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Chapter 4


INITIATION

"Put the fear of God in his heart!"

This phrase, impious and ironic, is used by officials in prisons, and
repeated by prisoners. It has no religious import. The naming of God in
that connection reminds me of a remark I heard from a moonshiner--as the
distillers of illicit whiskey in the mountain regions of the South are
called--who had lately arrived at the penitentiary. He said, "I allus
thought this here Jesus Christ was a cuss-word; but these folks say he
was some religious guy!" His enlightenment was doubtless due to the
first aid to the unregenerate administered by our chaplain.

To "put the fear of God in a man's heart" means to break his spirit, to
cow him, to make him, from a man, a servile sneak; and this is effected
not by encouraging him to remember his Creator, but by instilling into
him dread of the club, the dungeon, and the bullet. He must learn to
fear not God, but the warden, the captain and the guard. He is to be
hustled about, cuffed, shoved, kicked, put in the hole, punished for not
comprehending surly and half inarticulate orders, or for not
understanding gestures without words; all of which encouragements to
obedience are, indeed, specifically forbidden by the rules which were
formulated in Washington and disseminated for the information of the
investigation committees and of the public, but which are disregarded
nevertheless by the prison authorities from the highest to the lowest.
For they risk nothing by disregarding them; there is no one except
prisoners to complain of illegal treatment, and there is no one for them
to complain to except the very persons who are guilty of the
illegalities; and the warden at Atlanta, at any rate, has repeatedly
stated that he would not accept the oaths of any number of prisoners
against the unsupported denial of a single guard. To do otherwise would
be to "destroy discipline." Moreover, these unverified complaints--such
is their inevitable category in the circumstances--are themselves fresh
causes of offense, and productive of the severest punishments--not only
clubbing and close confinement, often in the dark hole, but loss of good
time, which of course is more dreaded than anything else.

But may not the prisoners complain to the committees or inspectors,
appointed precisely to enquire into and relieve abuses of this sort?

I shall have a good deal to say about these agents of humanity
presently. I will only say here that no prisoner who cares whether he
lives or dies, or who possesses common sense or the smallest smattering
of experience of prison affairs, ever is so reckless as to impart any
facts to the persons in question. If he accuses any guard or other
official of cruelty, the entire force of prison keepers can and will be
at need marshaled to deny point-blank that any such thing occurred, or,
if any did, it was because the accused official was at the time quelling
a dangerous revolt, and deemed his own life in peril. If this evidence
be insufficient, it is a pathetic truth that some prisoners can always
be found so debased by terror and abject as to perjure themselves
against their comrades. It is among negro prisoners that such traitors
are commonly sought and found. White men uniformly have a sense of
honor--thieves' honor, if you please--which keeps them loyal. There are
exceptions to this rule, and there are also exceptions to the rule that
negroes betray. I have the pleasure and the honor of the acquaintance of
some negro prisoners at Atlanta who would sooner die than ingratiate
themselves with the officials by a falsehood.

Accordingly, complaints of brutal treatment at Atlanta are not frequent,
either to the officials or to investigators; otherwise, I need not tax
your imagination to picture what happens to the complainants after the
investigators have departed.

Order and discipline--as appertaining to prisoners, not to
officials--must be preserved; of course they must, if we are to have any
prisons at all. And since there is no way for the prisoners to compel
the guards to keep within the license accorded to them, we must compel
the prisoners to accept whatever injustice or outrage the unrestrained
despots of the ranges have the whim to inflict upon them. There are
desperate revolts at times--desperate in the literal sense, since they
have no hope of relief in them, but only the tragic rage against tyranny
which will sometimes blaze up in victims--and on the other hand there
are officials who will resign their positions rather than connive at
abuses. But every means is taken to avert this last; for guards know
things, and the System could be shaken by men who not only know, but,
unlike prisoners, have a chance to make what they know believed.

