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Chapter 5


I lay in the upper bunk. It was a six-foot drop to the cement floor
below. The mattress, though irregularly dented and bulged, was upon the
whole convex, and not over two feet wide. A vertical fence or bastion,
six or eight inches high, along the outer brink of this precipice would
have averted the danger of rolling off in the night; but nothing of the
sort had been provided. One must remember not to roll, even in the
nightmare. Convicts educate the subliminal self to a surprising degree,
and do not fall victims to this trap as often as one would expect; but
occasionally one of them forgets, and down he comes, sometimes getting
bruised only, but generally with a broken bone or so. I do not have
nightmares, and I lay prone, gripping the sides of the mattress with my
knees, as if it were a bucking broncho. So I journeyed, Mazeppa-wise,
through the abysses of that first night, and was not unhorsed.

Light glimmered obscurely through the bars of the cell from the
night-burner below. Odd sounds broke out at intervals. Half suppressed
coughs, sudden, brief cries, irregular wheezings and gurglings, due to
defective plumbing, occasionally a few muttered words; then a man in an
upper tier began to moan and groan dismally--a negro with a colic,
perhaps. Long, dead silences would be interrupted by inexplicable
noises. In the dead vast and middle of the night the prisoner in the
cell over mine began to pace up and down his floor, eighteen inches
above my head. Four paces one way, four back, over and over
interminably. Who was he? What was he thinking about? Something seemed
to goad him intolerably; that forging to and fro, like a tormented
pendulum with a soul in it, gave a stifling impression, as of one
tortured for air and space. How many years must he endure--how many
centuries? Was his wife dying, his children abandoned? Up and down he
padded; had he committed some ugly crime, for which he longed to
atone--but prison is not atonement! Had his conviction been unjust, and
was he raging impotently against injustice? Let him not rage too loudly,
for there was a guard yonder, indifferent to tortured souls, but
licensed to stop noises. A prison is a prison, not a sanitarium for
diseased crooks. But if the world could hear those footfalls, and
interpret their significance, how long would prisons last? A jail at
night is a strange place--eight hundred men packed in together, each
terrifyingly alone!

Some of the earlier workers had been roused at six or five o'clock or
earlier; but for the majority the six-thirty bell was the reveille. It
screeched violently and was silent. The watching devils or the guardian
angels of the night vanished, and up got the eight hundred members of
the Gentlemen's Country Club, to live as best they might through one day
more; coughing, hawking, spitting, murmuring--but all with a sense of
repression in it, the life-sapping drug of fear in its origin, but long
since become a mechanical habit with most of them. Eight hundred
criminals, herded beneath one roof to be cured of their crimes by
indifferent or threatening and hostile task-masters and irresponsible
discipline-mongers, and by association with one another--a régimen of
hell to extirpate deviltry! The twentieth century solution of the
problem of evil, unaltered in principle after thousands of years!

Civilization has progressed wonderfully, but always with this
death-house on its back. And the death-house gets bigger and more
populous every year. Reformers, exhorters, Christian Endeavorers,
humanitarians, Salvation Armies, social reformers, penologists,
scientific experimentalists with surgical apparatus, together with
parole laws, indeterminate sentences, commutations, pardons, not to
speak of a good warden here and there and a kind guard--all toiling and
tinkering to make prisons better, to sweep them, to air them, to instil
religion and education, to supply work and exercise and to pay
wages--and all the while the tide of criminals gets larger and the
accommodations for them less adequate. What can be the matter? Are we to
end by discovering that everybody is a criminal, and ripe for jail? or
shall we be driven to the realization that the fundamental idea of
imprisonment for crime is itself the most monstrous of crimes--and try
something else? What else is there to be tried? Are we to leave
criminals to their liberty among the community?

There will be time enough to discuss these riddles. It is time now to
get into your prison suit, with its "U.S.P." on the back of the coat,
and your number; its "U.S.P." on the back of the shirt, with your
number; its "U.S.P." on the front of your trousers-legs, and your
number; your canvas shoes and your vizored cap. But beware of putting on
the cap within prison walls, lest the guard report you to the captain,
the captain to the deputy, the deputy, if necessary, to the warden, and
ye be cast into the inner darkness. There shall there be thin slices of
bread, and water, and gnashing of teeth.

