IF NOT PRISONS--WHAT?
What would you advise to check law breaking? A good practical answer to
that question would save civilized humanity a great many millions of
dollars every year.
The old answer was "jail" for minor cases and death for the others.
There was much to be urged in favor of the latter. Dead men not only
tell no tales, but they commit no crimes. Kill all criminals and crime
would cease. The device has been tried--it was tried in England for a
while--but the result was disappointing. It threatened to decimate the
population; and in spite of logic, it failed to discourage law breakers.
Criminals seemed to get used to being hanged, and drawn and
quartered--they no longer minded it. There is a psychological reason for
that, no doubt; though it is not so sure that psychology as understood
and practised to-day can find out what it is.
Moreover, the spy system, which always accompanies and thrives upon
severe legislation, became so productive of informations that it was
soon clear that the end would be the indictment not so much of a tenth
part of the population as of all but a tenth--or even more. So a
compromise was made; only murderers should be killed. That did not
lessen the number of murders, and seems rather to have increased them;
for the impulse to murder is commonly a very strong impulse, producing a
brain condition in which consequences are not weighed. Also, when the
community takes life for life, it appears to weaken the general respect
for life, and men can be hired to do a killing job for small sums.
Sentimental persons, too, insist on making heroes of convicted
murderers, which in a degree, perhaps, counteracts the depressing
conditions surrounding them. So we made another compromise.
This is not on the statute books, but it operates actively,
nevertheless. It is the development of the appeal industry among lawyers
for the defense.
"I will teach you to respect human life," says the judge, "by depriving
you of your own."
"Don't worry, my boy," says the culprit's counsel, patting him on the
back; "you'll die sometime, I suppose; but nothing is more certain than
that it won't be on the day set for your execution by his honor. And
I'll risk my reputation on your death being no less in the ordinary
course of nature than his honor's, and very likely--for he looks like a
diabetes patient--not so soon."
These anticipations often prove well grounded.
No one in the court room, therefore, is often more cheerful and
confident than is the prisoner doomed to the noose or the chair.
Besides, if all else fails, he may petition for pardon or for life
In short, the death penalty stays on the statute books, but the
community does not want it, though it has not the courage to demand its
abolition outright. It forfeits its self-respect, and the murderer draws
the inference that it is safer to murder than to steal. A thoroughbred
man does not compromise; he does one thing or he does the other, retains
his self-respect, and commands that of his fellows, whether or not he be
"successful." This nation is not thoroughbred as regards its laws, and
is neither self-respecting nor respected.
However, there is agitation for the abolition of the death penalty; and
possibly the futility and absurdity of such a punishment may finally
strike the persons whom we have picked out as the wisest and ablest
among us, and have put in our legislatures to tell us what to do and not
to do. Absurd though legal killings may be, they are not so absurd as
the persuasion that death is the worst thing that can happen to a man.
It involves little or no suffering, and is over in a moment.
Imprisonment involves much suffering, and lasts long, not to speak of
the disgrace of it, to those who can feel disgrace. The serious feature
about killing is, that it is final for this state of being, and when we
do it we do we know not what. But that is for the community to consider,
not the victim.
We cannot know what death means, but we can and do know what
imprisonment means, and so far as our mortal senses can tell us, it is
worse than death. But while we may abolish the death penalty easily, the
suggestion to abolish imprisonment staggers us like an earthquake. Every
moral instinct in our little souls leaps up and shrieks in protest; and
if that be not enough, we fall back with full conviction upon the
consideration of security of property. It is impossible to consider a
measure which would leave crimes against property unpunished. And what
other punishment for them than imprisonment is there or can there be?
