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The Subterranean Brotherhood by Julian Hawthorne

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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 regimen 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.



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.



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
facade 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

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

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

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.



When a man hears rumors that his application for parole is likely to be
acted upon favorably, a guard pauses at his cell door some morning, and
tells him to go to the clothing shop at a certain hour. The prisoner,
unless he has been forewarned, accepts this as proof positive that he
will really be set at liberty, and presents himself before the head
tailor with a smiling countenance. He is solemnly and specifically
measured for a suit, looks over the material out of which it is to be
made, perhaps ventures to mention some predilections as to the cut, and
takes his departure with a light heart. The fact that the cloth is
cheap, unshrunken goods, which will shrivel up at the first shower or
severe humidity, and will, at all events, get wrinkled out of shape in a
few days, does not dash the hopeful prisoner's jocundity; nor even the
consideration that the "prison cut" will be instantly recognized all
over the country, by every detective, private or federal, and acted upon
as circumstances may indicate. It is not the clothes, good or bad, that
makes his long-tried heart glad; it is the assurance of freedom. He
would be more than content with a simple loin-cloth, if only freedom
might go with it.

As a matter of fact, this measuring commonly means little, and
guarantees nothing at all. Indeed, it has rather the appearance of a
pleasant jest of the authorities--one of the cat-and-mouse plays with
prisoners with which every old timer is familiar. One would say the
authorities find amusement, amid the monotonous round of their
avocations, in thus stimulating hopes which they know are not likely to
be fulfilled. "Come, here is a heart not yet thoroughly broken; let us
try another blow at it!" Days, weeks, months, drag tediously by, and
nothing more is heard of the parole, or of the suit of new clothes. They
have never been made up, or if they by chance have been, they are put
away to gather dust on a shelf underground; they are old clothes
now--years old, sometimes. And when at last they are brought out again,
it is probable that they will be worn by some other, more fortunate man,
who ignored the misfit for the sake of getting past the prison doors.

When this little drama was acted for my benefit, I noticed a man sitting
in a certain chair amid the other tailor prisoners, stitching away
perfunctorily at a piece of goods. I call him a man, but he looked, to
my fancy, like an ancient frog, or the semblance of what had once been a
frog, from which, however, all the impulses and juices that had made him
alive had slowly leaked away, until nothing but the shell was left. He
was a pithless automaton, in whom mind and emotions had long since
become inert, and only enough sensibility was left to enable him to feel
dimly miserable. Who was he--or, better, who had he been? I learned that
for seven years he had sat in that same chair from morning till night,
doing the same job of sewing on one suit after another of prison
clothing. Seven years! But was he capable of no other employment? Might
he not have been given the relief of a change? Maybe; but what would be
the use? They couldn't be bothered finding him new stunts all the time,
since he had learned how to do that one thing satisfactorily. He was a

Life--your entire lifetime--means, perhaps, a good deal to you; even its
sorrows, in the retrospect, were good in their way; they meant
something. And you look forward to happier things in the future; it will
be a long and on the whole a successful future perhaps. Think of the
variety and the opportunity which this great, multiform, breathing world
holds forth to a man; the friends, the activities, the changes of scene,
the surprises, the conflicts, success and failure, hope and fear,
triumph, defeat--life, in a word. It is a divine thing, a glorious
thing, the God-given birthright of all men. It is the molding of
character, the endless, stimulating struggle, the growing sense of human
brotherhood, the faces and hands of our fellow creatures, the longer,
deeper thoughts aroused by the slow revelations of experience as to the
plan of human destiny,--and therefore are the words well chosen which
condemn a man like yourself to penal servitude "for life"?