With a guard acting as cowboy, shepherd dog, or convict compeller, we
shuffled in a continuous line down the iron stairways and across the
hall into the dining room, a cement-floored barred-window desert sown
with tables in rows, seating eight men each; guards with clubs standing
at coigns of vantage or pacing up and down the aisles, and in one
window, commanding the whole room, a guard with a loaded rifle, licensed
to shoot down any misbehaver. At no time and in no part of this model
jail are you out of range of a loaded rifle, in the hands of men quick
and skilful in their use. They are the sauce for meals and the
encouragement to labor. But casualties seldom happen; when they do, they
are hushed up, and the body of the man is buried next day in the prison

I will postpone to a future chapter the subject of the dining room and
what is done there. As we filed out, I noticed "MERRY CHRISTMAS," and
"HAPPY NEW YEAR" emblazoned in green above the door. It was to remind
us, perhaps, of what we lost by being criminals. As we debouched into
the inner hall, separated from the corridor leading to the warden's
office, and to freedom, by a steel-barred gate, we saw a guard seated in
a chair with a rifle across his knees. Rats in a steel trap might have
mutinied with as much hope of success as we at that juncture; but the
guard had to be used for something, and convicts must not be allowed to
forget that they are in prison. At all events we forbore to mutiny, and
were rounded into our cells and locked up for half an hour, during which
we might smoke Golden Grain tobacco, fifty per cent, dirt, and the rest
the refuse of the weed, supplied to the prison by contract; or we might
read, or comb our hair, or do calisthenics, or invoke the Divine
blessing upon the labors of the coming day.

The interval is really provided as a measure of security; many of the
prisoners do their work outside the main buildings; but it is deemed
unsafe to unlock the outer gates while the whole body of prisoners is on
the move. They might make a concerted rush, and get out in the yard, to
be shot down in detail by the guards in the towers.

Mr. Sidney Ormund, to be sure, a special writer on the _Atlanta
Constitution_, makes the following statement in an issue of the paper
shortly after I had left the jail and recorded my opinion that "Warden
Moyer was unfit."--"It is safe to assume," Mr. Ormund affirms, "that if
all the prisoners at the Atlanta federal penitentiary were life-termers
and each had a voice in the selection of a warden to serve for a like
term, William Moyer, the present incumbent--a man who has done more to
make prison life bearable than any man in this country--would be
selected without a murmur of opposition."

That is a fine, explicit statement of Mr. Ormund's, such as any warden
in dire trouble and perplexity might be glad and proud to have a
faithful friend make concerning him. It has no strings to it, and is
followed up by similar sentiments throughout the article. But why, in
that case, are the gates into the yard locked, and the man with the
rifle provided? If Warden Moyer renders life at Atlanta prison more
bearable than at any other in the country, what conceivable grounds are
there that his affectionate inmates should wish to run away from him?
That warmhearted and big-brained gentleman would hardly put the
Government to the expense of supplying safeguards against a contingency
which his own tender and lovable nature renders unthinkable, even if the
thirty-four foot wall outside does not. There seems to be a non-sequitur
here, which Mr. Ormund, perhaps, may feel inspired to clear up. When he
has done that, it will be time to call his attention to a score or more
other incongruities which a residence of only six or seven months in
this humane institution has been sufficient to disclose.

At the expiration of the half hour, we laid aside our pipes, or our
prayer-books, and were ready for the activities of the day. The others
were detailed to their regular work; but my friend and I had our final
rites of initiation still to undergo. A young official, whose
countenance readily if not habitually assumed a sullen and menacing
expression, beckoned to us with his club, and we followed him downstairs
to an elevator, in which he ascended to the upper floor, while we
pursued him upward by way of the staircase. The cap of Mr. Ivy--such was
his poetic given name--was worn on the extreme rear projection of his
head, and he used his club in place of speech; not that he actually
pummeled us with it, but by wavings and pointings he made it indicate
his will, and kept us mindful how easily we might afford him a pretext
for putting it to its more normal use. Mr. Ivy, as I afterward learned,
was a Southerner by birth, as are the majority of the guards in the
penitentiary, and may have been, like most of them, a graduate from the
Army. In reporting the case of Private George, of the U.S. Army, now a
prisoner in stripes in the Leavenworth Penitentiary, it was stated by
Mr. Gilson Gardner that "The common soldier in the U.S. Army has no
rights. When he enlists, he gives up the guarantees of the Constitution,
the protection of jury trial, and even his right to petition for a
redress of grievances. He may be unjustly charged, secretly tried and
cruelly punished, and he has no remedy."

