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Chapter 6


Vague noises are at all times audible in jail--stirrings, foot-falls, a
subdued voice now and then, the sharp orders of an official--"bawlings
out" as they are termed; the clanging of steel gates, the murmur of
machinery, the cacophany of musical instruments during practise hours in
the chapel; as well as the periodical screeches and ringings of whistles
and gongs. The general impression on ear and eye alike is of stealthy
repression, a checked unrest--a multifarious creature, uneasy but kept
down. The place is perhaps hardly less silent than a cloister; but the
peace of the cloister is utterly absent. An atmosphere of animosity and
contention pervades all--a constant apprehension of sinister things
liable to happen, a breathless struggle, the sullenness of hate, the
whispering of treachery. The eyes of officials peer, watch and threaten;
those of the convicts are downcast but privily rebellious, or
deprecatingly servile.

It is the everlasting pregnancy of war between slave and master, quite
different from submission to rightful authority. Whatever the law may
say, the rightfulness of prison authority is never admitted by
prisoners. Honest authority is tranquil and secure; prison authority
goes armed, conscious of its unrighteousness, and there is unremitting
nervous stress on both sides. Both sides seem secretly to await a signal
to sudden conflict.

At dinner, soon after my arrival, amid the omnipresent murmurous palaver
of conversation, there fell an unusual noise. The unusual is always
formidable in jail. The noise was nothing in itself, and would have
passed unheeded in a hotel dining-room. But over us, crowded together
there, spread an instant hush. All knew that men had been stabbed,
frenzied affrays had broken out in that room. What was it now? The guard
in the window stiffened and poised his rifle. The guards on the floor
caught their breath, but assumed a confident air. The men sat staring in
the direction of the noise, tense and waiting.

Nothing happened; somebody had dropped a plate and broken it, perhaps.
But had some natural leader of the enslaved leaped up and shouted at
that juncture, murder would have followed the next moment. Among every
hundred convicts there are eight or ten whom misery and wrong have made
reckless, whose morbid rebelliousness needs, to break forth, only the
shadow of opportunity to kill before being killed, and they accept it.
But it was not to be that day, and we relaxed, and grinned, nervously or
grimly, and resumed our meal.

Eight hundred men, clad in a shapeless monotony of dingy blue, labeled
on the back with their disgrace, stepping lightly or shuffling hastily
to and fro, heads bent and eyes downcast, performing various offices,
menial, clerical or industrial, with a certain obsequiousness and
ostensible zeal that was yet inwardly repulsion and protest--these were
men born under the great flag, Americans, my countrymen, and now my
companions! What a change, what a degradation from the free American
citizen of the streets and boundless expanses! Not men, now, but slaves,
condemned to penal servitude; not citizens, but a class apart and alien;
felons, criminals, no longer entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit
of happiness, but existing in shame and on suffrance, ruined, nameless,
parted from friends and families, with present physical pain and mental
misery, and with a future of hounding and helplessness, of fear and
hiding, of uselessness and aimlessness, of insanity and base death!

Upon what plea are these conditions established? Because the slaves had
broken the law--been guilty of crimes. But what crimes? Some had done
murder, others committed rape, some had held up a train, another had
blown a safe, another was a pickpocket, another a white-slaver, this one
had stolen food to avert starvation, that was a confidence man or bank
embezzler, here was one snared in some technicality of new finance laws,
yonder an ignorant moonshiner from the hills, who had grown corn in his
back yard and thought he had a right to make whiskey out of it--he had
no other means of livelihood. Breakers of God's laws; of man's; victims
of tricks and legal technicalities, of torturing want and of headlong
passion, and of sheer court errors or of perjured testimony--here they
were, all on the same footing, no discriminations made! To what end? So
that they might be punished and repent and go forth better men and
useful workers, and so that society might be protected and its integrity
vindicated. That is the ostensible reason; no other is alleged.

It sounds like a jest; but the men are here, the thing is done. In some
moods I would say to myself, "It's too preposterous--it can't be--it's
an hallucination--a bad dream!" But there it was, visible and palpable.
Was it protection for society to shut up a man from ability to support
those dependent on him, who were thus themselves driven to want and
perhaps crime, multiplying the original criminality by three or four or
half a dozen? Could any injury which the culprit could do to the
community equal the injury thus done by the community to him and his,
and indirectly to itself, by such treatment? Or could the technical and
perhaps unconscious violator of an obscure and whimsical law be reformed
by putting him on an equality with a cold-blooded murderer, or with a
man who had grown rich by selling the shame of women? Was the punishment
equable which handled with equal severity a brutish negro from the
cotton fields, and a man brought up in refinement and gentleness?

