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

Chapter 7


THE MEN ABOVE

The men below would like to feel respect for the men above, even if it
be a respect married to fear. It is more humiliating to be dominated by
worthless creatures, of no character or genuine manhood, whose authority
is effective only because it happens to be the tool through which works
the irresistible power of a government, than to obey men of native
energy and force, captains as well of their own souls as of the bodies
of their subjects. The despotism of a cur is revolting, and rouses the
wild beast in the victims. Those responsible for its infliction insult
human nature.

As far as I have had opportunity to observe, or have been informed, the
despotism of the cur in our jails, and in those of other countries
perhaps (though not to nearly the same extent as in ours) is the rule;
and that of self-respecting and respected men is the rare exception.
Hate inflamed with contempt is a dangerous and evil passion to
stimulate. It awakens a thirst for savage retaliation which hate alone
does not produce. Moreover, weak and cowardly tyrants are always more
cruel than courageous and masculine ones, and they do not observe any
consistent line of conduct; in the intervals of their debauches of
brutality they are oily and ingratiating, make favorites, offer
pusillanimous apologies, protest humane intentions, and allege absurd
excuses for past outrages. A brute is bad enough, and we are all brutes
at bottom; but a brute who covers his hyena snarl with the smug mask of
a saint is monstrous and detestable.

The wardens of many of our jails are double men. Behind the imposing
fašade of their physical aspect we detect an uneasy, hurried, shrewdly
contriving little creature, quite incommensurate with the material
bodily structure built up for his concealment and protection. He will
not come out in the open, but seeks some advantage, plans to get behind
us and execute some cunning coup-de-theater, while our suspicions are
lulled by the hospitable and comfortable glow of the exterior. In his
dealings with the convicts as a body, he is apt to imitate Macbeth's
witches, and keep the word of promise to the ear, but break it to the
hope; he has vanity without self confidence, lacks the truthfulness of
the strong, his voice does not resound and compel, he dances and
fidgets, grins and is grave in the same instant. If the men's attitude
be sullen, he tries to be bluff and hearty, "my-boys" them, claps them
heartily on the shoulder, or lapses into whining and gushing. It is all
of worse than no avail with these undeceivable readers of character. It
is a curious effect of the working of esprit de corps in jails that the
prisoners may feel ashamed of such unmanly antics in their warden,
especially should strangers be within eyeshot.

Of course, in his encounters with prisoners singly, a man of this type
may show more of his real nature, especially if the prisoner be one of
the inoffensive sort. He will be bland, insolent, indifferent or cruel,
as suits his mood of the moment. "For God's sake, won't you let me write
her just one letter?" implored a prisoner who had just got news of the
fatal illness of his wife. Picture the situation--two human beings face
to face, one helpless and in agony, the other with absolute power! The
official faced the man deliberately, with an amused smile. "I can," he
said, slowly, "but--I won't!" How would you have felt in such a case?
Could you ever forget it? and would you not be ready, for that
official's sake, to hate mankind, and to curse God and die? But you
perhaps believe that convicts have no human feelings, and that they are
cheerful under such treatment.

The value of these remarks lies, of course, in their general character;
the conduct of an individual, regarded by itself, would have small
importance. And if I do not instance the conduct of those honest and
manly officials who are to be found here and there, it is because the
public is already informed concerning them; their deeds do not seek
darkness, but are visible by their own light. It is the rascals that we
do not hear about, or if we do, it is through reports of press agents in
newspapers and otherwise, who are mere mouthpieces for the lying
self-praise of the rascals themselves.

While I was in jail, I had access, by a fortunate circumstance, to the
annual reports to the Department of several wardens of prisons in
various states, and was able to compare their stories of themselves with
the accounts given me by prisoners who had lived under them and with my
own first hand knowledge of prison conditions, which, with a few shining
exceptions, are so terribly and remorselessly alike the civilized world
over. After making every allowance for the different point of view of
master and slave, it was very plain that the author of the report was
not merely prevaricating, or coloring his facts to render them
acceptable to his superiors, but was lying outright often, both directly
and by omissions. He would pose as a broad-minded and compassionate
father to his inmates, when all the time he was subjecting them to cruel
and needless severities and tortures. There was one man, who has lately
resigned, I believe, full of years and honors, whose addresses at the
meetings of federal wardens were almost angelic in tone and tenor, who
was in fact notorious among persons who had actual knowledge of his
official conduct as one of the most remorseless tyrants toward the men
in contemporary prison annals. Many men of bad conduct may be excused on
the plea that they are ignorant--know no better; but this man was an
intelligent student of penology, and knew exactly how wicked and wanton
he was. He was an innocent baby once upon a time, and might have grown
up to be no worse a man than is the estimable person who now reads these
lines; but he took up prison work, and the atmosphere of crime, and
preoccupation with it, and the license to use arbitrary powers, made a
devil of him. It is a common story.

