning and evening would do them good, improve relations between guards
and prisoners, and lessen the danger of revolts. Why refuse it then? Is
it because it would imply something human still lingering in convicts?
or because it is feared that convicts taught to act in unison by
military drill would combine more readily for mutiny? But order does not
naturally lead to disorder but away from it, and mutinies are mostly
impromptu affairs, contemplating revenge rather than escape. As for the
other argument, a lie is not a sound basis to build on, and it is a lie
that convicts are not human. To admit this would facilitate their
Physical exercise twice a day in the open air would diminish the sick
line, produce better work, and help to put a soul in any prison.
Desultory exercise--say two or three hours of baseball on
Saturdays--does not meet the need--it emphasizes it rather. But at
present the well-nigh universal aim seems to be to render the gray
monotony of prison slavery as monotonous and as gray as possible. Any
relief from it is opposed or made difficult. It is true that at Atlanta
and elsewhere we have music (that is what it is called, and I have no
wish to criticize the hardworking and zealous young fellows who produce
it in and out of season; and some of the men may like it for aught I
know); and that a vaudeville company performs for us occasionally. But I
must look these gift horses in the mouth, and say that often we have
them less for our own advantage than as an advertisement to the public
of the liberality of prison authorities. And there to be sure at my
prison, is Uncle Billy, who makes fiddles out of shingles, with nails,
and plays on them, all with one hand. But he is--I hope I may now say,
he was; for he was to have been paroled the other day; he was a lifer,
and a picturesque and wholly innocuous figure--he was, then, permitted
to pursue this industry, and visitors used to come and watch him do it;
but he, too, was most useful to the prison press agent, and owed the
indulgence to that functionary. On the other hand, there is a convict,
also a lifer, who cultivated a most remarkable skill in inlaid woodwork,
producing really beautiful and artistic boxes and other articles, and
found some consolation for his awful fate in making them. But one day
while I was there his cell was entered by the guard, his boxes and plant
taken away and broken, and he was forbidden to do that work any more.
Visitors did not know about him.
This was malicious. But some of the things done by prison authorities
are apparently due to sheer stupidity and ignorance. For example, there
were some cows belonging to Atlanta prison, and some of them calved. So
there were half a dozen calves more or less, with prospects of more to
come. The authorities decided that the expense of rearing these
innocents was not justifiable; there was nothing in the rule book about
it; besides, the jail was not designed to harbor innocent creatures. The
minutes of the conference were not given out, and we can judge of what
passed only by the results. The order went forth that the calves be
killed; and the killing was actually perpetrated, and the bodies were
buried somewhere in the prison grounds. The story seems incredible, but
it was corroborated by several men cognizant of the facts. Why not, at
least, have turned them into veal?
I was speaking just now of the promiscuous herding together of prisoners
in prisons generally. No effort is made to separate the old from the
young, the educated from the ignorant; the hardened sinners from the
impressionable youths or newcomers; or (at Atlanta, except in the
cells), the negroes from the whites. Association of negroes with whites,
on a footing of enforced outward equality, is bad for both; not because
a bad white man is worse than a bad negro, but because the physical,
mental and moral qualities of either react unfavorably upon the other.
The negro, being the more ignorant as a rule, falls more readily into
degraded vices; the white man, being as a rule the dominant element in
the situation, masters the will of the negro, but cannot or at least
does not erect barriers against the latter's subtle corruption.
We must always bear in mind the abnormal conditions in a prison--the
misery of it, the dearth of variety and relaxation, the terrible
yearning for some form, any form, of distraction and amusement. The male
is parted from the female, and from the resource of children; his nerves
are on edge, his natural propensities starved, his thoughts wandering
and embittered; he finds no good anywhere, nor any hope of it. He will
seize upon any means of abating or dulling his cravings. The negro is
pliant, unmoral, free from the restraints of white civilization. In the
South especially, his subordination to the white is almost a second
nature; but he involuntarily avenges himself (as all lower races do upon
the stronger) by that readiness to comply which flatters the sense of
power and superiority in the other, and leads to evil.