But I would go further, and challenge the right of the community to
inflict penal imprisonment as we know it at all. Some criminals belong
in hospitals, others in insane asylums, for others the thoughtless
neglect and selfishness of society is responsible, and they should be
succored, not punished; and the remainder should be constrained, under
surveillance but not in confinement, to compensate for the harm they did
by labor or self-denial aimed directly at that result. But of this

Meanwhile, I paid attention to my companions themselves.

In their intercourse with one another there was a singular amenity or
pleasantness, and with some who had been prisoners for a long time, a
sort of childlikeness. But it was like the childlikeness of a person
partly dazed, or recovering from a severe illness or shock. They greeted
one another with a covert smile, an unobtrusive movement of head or
hand; only when under direct observation of an official would they pass
without a sign. The usual words were, "How're you feeling?" or, "How're
they comin'?" not in the perfunctory tone of greetings in the outer
world, but with an accent of real interest and solicitude. The answer
would be, "Good!" "Fine!" with as much heartiness as could be thrown
into it--though it might be obvious enough that the truth was far from
being that.

There was one dear old fellow who had a variation on these forms; he was
an alleged moonshiner, though, as he said, "Yes, I did make some
whiskey, but I never sold none!" "How're you feeling, Joe?" I would say;
and he would reply, with his pathetic smile, and his high, soft voice,
"Pretty well--pretty well, for 'n old man!" with a drawling emphasis on
the "old." He was about seventy, with the soft brown hair of youth, but
bent and stiff and wrinkled with hard years and rheumatics; and if I
questioned him more closely, he would confess that he suffered from
"lots o' misery here!"--passing his gnarled old hands over his digestive
tract. Indeed, four-fifths of the men had that trouble in more or less
acute form, owing to the atrocious food supplied as our regular diet.

Joe's face, though lined with the hardships and privations of a long
life, was beautifully formed, aristocratic in its delicate contours; and
he possessed, and constantly used, one of the most delectable,
contagious and genuine laughs that ever made music in my ears. The men
would ransack their humorous resources in conversation with Joe, merely
for the sake of making him laugh. He would fix his old eyes squarely on
yours, and laugh and laugh with infinite mirth and good nature. Such a
sound in such a place was rare and wonderful, and helped one like fresh
water in a desert.

The general friendliness among the men--so contrasted with their
demeanor toward the officials--was due to the identity of their common
interests; they were in the same boat, facing the same perils and
disasters, united in the same aims and hopes, and leagued against the
same oppressors. They lived in the constant dread of some calamity; and
if I met the same man three or four times in the same day, he would
never fail to make the same enquiry--"How're you feeling?" recognizing
that I might have received some ugly blow in the interval. There was a
spontaneous courtesy and a charitableness in it that touched the heart.

The same sentiment was manifested at meals; if anybody got hold of
anything that seemed to him a little better than usual, he could not
rest till he had offered some of it, or all of it, to his neighbors at
table. "Here, take this--take it--I got more'n I want!" Or, watching his
opportunity, Ned the runner, who had comforted us on our first night in
prison, would come to the door of my cell, with his Irish humor and
cordiality shining in his eyes. "Say, Mr. Hawthorne, there's a dividend
been declared!" and out of some surreptitious receptacle he would
produce three or four crumpled cigarette papers--of all contraband
articles in the prison the most prized. "No--take 'em--I got no end of

A peculiar consideration was manifested by the men toward "the old man";
my hair was white enough, to be sure, but it had been so for nearly
twenty years, and I was in much better physical condition than most of
them. I accepted their kind offices with gratitude and emotion, and,
when I saw that to do otherwise would hurt their feelings, their
concrete gifts, too.

But there were many instances of self-sacrifice greater than these; men
would go to the hole sooner than betray a comrade; and you are fortunate
in being unable to comprehend what that means. If a comrade in his range
was sick and unable to come to meals, I have constantly seen a man
secrete half of his miserable breakfast or dinner in his pocket, to be
carried up to the invalid and smuggled into his cell. It was a matter of
course, nobody remarked it. Any mistake or indiscretion committed by a
prisoner would be instantly and almost mechanically covered by the man
nearest him, though at the risk of punishment--and the punishment for
betraying human sympathy in this way is--of course it is!--especially
severe; it is conspiracy to cheat the Government.