Another series of reports showed a man who, beginning as a reactionary
of an extreme type, advocating the most ruthless measures toward
convicts, finally felt the pressure of the wave of prison reform which
is gathering force just now, and adjusted his reports and addresses so
as to make himself appear as a leading apostle of the new ideas. But
though his public professions changed, the chief difference in his
practises was that, from having been undisguised, they became secret,
and so far as circumstances permitted, he acted, and permitted or
encouraged his subordinates to act as cruelly as before. However, a new
deputy warden was presently appointed, with more liberal ideas, and
endowed with large powers, and for a while the condition of the
prisoners improved; the warden, with his ear to the ground, and his eye
on the handwriting on the wall, deftly adjusting himself to the
situation, and industriously claiming for himself credit for all
betterments introduced by the deputy--who, having no press agent, was
forced to stand inactively by and see his honest credit filched away
from him--in public opinion, at least. Of course, the prisoners knew
perfectly well on which leg the boot was. But prisoners cannot make
themselves heard outside the jail.

Accordingly, this warden, whose methods I know well, is now quoted as a
signal champion of the new and more merciful dispensation, though only
two or three years ago, according to his own personally written and
signed reports, he was for keeping prisoners practically
incommunicado--dead to the world; writing and receiving letters to be
nearly or wholly done away with; newspapers withheld; visitors denied.
Prisoners, he urged, were sent to prison for punishment, and punished,
continually and thoroughly, let them be. Punish the man, kill his
health, his hope, his spirit, his soul, his body too at need, and thus,
and only thus, reform him. It was a simple plan, and likely to bring
results--of a kind. Shall we believe that this man's professions of a
change of heart are genuine? or feel surprise to discover that at the
very moment he is receiving visitors in his commodious office upstairs,
and purring out to them his fatherly affection for his prisoners, and
denying that the old, bad methods of repression any longer are
tolerated, there are miserable wretches being hung up by the wrists in
dark and noisome cells under his feet?

Regarding the personnel of the officials at Atlanta I can for obvious
reasons say little. They are a good deal like such officials anywhere.
The warden is a Pennsylvania Dutchman; the deputy a young Kentuckian,
gigantic and fresh faced; his first assistant is a stalwart man of
middle age, a good deal of a martinet, but the men are inclined to like
him because they see in him a solid, masculine creature, who stands pat,
says what he means, and does what he says. Then there are the prison
doctor, the steward of the commissary department, and the parole
officer, and under them are the guards and the "snitches"--the latter
not being officially recognized, although they wield an important
influence, their reports against their fellow prisoners being seriously
considered, and often made the basis of action by their superiors, which
has no small effect upon the welfare of the jail. Yet these poor
wretches--they are mostly negroes--sell their brethren for a mess of
pottage of secret favors and immunities; none save the most abject would
accept such employment. Could any inspiration or procedure be more
insecure? Yet it is an essential factor in the present principle of
prison management.

The guards are, with some exceptions, such a body of men as might be
expected from their salary--seventy dollars a month, with no raise for
length of service or meritorious conduct. They cannot be rated as high
as the average police officer, and the conditions amid which they live
are so unfavorable to manly development that it is small wonder they
grow worse as they grow older in service. They either dislike the men
and use them accordingly, or they make secret compacts with them for
surreptitious favors, which undermine discipline and corrupt such morals
as prisoners may be supposed to possess. Often, however, they will
solicit favors from prisoners, and, when the latter seek some
accommodation in return, grin in their face, or austerely threaten to
report them. Their brutality is sometimes quite whimsical and
unexpected,--the outcome of some personal dislike, without bearing on
the prisoner's conduct,--though they are voluble in assigning some
alleged infraction of the rules, should a superior happen to call them
to account. And the superior, I may almost say, never believes the
prisoner against a guard, or rather, never acts upon such belief. That
is the settled policy of the penitentiary; the warden himself has placed
himself on record numerous times to the effect that under no
circumstances would he take the word of a prisoner over that of a guard.
To be reported means to be punished, be the report baseless or not. It
follows naturally that guards never scruple to give full rein to any
animosity they may privately feel against a man, knowing that they will
be able to "put it across" with the higher official to whom complaint
may be made.