But human language has no word to convey the significance of lifelong
imprisonment. It is surely not life: nor is it death--Oh, death would be
welcome! For death means either (as you may imagine you believe) total
extinction, or it means increased life, free from material trammels. But
death in life is a monstrous thing; life, for example, spent in a chair
in a squalid tailor's shop, doing over and over again the same piece of
squalid, meaningless work, with ever another squalid year stretching out
its length before you when the last one has been completed. Is life so
endured _life_--the sacred Creative gift, imparted to all things,
conscious or unconscious, without restriction? Life, the mystery, which
we are impotent to bestow, and which even death, self-inflicted or
inflicted by others, cannot take away; which one thing only can take
away--the death-in-life of penal imprisonment; is it not a formidable
thought that we have incurred the burden of this crime, which does not
transfer life from one phase to another, but seeks to annihilate it

Death would be welcome; the infliction of it can find forgiveness; but
how can we forgive the infliction of death-in-life? How can God forgive
it, this profane meddling with sacred and fathomless life? Will He
accept the plea that we did it "for the protection of society?--for the
man's own good?--or a warning to others?" In that day of questioning, I
would rather take my chances with the man sitting in the chair in the
prison tailor's shop for seven years, a "lifer"! Infinite mercy may find
means to compensate him for what we robbed him of; but what can it do
with us, the robbers?

In the Federal prison there were a score or more of lifers, with some of
whom it was my fortune to become acquainted. I stood in a sort of awe of
them; the thought of their fate was so overwhelming that my mind could
not compass it, though my heart might approach some conception of it
through obscure channels of intuition. Their treatment by the prison
officials was not ordinarily severe; even a warden or a guard could feel
that clubbing and dark-celling would be a kind of anticlimax for a man
sentenced for life. Some of them--usually negroes--would be given easy
jobs, and not held too strictly to the petty regulations whose special
object is to humiliate the ordinary prisoner, under guise of
disciplining and reforming him. Nothing was to be gained by disciplining
or reforming a "lifer." Others, however, in whom despair had taken the
expression of obstinacy or savagery, were savagely handled; one of them
bears terrible scars from a shooting by one of the guards, and he told
me that, out of the twenty-two years he had already served, eight had
been spent in the punishment cells. Others are maltreated for a while,
experimentally, or to "put the fear of God in their hearts," and
afterward let alone. But as a rule, there is not much fun to be got out
of a "lifer" by the prison keepers, and they prefer to ignore him.

The introduction of the law allowing the privilege of applying for
parole, did, to be sure, place in the hands of the authorities a weapon
with which they could "get beneath the hide" (as they might term it) of
these obdurate subjects. Needless to say, this measure, which provides
that "lifers" may be paroled (at the discretion of the parole board)
after having served fifteen years with a good prison record, did not
contemplate introducing thereby a new element of misery into their
lives. But the men to whose hands the "lifer" is entrusted found in it a
means of making him more readily amenable to discipline by holding over
him the threat of an adverse report should he prove intractable. They
could keep him indefinitely in that state of torturing suspense as to
his fate, which is perhaps the worst of all tortures, by withholding
from him all information as to whether or not his appeal was likely to

Several cases of this kind came under my observation. In one, the
release came before the man had collapsed; in others, too late. In only
one or two that I know of was there any pretext that his conduct during
imprisonment had been unsatisfactory. The delay was never explained; it
was due to wilful or careless neglect. Two men were carried out feet
foremost in a deal box after they had endured suspense up to the extreme
limit of mortal capacity. They died of broken hearts--gradually broken
through long months of hope slowly fading into despair.

The warden sat serene in his office, attending to business as a good
official should, writing reports to the Department which testified to
his efficiency and economy, welcoming visitors with his genial smile,
occasionally reading encomiums upon himself in a local newspaper,
written and inserted there by somebody; the guards sauntered jauntily
about, cocking their caps and making their clubs dance at the end of the
cords; eight hundred unsightly felons, who had once been men like you
and me, filed drearily in to their meals, and out again, the worse for
the experience; and all the while, from morning till night, Dennis sat
on the corner of his cot in the hospital room, waiting for the news of
his release. He felt, and said, at first, that it was sure to come; it
would come in a day or two, or at the end of the week anyway; or at the
beginning of the week after. He knew his application had been accepted;
of course, those big officials had lots to do, and could not be expected
to attend to him at once; but they would not forget him.

For several weeks--a month or two--Dennis kept up his spirits well; he
had been in prison many years, more than the number required for parole,
and he had no bad marks against him. His wife and two daughters were
still living, however, and he was full of plans for his future life with
them; what he would do, where he would live, how happy they all would be
together, after that separation. But one day as he sat on his cot, or
paced slowly up and down the hospital chamber, news was brought to him,
bad news, news that his wife had died unexpectedly.

