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Chapter 9


Before the Civil War there were some millions of negro slaves in the
South, whom to set free we spent some billions of dollars and several
hundred thousand lives. It was held that the result was worth the cost.
But to-day we are creating some five hundred thousand slaves, white and
black, each year--or that is about the number of made slaves each year
in the United States; it costs us several millions to keep them in an
enslaved condition, and their depredations upon society, before and
after slavery, amount to several millions more. I have not the precise
data, but the figures hazarded are not excessive. A sound statistician
would make a more sensational showing; and when he proceeded to cast up
his account for the aggregate of the years since the war, and of the
estimated amounts for the coming fifty years, the bill would look large
even with a hundred million paymasters to foot it.

In that bill, probably the smallest item would be the cost of crime
itself--the actual loss caused to the community by the thieving of
thieves,--of the thieves, that is, who have been convicted and condemned
as such; for there is no way of figuring on how much the undetected
thieves steal. Every time we shake the social body, in this or that
spasm of probing and reform, hundreds drop out, like moths from an
unprotected garment; so that at last we are prone to suspect that the
thief, overt or covert, is more the rule than the exception, and that a
good part of the cash in circulation was more or less dishonestly come
by. But, leaving this aside, the money or values appropriated by thieves
accredited as such and sent to jail, is an amount relatively
inconsiderable, and by no means enough to pay the expenses of their
apprehension, trial, and prison sojourn. It is, then, politically
uneconomical to imprison them.

The reply to this is, of course, that penal slavery is preventive of
crime; that if we did not prosecute malefactors, crime would multiply
and abound, like weeds in a neglected garden. Perhaps it would; but the
point is, that it multiplies and abounds even in the teeth of
prosecutions; every year the number of convictions is greater, and the
jails are already cracking their seams to contain the convicts. One
might almost conclude that prisons, as now administered, stimulate crime
instead of preventing it, and that we are in the predicament of Hercules
in the fable, who, as fast as he cut off a head of the hydra, saw two
others sprout in its place. At which rate, we might be led on to the
surmise that it would be financially cheaper to let crime run on; the
cost of our futile efforts to stop it would be saved, and might be set
over against the loss from the increased annual depredations.

But finance is not the whole story; what about morality? and who can
forecast the ruin of anarchy? The problem cannot be so crudely solved.

Crime must be prevented; doubtless nine-tenths even of the men in jail
would agree to that proposition. The question is, can the jail system
prevent it? and the answer is that, judged by long experience--the
experience of thousands of years--it cannot. There are several reasons
why it cannot, into some of which we may enquire later; but the
objection to the jail system which I wish to emphasize just now is, that
it not only makes slaves of convicts, but, unlike the more reasonable
southern negro slavery, it makes them unproductive slaves. Either it
withholds this vast body of men from production altogether, or else it
forces them to toil under conditions which bring forth results the
smallest possible and the most unsatisfactory. The men are not paid for
what they do. Whatever profit (in "contract" prisons) accrues from their
toil goes into the pockets of the contractors, or, perhaps, is used to
defray the cost of their keep to the community. Or, again, if it is made
to appear to go into the prisoners' pockets, it is deftly taken out
again the next moment by an ingenious system of fines, which no prisoner
can escape.

In short, prison labor is slave labor, and slave labor of a worse kind
than was ever practised in negro slavery times. For on southern
plantations, though slaves were not paid wages, they got wages' worth in
good food and lodging, and (uniformly) in humane treatment, including,
above all, the companionship of their wives and families; and they were
able, in many instances, to buy themselves into freedom. Most of the
negroes, moreover, had never known what it was to be free; their race,
for generations unknown, had been slaves in their own country; they had
never been free citizens of the United States, never had education, were
unconscious of any disgrace in their condition, and were as happy as
ever in their lives they had been or were capable of being--happier,
indeed, than most negroes are in the community to-day. In all respects
their condition compares favorably with that of our half million annual
prison slaves, manufactured deliberately out of our own flesh and blood.