I happened to be in the corridor one day when one of the guards, a tall,
strapping fellow, was bringing downstairs a convict of stature much less
than his own, a poor half demented youth, whose dementia was
unfortunately wont to express itself in foul or abusive language, which
came from him almost involuntarily, without any particular personal
application. The two men were half way down the final flight of steps,
when, without any visible pretext, but, I presume, on account of some
unlucky epithet or utterance let fall by the convict, the guard suddenly
seized the youth violently by the throat, hammered his head against the
wall, and dragged him headlong down the rest of the descent. They were
now in the corridor; the man, bewildered and giddy, was whirled round
and shoved to the head of another short flight of steps leading out to
the yard; the door was open. The guard came behind him, caught him by
the collar, and exerting his strength, hurled him through the door; he
fell prone on the ground, and lay there.

Here, my own view of the incident was cut off; but ten minutes afterward
I met a comrade, who, bristling with wrath, described the continuation
of the affray, which he had just witnessed. He said that the guard,
following the man, grasped him by the coat and jerked him off the ground
and shoved him, staggering, toward the isolation building on the other
side of the yard. There happened to be two visitors, a man and a woman,
under convoy of another guard, passing at the moment; the first guard
was by this time too much blinded by his own passion to notice them; the
other laughed, and apparently reassured the visitors. Upon nearing the
isolation building, a third guard, who was on duty at the gate, ran up,
and struck the prisoner several times on the head with his club. The man
put up his arms in an effort to ward off the blows, or to beg for mercy,
but without effect; he was dragged between his two assailants to the
deputy's office, as if he were a dangerous giant struggling to get away,
though, in fact, he was quite helpless and partly insensible. From
there, as we learned later, he was taken to a dark cell, charged with I
know not what misdeeds, and nothing was ever done to either of the
licensed ruffians who had mistreated him.

I recall such scenes with reluctance; they are ugly things to think of;
but some illustrations are necessary in order to put in your mind some
notion of what jails mean. An episode which, as it turned out, had
elements of the ridiculous, but which came within a hair's breadth of
having very fatal consequences, occurred a short time before I became an
inmate; it is still spoken of with emotion by those who participated in
it.

A large number of prisoners, some twenty or more, I think, were
collected in one of the basement work-rooms, when a fire broke out
there. The smoke soon became suffocating, and crept up into the ranges
above, alarming the whole prison. But conditions in the room itself were
immediately intolerable; the door had been locked, and the men were
jammed together there, frantically shrieking for the door to be opened.
Death for all of them would be a matter of only a few minutes. The guard
in the corridor above, a huge, burly personage, with the brains, it
would be flattery to say, of a calf, and exceedingly punctilious in his
notions, came down the stairs to see what was the matter. One of the men
shouted out to him, forgetting decorum in the desperate hurry of the
moment, "Why don't you open the door, you ---- ---- ----?" Now, it was
not only against the rules that the door should be opened between
certain hours, but it was altogether irregular and intolerable to
miscall an official. The guard stopped short. "Who's that called me a
----?" he demanded indignantly. But there was none to answer him, for
the men were by that time strangling and fainting.

Down the stairs at this juncture came one of the higher officials,
choking and gasping. "Open that door, why don't you?" he managed to call
out, seeing the guard below him. "I'm trying to find out," replied the
latter, "who it was called me a ----." The higher official was
understood to say something which penetrated the hide of his
subordinate, and stirred him at last to action--not a moment too soon.
The door was unlocked, and the captives tumbled and crawled out. The
burly personage, who rated punctilio and seemly language above the lives
of men, still retains his position in the corridor; but the prisoner who
had insulted his dignity has never been identified.