He survived it; some men survive miraculously in prison, and some die
easily. Dennis had his daughters left to him still; and the release was
sure to come now--they would not surely delay it any longer. He had been
a tall, powerful mulatto when he first came to prison; he was a gaunt,
bent skeleton of a man now, with great, bony, strengthless hands, that
closed round mine with a sort of appealing, lingering pressure when we
met, as if he feared to let go his hold upon a man who was sorry for
him. The doctor knew--any competent physician, at least, might have
known--that he could not last much longer; but the doctor said nothing
and did nothing. Then--for the stars in their courses seemed to fight
against Dennie--came another piece of news for him; not news of parole,
but news that his daughters, both of them, had followed their mother;
they too were dead. Dennis, who had begun to plan out a life with them,
to be father and mother both to them, to comfort them and work for them,
and to die at last with their love and companionship comforting him, was
now alone in the world, and still in prison.

Time had gone by; it was six months since he had begun to look for
freedom. What would freedom mean for him now, with no one in the world
to go to or to be with? Probably he gave up looking for it at this
point; at any rate, he spoke of it no more. He spoke very little after
that, and he very seldom rose from his seat on the corner of his cot, or
took notice of any one or of anything in the hospital room. He sat
there, day after day, all day long, with his eyes fixed upon a certain
point of vacancy; what he saw, what he thought, no one knew. His hands
lay before him on his bony knees, lax and inert. Half a lifetime in
prison, and now he was nearing the end, mute and motionless, making no
complaint or protest--the power for that had gone by. He no longer spoke
of parole; and no parole came. No doubt, the great officials were busy,
and what was Dennis that they should remember him, and draw out that
paper from its pigeonhole, and sign it, and send it to him? The world
could get along without Dennis.

So, one day, Dennis died; and after his body had been laid in its box,
the old market wagon, with the old mule between the shafts, was backed
up to the door, and the box with the gray old corpse in it was shoved in
and driven round to the prison burying ground and dumped into its red
clay hole. There it lies; but I am not sure that that is the end of
Dennis. A time may be coming, after this earthly show is over, when
persons who were so much pressed for time that they could find no moment
to sign a paper to save a fellow man's life, may see him again under
awkward circumstances, and be asked to explain. Justice, after all, is
an Immortal, and belongs to eternity. We should beware of measuring, by
the apparent slowness of her movements on this lower plane, the
likelihood of her final victory.

If you have some imagination to spare, put yourself in the place of a
convict who finds himself, to-day, facing a sentence of imprisonment for
life. The imagination of it, even, is so appalling that you will need
more than common courage to picture it to yourself. What, then, must the
reality of it be? It is hard to understand how any human heart and brain
can withstand the prospect of it. If it has not stopped your heart at
once--if your brain has not immediately collapsed under the shock--you
will think of suicide. But, perhaps, before you can find means or
resolution to seek that escape, you will become conscious, in the
background of your mind, of a stirring of that almost ineradicable thing
that we call hope. You cannot quite bring yourself to believe that your
entire earthly future is to be passed in a prison cell. Some event will
occur, some beneficent freak of destiny, some earthquake or lightning
bolt, some national revolution or catastrophe, some belated sense of
humanity in your brother man, some new law repealing the impious cruelty
of the old law, that will break your bars before the end can come. You
cannot believe that you will actually live and die in jail.

Thus you are tided over your first hours and days, and with each new day
that you survive the chances of your surviving altogether increase. By
and by, you fall into the prison routine, and your existence becomes
mechanical and automatic. There will be occasional flamings-out of rage
and despair, but they pass, and become progressively more infrequent.
You have slipped down into a merely animal stratum of existence; you
live to-day because you lived yesterday, and you do not forecast
to-morrow. Perhaps you learn to assuage and deceive the hunger of your
immortal soul by forcing your attention upon the petty ripple of daily
events and duties, until you present, to the outsider, the appearance of
a commonplace, non-tragic person, bearing no noticeable scars of the
crime which society perpetrated on you. You perhaps lose, at last, the
realization of your own inhuman plight, and are received, unawares, into
the gray prison protoplasm, no longer really sensitive to impressions,
though presenting the semblance of human reactions. You drift down the
stream, passive, in a sort of ghastly contentment. You have forgotten
that you ever were a man.