All this time we have been waiting just inside the prison gates. The
difference between just inside and just outside is important; for nine
convicted men out of ten, it would be punishment for their misdeeds more
than sufficient to be taken no further on the way to retribution than
that. Whatever humiliation and disgrace they are capable of feeling or
have cause to feel is at that first moment at its height; it strikes
upon them unaccustomed and defenseless--never so acutely sensitive as
then. Afterward, familiarity with misery and shame renders them
progressively more and more callous, without adding one jot to the
public odium of their position. They can never forget that first clang
of the closing gates in their ears; the whole significance of penal
imprisonment is in that. Many a man, the moment after that experience,
might turn round and go forth a free man, yet with a soul charged with
all the mortal burden that man-devised penalties can inflict upon him.
Moreover, not having been unmanned and his nature violated by physical
insults and outrages, he might find strength and spirit to begin and
pursue a better life thereafter. The "lesson" (word which our shallow
and officious moralists roll so sweetly under their tongues) would have
been taught him to the last tittle, and withal enough of the man remain
to profit by it. Whereas, under the existing conditions, no more than
four or five years in jail destroy any possibility of future usefulness
in most men; they have been hammered into something helpless, dazed, or
monstrous; and even if they have courage to attempt to take hold of life
again, they are defeated by the unremitting pursuit of our spy system,
which depends for the main part of its livelihood upon getting
ex-convicts back to jail--whether on sound or on perjured evidence is
all one to the spies. So, as I said some time ago, most prison sentences
are life sentences, to all practical intents. To the manhood of the man,
prison means death.

Do some of the above statements appear extreme? Read on, and decide.
Meanwhile I will observe that so long as prisons endure, such abuses as
have been hinted at must persist. Whatever reforms have in special
instances ameliorated them, have in so far only gone to show that the
whole system is vicious and irrational.

My friend and I looked at our new masters with curiosity; they looked at
us with what might be termed arch amusement. With such a look do small
boys regard the beetles, kittens, or other animals, power to torment
whom has been given them. It was after prison hours--the men had been
already locked in their cells, and the warden and deputy had gone home.
It was left to the subordinates to put the fear of God in our hearts; we
could only surmise how far they would go in that instruction. We did not
then know that their power was limited only by their good pleasure. But
it is an accepted and reasonable principle with them that the sooner one
begins to take the nonsense out a prisoner, the better. The strangeness
of his surroundings intimidates him at the start, and he more readily
realizes that he has no friends and that he is in prison--not (as one of
the guards afterward took occasion to remark) in a "sanitarium for
decayed crooks." A good scare thrown into him now will bring forth more
fruit than greater pains taken--and inflicted--hereafter.

Our anticipations, however, were the less formidable, because we had
been exhaustively assured during the past ten days that Atlanta
Penitentiary was not so much a penitentiary as a sort of gentlemen's
summer resort and club, where conditions were ideal and treatment almost
foolishly humane and tender. This information came not only from all
court officials with whom we had held communion on the subject, but from
our own counsel at the trial; the judge himself seemed to believe it,
and if you ask the prison authorities at Atlanta, they will earnestly
assure you that prisoners there are treated like gentlemen, are given
every material comfort consistent with their being prisoners at all, are
sumptuously fed and housed, and are helped in all ways to build up their
manhood, maintain their self-respect, and prepare themselves for a
career, after liberation, as valuable and industrious citizens. We were
naturally disposed to credit assertions so emphatically and variously
made,--some basis for them there must be. And it was obvious, at a
glance, that the corridor in which we stood was spacious and airy, with
a clean limestone pavement; that the disorder and shiftlessness of the
Tombs was absent here. The guards who attended us wore neat dark
uniforms of military cut; and if their caps were tilted back on their
heads, or cocked on the northeast corner, that was a pardonable
expression of their authority and importance. I saw no firearms and no
blood, nor were the groans of tortured convicts audible. I remembered
the flowers in the garden outside, and was prone to think that things
might have been very much worse; they were certainly better, at a first
glance, than at Sing Sing, which I had visited on a newspaper assignment
about fifteen years before. I had resolved beforehand to make the best
of everything, and it seemed already possible that I might not have to
make believe very much to do so.

No resolve, however, could overcome the influence of that locked and
barred gate, nor the realization that I was a convict, and that nobody
inside the penitentiary had any doubt that I was justly convicted.
Friends were remote and helpless; the support of former good repute was
annulled; I stood there impotent, one man against the Federal
Government, with nothing to aid me but the weight of my personal
equation (whatever that might be worth) and my private attitude on the
question of my guilt, which the trial had not modified, but which could
be of no practical benefit to me here. The sensation of confronting
everywhere a settled and hostile skepticism as to one's integrity was
novel, and hard to meet with a firm countenance. And I felt how easily
this sensation might crush the courage of one who was conscious of being
justly condemned. How many men must be sitting yonder in those cells who
lacked the moral consolations that I had! The thought sharpened my
perception of the horror of all imprisonment, but at the same time
stiffened my fortitude; for if these men could live through their
ordeal, how much more could I!