But what can be expected of men in the position of guards of a prison?
The function is abnormal, and unless it be undertaken from high motives
and with an exceptional endowment of intelligence and humane feeling, it
will steadily deteriorate a man; from being at the start to all
practical purposes a social derelict, incompetent for productive
employment, and often suffering from an incurable disease, he will sink
lower and lower in the scale of manhood and morality. He has two chief
aims in life--to requite himself upon defenseless convicts for the
kicking-out bestowed upon himself by the community; and to get an
increase of pay.

I had not been three days in the prison, when one of them came to me in
my cell and asked me to write for him a letter to the Department urging
a raise of salary. So be it by all means, if higher pay will get better
men; but men who can command higher pay do not care to do such work.

Since my guard saw no impropriety in asking for it--though, of course,
it was against the rules--I wrote his petition for him. The rules
governing guards are explicit, but so far at least as they regard
treatment of prisoners they are freely disregarded. For example, guards
are forbidden by the rules to address prisoners insultingly, to apply
names or epithets to them, to lay hands upon them or to strike them
"upon whatever provocation" unless they believe their own lives are in
danger. A rabbit has as much chance of throttling a bulldog as the
ordinary prisoner of endangering the life of a guard; yet hardly a
prisoner in the penitentiary has not repeatedly either undergone or
witnessed, or both, insults and physical violence offered by guards to
the men. As to the impropriety of asking favors of the men, the guards
might plead distinguished precedent for it. One of the higher officials
of the penitentiary summoned me to his office one morning. He informed
me that he intended to devote his life to prison work, but that he was
still a young man, and that advancement was slow and difficult. "When
you were outside, you lived in society, and knew a lot of big men," he
was kind enough to say; "you will be going out of here again before
long. If you should find it in your way to speak a good word for me in
quarters where it would be likely to do me good, I should appreciate
it." I should perhaps have premised, lest he appear in the light of
asking something for nothing, that he had opened the conversation by
handing back to me the Ingersoll watch of which I had been deprived on
entering the institution. I knew that my young friend and benefactor was
deep in the darksome intricacies of prison politics, and was just then
getting rather the worst of it; but I was unable to give him any
positive assurance that my influence with the Department, or elsewhere,
would suffice to give him a lift.

Favoritism rules in all parts of the prison administration; it and
prison politics are, indeed, twin curses of our whole prison system. In
spite of all the specious official promises of reward for good conduct
in the form of parole and obedience to the rules, every prisoner knows
that they are apples of Sodom; the most correct conduct, maintained for
years, will gain a man nothing, while a worthless and heedless fellow,
if he has a friend among the men above, will have his way smoothed for
him. An official's pet snitch enjoys all manner of indulgences in the
way of food and freedoms, and if he be an intelligent fellow, he can
ride on his superior's neck and influence his conduct to a surprising
degree. Again, certain guards, in the eyes of their superiors, can do no
wrong whatever wrong they do; and others, who are apt to be men who
retain some conscientious notions as to their duties, find their path
difficult. Some guards, too, though they may be obnoxious to their
officers, are not dismissed because they know too much, and might reveal
uncomfortable facts were they cashiered. I could name an example of
this--a young guard who, a few years ago, committed a cold blooded crime
upon a convict, for which in the outside world he would have been liable
to a hanging. But the prison authorities did not find it expedient to
punish him, and he still saunters about the prison, with his cap tilted
on his head, and his rifle. He is a good shot, and is employed a good
deal on the towers, where quick marksmanship might be useful. He knows
too much.

Evil conditions breed evil deeds and dangerous secrets. Conditions have
improved somewhat during the last two or three years, but the
improvement has been more outward than inward. One day, two or three
years ago, suddenly appeared at the gates the Attorney-General from
Washington. He had not been looked for so early. He walked straight into
the dining-room, where he noticed a number of convicts standing up with
their noses against the wall. "What is this for?" he asked one of them.
The convict couldn't exactly tell; he was waiting to be had up for
examination. "How long are you kept there?" "From seven in the morning
till seven at night." "Have you had anything to eat?" The man had not,
nor any opportunity to discharge the functions of nature either.

