Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344


Bubonic plague cannot be reformed; it is bad intrinsically and must be
extirpated. Born in Asiatic filth, ignorance and barbarism, it now
menaces modern civilization. While it killed millions in India or China
only, we endured it, but when we hear it at our own door we turn and
listen. The instinct of self-preservation, older and often more urgent
than Christianity, says, "Destroy it or it will destroy you!"

We send our scientific martyrs to the front, who perish in the effort to
solve the deadly riddle. We would pour out billions of money in the
fight if need come. Rich men will spend all they possess rather than
die, and see those they love die of it. Nations will do the same.
Compromises are not considered; no one talks of reforming the Black
Death. Unless it be jettisoned from the Ship of Civilization, progress
and enlightenment go by the board.

And yet the disease is but physical--attacks the body only. It does not
touch the immortal spirit. It has not rooted itself in the entrails of
our social economy and order. It does not undermine our common humanity,
or bankrupt human charity and infect it with indifference, suspicion or
mutual hostility. It does not prompt law and justice to play the roles
of persecution and oppression. It does not arrogate to itself the right
to judge between man and his brother man, protecting the one and damning
the other. It does not authorize us to say of the victim of sickness or
circumstance, "Throw him to the lions!" and to affirm of his torture and
death, "Serves him right!" Compared with such a plague as that, the
Black Death would appear benign.

Penal imprisonment is an institution of old date, born of barbarism and
ignorance, nurtured in filth and darkness, and cruelly administered. It
began with the dominion of the strong over the weak, and when the former
was recognized as the community, it was called the authority of good
over evil. Man took the reins of government from the hands of the
Almighty, and amended the Ten Commandments with statute law.

Evil is--to prefer the good of self before good of the neighbor; crime
is to act in accordance with that preference. Every son of Adam is born
to evil, and society is but his multiplication; but society could exist
only by the compromise that the hostility of man against neighbor should
mask itself as mutual forbearance. Impossible that every one should
possess every thing; therefore dissimulate your greed and divide. But
certain persons, missing their share either through non-conformity with
the doctrine, or by force of circumstances, stuck to the old principle
of each man for himself, and became "criminals." Their hand was against
society, and society's against them.

In eras before society became integrated, some of these non-conformists
prevailed over such strength as could be mustered against them, and by
hearty and forthright robberies and murders came to be leaders and
rulers of men--earls, barons, kings. The aristocracy of modern Europe is
descended from such stout rebels. They became reconciled with, and
organized, society, and aided it in war against the weaker of their own
sort; and it was they who devised prisons for such captives as it might
be inexpedient to kill outright.

All this did not alter the truth that all men are alike evil, and that
such as are not also criminals, forbear--at the outset at least--from
motives of enlightened selfishness. But in course of time, even enforced
good behavior breeds good intent, and "good" people. For God rules us
through our very sins, and will lead us, (with our passive cooperation)
to religion and regeneration in the end.

But the segregation of a criminal class is manifestly human, not Divine;
economic, not moral; illusory, not real. Consequently, pains and
penalties inflicted by men upon other men, by society upon individuals,
by the community upon "criminals," have no warrant of Divine authority,
but only of superior numbers or physical strength. The only proper
punishment for crime is the criminal's conscience, and if he have none
available, he is liable to the natural contingency that violence breeds
violence, and may get him in the long run--though it often happens that,
measured by mortal standards, the run is not long enough for us to see
the finish. We may console ourselves with the reflection that a finish,
somewhere, there will be.

Meanwhile, it is for persons of intelligence and good will to consider
whether, aside from physical penalties or jailing, we possess means for
inducing criminals to abstain from crime. Let us leave abstract
arguments and come to facts.

My license to speak in the premises is due to my being an ex-convict,
sentenced to Atlanta Penitentiary for a year and a day, but recently
released on "good time." I shall first give you a notion of what jail
is, and of what is done and suffered there; then consider what has
hitherto been done to alleviate prison conditions and abuses; and end
with inquiring whether these measures, actively prosecuted, will prove
adequate to the need, or whether something else and more is demanded. If

Purgatory is usually understood to be--as its etymology indicates--a
place where persons encumbered with evil accretions may have them purged
out of them, or stripped off from them, and so be fitted for the purity
and innocence of Heaven. It is therefore a beneficent institution. Hell,
on the other hand, was the inheritance of those whose evil is ingrowing
and cannot be removed--a place where they may live out their diabolical
or satanic natures and be punished and tortured by those of like nature
with themselves.

