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The Subterranean Brotherhood by Julian Hawthorne

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was usefully employed and was not frequenting drinking saloons or
otherwise going astray. A parole board was appointed to carry out the
law and to look after the paroled prisoner, helping him if necessary to
get employment. Meetings of the board were to be held at stated times,
to pass upon applications for parole; it was to consist of the warden
and the doctor of the prison, together with the president of the parole
board, who officiated at all Federal prisons, and who would, naturally,
be the superior official of the three. But two members of the board
would form a quorum; and meetings of the board at times other than those
regularly required could be held if thought desirable.

This looked humane and innocent, and raised great hopes in prisoners;
and an improvement in their general demeanor was soon observable.
Question soon arising as to whether life prisoners could be brought
under the new law, it was decided that lifers who had served fifteen
years were eligible, if of good record,--not an extravagant act of
mercy,--and in obtaining this concession it was made known that the
warden of Atlanta Penitentiary was instrumental. Of course the
reputation of Atlanta as a model and humane prison was greatly enhanced

But the prisoners, and perhaps the framers of the law also, had
overlooked one little word in the language of the law, which grew to
have a large significance afterward. The language is, that if the
prisoner's conduct has been correct, etc., he may be granted parole. If,
for that harmless looking "may," had been substituted "shall," or
"must," the secret annals of federal prisons since then would have been
spared much rascality, corruption, cruelty, torture and death; and
prisoners would not have hated and distrusted their keepers as they do
now, and subordination on one side and humanity on the other would have
received an impetus.

That "may" rendered it optional with the board to grant or to refuse
parole in any given case; they might not only determine whether or not
the conduct of the applicant had been, while serving his sentence, good
enough to justify clemency; but also whether, even then, it were
expedient to exercise it. No matter how unexceptionable the behavior of
a prisoner were shown to be, it was open to the board to say to him, "We
hold that your liberation would be inimical to the welfare of society,
and we cannot therefore recommend it to the Department."

The prisoner, going before the board unsupported by the advice of
counsel, had no further recourse; he must go back to his cell feeling
that all his efforts to be obedient (persisted in through what
discouragements only prisoners know) had been futile; that he was not a
whit better off than was a man who had defied every regulation, and was
worse off in so far as he had taken all his pains and indulged all his
hopes for nothing. He must serve out his time; for if he renewed his
application at the next meeting of the board, he was told that nothing
could be done in his case except upon the presentation of "new

New evidence of what? The obstacle he had to meet was the arbitrary
opinion, or fiat, of the board that it would not be a good thing to set
him free; with what argument, except his good conduct, which had already
proved unavailing, could he hope to reverse it? The decision left him
helpless and hopeless, and with a sense of despotic injustice on the
part of the authorities which was anything but conducive to good
discipline in him or in his comrades who were conversant with his fate.

Obviously, however, there was a weak point in this kind of arbitrary
rulings of the board; it was conceivable that some enterprising
Attorney-General might want to know why the board had not held the good
conduct specified in the law to be sufficient ground for freeing the
man. To guard against this, the services of a subordinate called the
parole officer were called in. This person's normal functions as
indicated in the law were to help paroled men to procure employment, to
aid them in general in their efforts toward a better life, and to stand
by them as an authoritative and kindly friend. But he was now required
to play a very different part.

As soon as a man applied for parole, the parole officer betook himself
to the place where the applicant had formerly lived or been known, and
there busied himself in unearthing whatever gossip and scandal of a
hostile nature any enemy might be willing to supply. There was no time
limit on these revelations, nor were any apparent precautions taken to
determine whether the evil reports were founded in fact; the tale bearer
was not compelled to testify under oath, and his story might refer to
incidents which had happened years before, and which had nothing to do
with the crime for which the prisoner was now undergoing sentence. With
this budget of information the parole officer returned to his superiors,
who were now prepared for any contingency.

When the prisoner comes up for examination, and has handed in his report
of good conduct while incarcerated, the president of the board fixes a
distrustful eye upon him, and says in effect, "Your behavior here seems
to have been unobjectionable; but the board cannot take the
responsibility of granting parole on that ground alone. It desires to be
informed what you were doing in such and such a place, in such and such
a year? Is it not true that you were arrested in this or that year for
this or that offense? Has your career, in short, been absolutely
blameless during the whole course of your life? Because, unless you can
prove such to be the case, it will indicate a predisposition to
law-breaking on your part which will render it imprudent for the board
to recommend you for parole to the Department."