Meanwhile we were being hurried through the handsome corridor, and down
a flight of iron steps to a less presentable region. There was no
aggressive brutality, only a peremptory curtness, entirely proper in the
circumstances. Our only defense against physical severity was a bearing
of cheerful but not overdone courtesy, and we gave that what play we
might. I could not foretell how I might behave under a clubbing, and
would not bring the thing to a test, if I could decently avoid it. In a
long, low, shabby, ill-lighted room we were lined up against a counter,
on the other side of which were two or three of our fellow
prisoners--the first we had seen--whose function it was to fit us with
prison suits. They consisted of a sack coat and trousers of gray-blue
cloth--rather heavy goods, for the warm season had not yet begun--and
this was obviously far from being their first appearance on a convict;
suits are handed down from one generation of prisoners to another until
they are entirely worn out; my own was of an ancient vintage and a good
deal defaced, but I had no ambition to be a glass of fashion in jail. Of
course I could only conjecture what diseases previous wearers of it
might have suffered from; but I hoped for the best. Every new arrival at
the penitentiary is presumed to be dirty until he is proved clean, and
the only way for him to prove his bodily purity is to submit to a bath.
The regulation is commendable, and was welcome to us after our day and
night in the train; but a comrade of mine from the mountain wildernesses
of South Carolina, where bathing is still regarded as a degrading
innovation, described to me long afterward what a sturdy battle he had
put up against the disgrace, and being a lusty youth, it had taken the
best efforts of several guards to hold him under the spout long enough
to wet him--and themselves into the bargain. Though this was the first
time since infancy that I had bathed under compulsion, I complied very
readily, and even said to my friend, "This isn't so bad!" It is not
permitted, under the law, to give out any news about prisoners to the
world without, after they have once passed the portals; nevertheless,
this memorable remark of mine was printed next day in the New York
newspapers, together with the scarlet hue of my necktie, and some other
details,--my registered prison number among them, my own first knowledge
of which was derived from the published paragraph. It was my first
intimation of a fact which afterward exercised no small influence on my
destiny in the prison--that I was a "distinguished," or at least a
notorious prisoner. This influence had its good as well as its bad
aspect, in the long run, but the latter was in the beginning the more
conspicuous. The unidentified press-agent who disseminated to an eager
world the news about the bath and the necktie, continued to be active
during our stay in Atlanta, but his other communications were not even
approximately so accurate as the first one, and nearly all of them were
children of his imagination exclusively, and were more likely to be
gratifying to the officials than to my fellow prisoner and myself.

From the bath to the bedchamber. Up the darksome stairs again into the
stately corridor; through an inner gateway, and into a wide hall which
communicated to right and left, through small steel doors, with the west
and east ranges (dormitories). The west door was unlocked, and we were
pushed into a huge room, about two hundred feet by a hundred and twenty,
with tall barred windows along each side. Inside this space had been
constructed a sort of inner house of steel, seven or eight stories in
height, with zig-zag stairways at either end, leading to narrow
platforms that opened on the individual cell doors. These doors were
barred, and were locked by throwing a switch at the near end of the
ranges; but any particular door could also be opened by a key. The cell
doors of the inner structure were at a distance of some twenty feet from
the walls and windows of the outer shell, and got what light and air
they had from these--none too much of course. Also, the guard on duty in
the range, if the weather be chilly, will close the windows, against the
protests of the prisoners, and against the regulations too; but most of
the guards are thin-blooded Southerners, and diseased into the bargain,
and do not like cold air. The consequence is that the four hundred pairs
of lungs in each range soon vitiate the atmosphere; the prisoners turn
and toss in their cots, have bad dreams, and rise in the morning with a
headache.