Our prisons were, in the beginning, frankly hellish in their object; men
who had incurred personal or society hostility were put in them to be
tormented from motives of hate and revenge. But during the last few
generations the humanitarian idea has come into being and has not only
ameliorated prison conditions in some prisons and to some extent, but
has caused prisons in general to cease being frank and to become
hypocritical--to pretend that they are purgatories, aiming not at
revenge but at reform. This pretense has been so industriously and
sagaciously put forward that ninety-nine outsiders out of a hundred are
misled by it, and believe that prisons are not, still, administered for
the destruction of their inmates, physical, mental and moral, with such
circumstances of cruelty and brutality as happen to suit the humor of
the arbitrary and irresponsible guards and wardens; but that they are
uniformly conducted with an eye to wooing away prisoners from sin and
crime, and persuading them of the beauty and policy of honesty,
gentleness and goodness. In fact it is probable that almost everybody
believes this, except the wardens and guards, and the prisoners
themselves--and a few Thomas Mott Osbornes and other prison workers who
have had an amateur peep inside the walls and caught a fleeting glimpse
of a horror or two before the discreet managers could get the door shut.

Not only so, but we read indignant articles in our morning paper about
the coddling of criminals; and witty writers will have it that prisons
are gentlemen's clubs where all the comforts of refined life are
combined with a voluptuous idleness, or with only work enough to avert
ennui. Criminals are depicted as waiting in cues at the gates of prisons
for admission, like the public at the doors of a popular theater; though
at the same time in another column, you may find the statement that, in
view of modern legal technicalities, it has become almost impossible to
get a man into jail. According to the logic of the witty writers, this
near-impossibility should be more deplored by the technicality-inhibited
criminals than by anybody else.

Prisons are not purgatories, nor gentlemen's clubs; they are just as
much hell as they ever were, and as their managers can make them. Apart
from any special leniency of local conditions, prisons are hell because
they are prisons--because you are confined there and cannot get out;
because you are a slave and have no redress; because your manhood is
degraded; because despotic power is entrusted to the men who handle you,
though they are never any better than you are, and are usually much
worse, and regard you as an asset to make profit from, a thing to be
driven and insulted to the last extremity and beyond it, and not as a
human being. Prisons are hell because convicts are punished for trivial
and whimsical reasons as much as for serious ones; and whether or not
the punishment involve actual physical torture, the insolence, disgrace
and injustice of it remain. Prisons are hell intrinsically, and always
will be; and whoever doubts it has only to commit a crime and be sent to
prison; that is the end of doubts.

Let every judge, attorney general, district attorney, and juryman at a
trial spend a bona fide term in jail, and there would be no more
convictions--prisons would end. Every convict and ex-convict knows that,
and eternity will be too short to obliterate the knowledge in him.

The unctuous plausibility of the pretense that prisons are beneficent
purgatories and not hells renders it the more sickening. Life is a
God-given discipline for men, and at best a severe one; but if we
believe in God, we know it is given in love, for loving ends. All mortal
life is an imprisonment; the laws of it are essential and natural, and
breaking them involves essential and natural penalties. God deputed this
régimen of love to parents, and to those who deal with their fellow
creatures from impulses of parental or brotherly love; but He never
licensed any man to punish another from revenge or hate, or in mere
indifference. He licensed no man to do it, nor any community or nation.
And whoever does it, serves not God but the devil; and if any crime be
unpardonable, it is that, because it is not essential or natural, but an
usurpation against nature, and breeds not reform but more evil.