Argument upon this matter evidently bids fair to drag in pretty nearly
everything else--sociology, political economy, religion, politics, law,
medicine, psychology,--the whole conduct of our life and history of our
opinions. But I must content myself here with a few words, and leave
volumes to others. That personal property has value is undeniable;
whether it be worth what it costs us, in the long run, and from all
points of view, may be left to the judgment of generations to come. Law
in its origins is Divine; whether our human derivations from it partake
of its high nature is debatable. Medicine and psychology, professing
much, have not explained to us what or why we are, or what is our degree
of responsibility for what we are and do. Politics sits on the bench and
argues through the mouth of the public prosecutor; is justice safe in
This age did not invent prisons, but inherited them from an unmeasured
past. It is a primitive device. The mother locks up her naughty child in
the closet or ties its leg to the bed-post. Society does the same with
its naughty children, though with one difference--the mother still loves
her child. She, following the example of God, chastens in love; but what
do we chasten in? If not in love, then in hate or indifference, or to
get troublesome persons out of our way without regard to harm or benefit
to them. And that is not Godlike but diabolical, being based upon
selfishness. The community being stronger than the individual, its
selfishness is tyranny or despotism. Many of us indeed may be willing to
admit that prisons are perhaps objectionable or altogether wrong in
theory; but surely something must be done with malefactors, and if not
The only answer hitherto is compromise--the old answer, fresh once more
from the devil's inexhaustible repertoire. We are willing to abolish the
death penalty, which is more merciful than imprisonment; but we are
unwilling to abolish the latter, because in spite of its inhumanity, it
seems to protect our property. In other words, we consider our own
interests exclusively, and the culprit's not at all--though we still
protest that our object in imprisoning is as much the individual's
reformation, as our own security. The fact, however, that imprisonment
brutifies and destroys instead of reforming is beginning to glare at us
in a manner so disconcerting and undeniable, that we feel something has
to be done; and in accordance with our ancient habit and constitutional
predisposition, that something turns out to be compromise. We sentenced
for murder, but put obstacles in the way of carrying the sentence out.
On the same principle, we will now retain prisons, but make them so
agreeable that convicts will not mind being committed to them.
That is the compromise; and it is already in operation here and there.
In the first place, numbers of good men and women, with motives either
religious or humanitarian or both, obtained leave to visit prisons, talk
with the inmates, give them religious exhortations, supply them with
some forms of entertainment, and in other ways try to lighten the burden
of their penal slavery. These persons deserve great credit. It was not
so much the exhortations or entertainments that did good, as the idea
thereby aroused in convicts that somebody cared for them. Between, them
and the community there was still war to the knife; but certain
individuals, separate from the community, were not hostile but well
disposed toward them.
A man fallen into evil may sometimes be redeemed by coming to feel this;
he will try to be good for the sake of the person who was kind to him in
his misery. I once asked a comrade in Atlanta whether if the warden were
to give him twenty dollars and tell him to go to the town, make a
purchase for him, and return, he would do so? He said, "No," and when I
asked him why, replied that he would know the warden had something up
his sleeve, and was not on the square in his proposition. I then named a
certain benefactor of the prisoners outside the prison, and asked if he
would do it for that person? After some consideration, he said that he
would, because he "would hate to disappoint" that person, and would
believe in the bona fides of that person's request. This man was held to
be rather a bad case; but he was still capable of acting honorably, if
the right motives were supplied.
But this is not enough. The great mass of convicts could not be reformed
by "hating to disappoint" any particular person who had been kind to
them or trusted them. Their personal gratitude to the individual would
not stem the tide of their well grounded conviction that people in
general were neither trustful nor kind; and the numberless and constant
temptations of their life after liberation would prove too strong for
them. There have been instances to the contrary; touching and beautiful
instances, some of them; but they are far from establishing the
principle that Christian Endeavorers, or Salvation Armies, or prison
angels, or angelic wardens can effect the reform of men in prison. Some
stimulus much more powerful is required.
The next step in compromise was to improve the physical conditions in
the prison; to give more light and air and exercise, better food; to
mitigate or do away with dark holes, assaults and tortures. There were
many zealous critics of these leniencies; they said we were making
prisons so attractive that criminals, so far from being deterred from
crime by fear of punishment, would commit crimes in order to be sent to
prison. And they could quote in confirmation cases of men who had
accepted liberation at the end of their terms reluctantly, or had
actually refused it, or of men who had voluntarily returned to prison
after having been discharged.
There have been such cases; but they prove, not the attractiveness of
prisons, but their power to kill the manhood in a man. What does it not
suggest of outrage and degradation perpetrated upon a human soul, that
he should come to prefer a cell and a master to freedom! There may be
slaveries so soft as to invite the base and pusillanimous, but they are
more rather than less depraving than cruelties to all that makes
honorable and useful manhood. The deepest and essential evil of prisons
is not hardship and torture, but imprisonment. If choice could be made
between the two, every manly man would choose the former. No disgrace is
inherent in hardship and torture; but imprisonment brands a man as unfit
to associate with his kind. No mortal creature has or can have the right
to inflict it, nor any aggregation of mortals.