The president has a sheaf of papers in his hand, which he glances over
significantly while the mind of the prisoner goes groping back over the
past, asking himself what he has done amiss in forgotten years, and who
can be his accusers. He has no counsel beside him to tell him that he is
being tried before an unauthorized tribunal, on unsupported testimony,
on charges irrelevant to that for which he is now undergoing punishment;
or to remind him that the judge who passed sentence on him had specified
that if his behavior were good while serving that sentence, he would be
eligible for parole--that he had, perhaps, given him a longer sentence
than he would otherwise have done, upon this very understanding; and
that, consequently, the parole board was now arrogating the power to
override the purpose of the federal court, and to inflict additional and
unwarranted punishment upon him for something which he may or may not
have done in the past, or for which, if he had done it and been
convicted, he may already have served sentence. He has no one to argue
thus for him; he feels that he is alone and among enemies; and he can
make no effective defense. And the parole officer stands by with a sad
countenance, as of one who had done the best he could for a protege, but
was powerless to stem the tide of justice.

It can't be done, legally or justly; but it is done; that is the gist of
the matter. There is no one to know the wrong and to insist upon the
right; and the wrong is perpetrated. Unnumbered victims of it, in every
federal prison of the country, substantiate this fact. The parole
board--which means, in practise, its president--exercises more power
than the federal court, and there is no appeal from his decision. At his
will, a man may be tried twice for the same offense, behind closed
doors, without aid of counsel. He may be condemned, though the offense
was never committed except in the imagination of an enemy. We tell our
convicts that they have no civic rights; but it is not generally
understood, I think, that the Spanish Inquisition of the Middle Ages can
properly be reproduced in Twentieth Century America even with men behind
the bars.

But let that pass. Things are done under the parole law worse than this.
If it were used merely as a means to induce unruly men to be docile, no
one could complain; if men thus induced should after all be deprived of
the reward they had earned, we might condone it. But what if we find the
parole board turned into an accessory of the secret service or spy
system, and learn that an applicant for parole, whether or not he have
maintained good conduct during his term, may yet hope for a favorable
report on his case if he will consent to betray some man on whom the
police have not yet been able to lay their hand?

Here comes a postoffice thief, for example. He was known to have had
confederates, but they escaped. He is up for parole, with only an
indifferent prison record to plead for him. "We do not find your case
meritorious," says the president to him (in substance), "but there were
two or three others concerned in your crime. If you are able to furnish
their names to the board, with such other information as may lead to
their arrest and conviction, we might see our way to recommend leniency
in your matter." I will not guarantee that the president expresses
himself in terms quite so explicit, but he makes himself perfectly
understood, and the prisoner perfectly understands that his liberty is
purchasable at the price of treachery.

I don't know what percentage of the miserable creatures accept the
ignoble offer; but I know personally of many who refused it. And I do
not need to ask what are the prospects of an honest and worthy career
for those who chose to be traitors. If they go to ruin, is not the
parole board responsible? On the other hand, who shall blame the convict
if he accedes to the bargain? The alternative presented to him is one
which might cause even virtue to waver, and convicts are not supposed to
be virtuous, especially when such an example as this action of the board
is set them. The alternative is liberty, or continued incarceration with
the strong probability of increased severity of treatment, and always
the off chance of death.

Meanwhile, is there not something humiliating in the reflection that a
tribunal authorized and appointed by the Government of the United States
should descend to such practises? Or are we content to accept the spy
system in toto, cost what it may? Perhaps, however, the president of the
parole board is prepared to deny that he ever entered into any such
compact with a prisoner; and perhaps the Department of Justice will be
astonished to hear that he ever did. Is the thing true, or not true? I
think men exist who have excellent reasons to believe, and who may be
willing to testify, that it is.

But take the case of a prisoner who had no confederates--how does the
board deal with him? According to my information, which includes my
personal experience, question is put to the applicant whether or not he
admits himself guilty of the crime for which he is undergoing sentence?
My own reply was, "Not guilty"; and though the president was very
courteous to me, and gave me every assurance that I might expect
favorable action on my application, as a matter of fact and of record
the recommendation made to the Attorney-General was that my application
be denied, and denied it accordingly was. But in other cases nearly
contemporary with mine, which came to my knowledge, the reply of "not
guilty" called forth the rejoinder that in that case the matter was not
one for the board to pass on, but should be referred to executive
action--that is, that the President of the United States should be
petitioned for a pardon. Some men are so persistent or so infatuated as
to take the suggestion seriously; but their petition does not bear
fruit; probably its path to the President is by way of the Department of
Justice, where it is either pigeonholed, or reaches him with an
endorsement to the effect that it is not a case for clemency. But in
such cases as came to my knowledge, the President never saw the petition
at all.