We mounted three or four flights of iron steps, and were introduced into
a cell near the corner. It was, like all the others, a steel box about
eight feet long by five wide, and seven or eight high. On one side, two
cots two feet wide were hinged against the wall, one above another; they
reduced the living space to a breadth of three feet. The wall opposite
was made of plain plates of steel, and so was the inner end of the cell,
but in this, at a man's height from the floor, was a round hole an inch
in diameter. That was a part of the spy system; for between the two rows
of cells is a narrow passage, in which the guard can walk, and, himself
unseen and unheard, spy upon the prisoners and listen to their
conversation. All prisoners are at all times of the day and night under
observation. This seems a slight thing; but the cumulative effect of it
upon men's minds is disintegrating. At no moment of their lives can they
command the slightest privacy. And what right to privacy, you ask, has a
prisoner? Would he not use it to cut his way through the chilled steel
walls with his teeth and nails, or to plot revolt with his
cellmate?--Possibly; but even a beast seeks privacy at certain
junctures; and to deny all privacy tends to bestialize human beings. It
is a part of the "put-the-fear-of-God-in-his-heart" principle--to break,
humiliate, degrade the man, and render him unfit for human association.
There are a washbasin and a toilet seat at the foot of the cot, facing
the barred door. What difference can it make to a convict if the guard,
or any other passer-by, watches him while he uses them?

There had been issued to us sheets, a pillowcase, and a gray blanket of
the army sort; our first duty was to make our beds. Mattress and pillow
were stuffed stiff with what felt like wood chips, and was probably
straw and corn-husks; the pillow was cylindrical; the mattress was
hillocked and hollowed by the uneasy struggles with insomnia of
countless former users. There was a campstool whose luxuries we might
share. We had, each, a prison toothbrush, and a comb. In the ceiling of
the cell, beyond reach of an outstretched arm, was an electric bulb
which would be darkened at nine o'clock. But all this was welcome; I had
often roughed it in conditions quite as severe; my spirits could not be
dashed by mere hardships or inconveniences. We put our domestic menage
in order cheerfully, glad that we had been celled together, instead of
doubling up with strangers. Nor would it have discouraged us to know
that the west range was the one occupied by negroes and dangerous
characters. The place was silent; none of the demoniac chantings and
hyena laughter of the Tombs. We had our little jests and chucklings as
we made our arrangements; Courage, Comrade! the period of suspense and
anticipation is passed; we are at grips with the reality now!

Moreover--"Every prisoner, on installation in his cell, is supplied with
rolls and hot coffee, and with pipe and tobacco!" Thus would the
statement run in the report to the Department. What if the bread be
uneatable, the coffee undrinkable, and the tobacco unsmokable? The mere
idea of such things is something; besides, prisoners do contrive, being
hard put to it, to consume them. We ourselves at least tried all three;
if it proved easier to be abstinent than self-indulgent, that was our
own affair. Meanwhile, our mental appetites were appeased by a little
gray pamphlet, containing the rules governing the conduct of convicts in
the penitentiary. There were a great many of them, and not a few
required thought to penetrate their significance. Why, for instance,
should special emphasis be laid upon the injunction to rest one's shoes
against the bars of the door upon retiring? We were never informed; but
I presume it must have been to prevent a man being tempted to reach out
an arm a hundred feet long through his bars, throw the switch, steal
along the platform, open the steel door, unbar the two outer gates,
climb over the thirty-four foot wall, and escape--all the while avoiding
the notice of the range guard, of the guards in the corridors, and of
the watchman on the tower outside, all of whom were armed with magazine
rifles and were yearning for an opportunity to use them. Of course, he
would want to have on his shoes for such an enterprise, so that if the
shoes were visible inside his door, it was prima facie evidence that he
himself was also within. Another rule was italicized--"_Do not try to
escape--you might get hurt!_" I refrained from testing the validity of
either prohibition.

In the midst of our perusal, we were interrupted by the arrival of a
visitor. He was a slight-built, slope-shouldered young fellow, in prison
garb, with a meager visage heavily furrowed with sickness and
suffering--he had tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, and the indigestion
with which all prisoners who eat the regular prison fare are afflicted.
Not that Ned (as I will call him, since it was not his name) mentioned
his condition; it was determined long afterward by the diagnosis of my
friend; Ned's object in visiting us was not to air his own troubles, but
to assuage, so far as he might, the gloom and uneasiness of the new
arrivals. In his haggard face shone a pair of very intelligent and
kindly gray eyes, and above them rose a compact, well-filled forehead. I
was fortunate enough to keep in touch with this young man during my
stay, and I found no more lovable nature in the penitentiary. He made no
secret of the fact that he had been guilty of a Federal offense, and he
never expressed contrition for it; "I made a mistake in taking another
man in with me," he remarked; "you are never safe unless you go it
alone." He had not been systematically educated, but he had read widely
and judiciously, talked correctly, though with occasional colloquial
idioms thrown in, and he was a concentrated and original thinker. His
opinions were bold, independent, and sound, his insight was very
penetrating, and his knowledge of matters of criminal procedure and of
prison conditions was accurate and ample. Facts which I afterward
learned for myself were never out of accord with information he had
given me; and the sanity and clarity of his judgments were refreshing
and remarkable. His courage was undemonstrative but indomitable; he
never complained of his own condition and experiences, but was instant
in his sympathy with the misfortunes of others. No more welcome and
valuable counselor than he could have come to us in those first hours of
our durance.