I wish to say, in passing, that my allusion to negroes in this
connection is by no means to be taken as reflecting upon them all; some
of the men in Atlanta for whom I had the highest respect were negroes;
and I am inclined to think that the negro in his right place and
function is a desirable element in civilization, and, if we would treat
him aright, would do us as much good as we can do him. But the negro in
jail is at his worst, just as white men are, and he is made worse by
white companionship. There are more than two hundred of them in Atlanta
jail, and some of them are the worst of their kind.
What is true of the association of negroes with whites is not less true
of the association of what are called professional criminals with the
young and unhardened. Various prison authorities claim that they have
made some effort to prevent this contamination; but the only sign of it
that I could ever discover at Atlanta was that the old and the young are
not commonly assigned to the same cells. Obviously, however, a man young
in years may be old in crime; there can be no security in the age test
taken by itself; and no pretense of adopting any other test in a jail is
A young fellow, without inherited or acquired criminal tendencies, is
sent to jail for some inadvertent and insignificant infraction of law.
He had always meant to live straight; he had no enmity against society;
he had always thought of himself as well intentioned and law abiding.
But here he is; and he is shocked, shamed and appalled at the sudden
grip and horror of the jail. Upon a mind thus astounded and distraught
the professional criminal seizes and works.
The man of the world--of the criminal world--befriends him, chats with
him, heartens him, and soon begins to fascinate him with ideas which had
never till now occurred to him. He preaches the injustice and hostility
of all mankind, and the hopelessness of the convict once in jail ever
again reestablishing himself in the world. He tells his pupil that he is
damned forever by his fellow men outside, and that unless he be prepared
to lie down and starve, he must fight for life in the only way open to
him--the way of crime. Then he proceeds to show him, progressively, the
profits and advantages of criminal practises. It is only too easy for
the trained crook to overcome the resistance of the unhardened youth;
his arguments seem unanswerable; and the wholly justifiable feeling that
prison is wrong and an outrage aids the corruptor at every turn. A few
months is often enough to turn an innocent boy into a malefactor; a year
or more of such instruction leaves him no chance of escape; and many an
innocent boy finds himself in a cell for what seems to him a lifetime.
Last July, a justice of a State Supreme Court sentenced Thomas Baker,
little more than a child, to fifteen years in jail for--what? If your
mother was blind and helpless, and your stepfather came in and abused
her and beat her, in your presence,--a big brute with whom you could not
hope to contend physically,--what would be your feelings, and what would
you be prompted to do? Thomas Baker, trembling and sobbing with rage and
anguish, ran out of the house to a neighbor's, borrowed a shotgun, and
ran back and emptied it into the brute's body, killing him on the spot.
Fifteen years in prison for that! Shall we rejoice and say that justice,
at last, is satisfied?--But that is a digression.
No doubt, meanwhile, Thomas Baker's one consolation in life is the
reflection that he did succeed in killing his stepfather; and he will be
very ready to give ear to an older and more experienced man who tells
him that the only difference between good and bad in the world is that
those are called good who have power over those who are called bad; and
that the only way for him to get even for his wrongs is to become a
crook--and not be a fool!
The wardens and guards do not prevent these companionships; whether or
not they try to prevent them cannot be affirmed; but to my mind it is
plain that they could not prevent it, try as they might. It is an evil
inherent in prisons and ineradicable. As long as we have prisons, we
shall see judges like Thomas Baker's sending boys to jail for such
"crimes" as his, there to stay for fifteen years, more or less, and
there to be changed from innocence into diabolism. But Thomas was not
innocent, you say, but guilty. What is guilt? I find him innocent of the
guilt of standing inactive by and seeing that cruel fist strike his
blind mother's beloved face.
Anything unnatural seems unreal. I remarked some time ago that when I
was sitting in the court room being tried on charges sworn to by certain
postoffice officials, the dull and sordid scenes would sometimes vanish
before me, and I would say to myself, "It is an illusion--what is really
taking place is very different from this appearance."