But I am merely speculating in the direction of truths that I do not
know and cannot reach. The lifers themselves whom I knew could tell me
nothing; they were less demonstrative than the men of five or ten years'
sentence. We can never fathom the dealings of the Almighty with His
creatures, and they, perhaps, can fathom them as little as we can. In
ways inconceivable to us, they are supported.

There was a little old man known as Uncle Billy. If the parole board has
kept faith with him, he should have been set free the 23rd of December.
Uncle Billy's right arm had been amputated at the shoulder, the result
of a shot through the arm from his own gun while he was getting out of a
buggy. He lived in Oklahoma, Indian Territory, at the time of his story.
Billy was married to a woman who must have had some attractiveness, for
a journeying pedler, who periodically passed through the region, formed
a liaison with her. There was at that time a daughter, who had just
reached marriageable age. The pedler was wont practically to put Billy
out of his own house during his sojourns, and usurped his place as
master of the household. At one time he secured Billy's conviction on
some minor offense, and had him jailed for six months. What Billy
thought of the situation I don't know; he was a small, slight man, under
five foot three, and of an intellectual cast. But he seems not to have
attempted active measures, until one day he discovered that the pedler,
not satisfied with the wife, was attempting the seduction of the
daughter likewise.

Then, one night, Billy came to his house, and found that going on which
his patience could not tolerate. He got hold of an ax, and, stealing
into the room, struck the pedler, as he lay in bed, with his one arm,
and split his head open. What passed then between him and his wife is
not known. Billy, I believe, was for giving himself up to the
authorities at once; but the woman prevailed upon him to conceal the
deed. She tied the body to the tail of the horse, and dragged it across
the fields to a ditch, where she covered it with dirt and rubbish. There
it lay for some weeks, until a couple of men out hunting saw an end of a
suspender sticking out of the ground, and pulling at it, discovered the
murdered corpse. Billy confessed, and he and his wife were lodged in
jail pending their trial. The woman died there; but Billy was tried and
convicted, and in consideration of the peculiar circumstances, was "let
off" with a life sentence. When I knew him, he had been in a cell nearly
fifteen years.

The weather was chilly; some of the prisoners were let out in the yard
every day at one o'clock, to pace round in a ring for forty minutes. I
saw the little, bent, thin old man, with one arm, hobbling round and
round with his cane. Conversation was not permitted under the rules, but
the rule was often overlooked. After I had gained an outline of his
story from some old timers, I spoke to him, and he looked up at me with
a pair of singularly intelligent brown eyes, and with a kindly
expression of his meager little face. We conversed a little on general
subjects, and I found him well educated, observant, thoughtful, with a
distinct vein of subdued humor. Afterward I saw him in his cell, though
there was a rule against that, too; but the guard was tolerant.

He had a violin there which he had made himself, his tools being a knife
made out of a nail hammered flat and the edge sharpened, and a piece of
broken glass. It was admirably fashioned, and except that it was not
varnished, would have been taken for such an instrument as you buy in a
shop; its tone, too, was pleasing, and Billy could discourse excellent
music on it. It was in the manufacture of these fiddles that his time
was passed; the fact that he had but one hand to work with did not
embarrass him. His contrivance for playing on the instrument was as
remarkable as the instrument itself; he had rigged up a sort of jury arm
of wood and metal, with an elbow to it, and a grip to lay hold of the
bow. Persons who play on violins will doubtless be more puzzled than I
was to conceive how he could do it; but he did it. And for aught I could
see, he was content with his singular industry; it gave him constant
occupation and enabled him, I suppose, to keep thoughts of other things
out of the way. Otherwise, he was utterly unobtrusive, almost invisible,
and the guards let him alone. But the government of the United States
had kept him there for fifteen years, as a menace to society. You can
see him in fancy, had he been set free for doing what most human beings
must have done, ranging up and down the country, dealing out terror and
slaughter. Such wild beasts must be restrained. They must be disciplined
and reformed, and jail is the way to do it.

Just before I left the jail, I spoke to Billy about his parole. "You and
I will get out almost together," I said. "No, no," he replied, with his
curious little humorous smile, "they can't get rid of me as easy as
that; I've got three months yet, and I'm going to stick it out to the
end." I have not heard the sequel; but I can hardly believe that the
authorities mean to play the cat-and-mouse game with him.