Prison officials, in their treatment of prisoners, are not actuated by
love, but by indifference to suffering, or by animosity and brutality,
or by desire of profit, and therefore their work is impious and wicked.
And the longer they hold their office, the more hardened do they become
to the spectacle of suffering and outrage; the more heedless of justice
and mercy do they grow. They grow to disbelieve in any human truth and
goodness; all men are to them criminals actual or potential; breathing
and dwelling amidst crime, it enters into their own blood and temper.
They will have their debt to pay; but neither may those escape who
ignorantly or carelessly appointed them to office and hold them
there--the Government, and the nation which creates Government as its
representative. Ignorance does not excuse; knowledge on these subjects
is a sacred duty. Man cannot break the bonds of his brotherhood with
man; the blood shed will be required of him, and the usury of misery and

"Throw him to the lions!--serve him right!" Most of us have joined in
that barbarous cry upon occasion. But some of us have sickened at the
slaughter, and are for paring the lions' claws, or at least exhorting
them to roar less savagely, and to devour their prey in secret. But the
lions, with their attendant hyenas and jackals, have so long been
accepted as indispensable to the order and majesty of the State, that no
one likes to stand up to his God-given intuitions, and demand the
abolition of the whole prison circus. We hardly realize that the harm
criminals do society cannot equal the harm that society does to itself
by its handling of them and attitude toward them. The circus must go on,
of course; but--let us ameliorate its coarser features!

Let us make our prisons hygienic--larger cells, drainage, air, exercise;
let us select nice, kindly persons for guards and wardens; let us give
the convicts useful industrial occupation, which will not only keep them
happy and sane, but pay the cost of their keep to a tender-hearted but
economic state; let us even be very venturesome, and--with reasonable
precautions--put the men on their honor, suffer them to run out a little
way and labor in the free sunshine, upon their promising to remember
that they are not really free, and to return at night to their cages.
And after they have served their terms, and the souls within them are
moribund or dead, let us get or solicit jobs for them, and at all events
keep a sentimental eye on them for a while. All this--only let us keep
our prisons! For think what would happen if those terrible creatures
were let loose upon us, to keep on murdering and robbing us with
impunity! Remember that they are a class apart, unlike ourselves, whose
perverted nature, though it may be lulled by gentleness and tact, can
never become truly human.

No: the Laodicean spirit will not serve! I do not ridicule or belittle
the efforts of generous and genial men and women who give their spare
time, or their whole time, to bettering the plight of convicts. But the
diabolical spirit of the prisons sneers at them, and sits undisturbed.
Let air and sunshine come to outer courts and clean-swept cells; the
star-chambers and the secret dungeons remain. Let the outraged creatures
out, to stray to the extent of their honor-tether; they are slaves and
prisoners still. There were compassionate reformers in Ancient Egypt,
who tried to make the lot of the captive Israelites easier; but the
heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and God Himself must intervene before he
would let the people go. Nor does it help that the slaves themselves are
grateful for hard-won privileges, and that we read urbane descriptions
of smiling and rosy felons working on state roads in "Don't Worry"
camps. Is it ground for congratulation that the very victims of the
specious pretense of the eternal right and necessity of prisons should
have succumbed to that delusion? Does it not prove a need yet more
urgent to be up and at them? Is it not humiliating to know that men, our
brothers, partakers of our common nature, can be so abased as to kiss
the rod, and joke about their fetters, and accept as favor what none is
entitled to deny them?

Prisons are hell--we come back to that; and they are not and cannot be
made purgatories. Men competent to make them purgatories are not to be
had at Government prices; no duties more onerous than those of a fit
conscientious warden exist under the state; and how can we look for such
a man at a four or five thousand dollar salary? Twenty-five or even
fifty thousand would be moderate, and the men who are worth that are in
some other business. The foremost citizens of the nation would not be
too good for the job, and we content ourselves with ward heelers and
rough-necks, who undertake it not for the salary, but for the graft that
goes with it and exceeds it. Politics and graft sit in the warden's
office, and walk the ranges in guards' uniform, and crush the manhood
out of our brothers for money, and out of sheer wanton inhumanity. Of
all the inmates of the jail, these men are the veritable and
incorrigible and unpardonable criminals; for they were not driven to
crime by passion, hunger, drink or ignorance, they have not been reduced
to the state of desperate pariahs, outcasts and scapegoats of the race,
but they willingly embrace the function entrusted to them--the
Government license to steal, bully, torture and murder--with a grotesque
sanctimonious leer for the public, and for the convicts--what! The
régimen of hell!