This thought often recurred while I was in prison.
At meal times, the men would file in and take their places at the
tables; anon, the meal over, they would rise and file out--men whom I
knew, creatures like myself, slaves of an arbitrary power acting in
accordance with principles long since known to be false and mischievous.
And I would see men whom I knew, men like myself, jeered, insulted,
clubbed, dragged to the hole. I would see the dead bodies of men whom I
knew, men like myself, rattled out of the gate to the dumping ground and
dropped there and forgotten--men with wives and children still living or
dead in poverty and shame, their pleas unheard and their wrongs
unrighted. I would contemplate the long rows of steel cells, cages for
me and men like myself, locking us in for months and years and
lifetimes, for an example to others and for the protection of society
against our menace. I would glance, as I passed, at the aimless toilers
in the workshops, standing or squatting in the foul atmosphere under the
eye and rifle of the guard.
I would consider that this dismal and inhuman pageant was going on age
after age as a cure for crime--while crime, all the while, was
increasing by percentages so astounding that we seek through immigration
statistics and records of increase of population to account for it--and
in vain. And I would tell myself, once more, that the thing must be an
illusion; it was inconceivable that an intelligent nation should
If you found that you were taking bichlorid of mercury by mistake for a
sleeping draught, would you go on taking it? or would you clamor for an
antidote, waylay doctors for help, and disturb the discreet serenity of
hospitals for succor? But the nation, made up of such as you, continues
its prison nostrum, which slays a million for bichlorid of mercury's
A tragic farce--that is what prisons are. Enclosures of stone and steel
are built, and a handful of armed men are given absolute control over
several hundred beings like themselves. We, as a community, have erected
a system of laws which places us, as a community, in the attitude of
penalizing practises which we, as individuals, do not severely condemn.
Our morality, as publicly professed, is in advance of our morals as
privately exercised. When our neighbor steals or murders, we give him
the jail or the chair; but when you and I are charged with such deeds
and see the prison or the chair in our near foreground, we discover
ourselves to be less convinced than we had imagined of the rectitude of
our penal system. Of course, then, the faster we make laws to punish
crime, and the more we punish criminals, the more criminals are there to
punish. Our hypocrisy gradually is revenged upon us, one after another;
one by one we fall into the pit so virtuously digged for others.
And criminal law, meanwhile, becomes constantly more searching and
severe in its provisions, seeking to prevent crime by the singular
device of employing the best methods for multiplying it. The victims of
its activities are miserable enough in jail, and languish and die there,
and, if they were not very wicked before, are furnished with every
facility to become so; but they have not the consolation of feeling that
their being thus immolated on the altar of an outraged but non-existent
morality is doing them or anybody else any good. A prominent business
man was put in a cell yesterday; a political boss arrives to-day; a
college graduate, a judge, and a religious fanatic are expected next
week. But business, politics, the Four Hundred, the Law and religion are
no better than they were before.
The procession becomes ever more crowded; when is it to stop? Shall we
build more prisons, enact more laws? A leading counsel said the other
day, "Commercial crime is an effect and not a cause. The existing system
is responsible. We should prevent conditions that lead to crime and
resort to criminal courts as little as possible." And an
ex-Attorney-General observed, about the same time, "I sometimes think
that if we could repeal all the laws on our statute books and then write
two laws--'Fear God' and 'Love your neighbor'--we would get along
better"--but he added, "If we could get the people to live up to them!"
Yes, that is a prudent stipulation; and it applies just as well to the
myriad "laws on our statute books" as to these two.
I call prisons a tragic farce, and am sensible of an unreality in them;
but they are fortunately unreal only in the sense that they stand for
nothing rational or in line with the proper and natural processes of
human life. They are false, and the mind spontaneously reacts against
falsity and denies it. But here are half a million (or some say, a
million) men every year who suffer actual and real misery from this
falsity, and many of whom die of it; that is the tragedy of the farce.