The traditional tale of a prisoner's devotion to animals is also true; a
man next me at table--a yegg--for two weeks poured half his allowance of
milk (he was on milk diet for acute indigestion) into a surreptitious
bottle, and bore it off for the sustenance of a couple of little forlorn
kittens that he was acting as special providence for. The meditative
smile with which he perpetrated this theft upon the prison authorities
was a wonderful sight. Another convict, a hardened old timer, for
several weeks lavished cargoes of tenderness upon a rat which he had
laboriously conciliated and tamed. "What makes you so fond of that
animal?" enquired one day a sentimental and statistical old lady visitor
to the prison. After struggling with his emotions for a minute, he burst
out, "Yah! he bit the guard!" This dialogue was overheard, and enchanted
the whole penitentiary for months.

But one reflects that, whatever humane or lovable traits prisoners may
exhibit, they are after all criminals! The existence in a lost soul of
good qualities or impulses side by side with evil ones has long been
recognized. Victor Hugo illustrated the discovery in his Jean Valjean,
it was a staple with Dickens, Bret Harte's heroes are all of that type,
it was the inspiration of much of Charles Reade's eloquence, Kipling has
more than a touch of it, our contemporary fiction-mongers sentimentalize
over it, and the train-robber in the movies usually has a full line of
sterling virtues up his sleeve. The lost soul, in short, brims over,
upon occasion, with the wine of regeneration. Therefore (so runs the
moral) let us of the elect furbish up our charity, and be as tolerant
toward this non-human class of people as may be consistent with our own
safety and respectability. Scraps of our own lustrous impeccability have
somehow found their way into them, and we cannot afford wholly to
disavow them, in spite of their wretched lodgings.

This phariseeism is so inveterate with us, that I may fairly say that
one has to be sentenced to jail as a criminal in order to correct it.
From that vantage ground or Mount of Vision it presently dawns upon us
that these men are no more lost souls than we are--are, in fact, woven
out of the same yarn and cut from the same cloth. And from this same
vantage ground it also gradually dawns upon us that, in one respect at
least, the aggregate in a jail is better than the same number of men
taken haphazard from the city streets. For the former have now laid
aside self-righteousness and dissimulation, which are of the essence of
our unrestrained civil life: "I killed a man, yes; I robbed a bank, I
picked a pocket, I lived off a woman, I swindled my stockholders, I
counterfeited a banknote." No disguise here--no evasion.

But when you go into the details of the transaction, weigh the causes
which led up to it, consider the conditions surrounding it, realize the
temptations or provocations that precipitated it, you step into your
confessional: "Lord, my nature and heart are not different from this
sinner's, and but for accidents and good fortune which were none of my
providing, I should stand accountant to-day as he does!" You bring the
whited sepulcher home to you, and find that you have been living in it
yourself. And if you have a little intelligence you will acknowledge in
your convict the scapegoat who--not more and perhaps less blameworthy
than you--is bearing your iniquities as well as his own.

So, instead of condescending, with supercilious eyebrows and spotless
broadcloth, to concede that these unfortunate members of a non-human
class sometimes betray traces of saving grace after all, it might better
become you to wish that some of their saving graces appertained to
yourself. At your best showing, you are a pharisee and a hypocrite, and
he is not; he stands confessed; your sin is still secret in your soul.
By what right do you look down upon him?

These things which I now say to you, I said first to myself, sitting in
my cell, or watching the endless gray-blue files shuffle past me on
their way to and from meals. It was of small help or significance that I
claimed innocence of the particular offense that happened to be charged
against me; I was as indistinguishable from these men in heart as I was
in outward garb and rating. And I had manhood enough to feel glad that,
since they had to be here, I was here with them. The burden of the
scapegoat has its compensations.

On my first Sunday in the chapel, there came an exhorter or revivalist,
accustomed to dealing with prisoners from the platform, and dubbed "The
Old War-horse of Salvation," or some such title. He had his white
waistcoat, his raucous, shouting voice, his phrases, his anecdotes, his
"my men," "my friends," "fellows"; his "I'm saved, I hope, and you can
be!" Oh, the phariseeism of that "I hope!" At the end of his uproar, he
called upon those of his hearers (we had all sat quite silent and
impassive during the performance) who were willing to be saved, to stand
up in their places. All the stool pigeons arose (poor devils), and a few
other bewildered persons who fancied it expedient to be on the side of
the angels, "Thank you--thank you--thank you!" hoarsely cried the
exhorter, naively accepting their response as a personal compliment to

But that great audience sat dark, silent and impassive, and it could
only have been the tough hide of the Old War-horse that made him immune
to their cold contempt. I said to myself, "What a terrible audience it
is! Who is fit to stand before it?" These men had seen, known and
suffered the terrible, nameless things; the Unknown God, perhaps, had
spoken to many of them in their solitude; and now this being of white
waistcoat and phrases must get up and urge them to wash their sins in
the blood of the Lamb! In their silence they were preaching to him a
sermon such as no mortal pulpiteer ever uttered; but his ears were deaf
to it. "One--three--six--nine souls saved to-night! Thank you--thank
you--thank you!" And he turns to receive the polite congratulations of
the distinguished guests who sat behind him on the stage.