I have perhaps mentioned John Ross, who died, under promise of parole,
after thirty-three years behind the bars. And there was Thomas Bram, a
prisoner hardly less remarkable, freed on parole after seventeen years'
confinement. He had persistently asserted his innocence from the first,
and nobody so far as I know doubted his assertion. The evidence against
him was entirely circumstantial, and there was another man in the case
who seemed, to judge by the reports of the trial, to have been at least
as likely to be guilty. Bram's record in prison was wholly blameless,
and though there was some opposition to freeing him, it sufficed only to
obtain a delay of a few weeks beyond the date set for his release. But
during those few weeks, his sufferings were trying to witness, and he
was near collapse before the end came. He told me that the
Attorney-General had personally promised him freedom two years before,
but had done nothing toward keeping his promise. "It wasn't right, Mr.
Hawthorne," was all the comment he allowed himself to make. Bram's
self-control was great, and his manner always soft and ingratiating; he
was politic and prudent, and had probably resolved from the outset of
his prison career to obtain pardon or mitigation if good conduct and
unfaltering adherence to his plea of innocence could compass it. He was
given a job which procured him some indulgences, and was never punished.
But if a life sentence for a guilty man be intolerable, what shall be
said if he were guiltless? Think it over in your leisure moments.

I find my list is far too long to be dismissed in one chapter; and in
cases where the men are still in confinement, discussion of them might
prove injurious. There was a young fellow there who looked like a
slender boy of seventeen; he was really over thirty years of age. But he
had been imprisoned since his fifteenth year, and his face since then
had not developed or taken the contours of manhood; and his manner was
boyish. He was well educated in the grammar school sense, however,
though I believe he had picked up most of what he knew in prison. He had
a distinct, emphatic way of speaking, and believed, I fancy, that he was
quite a man of the world, though, of course, he was almost totally
devoid of other than prison experience. He would have been an
interesting study, had not the pathos of his condition, of which he was
himself unaware, made one shrink from probing it.

He had killed a man at the instigation of and under the influence of a
step-father, who wished the man removed for ends of his own, and forced
the child (he was nothing else) to take the job off his hands, and the
law of Indian Territory, which was the scene of the affair, condemned
him for life. After serving fifteen years, he applied for his parole
under the law; there appeared to be no grounds so far as his prison
record went for denying it; nevertheless, he was rejected. He asked the
reason, and was told that it was not considered safe to set him at
liberty; he had a "bad temper"--that was, I think, the explanation.

Psychological insight is a good thing in its way and place, but it may
be carried too far, or employed amiss; and this looks like an
illustration. The boy, in more than fifteen years, had never done
anything in prison that called for discipline; but because some
self-constituted and arbitrary psychologist chose to believe, or to say,
that his temper was not under full control, he was doomed to spend the
rest of his life in a cell. This prisoner knows, of course, that he has
been wronged, but he does not know how much; he does not know what life
in a world of free men is. But he, after being kept for half of his
lifetime under duress, must submit to the caprice of a man to whom the
country has entrusted absolute power. No man is qualified to exercise
absolute power; no man is justified in accepting it; but we bestow it
upon every chance political appointee, and what he does with it puts us
to shame, whether or not we can as yet realize it.

There was at least one life prisoner in Atlanta who merits a chapter to
himself; but I cannot speak of him now. He is one of the unreconciled,
and his horoscope is still too cloudy to make it safe to tell his story.
A desperate criminal, he would be termed by prison experts. In truth, he
is a warm-hearted, generous, high minded man, sentenced to death in his
boyhood for a deed which would have been properly punished by a few
months in a reformatory, afterward obtaining a commutation to life
imprisonment, and now a man of more than forty years, bearing upon his
body terrible scars of severities practised upon him for trying to
resist wrongs which no manly man could tamely endure. A Balzac might
find in him a more human and lovable _Vautrin_; a Victor Hugo could make
him the hero of another _Les Miserables_; a Charles Reade could win new
renown by summoning us to put ourselves in his place. But the best
service I can do him now is to give him silence. He is not quite
desperate yet; should he become so, the world will know his history.



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

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