I used to contemplate the population in the Atlanta Penitentiary--the
eight hundred of us--and then look at the construction work, the
gardening, the tailoring, the carpentering, the product of the forge,
the farming in the prison grounds outside the walls, and the work of
clearing and grading on the area which the walls enclosed, and I
marveled at the disproportion. Eight hundred men, many of them skilled
in this or that industrial employment, most of them physically capable
of active labor, and almost all of them eager to work if given
intelligent and useful work to do; not a few, too, intellectually and
educationally equipped to plan and direct industrial operations; and
yet, with all this great potential force at command, all that was
actually accomplished might have been done as well or better by a
corporal's guard of willing and well managed men. The mere economic
waste of such material was criminal, without regard to the evil effect
of inadequate or misapplied labor upon the men's moral and mental state.
Can it be, I asked myself, that this extravagant idleness is forced upon
the prisoners as part, and not the least evil part of their punishment?
Or is it the result of ignorance, incompetence, or indifference on the
part of those appointed and paid to take care of men sentenced to "hard

That the men suffer from it is beyond question. And I cannot find that
the law provides or intends that their suffering shall be of this kind.
Much of the insanity in the prison is due to the way they are made, or
made not, to work. There is a legend of a warden who, being unable to
keep his prisoners otherwise busy, set them to piling up paving stones
on one side of the yard, and then taking down the pile and repiling it
on the other side. After a week of this, most of them were maniacs. It
was not the severity of the labor that destroyed their minds, but the
uselessness and objectlessness of it. Sane men require reasonable
employment; idleness, or irrational work disintegrates their minds. They
want to see and to foresee intelligible results from their toil; mere
toil without such results is maddening, or it rots men's minds as scurvy
rots their bodies. The reason is, that the men are human; and if you
have hitherto supposed that convicts are not human, the insanity which
so constantly follows upon prison idleness or mis-employment should
correct you.

Others may describe the horrors, almost indescribable, of contract labor
in prisons; I saw nothing of that at Atlanta--type of another widespread
system of prison work--though I heard enough about it from men who had
undergone it in state prisons. But during the few first days of my
imprisonment, I saw a building gang at work (to call it work) upon a new
wing destined to contain dormitories for the inmates. It was to be a
seemly structure of granite, massive and well proportioned. But after
three days, work on it was stopped, and was not resumed until a week or
so before I left this prison, six months later. Meanwhile, I read in the
_Congressional Record_ the report of a debate in the House, in which, on
the authority of a Texas representative, charges of graft or waste were
laid against persons concerned in the erection of this building which
seemed incredible, but of which I was able to find no refutation. The
hospital building is open to the same criticism, and another, which I
believe is designed to be the laundry, had got no further, at the date
of my arrival, than a square hole in the ground, and when I left had
been furthered by a single course of stone or cement laid round the
hole. A New York contractor, graft or no graft, would have had all three
of them finished and in commission in the same time, and with no better
material in the way of laborers than our prison could supply.

The thirty-four foot wall surrounding the buildings, a mile in circuit,
built of cement, had been completed before my time. I read in a report
of the warden's that its existence was due to his enterprise, and that
he looked upon it as a worthy monument to his activity and intelligence.
At every hundred yards or so of its length it was strengthened by a
tower, containing accommodations for a guard, day and night, who watches
with his rifle in hand, ready to shoot down any prisoner who seems to be
acting suspiciously. No such shooting by a tower guard has as yet taken
place to my knowledge, and none ever will on the pretext suggested; for
the wall is absolutely unscalable; being five or six feet thick, it is
impenetrable, and its foundations going down six or eight feet below
ground, it cannot be beaten by tunneling; yet the towers and the guards
are there.

But the point is that the wall itself is quite preposterous and
unnecessary. Escape for prisoners was quite as difficult before it was
built as after. There are a hundred guards in the penitentiary--one for
every eight prisoners--all armed and eager for action; every article of
a prisoner's clothing bears the prison mark; and the population outside
the walls is penetrated with the idea that the apprehension of escaping
prisoners is morally as well as financially profitable. Every prisoner
knows that an attempt to escape would be suicide--"you might get hurt,"
as the prison rule book euphemistically phrases it--and they generally
prefer suicide in some other form.

The wall, then, is superfluous; a fence of electrified wire would have
served as good a purpose at about one-thousandth of one per cent. of the
cost. And what did the wall cost? Let the prison archives declare. And
then, perhaps, it would be interesting to investigate the discrepancy,
if any exist, between the price which the United States paid for the
work, and the actual cost of erecting it.

The wall was some time in the building, but it seems to have been the
only thing built in the prison, work upon which was continuous and
energetic. And it was a useless work, better left undone. The warden was
proud of it, however, and there it stands.