As regards unjust, cruel and despotic treatment, the status of the U.S.
soldier and of a penitentiary convict are on all fours, though of course
the former has the advantage of belonging to a service traditionally
honorable, of open air service and exercise in all parts of the country
or abroad, of reasonable freedom when off duty, and of whatever glory
and advancement campaigning against an enemy may bring him. But we may
readily perceive that a soldier who has felt the rough edge of
discipline and finds his health broken, perhaps, by indiscretions
incident to Army life, might say to himself, on receiving his discharge,
"I am bred to no trade, I am good for nothing, but I should like to get
back at somebody for the humiliations and hardships I have endured. Why
not take a job as a prison guard; the pay is only $70 a month, but
instead of being the under dog, I shall be on top, licensed to bully and
belabor to my heart's content, to insult, humiliate and berate, and to
get away with it unscathed!"

For my part, I can imagine no reason more plausible to explain the large
number of ex-soldiers among prison guards, and their conduct in that
position. With some shining exceptions, they are petty tyrants of the
worst type, sulky, sneering, malignant, brutal, and liars and
treacherous into the bargain. Their mode of life in a jail, immersed in
that sinister and unnatural atmosphere, hating and hated, with no sane
or absorbing occupation, encouraged by the jail customs to play the part
of spies and false witnesses, ignorant and demoralized,--tends to create
evil tendencies and to confirm such as exist. No worse originally than
the average of men, they are made baser and more savage by their
circumstances. And no man able to hold his own in the free life and
competition of the outside world, would stoop to accept a position as
guard in a jail.

I know nothing of the private biography of Mr. Ivy, and it is quite
possible that he may have possessed endearing traits which he had no
opportunity to manifest in our intercourse. It would be foolish and
futile for the ends I have in view in this writing to cite or comment on
individuals, save as they may illustrate the point under discussion. But
I am the less reluctant to animadvert upon this or that employee of the
penitentiary, because I feel satisfied that, so far from compromising
him with the higher prison authorities, abuse from me would only
recommend him to their favor.--Mr. Ivy, such as he was, conducted us to
a bench outside a closed door, already partly occupied by three or four
half naked convicts, white and black. We gathered from his gestures of
head and club that we were to remove our upper garments and our shoes
and stockings, and place them on the floor in front of us. It was a cold
morning, and the floor was of limestone. We obeyed instructions, and for
the next twenty minutes sat there, objects of pardonable curiosity or
amusement to our fellow benchers and to passers-by in the hall, and with
nothing to keep us warm but the genial influences of the occasion.
Finally, each in his turn, we were passed through the door into a sort
of office, with clerks and Dr. Weaver, the prison physician, at $1500 a
year,--a tall, wooden faced young medical school graduate, who
cultivated a skeptical expression and a jeering intonation of speech. He
and an assistant put us through a physical examination, and took a
series of measurements, all of which were entered by the clerks in
ledgers. Our photographs were then taken, and afterward (it was the next
day, but may as well be told here) we were further identified by taking
the impressions of our finger prints, and by a second photograph without
our mustaches--these having been removed in the meantime. We were now
convicts full-fledged and published, and our pictures were disseminated
to every prison and penitentiary in the country, to be enshrined in the
rogues' gallery and studied by all police officials.

This may sound silly, in the case of two men much nearer three score and
ten than three score, and untrained to gain a livelihood by crime.
Bertillon measurements were not needed to identify us, nor photographs
without mustaches. But, in the first place, prison rules apply to the
mass, not to individuals; and secondly, it has been resolved by the
wisdom of our rulers that a man who reverts to crime after one or more
convictions shall be more severely punished than a first offender.
Nobody stops to question the logic of this ostensibly prudent provision.
But the convict knows that his chances of making an honest livelihood
after a conviction are many times less than before. Spies are on his
trail at every turn, and if ever he succeed in securing legitimate
employment, an officer of the secret service presently informs his
employer that he has a jail-bird on his pay-roll. Naturally he is
promptly paid off and dismissed, and he may go through the same
experience as often as he is foolish enough to try it. But even if he be
inactive, he is not safe--far from it. He is known to the police and
liable to arrest at any moment as a vagrant, without visible means of
support. Nor is this all. Suppose him to be recorded in prison archives
as a safe-blower, and that a safe is blown somewhere and the culprits
escape. The credit of the police department demands that an arrest be
made, if not of the person or persons actually guilty of this particular
crime, then of some one who may be plausibly represented as guilty of
it. Accordingly, our friend is apprehended and charged with the crime;
there is his record, and it is easy to secure "evidence" that he was on
the spot at the time, though he may have been, in fact, a hundred or two
miles away from it. Detectives are experts at providing this sort of
evidence; and it frequently happens that they get the corroboration of
the victim himself by assuring him that, if he will confess, the judge
will let him off with a light sentence, whereas if he prove "stubborn,"
it will go hard with him--a matter of ten years or so. Ten years in jail
for something you did not do! Six months or a year if you confess!
Perjury is wrong no doubt; but, were you who read this placed in that
predicament, which horn of the dilemma would you select? If you have
never served an actual jail term, you might virtuously hesitate; but it
is the world against a mustard seed that you wouldn't hesitate if you
had. The crisp of the joke is, however,--and of course it serves you
right,--that the judge, after all, gives you the ten years, and that
means life, for you will never be long out of jail afterward. As I write
this, I have in mind several instances of it among my personal
acquaintances at Atlanta.