And what happens if our man pleads guilty? Why, in that event he is told
that such a person as he should not have made application for
parole--that he has not been sufficiently punished--that the best he
should hope for is to serve out his sentence, less the regular allowance
for good time. It is a case, in short, of heads the board wins, tails
the convict loses; and he withdraws, wondering, perhaps, what the board
is for. But let him beware of becoming restive under his disappointment,
or he may forfeit his good time too.

That the parole law is interpreted, under all conditions, as being a
favor or privilege and not a right earned by good conduct, is perhaps no
more than one might expect; but no prisoner who lacks powerful friends,
or whose parole does not in some way inure to the advantage of the
prison quite as much as to his own, can make his application with
assured hope of success. Upon the whole, prisoners feel that parole will
not be granted if any means can be found or devised to prevent it; the
good report of an entire county where a man formerly lived will not
prevail against the adverse report of some inspector--one enemy of a
prisoner outweighs, in the board's estimation, the favorable words of
many friends.

Moreover, men released on parole live in constant dread of the secret
service, for they know that unjust and trivial pretexts are often made
the occasion of their re-arrest; and a paroled man re-arrested must
serve out his whole time without rebate, and not including the period
during which he was at liberty. Some supervision by the Government is of
course proper; but the men feel it to be hostile, not friendly or
helpful; that any error they fall into or mishap they meet with will be
construed against them, not in their favor. In short, under the outward
forms of liberty, they are still in prison, and are often discouraged
from doing their best by this sleepless fear of the prowling spy.

Atlanta prison records show that out of one thousand prisoners who
applied for parole up to June 30th, 1913, two hundred and seventy were
successful. These applicants were serving terms of from one year and a
day to twenty-one years. The two hundred and seventy who were paroled
had served an aggregate of eighty-three years beyond the period when
they were eligible for parole (that is, after one-third of their
original sentence), or an average of about 112 days each, and with an
average of from twenty-five to forty per cent, of the time contemplated
for them to reestablish and rehabilitate themselves.

The one-year-one-day men lost about thirty-three per cent. of their time
during which they might have labored to reform themselves; and there
were about one hundred of the two hundred and seventy whose sentences
ran for a year and a day. Some sixty-five of the two hundred and seventy
had sentences of more than a year and a day and less than two years;
about thirty-five had over two years and under three years; from which
it would appear that short term men, convicted of minor offenses, were
given preference for parole over long term men. Yet it would seem to the
ordinary intelligence that it should be the long term men who most
needed parole and, if their conduct had been good, best deserved it. It
often happened that men would be paroled when they had but a few weeks
or even days yet to serve of their full sentence. In such cases, the
prison got whatever credit may belong to granting parole, but the men
got rather less than nothing, for they stood the risk of re-arrest and
further confinement.

When an applicant goes before the board for examination, he is sometimes
turned down summarily; but more often he goes out ignorant whether or
not he will succeed, and, as I have already shown, he is not seldom kept
in this torturing uncertainty until the day when he is either turned
loose or told that he has been rejected. This seems unnecessary, and
often appears to be due to sheer carelessness; the papers are not
promptly submitted to the Attorney-General, or they are pigeonholed and
forgotten. It may be true that the law does not categorically demand
that a prisoner shall be released immediately upon a favorable report;
but there is no obvious reason why he should not be, and it is cruel to
keep him in suspense.

There was a young fellow while I was there, a well educated and
agreeable man, whose conduct had always been unexceptionable; he applied
when eligible for parole, and was informed that he would be released.
Every morning thereafter for three weeks he arose with the hope that the
release would come that day; every night he went to bed with a heart
heavy with disappointment. He could not eat or sleep, he could not talk
connectedly, he trembled and turned pale, and was on the way to becoming
a nervous wreck; but no explanation was vouchsafed him. At last he was
suddenly told that he might go. The sole reason that I ever heard for
the delay was that the papers had been overlooked. There are a great
many government employees at Washington; it might be worth while to
appoint one more, charged with the duty of seeing that the overlooking
of parole papers be henceforth avoided. This was a very mild instance; I
have related how poor Dennis lingered for six months and finally died
from the same inattention or indifference.