As for the twenty-seven acre enclosure, in which the prison buildings
are, which is--according to official prognostics--to be graded, leveled,
drained, cultivated and planted till it looks like a private
millionaire's park, it is a raw, rough unsightly waste of red clay and
weeds, gouged out here and there with random and meaningless
excavations, heaped up in other places with piles of earth; diversified
in one quarter with some forlorn chicken coops and fences, made by the
voluntary and unskilled labor of one of the convicts; and adjoining
these, with the Tuberculosis Camp, a row of a dozen or more tents
mounted on wooden platforms, with little flower beds in front and
behind, and a pigeon house at one end. The only part of these grounds on
which any visible thought and labor has been expended is the baseball
diamond, adjoining the northeast corner of the wall. Here, the ground
has been leveled and smoothed over a space sufficient to include the
diamond itself, and a few yards on its south and north sides; beyond
that is waste ground, and along the northern boundary is a parapet of
earth five or six feet high, presumably made of the material scraped off
the diamond. A ball vigorously struck by a batter either goes over this
parapet into the swamp ground beyond, or sails away toward the
Tuberculosis Camp, to be retrieved from the weeds and rubbish in that

There are some forty score men behind the bars who would rejoice to be
allowed to put these grounds in order, and who, under proper guidance,
could do the job in a month. It would be a useful work, it would benefit
the men both in the doing and in the accomplishment, and it would be an
excellent advertisement of the penitentiary for the visitors who daily
stroll about the enclosure; yet months and years go by and nothing
whatever is changed.

One day, in midsummer, I saw a gang of negroes digging a trench in front
of the southern gate, and cutting out a heavy growth of weeds and
underbrush on the slope above. Drain pipes were carted out and dumped in
the vicinity of the trench, and three or four of them were laid down in
it. This went on for three or four days, the whole gang of ten or a
dozen men not achieving in that period more than one or two capable
Irish or Italian navvies would have done in the same time. Then the gang
disappeared; the open trench and the pipes remained in statu quo, and
the weeds gradually resumed their ancient sway. So far as I know, work
has not been resumed there since.

It is a typical example; even such work as is done, is done in such a
discontinuous and futile way that it is impossible for any one doing it
to feel any interest in it, or stimulus to do it well. Time, toil and
money are frittered away, with nothing definite or substantial to show
for it. Intermittent and barren tasks are doubly onerous. The overseers
may not be to blame; they may be incompetent; they may be hampered by
the ignorance, incompetence or voluntary policy of the prison
authorities; the consequences, at all events, are disastrous. If a
handful of hearty, clever, driving men were given control of the various
industrial operations in the prison, the results would seem magical.

There is dry rot or something worse everywhere; and it is difficult to
believe that anything is gained by it either for the convict or for the
country. It is to be sure punishment for the former, and a bad form of
punishment, but it would be grotesque to assume that it is inflicted by
design of our lawmakers. It cannot be that the government deliberately
proposes to destroy convicts, mind and body; on the contrary, we must
suppose that it wishes to reform them and render them again useful
agents in the community. There is no way to do this better than to give
them honest and productive work while in jail, so that they may acquire
the habit of such work, and be encouraged to pursue it when they get

But in order to induce them to work economically, it is indispensable to
give them continuous, intelligent, and manifestly useful work, and to
pay them for doing it. It can be and it is done in some jails even now.
Warden Fenton, of the Nebraska State Prison, has been putting his men on
the honor system, and sending squads of them out to work on farms or for
contractors, without guards or other precautions, sometimes for weeks at
a time; all he asks of them is their promise to return when the job is
done, which they uniformly do. And for this work, he causes them to be
regularly paid; he retains their wages for them until the term of their
imprisonment has expired, and then hands it back to them. The men are
encouraged and inspirited by this treatment, and the neighbors among
whom their work is done, seem disposed to take a helpful and cooperative
view of the enterprise. If the neighbors--the community--loses nothing
by this system, and if the convicts gain by it, why should it not be
made the general practise? Convicts in Nebraska are the same sort of
people as those in Atlanta.

Warden Fenton is progressive, but most other wardens are not, and there
is no certainty that future wardens of Nebraska prisons will be;
therefore he has not solved the problem for good and all; something more
than the benevolent or wise ideas of any individual is needed for that.
Mr. Fenton has absolute power--power, therefore, to give or withhold
favors as he may choose. Enlightened legislation would deprive him and
other wardens of absolute power, and make it mandatory to treat
prisoners as he is doing it voluntarily.