If then our convict, upon his release, cannot keep himself in any honest
employment, and cannot avoid arrest even when he is doing nothing at
all, good or bad, it seems plain that he must either hunt out a quiet
place where he may starve to death before the officer can arrest him for
starving, or commit suicide in some more sudden and active manner, or he
must accept the opportunity which is always at hand in "revert to a
career of crime," as the saying is. Ex-convicts are often still human
enough to be averse from starvation, and even from easier forms of
self-destruction; and they yield to the temptation to steal. Like the
idiots they are, they may hope to make a big strike and get away with
it, and in some remote or foreign place, under another name, live out an
unobserved and blameless existence.

Thereupon there is rejoicing in the ranks of the secret service; armed
with their bertillons, they swoop upon their quarry and bear him away.
"May it please the Court, this man is an incorrigible; not deterred by
previous punishment, immediately upon release he plunges again into
crime; he should receive the limit!" The Court thinks so too; the limit
is imposed, and the malefactor is led out to the living death which will
end with death in reality. And now will some righteous and competent
person arise and proclaim that this man's yielding to his first
temptation to crime did NOT involve greater moral turpitude than did his
yielding to the second temptation or to the third--greater or at least
as great--and that therefore the severer sentence is justified? His
first misdeed was prompted by hunger, ignorance, drunkenness, or
cupidity; the others were the fruit of desperation itself--and how many
of you have known what desperation means?

You perceive that this story proceeds by digressions; such value as it
may have it will owe mainly to such digressions, so I will not apologize
for them. My friend and I, our ordeal completed, were returned to our
cells to think it over. The walls and ceiling of the cells are painted a
light gray color; it is against the rules, except by special indulgence,
to affix pictures or other objects to them. The "coddling of criminals,"
so widely advertised, does not include permission to give a homelike
look to their perennial quarters; it is more conducive to moral reform
that they should contemplate painted steel. There was one camp-stool in
our cell; later, cells were supplied with two wooden chairs, the seats
sloping at such an angle with the backs as rendered sitting a penance;
cushions were not provided. I remember seeing similar contrivances in
old English cathedrals, relics of a day when monks had to be kept from
falling asleep during the religious rites. We might also sit upon the
lower bunk, bent forward in such an attitude as would avert bumping our
heads against the upper one. Each convict, early in his sojourn, has a
religious interview with the Chaplain, who presents him with a copy of
the New Testament--not also of the Old; you may remember that the latter
records certain regrettable incidents of a sinister and immoral sort,
calculated, I presume, to shock the tender budding impulses toward
regeneration of prison readers. One may get other books of a secular
kind from the library, upon written application; and prisoners of the
first grade may subscribe for newspapers that contain no objectionable
matter. But only a small proportion of the inmates is addicted to
reading, and the opportunities for doing so are limited. And as months
and years go by, the desolation and sterility of the place weigh heavier
upon the spirit, the mind reduces its radius and grows inert, and
stimulants stronger than current fiction are needed to rouse it. Prison,
prison, prison; steel walls and gratings; the predestinate screechings
and clangings of whistles and gongs; the endless filings to and fro, in
and out; the stealthy insolence of guards, or their treacherous
good-fellowship; the abstracted or menacing gaze of the higher
officials; the dreariness, aimlessness, and sometimes the severity of
the daily labor; the sullen threat of the loaded rifles; the hollow,
echoing spaces that shut out hope; the thought of the stifling stench of
the dungeons beneath the pavements, hidden from all save the victims,
whose very existence is officially denied; the closing of all personal
communication with the outer world, except such as commends itself to
the whims of the official censors; this morgue of human beings still
alive--the impenetrable stupidity, futility and outrage of it
all--slowly or not so slowly unbalance the mind and corrupt the nature.
Meanwhile, newspapers clamor against the coddling of criminals, and the
too indulgent officials smile sadly and protest that they have not the
heart to be stern. "Coddling criminals"--the alliteration makes it roll
pleasantly off the tongue!