There was a friend of mine, M., a highly intelligent, good natured
fellow, active and efficient in his prison duties, always courteous and
obliging; he was serving a sentence of five years, I think, for some
theft or confidence game. He had "done time" some six or seven years
previously, but during the interval had lived straight. At the time of
his last arrest he had been kept in the local jail, somewhere in New
England, after conviction, for four months before being transferred to
Atlanta. Time spent in a local jail before conviction is not counted in
the prisoner's favor; for example, I was arrested several months before
my conviction, and the trial itself lasted four months, and after the
trial I spent ten days in the Tombs.

With the exception of the last ten days, however, I was lucky enough to
be out on bail; but none of this time was applied to the lessening of my
sojourn in Atlanta, although the judge specified in his sentence that my
imprisonment there was to count from the time when the trial began; an
injunction which, had it been observed, would have caused my release on
parole a few days after my arrival at the penitentiary. But it appears
that such rulings by a trial judge have no weight with the Department of
Justice; and I am willing to admit that the judge's ruling in my case
seemed rather like whipping the devil round the stump--an evasion of the
manifest intent of the law, which, if I were guilty, I had no right to
expect. At all events, the Attorney-General made a decision, based upon
my case, that hereafter no such evasions were to be allowed; and I
presume his authority must be superior to that of any federal judge.

But my friend's case did not come under this category. His four months
in jail came after, not before, his conviction; and yet, when he arrived
at Atlanta, he was told that this four months would not be deducted from
his penitentiary time. Turn this which way you will, you cannot escape
the conclusion that this man is getting four months more than the
sentence of the judge required. Well, M. applied for parole on the plea
of perfect conduct during his imprisonment; no denial of that was
offered; but he was informed that his conviction seven years before, for
which he had been duly punished at that time, prevented the board from
giving favorable attention to his application.

This looks to me like trying a man twice for the same offense, and twice
condemning him; and I can find nothing to warrant it in the wording of
the parole law. If every actual or alleged mis-step of a man's whole
life can be quoted against him as ground for refusing parole, it would
seem tantamount to stultifying the law for parole.

This is not done in every case; but the point is that it may be done in
any case, and thus the fate of the applicant is at the arbitrary and
absolute disposal of the board, whether or not he have complied with the
stated provisions of the law.

The president of the parole board, in my time, was a Mr. Robert LaDow. A
former deputy warden of the Leavenworth Penitentiary, one W.H. Mackay,
wrote a letter to the Attorney-General on the 6th of November, 1913,
parts of which were published in newspapers about that time. In this
letter he said that Mr. LaDow was egotistical, arrogant, negligent,
extravagant, visionary and impractical, showed favoritism to prisoners,
and was totally unfit for the position he held. He goes on as follows:

"Personally, he knows nothing of Leavenworth Federal Prison; he is too
cowardly to go among the prisoners in the yards to make a personal
investigation of conditions; he has dealt unfairly and hastily with so
many at the parole meetings that he is afraid to meet prisoners face to
face.... Prisoners will stand punishment without a murmur if there is a
just reason for it, and they will permit you to be the judge; but when
men under the law are entitled to parole, and the flimsy excuse to hold
them in confinement is made that they will be a menace to society, they
cannot see it in that way. The parole board at this time is arrogantly
dominated by LaDow; it is practically a one-man board....

"When the board meets here, the men do not know sometimes for weeks and
months afterwards what their fate is.... Instances occur here where the
board acts unanimously upon a parole. Mr. LaDow takes these cases to
Washington and holds them thirty, sixty, and even ninety days on some
flimsy pretext or other. He often claims press of business, until
finally some senator or congressman or influential politician calls on
him, and then he gets busy very suddenly....

"When he comes to a parole meeting he begins work generally with a rush
and a flurry.... Usually has about 180 cases; he rushes them at the rate
of 60 to 80 a day, without getting at the merits or giving them serious
deliberation. He brings a stenographer, his private secretary, from
Washington at a heavy expense.... Then, when they return to Washington,
the stenographer writes up the result of the meeting, while LaDow will
take a junketing trip at Government expense ... as a sort of recreation
from his arduous duties."