In prison, and only in prison, the veil is lifted or rent in twain, and
men are revealed as they are. As they stand before their Creator, they
stand now before their fellows. They are helpless--so warden and guards
think--but they have gained a power beyond any physical might of man.
They are voiceless, but they challenge mankind. They endure every
indignity and outrage; but an account will be required of those
responsible for it.

I wish to emphasize this dropping of the mask--this stop put to
posturing and pretending--this going forth in rude nakedness before
one's fellows. The man in the church pew chants out with the rest of the
congregation, "We are sinners, desperately wicked, and there is no
health in us;" but he says it with his tongue in his cheek, and fitting
his mask on only the more tightly. Or the man "convinced of sin" on the
anxious seat at the revivalist meeting frenziedly accuses himself of all
the sins in the decalogue, but finds protection in the very generality
and promiscuity of his confession, which includes and at the same time
conceals the particular fact that he robbed the till and got away with
it. We seldom hear of a penitent of this kind being indicted by a Grand
Jury, tried, convicted and jailed on the basis of his salvation
outcries. He talks figuratively.

There is nothing dramatic or hysterical in the attitude of the felon in
his cell. He robbed the till, he admits to you; but he does not drag in
the rest of the decalogue to divert your attention. And his penitence,
when he feels any, is not, in nine cases out of ten, prompted by the
expectation of getting a clean bill of health on his entire life-account
(the empty till included) from a good natured Savior not too keen about
details. He tells you, as a rule, "I was foolish and took too many
chances!" or, "If I'd handled the thing by myself, instead of admitting
a partner, it would have been all right;" or, "Oh, of course, I was a
damned fool; what's the use of bucking up against the fly cops!" In the
case of a murder, it might be, "I'm sorry I killed him, but I guess any
fellow would have done the same in my case."

Duration of confinement does not modify this attitude; the man of ten
years says the same as the man of ten months, except--and the exception
is worth noting--that the former's moral sense, whatever he originally
had of it, has been blunted or discouraged, and he has conceived a
settled animosity against human authority, and disbelief in the justice
and sincerity of its administrators. He has been the subject, during his
incarceration, of such numberless acts of gratuitous tyranny, outrage
and cruelty, and has seen so much of "the way things go," in general,
that though he may concede that honesty is the best policy, he can find
no other recommendation for it, and is prone to the secret conviction
that honesty itself is somehow only a cleverer way of cheating.

Such a state of mind is bred by prison experience--not otherwise. Prison
obstructs or altogether closes every door to genuine moral reform in

A few larger souls overcome the obstructions; for example, our John
Ross, who more than thirty-three years ago, in the blindness of a
drunken spree in Yokahoma, killed a shipmate who angered him. He died in
jail last June (1913). He was sentenced to death, but got commutation to
life imprisonment. He was a fine type of man, physically and mentally.
His spirit was never broken by what he endured, and some years before
being transferred to Atlanta, he became, in a simple, non-sensational,
but profound way, religious. At Atlanta, in his cell, he was a center of
good influence on his fellow convicts; truthful, hearty, faithful,
manly, cheerful; his preaching was by personal example, and by support
and help given at need to the weak and despairing. He was promised
freedom on parole; the promise was not kept; but even this last betrayal
failed to break his staunch heart. He died like a man, with composure
and dignity.

With a few such exceptions, prisoners are unrepentant except for
business reasons--that is, either because they recognize that crime does
not pay, or in order to influence in their favor the pardoning power.
Many of them, of course, employ their prison opportunities to devise new
crimes and to train fresh recruits from the younger convicts. Men who
have been imprisoned more than once lose hope of anything better than
transient freedom; they know they will be prevented by the police from
earning an honest livelihood, and that they must either starve or steal.
They become in the end mere prison creatures, destitute of evil or of
good, active or passive.