This Attorney-General, in Washington, had never showed himself a friend
of convicts; but when he saw--and smelt!--this comparatively slight
instance of prison discipline, his gorge rose. He ordered all the
culprits to the kitchen for a meal, and issued an edict against this
punishment, and against some other things that he discovered. What he
would have done had he seen the dark cells, and the condition of the men
who had been kept there for a few months, may be conjectured. The public
is indeed assured that the use of these cells has long been
discontinued; but seven or eight hundred prisoners know that, as late as
last October, a certain convict commonly referred to as "the old
Englishman" was hung up by the wrists in one of them. And there were
others.

Prison officials are political appointees, whose controlling aim must
therefore be the security and prosperity of themselves, and only
afterward (if at all) the welfare and just and decent treatment of the
convicts. They have their salaries (niggardly enough if we regard the
work they are supposed to do, but affluent in view of what they actually
do), and they have the government appropriations for expenses and
supplies for the penitentiary, which they are expected to handle
economically. But economy, and decent and humane treatment of prisoners
in a jail, are incompatible, even were the men kept steadily and
productively at work under proper conditions, and paid for what they
produced. A jail properly administered would be one of the most
expensive investments in the world; but Congress, as at present advised,
thinks only of cutting down the already miserably insufficient stipend;
and that warden who can, at the end of his fiscal year, show a balance
in favor of the government, may depend upon holding his position, and
nobody considers the mortal tears, misery and outrage from which that
favorable balance is derived. For not only if it be wisely and honestly
expended is the supply of money insufficient, but much of it is wasted
by mere ignorance, negligence and incompetence, and much more of it--as
recent exposures in newspapers indicate--leaks away in the form of
graft. For all this waste the convict must pay in privations and
cruelties not authorized or contemplated by a government none too
considerate at best; and men above grow fat and rosy gilled.

But nothing is so difficult to prove or so easy to conceal as graft; all
the ingenuity and resources of the grafters are primarily and
undeviatingly devoted to covering their tracks. So much is allowed for
maintenance, subsistence, construction; the bills and receipts are
shown; all seems right. And yet, somehow, buildings remain unfinished,
grounds are a raw wilderness, men are clad in rags inherited from
previous generations, and are starved and abused. Meanwhile, a warden on
a four or five thousand dollar salary contrives to live at the rate of
ten or twelve, and may own valuable real estate in the city.

Do miracles occur in jails, after having been so long discontinued
elsewhere? Or must we at last realize that the comfort and soft living
of a handful of rascals is obtained at the cost of the flesh and blood
and despair of thousands of men--I believe there are five hundred
thousand convicts in this country annually--gagged and helpless, to whom
we give the name of convicts, but who, whatever their crimes, are still
our own flesh and blood, brothers of ours, our own very selves but for
special circumstances for which we can claim no merit; but for their
souls and lives we are responsible, and to strive to redeem and succor
them our own intelligent self-interest should prompt us to spend and
labor lavishly. Instead of that, our habitual attitude toward them is
that of indifference or even hostility. For why should we honest people
waste our good money and precious sympathy on a convict? Has he not
already robbed us enough?

It would be a shallow thing to hold up as monsters of hardheartedness
and depravity the officials who have been entrusted with the conduct of
our prisons. If they do wickedly and corruptly, it is not because they
are to begin with preterhuman sinners, but because we summoned them to
duties far above their capacity and training, which involve temptations
and provocations which they lack will and power to resist, which give
them power over fellow creatures which the most magnanimous and purest
men might hesitate to assume, and which inevitably plunge men who are
not magnanimous or pure into deeds of injustice, dishonor and
inhumanity. In a sense, the officials are no less victims of the
ignorance and frivolity of the community than are the prisoners
themselves.

But, at any rate, the officials are few and the prisoners are many. If
anything is to be done to make things better, there is more hope in
dealing with the officials first. After they have been driven out, and
their places filled with honorable and enlightened men, who will at
least administer the law as it stands with integrity and judgment, we
shall be in a better position to consider whether the law itself be
beyond criticism, and its penalties justly and prudently devised. Crime
as it exists is an enormous evil, and it costs us enormously; and cheap
and pinchbeck methods will never rid us of it.


Julian Hawthorne

Sorry, no summary available yet.