I had not been long in Atlanta before a guard informed me that LaDow was
the best hated man in the prison, by officials and convicts alike. Nor
did I find any prisoner there, afterward, who did not speak to the same
tune. If he be really an efficient and trustworthy official, this is
singular and unfortunate. Mr. Mackay's charges against him at
Leavenworth are almost identically the same as what may be heard against
him any day in Atlanta. If there be any basis for them, perhaps it would
be expedient for the Government to supersede him. The parole law, at its
best, seems to be rather a weak-kneed and perverse institution, and it
would be a pity to deprive it of what value it may have by committing
its dispensation to the hands of a man not peculiarly fitted by nature
and temperament to carry out its provisions. It was Napoleon's opinion
that a blunder is worse than a crime.



After weathering Cape Parole, I laid my course for the Port of Good
Time. Men whose prison records are clear are liberated after serving
two-thirds of their original sentences. This new posture of my mind
invited a review of the experience through which I had been passing, and
of the conditions with which I had become conversant, and their
significance in connection with the policy of penal imprisonment in
general. I will introduce some of these reflections in this place.

As I have just said, men whose prison records are clear are liberated
after serving two-thirds of their original sentences. But part or all of
this abridgment may be lost by imperfect conduct. One man, at least,
within my knowledge, was punished by the dark hole several months before
the expiration of his original sentence, and was kept there until that
sentence had expired. Then, out of that filthy dungeon he was thrust
abruptly forth into broad daylight and the crowded world. It was a
miracle if he survived. What have most convicts to live for? Perhaps
those who have most to live for are unlikeliest to survive--their
anxiety is greater.

On the other hand, severity itself may stimulate a convict. His human
mind cannot comprehend despair. Instinct forces him to hope. So weeks,
months, years go by, and hope seems to him more instead of less
justifiable, till at last, perhaps, he dies with the illusion still
strong in him. Real despair is un-human and possibly rare. Otherwise
prison mutinies and killings would be more frequent. The argument of
despair is, "Since I must die here anyway, I'll take two or three of
those devils with me!" But few men believe they will die in jail,
therefore the guard or other official escapes.

Not ten percent of men in jail would regard such a killing as
unjustifiable. We were taught in school that resistance to tyrants is
obedience to God, and many who had disobeyed God in other ways would
gladly obey Him in this. I speak not merely of "ignorant and brutal"
convicts, but of educated and intelligent men like you and me. Even a
sensitive conscience may condone the killing of a tyrant who is slowly
and surely destroying you, body and soul, under sanction of law. But we
punish convicts who fight for revenge or liberty, and protect the
officials who taunt and torture them into doing it.

What a hideous and almost unbelievable situation! Historians wonder that
the Aztecs of Cortez' time, with their comparatively high civilization,
tolerated human sacrifices. But their human sacrifices were merciful
compared with ours. What is cutting out a man's heart on an altar to
propitiate a god, to hounding him to death through miserable years in a
prison to placate the spite of an accuser, the justice of a court, or
the grudge of a warden or guard?

And what is the fruit of it? For pure, carefree, smiling, remorseless
wickedness nothing in human annals surpasses the young criminals--black-
mailers, bomb-throwers, gunmen--now infesting our cities. "I think no
more of killing a houseful of human beings, men, women and children,"
one of them was quoted as saying the other day, "than of crushing so
many beetles." How came such a monster to exist? Why, we bred him,
supplied him with the poisonous conditions that generate such beings and
can generate nothing else. He had intelligence enough to understand that
the established order made earning an honest living hard work; saw
thousands living well without labor apparently, other thousands robbing
under cover of legal technicalities; a legal profession living by
devising statutes to punish crimes and prosecuting the criminals thus
manufactured; often living better yet by teaching criminals to escape
the penalties which their law imposed. He saw reform schools which
instructed such children as he had been to become such men as he was;
prisons and penitentiaries which graduated such as he in the latest
devices of crime--and he made up his mind that goodness was at bottom
humbug, that only a fool would be honest or merciful when money could be
got by theft and murder.

We breed poisonous snakes and scorpions, give them no chance to be
anything but that, and then wonder they are not doves and butterflies.
Things like this gangster are infernal spirits, irreclaimable; but we
gain nothing by extirpating the individuals; the black stream which
carries them must be dammed at its source. Of the conditions which
generate them, a part is the prisons and their keepers. But we are not
yet at the root of the matter--the keepers are not primarily to blame.
It is the principle which prisons illustrate which attracts and molds
keepers till they become often as bad as the men they have charge of,
and often much worse.