This is a hard saying, but I will stand by it. There were criminals of
all kinds in Atlanta with whom I was brought into contact. One had grown
rich by organizing a system of "white slavery" on a large scale. He
dealt in woman's dishonor and turned it into cash, and he saw nothing
wrong in it. This man was advanced in years, he was incapable of
regarding women in any other light than as merchandise, he was
insensible to their misery, and laughed at their degradation. He was
physically repulsive; his face and swollen body suggested a huge toad.
It would be foolish to associate the idea of reform with such a
creature. I felt a nauseous disgust of him; he seemed on the lowest
level of human nature.
But, contemplating him during some months, I saw little touches of
kindliness and good humor in him; he did not hate his fellows, nor wish
them to hate him. If the other prisoners ostracized him or cursed him,
he was painfully sensible of it, and even perplexed, and would try to
win their favor. I perceived that he had always lived in a world of
filth and sin, and knew no other. In that world, he had doubtless not
done the best he might, but which of us can say he himself has done
that? Had I been born and bred as he was, what would I be? What right
had I to call him unfit for my companionship? I had no right to do it,
nor had any other man. At last I shook him by the hand and wished him
There were men there who had committed merciless robberies, cruel
murders, heartless swindles, abominable depravities. I have felt greater
temperamental aversion from many highly respectable persons than I did
from them. Their crimes were one thing, they were another. Not that
crime does not corrupt a man--stain him of its color. But there is
always another side to him, a place in him which it has not dominated.
Given his conditions, we cannot affirm that he is not as good as we
are--that he is unfit to associate with us. And it behooves us always to
bear it in mind that to affirm the contrary is an unpardonable sin
against him of whom we affirm it; it works more evil in him than
anything else we can do, and places us who repudiate him in a truly
hideous posture. Shall we be more fastidious than God?
All crime is hateful; but I came to the conclusion that there is only
one crime which prompts us to hate the criminal as well as his crime
itself. For this crime is one which originates in our heart; it is not
forced upon us by need or passion or heredity. Therefore, it permeates
every fiber of our being, every thought of our mind, every impulse of
our soul; and we cannot say of it, this is one thing and we are another.
It is an unhuman crime; and yet there is no punishment for it among
human laws; rather, it is regarded as a mark of superiority. The most
respectable persons in the community are most apt to commit it. And it
was upon the suggestion and initiative of this crime that penal
imprisonment was invented, and is perpetrated to this day.
Christ condemned it; Christianity is based upon its repudiation; we call
ourselves Christians; and yet it is the characteristic crime of our
civilization. The Law and the Prophets are against it; it defies every
injunction of the Decalogue, for it takes the name of God in vain, it
steals, murders, commits adultery, covets and bears false witness; but
we clasp it to our bosoms, and actually persuade ourselves that it is
the master key to the gates of Heaven. What is it? It is the thought in
a man's heart that he is better, more meritorious, than his fellow.
It is engendered, most often, by a successful outward
morality--conformity to the letter of the Commandments--the whitening of
the outside of the sepulcher. But the stench of the interior
loathsomeness oozes through. The only person unaware of that stench is
the man himself. There is but one cure for it--what we call
Regeneration; which makes us sensible of that deadly odor, and drives us
freely and sincerely to detest ourselves in dust and ashes and bitter
humiliation, to pity, succor and love our brethren, and to wrestle with
the angel of the Lord for mercy. But we prefer to seek salvation from
evil in the building of prisons.
Now, this crime may survive even in prisons; but it is rarer there than
in any other aggregation of human beings. Therefore, there is a
wonderful sweetness in the prison atmosphere. It is a sweetness which is
perceived amid all the dreariness, stagnation and outrage, and it rises
above the vapors of physical crime, for it is a spiritual sweetness.