But do I forget the many indulgences given to prisoners--and so
profusely celebrated in every mention publicly made of Atlanta
Penitentiary? Let me name them once more. Saturday being a non-working
day, it used to be the custom to lock the prisoners in their cells from
Saturday morning till Monday morning--a custom still followed at many
penitentiaries; for how could they be controlled if not split up into
working gangs, and thus prevented from conspiring to mutiny? It is one
of the obsessions of prison authorities that the prisoners are severally
and collectively a sort of wild beast, always straining at the leash,
and ready at the least opportunity to break forth in wild and deadly
disorder. It is obviously expedient, too, to impress the public with
this conviction, and therefore, in part, we have the clubs, rifles, and
general parade of watchfulness. As a matter of fact, meanwhile, nothing
is more easy to handle than a prisonful of convicts, if the most
elementary tact be used; and they are eagerly grateful for the smallest
unforced and spontaneous act of kindness.

Until about eighteen months ago, however, severe restrictions were in
vogue, and the warden declared that it was his belief and policy that
men in prison should be taught by precept and illustration to regard
themselves as dead to the world; that they should be held practically
incommunicado, no visitors, letters at most but once a month, no
conversation between prisoners--silence, solitude, suffocation in this
terrible quicksand of jail for months, years, or a lifetime, at the
mercy of men to whom mercy is a jest. Such a régimen is still in force
at many jails, and when combined with contract labor, nothing in the
age-long history of penal imprisonment shows a blacker record. It is
advocated as the best way to induce men to reform, and become, after
release, useful and industrious members of the community.

A couple of years or so ago, Atlanta was visited by an Attorney-General,
who was not prepared for what he saw, nor had the things he should not
have seen been removed from sight before he saw them. He demanded some
improvements on the spot, and soon after a new deputy warden was
appointed--a young man, of kindly disposition, though weak, not inured
as yet to the conventional brutalities, and with a backing in Washington
which gave him unusual powers. Among good things which he instituted and
insisted on were--two and a half hours outdoors on Saturday afternoons,
for baseball and general relaxation; conversation at meals; music at
dinner by a band made up from convicts; regular bi-weekly letters, with
extra letters allowed between times by special request to orderly
convicts; concerts or vaudeville performances every month or so in the
chapel, by professionals.

Insanity became less frequent after this, and the general health of the
men improved. They had something to look forward to, and to look back
to, and the freedom of the baseball concession led to no disorders;
something like hope and cheerfulness began to appear, like green blades
of grass in spring. The warden cleverly seized the opportunity to take
credit to himself for all the improvements, and to circulate
industriously in the local papers the praise of the model penitentiary.
But neither did he fail to take advantage of the new situation to
tighten his grasp upon the reins of control. The majority of jails, in
addition to the ordinary spy system operated by officials, organize a
supplementary one composed of convicts themselves--stool
pigeons--certain carefully selected prisoners, who are rewarded for
treachery to their fellows by various indulgences and secret liberties.
The principle is detestable, and has evil effects. The stool pigeons
themselves are of course the basest members of the community, and the
other prisoners, soon learning to suspect them, come at last to a
miserable distrust of one another--for the comrade apparently most
sincere may be at heart only a more artful traitor. In this, they play
into the officials' hands, whose theory of government is fear, and who
find aid to themselves in the mutual misgivings and hatreds of their

Evidently, the relaxations of the baseball afternoons afforded a capital
opportunity to the stool pigeons, and the results were soon apparent.
The spies, in order to curry favor with their employers, reported not
actual infringements of discipline only, but guessed at what might be,
and even invented what was not, often by way of retaliation against
personal enemies. I shall return to this subject hereafter; enough, for
the present, that it counterbalanced in a degree the physical benefits
of the new concessions by engendering mental disquiets and animosities
among the entire population, and especially inflaming them against the
officials. I am not myself sure, for example, whether or not one or
another of my most intimate acquaintances among the prisoners may not
all the while have been on the watch to betray me behind my back. For
aught I know, it may have been to some such sordid treachery that I owe
the refusal of my parole, when it became due. And any respect for
constituted prison authorities, upheld by such means, was impossible.

When the coddling of prisoners involves feeding them on poison, they
would prefer Spartan severity and fair warning.

Julian Hawthorne

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