Moreover, if men will go off and work without guards for three weeks at
a stretch, and then return uncompelled to the prison, what is the use of
making them return to the prison at all, or of having any prison for
them to return to? Is not their conviction prison enough for most of
them? And for such as prove incorrigible, or are criminal degenerates,
ought not pathological care, instead of penal slavery, to be provided?
Professor Marchiafava, physician to the Pope, said recently, "Eighty per
cent of youthful criminals are children of drunkards." That is a serious
indictment of alcohol; but it indicts no less the policy which punishes
victims of disease as if they were deliberate and freely choosing

But leaving sick folk out of the argument, I say that, in view of Mr.
Fenton's experiment, and others like it, conviction is prison enough for
most persons who have slipped a cog in their moral machinery. Means
could readily be found to make such persons recognizable at need, and
they would have as great a stimulus to render themselves free from that
stigma as they have now, and far better opportunities for doing it. They
would have their families with them, or within touch, and they would no
longer be slaves; and if they had been slaves to their own passions and
propensities, the expediency of breaking such chains would become far
more obvious than it ever can be when a guard and a warden is always
round the corner waiting to club or dungeon them for infringement of a
whimsical prison rule. It does not help a man to his manhood to see his
keepers acting constantly the part of tyrants and torturers.

This is perhaps a novel doctrine, because, as the editorial writer in
the _Saturday Evening Post_ remarked the other day, "The truth is that,
at least two times out of three, we send a man to jail because we do not
know anything rational to do with him, and will not take the pains to
find out." We lack imagination to devise more effective treatment, and
we are wonderfully ignorant as to what prison treatment really means.
And this indictment lies not only against the public at large, but
against the Department of Justice and the Congress, who pass their
judgments and inflict their penalties without in the least understanding
what they are doing to human bodies and souls like their own.

Jail is the conventional and time-honored nostrum, which is administered
with a glow of moral self-esteem, and no more thought about it. When a
murderer is sent to jail for life, or a bank burglar or white slaver or
financial crook for his specified term, do we not sit back in our chairs
and clear our throats with a self-satisfied "hem!" and "There's one
scoundrel has got his deserts, anyway!" Had it been your brother,
father, son, or yourself, would you employ such language? Would you not
rather say, "If the whole truth were known, this could not have
happened?" But every case is a special case to the victim. And which of
us who has not been a convict in prison has the right to declare that
prison is the "desert" of any man? We do not know what we are talking

I was looking out of the window of the Isolation Building one day, with
the runner, Ned, beside me; I did my writing there, and he was assigned
for duty to the same building. Ned, to whom I have already referred, was
a thoughtful young man, and often said a word that went to the center of
the subject. We had no business, of course, to be conversing together,
but the guard was absent for the moment. We were watching the convicts
form in the yard for the march to their several places of occupation;
there was a double row of them down there in front of us being marshaled
to go to the stone-shed, about fifty yards away. There they would remain
till evening, chipping away at blocks of granite, and breathing the dust
created by their labor.

The stone-shed men were mostly recruited from the so-called hard cases
among the convicts; the work was hard, and rapid-fire guards were
generally picked to take care of them. A man had been shot to death
there about five years before by a guard, on no better grounds than that
the man had not moved quickly enough in response to an order. No action
against the guard was taken, and he is still on duty in the prison;
perhaps he knows too much. The stone-shed men prepare the stone used in
the construction of the buildings already mentioned; and they are also
employed at times, by no regulation to be found in any of the books, to
do odd jobs for members of the prison force; as when, for example, they
were required to turn out a monument for the wife or other relative of a
guard who had died, and for whom he was unable to provide a suitable
memorial at his own expense. For whatever purpose the stone work is
done, legitimate or illegitimate, the workers are not enthusiastic about
it, and probably not many of them will live long enough, at least in
prison, to see their handiwork in practical use.

Arrayed near them was another file, destined to work on the grounds
belonging to the prison outside the warden's famous wall, where
turnips, potatoes, corn and other vegetables are grown. The
vegetables grow--it can hardly be said that they are cultivated; I
don't know what a New York market gardener would say to them. They
grow, and in due season some of them appear on the prison table;
others do not appear, but whether they are left to rot in the ground,
or are put to a more remunerative use, I do not personally know.
There is no great enthusiasm among the gardeners, either.

Suddenly, Ned groaned out, "Oh, the aimlessness of it! Why don't you
write a piece in our paper about the aimlessness of prison work?
Aimless--that's what it is! How can a fellow feel interested in what
he's doing, when he never knows what he's doing it for, or what
becomes of it when it's done--let alone that he isn't paid for it?
Aimlessness--that's what we get here in prison, and that's all we
learn here. Did you ever think what a prison would be if there was
any common sense aim in anything? Those fellows could make this place
the finest thing you could imagine, if they were taken hold of by
somebody with common sense, and put on jobs that had any sense in
them. But they are kept dawdling around, and never know where they're
at. It kills 'em--that's what it does! You'd think a criminal would
be taught anything but aimlessness; it was aimlessness that got him
here in the first place, nine times out of ten.