There men are locked in their cells, but the whited sepulcher is
shattered, and its sorry contents are purified by the pure light of
humiliation, confession and helplessness; there are no hypocrites there,
no masks, no holier-than-thou paraders. Their crimes have been
proclaimed, and branded upon their backs; pretenses are at an end for
them. It was wonderful to look into a man's face and see no disguise
there. "I am guilty--here I am!" This experience took the savor out of
ordinary worldly society for me. I go here and there, and everywhere
there is masquerading--the weaving of a thin deception which does not
deceive. We were sincere and humble in prison; but that is a result
which the builders of prisons hardly foresaw.
There was one more step toward compromise--to take the prisoner out of
his cell and send him outdoors without guards or precautions, nothing
but his promise that he would return when the work to which he was
assigned was done.
I read the other day an agreeable account of this "honor system." The
men were employed on road making chiefly, enjoyed the benefit of free
air and the outdoor scene, and kept order and faith among themselves.
But the prison walls were still around them, though unseen. They were
told that any attempt to escape would be punished by deprivation
thenceforth of all liberties--any attempt! and if the escape were
successful, the fugitive would know that the chances of recapture were a
thousand against one. Moreover, it was laid down that the escape or
attempt of any member of the gang would react upon the liberties of all.
This made the men guards over one another; it was not honor but
self-preservation that was relied on. And in any event, there was the
prison at last; the chain might be lengthened to hundreds of miles, but
it held them still. They were convicts; when their terms were up, they
would be jail birds. Society had set them apart from itself; they were a
contamination. "You are not fit to mingle with us on an equal footing."
Society might condescend to them, be friendly and helpful to them,
but--admit them of its own flesh and blood?--well, not quite that! "We
forgive you, but on sufferance; it is really a great concession; you
must show your gratitude by good works."
Oh, the Pharisees! the taint of it will not come out so easily; and
until it does come out, to the last filthy trace of it, prisons will
continue to be prisons, and compromises will be vain.
I repeat--the evil of prisons is the imprisonment. You must not deprive
a man of his liberty. His liberty is his life. He may, and probably he
will, use his liberty to the endangering of your property or comfort;
but has your own career been wholly free from infringement upon the
rights of your neighbor? If you send him to prison, you ought to link
arms with him and go there, too. You have not been convicted by a court,
but your own secret self-knowledge convicts you. When the prison doors
close upon you, you will discover that you have suffered an
injustice--that you are the victim of a blind stupidity. Not in this way
can you be reformed. All genuine reformation must proceed from within
you--it cannot be compelled by locks and bars; freedom is essential to
it. Locks and bars arouse only the impulse to break through them, and
this primal and righteous impulse leaves you no leisure to think of
relieving your soul from stains of guilt.
The only imprisonment to which a man can properly be subjected is that
imprisonment of good in him which evil-doing operates automatically and
spontaneously; any outside meddling with that operation hinders,
confuses, or defeats it. Crime weakens and shackles you; to put shackles
on the body is no way to remove shackles from the spirit. It is the
gross blunder of a brutal and immature era, but we have continued it
down to the present day. Jail is still the remedy.
The newspapers the other day told of a man who had been sentenced to
forty years in jail for an assault. A woman, hearing the verdict, said,
"Well, that's better than nothing; but he ought to have got life!" We
are told in the Bible that we must not let the sun go down upon our
wrath. The wrath of this lady could not be appeased with forty years.
Think of what that culprit will be after forty years in jail. Assuming
for the sake of argument the extreme absurdity that he is alive by that
time, picture to yourself a fellow creature of his--and a woman--saying,
"I won't forgive you yet." I pity her more than I do him, whose troubles
in this world will probably soon be over. But when her time comes, with
what face, on what plea, shall she ask forgiveness?
But if there are to be no prisons, what shall we do to be saved from
I cannot for my part imagine any hard and fast plan being laid down in
advance. But it would seem reasonable, to begin with, to free ourselves
from the social crime of claiming superiority to our brethren. Having
removed that beam from our eyes, we may see more clearly how to abate
the motes in the criminal's. If we can bring ourselves to regard
prisoners and jail birds as inferior to ourselves only in good fortune,
which has kept us out of jail and put them in, we may find ourselves on
the road to remedying their lapses from moral virtues.
The majority of prison crimes are against property, and are motived by
want and poverty. If the man had opportunity to work for his living, he
would as a rule abstain from stealing. Other crimes are committed in
passion; but such criminals need education and training in self-control,
and (often) removal of the provocations which set their passions afire.