This writer's statements seem a trifle emphatic, do they not? May we not
surmise that they are motived by some personal grudge? have we not heard
an old adage--"No thief e'er felt the halter draw with good opinion of
the law?" Would it not be prudent to take all this with a grain of salt?
Shall we be driven to rash measures by the objurgations of an

Of the right or wrong of my conviction and sentence I am not to speak
here, nor do they specially interest me now, except as illustrations of
the working of the machine. But personal grudge against officials of my
prison I have none. I was treated with consideration and lenity. I came
out in better condition upon the whole than I went in, both of body and
spirit, though nothing would have been easier than to murder me under
the forms of routine prison discipline. What was the reason of this? I
was never informed; I might guess at it, but I don't know. Nevertheless,
the sweetness and light of the prison dispensation as regarded myself
did not blind my eyes or stop my ears to what was being done to others,
not elected to dreams thus beautiful. I saw men beside whom I sat at
meat or labored in the vineyard, fading and failing day by day; I saw
some of them die of broken hearts or broken bodies; I heard their
stories and was certified of their truth; I saw the cart rattle out of
the gate with the pine box containing the body of the man who could only
thus find freedom; I visited the graves of those who had been needlessly
and sometimes wantonly slain. I could not ignore these things because I
myself escaped them. After a few months of durance, I went forth free,
leaving behind me men as good as I or better, sentenced to serve years,
lifetimes, under treatment which I cannot imagine myself as surviving at
all. My grudge is deep, but no personal one.

I shall not at present discuss Government measures of so-called
mitigation--suspended sentence, parole, indeterminate sentence. In the
intention of their originators they may have appeared beneficent; in
practise, they proved sinister and abominable means to cruelty and
despotism. There can be no compromises with hell.

But can I pretend to solve the age-long problem of the right handling of
crime in the community? I am not wiser than my fellows, but I have felt
and known at first hand more of certain grievous wrongs than most of
them have, and even those who have known and felt may not possess the
opportunity or facility to speak that I have. I must say what is in me,
and leave to the collective judgment of the nation, and to the further
teaching of time, what shall be changed, abolished, and done.

One thing seems plain--there must be an act of faith. Worldly wisdom and
enlightened selfishness have been tried out thoroughly and are
thoroughly discredited. Their proposal was first to cure crime, and only
after that was done, to abolish prisons. But it turns out that prisons
generate, teach, perpetuate and inflame crime; never extirpate it,
though they often deter specific persons from continuing a criminal
career by either killing them outright, or destroying in them their
effective spiritual manhood. Therefore the selfishly enlightened and
worldly-wise shake their heads and declare that crime in criminals is
ineradicable. If medicine for crime be futile, save as a temporary
physical preventive, all that is left to us is to continue it as a
preventive, while admitting its impotence as a cure. Protection of
society is the paramount consideration.

Yes: but is society protected by prisons? John Jones has been jailed for
burglary, it is true; but straightway Tom Brown, Jem Smith and Reginald
Montmorency start in as train-robber, murderer and confidence man. We
have sown the dragon's tooth, and reap three for one. Lynch your negro,
and before the smell of roast flesh is out of the air, several fresh
cases of rape are reported.--But there is no visible connection between
alleged cause and effect--it just happens so.--Yes, but if it does
happen almost invariably, we cannot avoid the suspicion that a
connection, even though invisible to the outward eye, there must be.

Moreover, on what grounds does society claim protection against evils
for which its own constitution and administration are responsible? The
greatest happiness of the greatest number?--Are we so happy, then? The
happy man has been sought for long, but the seekers still delay to
return. To what end shall we cut the cancer out of the body politic, if
it sprout again in a more vital spot? If we could only reach the cancer
germ!--But the germ is not found by the knife. There are more criminals
than there ever have been heretofore. The jails are over-crowded; we
must either build new ones, or transform those we have into castles of
refuge to which good people may fly to escape the criminal nations
outside; there will be no over-crowding then!

Let worldly wisdom and enlightened selfishness retire, and listen for a
while to believers--fanatics even. An act of faith: that is to say,
first abolish jails, and then see what can be done with criminals! It is
vain to beat about the bush; we must face the alternative. The syllogism
runs thus: criminality is incompatible with true civilization--with a
normal and secure society. Jails are a crime; society makes and warrants
jails; therefore society is criminal. And the abolition of
jails--repudiation both of the principle and of the concrete fact--is
the only way to social redemption.