"Why, take what goes on in the printing office that you were assigned
to, for instance," he went on, with a sidelong grin at me. "You have a
month to get out the paper, four to six pages large quarto. How long
would it take to do that stunt in New York?"

"I suppose it could be done in twenty-four hours," I admitted.

"Yes, and there are six men down there, and they have thirty times
twenty-four hours. They are in a cellar underground, with the air that
hasn't been changed in years, and the heat-pipes making it worse. Their
health can't stand it--you know that--but there they've got to stay
every day from eight till half after four, pottering round with their
types and proofs and stuff, and trying to drag it along till time's
up--what's the good of it to anybody? It's the same everywhere; look at
the tailorshop! Those fellows sit and fool around there, with the guard
slinging language at 'em every few minutes, and taking an hour to sew a
hem six inches long; and all the time here's you and me wearing clothes
that were new maybe five or six years ago, as you may see by the numbers
that have been stamped on your back and then blotted out, and were worn,
since then, by some poor devil with tuberculous trouble or worse; but
they'll be worn out for fair before we get any others. Why, look at your
pants! They're split all down the leg, and there's your knee sticking
out of the hole! The prison authorities call that economy, may be; what
do you call it?"

I said that I was not competing for the glass of fashion just then. Ned
offered to sew up the rent for me, but I said that the safety-pin now on
duty would suffice. He still had some of his theme left in him, and he
went on:

"Look at that power house, that's kept going night and day, the year
round, with coal at government expense, running all sorts of machinery,
and what do they get out of it? I was in the carpenter's shop the other
day, and there was all kinds of machines going, lathes, and I don't know
what; you'd think by the noise of them they was building the Ark at
least. But I nosied round, and couldn't find anybody that seemed to be
working much. At last I came to one of the big steam lathes, and there
was a man that looked to be busy about something, so I went up to watch
him. Well, what do you think he was doing? He was making one of these
here little sticks that a fellow cleans his nails with! The power house
was burning tons of coal, and everything humming, and that was what came
out of it all. A nail stick! What do you think of that?"

No doubt there was rhetorical exaggeration about this; but Ned's
arraignment was on the whole not devoid of justification. There are
abundant means in the prison for carrying on useful and energetic work,
but they are not properly employed. Neither the convicts nor the
community benefits by it.

Not that it is wholly without benefit to anybody, either. Good clothes
are made in the tailor shop, but they are not worn by convicts. At least
one excellent dwelling house has been made by prisoners, but it is
occupied by a high prison official. Unexceptionable meals are cooked in
the convict kitchen, but convicts do not eat them. There is an admirable
and productive kitchen garden attached to the prison, but its contents
never appear on convict tables. There is a fine lawn, diversified with
brilliant flower-beds, in front of the main prison building, and it is
greatly admired by visitors and passers-by; but the convict sees it
twice only during his term--once when he is brought into the prison, and
again when he is led out. On neither occasion is he, perhaps, in the
best mood to profit by it. Perhaps the prison officials do profit by it;
but if so, the results are not seen in their intercourse with the
prisoners. There is nothing flower-like in that.

Idleness is an evil thing; purposeless work is idleness in another and
worse form. Aimlessness, as my friend Ned said, is a miserable state for
a man; it tortures him in prison, and the habit of it, acquired in
prison, cripples and degrades him after he gets out. Contract labor is a
crime which is getting recognized as such; it disgraces the nation or
the state which tolerates it, and the shame of it, if not its
immorality, may lead to its general suppression. Unpaid convict labor
for the state, as on roads and so forth, is better than private contract
labor, but is also a disgrace to the employer--a contemptible saving of
pennies at the cost of human souls. Honest work is a manly thing, and
those who do it should be treated like men, and as laborers worthy of
their hire. Because we have rendered them helpless to demand their
rights is no excuse for denying them. It is cheap, but shameful, and can
only teach them that the community can be as dishonest as the veriest
thief of them all.

But a system of work of which that at Atlanta is a type (and, alas! the
type is far too numerous) is anomalous and abominable; it is aimless,
and abhorrent to man, God and devil alike. It is difficult to absolve
such a prison from the charge of being run at the expense of prisoners,
for the benefit of its officials, since they alone appear to prosper by

Julian Hawthorne

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