Many other crimes, and almost all vices, are due to physical or mental
disease, or to actual insanity. It is the doctor and not the jailer who
should seek the cure of these.
But there are also some persons, chiefly brought up or brought down in
our cities, who practise crimes, apparently, for sheer love of evil.
These gunmen gangs are the most depraved and malignant members of the
community; they will not work, and they rob and murder not from want or
passion, but because the suffering of their victims gives them pleasure
and ministers to their pride and self-esteem. Most of these gangs, as we
have too much reason to believe, stand in with the police, giving them a
percentage of their plunder, and getting protection from them for their
These creatures, as I have already suggested, are the distillation of
the various evils in our cities which society has failed frankly to
face, or genuinely to attempt to lessen. They are not responsible for
their existence, and, as they indicate a general condition, it can do no
good to kill them or otherwise put them out of the way; others would
take their place. They are not insane in the common sense, but they are
the product of insane social circumstances, responsibility for which
rests on us. They must be taken in hand individually, by workers
self-consecrated to that duty, and deterred from doing evil, and showed
the value of doing good. One might work a lifetime with some of them,
and have little to show for it in the end; but it took a long time to
build the pyramids and the Panama Canal, and to advance from the dugout
of the savage to the _Mauretania_. It is work better worth doing than
any of these.
Taking the situation by long and large, society must cease to be a sham
and become truly social. The thing seems inconceivable, and still less
practicable; but it is not. Nor has history failed to admonish us that
it has sometimes been the most difficult and improbable things which
have been nevertheless accomplished; as if their very difficulty, and
the labor and self-sacrifice involved in doing them, were themselves a
Europe, a handful of centuries ago, at the behest of a fanatical priest
or two, forsook all else and spent a generation in journeying to
Palestine and trying to get a certain city from the Turks.
The city was worth nothing to Europe; it was an idea that set them
crusading. Nothing else seemed so unpractical and feeble as the gospel
of Christ; but it crumbled the Roman Empire into dust, and has kept the
world guessing and maneuvering ever since--never more than to-day. On
the other hand, if you propose an easy job, something that can be done
with one hand tied behind you, and your attention is diverted, it is apt
to remain undone. Nobody can get up an interest in it. But talk of an
expedition to the South Pole, or a flight round the earth in a biplane,
with certainty of appalling hardships and all the odds in favor of
death, and you are mobbed with volunteers. Human nature likes to test
its thews and sinews.
Perhaps, however, nothing else was ever so difficult as to turn from our
flesh pots, our dinners and tangos, our summer resorts and winter
resorts, our business and idleness, and undertake to substitute for
prisons our personal care and help for criminals--to remove the causes
which led them to crime, to convince them of our good faith and good
will, and to disabuse them of their suspicion that we distrust them,
condescend to them, and despise them. For this prodigal brother of ours
has become a very unsightly and unattractive object during these
thousands of years of his sojourn among the pigsties and corn husks. He
does not speak in our language or observe our manners or contemplate our
ideals, or care for our refinements. We shall have to read again the
fairy stories where the prince has been changed by evil enchantment into
some uncouth and repulsive monster, but was redeemed to human form by
sympathy. The evil spell was of our working, and it behooves us to
overcome it. No one else can.
We must abolish the title of criminal as applied to any class or
individuals of our race in distinction from others, and use those of
unfortunates or scapegoats instead. They are our victims, and our
salvation depends upon our making good to them the evil we have done
them. It will not suffice to delegate the job to money, or to persons
chosen for that purpose; we must do it ourselves--make it one of the
main occupations of our lives. Riches and culture are fine things, but
making good out of evil is better. Its rewards may not be so immediate
or so visible, but they are real and permanent.
But I do not think morality will be enough to energize the effort;
morality should always be the incident and consequence of religious
feeling, not an aim in itself. As soon as it becomes an aim in itself,
it leads to self-righteousness, and paralyzes human love in its marrow.
And it is love, far more than wisdom, that is needed here. Love God and
keep His commandments; unless you first love Him, His commandments will
be left undone, or done only in the letter, which is the worst form of
not doing. But the way to love God is to love the neighbor, and the
neighbor is the criminal.
Who shall have the immortal credit of abolishing prisons--ourselves, or
our posterity? It will surely be done by our posterity if not by