And the fact that this falsity, prison, exists among us and has legal
standing and warrant, tends to demoralize every one connected with it,
and, more or less, the entire community. If its misery and evil were
confined within the circuit of its walls we might endure it; but it
spreads outward like a pestilence. It creates little jails in our minds
and hearts, though we never beheld the substantial walls nor heard the
steel gates clang together. We become jailers to one another, and to
There was a woman, the wife of a jailer, with a son four years old. At
first, her husband had lived in a house outside the jail, but latterly
he had been obliged to dwell within the jail walls.
His wife had seen and known too much of jails to be happy in such a
residence. She thought of her son, growing up inside prison walls, and
seeing the squalor and daily misery of convicts, and witnessing the
cruelties of the guards--mere matters of routine, but horrible
nevertheless. Her husband had come up from the ranks in prison life, and
was an efficient officer. He had no thought of ever changing his
One day he left the jail on business, and did not return till one
o'clock the next morning. Two keepers who had been left in charge heard
four sounds like pistol shots about ten o'clock that night, but supposed
them to be torpedoes exploding on the railroad that passed the rear of
the jail. There was an interval of an hour or so, and then came two more
shots. This time they made a search of the jail, but it did not occur to
them to examine the quarters of the warden, where his wife and his
little son were.
When the husband and father reached home, he went to his rooms; and
there he learned the extent of the misery and loathing which his
profession and his dwelling had created in the heart of the woman who
had loved him. She lay dead, with a bullet hole in her temple. The
little boy was also dead, shot through the heart by his mother's hand.
On the floor was the pistol, and four empty shells were scattered about.
Those first bullets she must have aimed at her son, but the horror of
the situation had shaken her hand, and she had missed him. Then had come
that interval, which the two keepers had noticed. What had been in her
mind and heart during those endless, brief minutes--her terrors, her
memories, her desperate resolve, now failing, now again renewed? If you
who read this are a mother, you may perhaps imagine the unspeakable
drama of that hour. At last, murder and suicide were better than the
jail, and she fired twice again, and this time did not miss.
"Insane" was the verdict. But it is perhaps reasonable to ascribe the
insanity to the conditions which found their black fruition in the
woman's act, rather than to the despairing creature herself. She had all
that most women would ask for happiness--a good husband, a darling
little son, an assured support. But there was ever before her eyes the
ghastly, inhuman spectacle and burden of the jail; she knew it through
and through, and she could endure it no longer. She pictured her
innocent boy growing up and following his father's trade. The idea
tortured her beyond the limits of her strength, and she accepted the
only alternative--death. She was not a prisoner--she was only a looker
on; but that is what prison did for her. And our press, echoing our own
will, and our courts, voicing our own laws, keeps on shouting, "Put the
crooks in stripes; show them no mercy!"
Shall we not pause a moment over the bodies of this mother and her son,
over this frenzied murder and suicide? They constitute an arraignment of
the prison principle not to be lightly passed over, or commented on with
rasping irony by witty editorial writers. That tragedy means something.
We cannot lease the community's real estate to hell, for building hell
houses and carrying on hell business, supported by our taxes and
advocated by our courts and praised (or "reformed") by our
penologists--we cannot do that without meeting the consequences. We see
how the consequences affected Mrs. Schleth in the Queens County, New
York, jail, last summer. It will affect other persons in other ways. But
it will affect us all before we are done with it. Hell on earth is a
tenant which no community can suffer with impunity.
If prisons are a good thing, it is full time they made good. If they are
a bad thing, it is full time they were abolished. The middle courses now
being tried in some places cannot succeed; no compromise with hell ever
succeeds, however kindly intentioned. But the devil rejoices in them,
recognizing his subtlest work done to his hand.
What shall happen if prisons are done away with? That question will
doubtless puzzle us for a long time to come. I have no infallible
remedy; but I shall touch upon the subject in my next and last chapter.