The one escape from this conclusion is, of course, denial that jails are
a crime. I will not further contest that point, but only repeat: Let the
deniers and doubters try a year behind the bars, themselves, and then
register their revised opinion.

But, obviously, though jails are a crime, they are not the only crime;
there are also the specific crimes of individual malefactors; and it
seems inevitable that by relieving these of prison restraints, we must
increase the prevalence of crime in the community, however much we might
be absolving the community itself from its characteristic crime of
jails. Is there any answer to that?

I am not logically constrained to make any, because if jails are a crime
they should be abolished, let the consequences be what they may. But I
will suggest two considerations. Individual crimes are the outcome
either of a pathological condition in the agent, or of conditions in his
nurture and environment which are due to social negligence or hardness
of heart. These conditions tempted him beyond his power of resistance,
or reduced him to desperation; in other words, no sane and normal man
commits crimes for the fun of it, and as not he but society created the
conditions, the latter must shoulder its part, at least, of the blame.
And this implies that it should devote itself to so improving these evil
conditions as to give the criminal a fair chance.

That is easily written, but it involves nothing less than a radical
readjustment of our whole attitude toward life. It also brings me to my
second suggestion--that this should be accomplished. We must embark upon
a great adventure--the greatest, so far as I know, ever undertaken in
this world. We must overcome the anti-human prejudice that there is a
distinct criminal class; we must recognize the latent criminality in us
all, and regard those in whom from latent it has become active as such
men as we, but for fortunate circumstances, would have been. There is no
other distinction between them and us.

Can brotherly companionship and trust reform them? If all of us
sincerely and practically united in trusting and companioning them,--so
sincerely as to convince them of the fact--I would have small
misgivings. But we can expect no universal revolution to kindness. Many
of us, probably the vast majority, would fail to rise to the height of
the occasion. Yet I can believe that many would achieve that faith and
stanchness; enough to make a beginning of success. And I have no doubt
whatever that, so far as the kindness was credited by its objects, they
would do their part. Few men that I or any one have known in jail have
been incorrigibly wicked at heart. There are indeed incorrigibly wicked
men, but they are at least as frequent outside as inside jails, because
the crime of wanton hatred and cruelty to others which is theirs, comes
only accidentally if at all under the cognizance of our law.

When jails are razed and their inmates let forth, they are not to be
left to shift for themselves. They are to be taken heartily and
unreservedly into the community, made a part of us, protected against
want and against their sinister propensities, given work to do, taught
how to work, compensated for it, and shown by constant example the
wholesomeness and beauty of good and decent living. Will they rob and
murder their hosts? Such calamities will no doubt occur here and there;
there have been martyrs in all great causes, and will be in this. But
blood so shed will not be wasted. And if the nation, or a considerable
part of it, turns resolutely and persistently to its mighty task, it
will not fail in the end.

There is nothing original or startling about the Golden Rule as a
proposition; but it will seem to tear us to pieces when it is put in
practise. But that will do us no harm; we have been long enough
compacted together in error and selfishness. The revolution will come;
it is still for us to say whether it shall be outward and terrible, or
spiritual and benign. Penal imprisonment and all that it implies is not
sane nor safe; and the cry, To the lions--serves him right!--belongs to
the dark ages, and not to the future.--_Reprinted by kind permission
from Hearst's Magazine for February, 1914_.



The long, high wall that shuts out life--
That death-in-life holds in its coil--
Its height and reach cannot prevent
The sky, nor check the immortal strife
We wage with hungry Fate, nor spoil
Our desperate hope, nor circumvent
Dreams, that redeem our aimless toil!

What Fear and Ignorance have built
Shall pass, with Ignorance and Fear,
Before the breath of Love; and men,
Casting aside the mask of guilt
That baffled, mocked and cursed them here,
Shall know each other once again!
--And must we die, release so near!

(Written in Atlanta Penitentiary,
October, 1913.)


Julian Hawthorne

Sorry, no summary available yet.