I repeat that the experience of associating with men without disguises
is novel and refreshing. A tedious burden is lifted from the shoulders;
the bones in the sepulcher are less revolting than the whitewash
outside; it is pleasanter to know what a man is than to suspect him. It
is certainly much wholesomer, on the other hand, to uncover your own
deformity than to hide it, especially when you know, or fear, that the
hiding is unsuccessful.

There is a sense of brotherhood, long since unfamiliar to human
intercourse under usual conditions, but welcome even at the cost of
conditions such as these. The truth gradually emerges to our
consciousness--it is not the evil in us that kills brotherhood, but the
vain, unending effort to make the evil seem good. Now our eyes meet one
another's frankly; the skilfullest counterfeit was worse than the worst
reality. There is nothing in us to be proud of, but something to be
thankful for. Society has done its worst to us; but it could not take
away from us our mutual kindliness, or the qualities that justify it. We
are condemned as wicked, but we are comforted by one another's good.

Prison, in short, more convincingly than any abstract argument,
demonstrates its own futility as a means of either taking revenge upon
the prisoner, or of inducing him to hate crime and to turn to good.
Revenge, of course, is officially discredited nowadays, though it is
practised as actively as ever under guises more or less civilized; but
the pretense of moral reform by penal imprisonment is becoming too
preposterous to be tolerated much longer. On the contrary, prison
renders the great aggregate of prisoners collectively self-conscious;
the goats find themselves, and are forced into antagonism with the sheep
not only as individuals but as a body. They make common cause together,
and in obscure ways achieve a degree of organization. They learn to
regard the community not as better than themselves, but as more
successful pensioners of fortune; they fear them because the advantage
of numbers is on their side, but they hate them because they feel,
either justly or unjustly, that they have suffered injustice at their
hands, and they will prey upon them when opportunity serves not only
from the original motive of physical need, but from the additional and
more sinister one, bred in prison, of retaliation for the wrong done

When you sap a man's faith in plain justice, and terrify him with the
threat of irresistible power, and torture him in mind and body through
the exercise of that power, you drive him to the support and society of
men similarly circumstanced, and thus create the precise analogue in the
body politic of a cancer in the individual body. Prison attempts to
segregate this cancer, but only promotes its increase. Its poison is in
the blood and circulates everywhere.

As I passed out of the dining-room after meals each day, I came to
notice a young man who sat at a table near the door. He sat with folded
arms, and with a set and gloomy countenance; his eyes were fixed on
vacancy, and he did not speak with his companions. A crutch leaned
against his shoulder; he had lost one leg.

I learned his story. In the settlement of a small estate of which he was
an heir, a sister of his had obtained money that belonged to him, and
when asked to restore it to him, had refused to do so. After some
fruitless negotiation, he got angry, and sent her through the mails a
message containing violent expressions of reproach and animosity. The
young woman took this paper to a United States marshal, who brought it
to the attention of the district attorney, with the result that the
brother was indicted under some law of libel or of obscene matter, was
arrested, tried, and convicted, and sentenced to Atlanta penitentiary
for five years. After he had been lodged in his cell, his sister
repented of her action, and sought to have him freed; but the law does
not recognize such changes of heart, and the brother must serve out his

We all know how easily family quarrels arise, how bitter they may be
while they last, and how readily, withal, they may be accommodated by
tactful handling. The sister had done wrong; the brother had lost his
temper; in what family has not such an outbreak occurred? But because
the brother had happened to put his bad temper on paper, the law, being
rashly invoked, seizes him, takes five years out of his life, and brands
him with the shame of the jail bird. Upon what plea can such an act be
construed as justice? But the district attorney shows the court that the
statute has been violated; the judge charges the jury, the jury finds
its verdict in accordance with the legal evidence, and the thing is
done. It is a mechanical process--nothing human about it.

Review your own life, and discover whether you have ever stood in the
shadow of a similar catastrophe. Were you ever angry with a relative or
with any other person, and did you express your anger to him in words?
Then you are as guilty as this one-legged boy, sitting there at his
table with his life ruined. Only, he happened to write his anger, and
the sister happened to show it to a lawyer, and the machine was set in
motion which no repentance or forgiveness or remorse can stop. But the
machine does not increase the culprit's fault, and for such a fault the
legal penalty may be five years in jail. You are not so remote from the
subterranean brotherhood as you may have supposed.

Will prison reform him? Is society protected? Is faith in human justice
promoted by such things? His case is but one of scores in every jail
that are as bad and worse. But--"throw him to the lions--serves him
right!" is still the cry.

Julian Hawthorne

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