That he was able to visit us was due to his being a "runner," as those
prisoners are termed who are assigned to carrying messages and doing odd
jobs in the ranges. He leaned against the bars and spoke manfully and
pungently, with touches of gay humor now and then; advised us to our
conduct--what to do and what to avoid; and when he noticed the little
gray pamphlet, said scornfully, "Don't muss up your ideas with that!
There's a hundred rules there, and every one of 'em is broken every day.
Those rules are for show; what happens to you depends on who the guard
is, and how he happens to be feeling. You can go as far as you like
sometimes, and other times you'll get hauled up if you turn your head
sideways. The screw" (guard) "on this range is decent; he won't crowd
you too much. Keep quiet, and do what they tell you, and the odds are
you'll get by all right. Of course, if some fellow gets a grudge against
you, he's liable to hammer you like hell; there are some prisoners here
that get on the wrong side of a screw, and--well, it goes hard with 'em!
But if you're a little careful, I guess you'll get through all right.

"I've read all about your case in the papers, and I know you oughtn't to
be here; and Bill" (the Warden) "likely knows it too, and as folks on
the outside are on the watch for what happens to you, he'll think twice
how he treats you. Bill is a cunning one; he keeps his ear to the
ground; when he sees that the reform people are going to put something
across, he backs it up, and gives out that he suggested it himself; but
up to a year or two ago, he did the worst sort of things to the men;
even in his early reports and addresses he advocated treatment that he'd
never dare stand for now--except on the quiet! He gets himself written
up in the local papers here as the model warden--warm-hearted and
broad-minded, and all that flap-doodle! But if he had his way, you'd
think you were back in the dark ages in this penitentiary. Wickersham
threw a bit of a scare into him a couple of years back; and there have
been others; but most of the inspectors that are sent here stand in with
him; he gives them good feeds in his house, and takes them out in his
auto, and fills 'em up with soft talk--about 'his boys,' and his
fatherly interest in 'em, and all that--but he keeps the dark cells and
the rest of the dirty work out of their sight, and of course none of the
men dares say anything to 'em--it would be all day with them if they
did--as soon as the inspector turned his back. That's what gets the
men's goat--that he puts up such a humane front, and all the while
hammers them on the sly. They'd prefer being told at the start they were
going to get hell, and then getting it; but it goes against their grain
to get it, and meantime have folks outside believe they're in a
gentlemen's country club!"

Ned imparted his information by fits and starts; ever and anon he would
break off abruptly and walk off down the range, to give the guard the
idea that he was about his ordinary business; then he would return,
squat down on his hams beside the door, and murmur along in his rapid,
distinct tones. All that he said was abundantly confirmed later.

Finally--"Good night--sleep well--they'll put you on some job in a few
days; it's the first days that go hardest with most men, but you'll get
used to it; you might get out on parole, too--but don't count on it; of
all the frauds in this prison, parole is the worst! And if they ever
pass that 'Indeterminate Sentence' law--good-by! Imagine Bill with that
thing to use as a club over us! He'd make every other man here a lifer!"

He laughed in the prison way--silently, in his throat--and went away,
after warning us that it was near nine o'clock. Our watches had been
taken away from us; no doubt, a prisoner might commit suicide by
sticking his watch in his windpipe, or he could bribe a guard with it to
bring him cigarette papers, or "dope." Besides, what has a man in jail
to do with time? Our warm-hearted and fatherly masters desire their
charges to exist so far as practical in a dead, unmeasured monotony,
where a minute may seem to prolong itself to the dimensions of an hour;
to feel themselves utterly severed from the world they have annoyed or
injured. That is the penitentiary ideal; but it has of late become
impossible fully to realize it. A prison will always be a prison; but at
any rate, light shall be let in on it.

Meanwhile, our cell light went out; and we waited for the dawn.

Julian Hawthorne

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