Prisons mean social selfishness, the disowning of our own flesh and
blood. They segregate visible consequences of social disease; but the
disease is invisibly present in all parts of the body corporate, and
can no more be healed by cutting off the visible part than we can
heal small pox by cutting out the pustules. Prisons are not the right
remedy; they inflame and disseminate the poison we would be rid of
and prevent any chance of cure. The soul of all crime is self-seeking
in place of neighborly good will; we send men to prison to get them
out of our way, and that is criminal self seeking and ill will to the
neighbor--delegating to hirelings our own proper business.

In attempting thus selfishly to extirpate crime, we commit the crime
least of all forgivable--the denial of human brotherhood and
responsibility. For that crime, no law sends us to prison; yet it is no
sentimental notion, but the truth, that it is a crime worse than those
for which we imprison men. Prisons are brimful of men less guilty before
God than is the society that condemned them. You and I are not excused
because we are not society--we are society. Society is not numbers but
an idea--a mutual relation; we cannot shift our blame to people in the
next street. "Am I my brother's keeper?" was an argument used long ago,
and its reception was not encouraging.

Thoughts like these pass through a convict's mind when he discovers that
he is on the last leg of his disastrous voyage. He then begins to see
the whole matter in its general relations; what use was served? who is
the better for it? "Prisons make a good man bad and a bad man worse," is
the way I often heard the men at Atlanta put it. The situation, entire
and in detail, is preposterous and futile. Grown men, from all ranks of
life, or all degrees of intelligence and education, are herded
promiscuously, and treated now like wild beasts, now like children.
Discipline, in any condition of life, is a good thing, and no people
need discipline more than we do; but in prison, discipline means
punishment, and there is no discipline in the right sense of the word. A
man is "disciplined" when he is starved, or clubbed, or put in the hole,
or deprived of his good time.

Military discipline might be beneficial; it implies respect for rightful
authority, and orderly conduct of one's own life. Officials in a
penitentiary wear uniforms; prisoners wear prison clothes; but, in warm
weather, officials go about, indoors and out, in their shirts and with
the bearing of loafers; they have no official salutes, and the men are
not allowed to salute them--to do so would expose them to "discipline."
There is no drill in the prison, no soldierly bearing, no physical
control of movement. The men are "lined up" to go to work, but it is a
line of slouchers and derelicts; no spirit in it, no respect for
themselves or one another, no decent example set by the guards. And yet
armies in all ages and in all parts of the world have proved the value
of discipline--its necessity, indeed--in all proper and intelligent
handling and control of bodies of men; and it is as important for
convicts as for soldiers. It would promote cheerfulness, smartness,
efficiency; half an hour's lively drill of all the men in prison every
morning and evening would do them good, improve relations between guards
and prisoners, and lessen the danger of revolts. Why refuse it then? Is
it because it would imply something human still lingering in convicts?
or because it is feared that convicts taught to act in unison by
military drill would combine more readily for mutiny? But order does not
naturally lead to disorder but away from it, and mutinies are mostly
impromptu affairs, contemplating revenge rather than escape. As for the
other argument, a lie is not a sound basis to build on, and it is a lie
that convicts are not human. To admit this would facilitate their

Physical exercise twice a day in the open air would diminish the sick
line, produce better work, and help to put a soul in any prison.
Desultory exercise--say two or three hours of baseball on
Saturdays--does not meet the need--it emphasizes it rather. But at
present the well-nigh universal aim seems to be to render the gray
monotony of prison slavery as monotonous and as gray as possible. Any
relief from it is opposed or made difficult. It is true that at Atlanta
and elsewhere we have music (that is what it is called, and I have no
wish to criticize the hardworking and zealous young fellows who produce
it in and out of season; and some of the men may like it for aught I
know); and that a vaudeville company performs for us occasionally. But I
must look these gift horses in the mouth, and say that often we have
them less for our own advantage than as an advertisement to the public
of the liberality of prison authorities. And there to be sure at my
prison, is Uncle Billy, who makes fiddles out of shingles, with nails,
and plays on them, all with one hand. But he is--I hope I may now say,
he was; for he was to have been paroled the other day; he was a lifer,
and a picturesque and wholly innocuous figure--he was, then, permitted
to pursue this industry, and visitors used to come and watch him do it;
but he, too, was most useful to the prison press agent, and owed the
indulgence to that functionary. On the other hand, there is a convict,
also a lifer, who cultivated a most remarkable skill in inlaid woodwork,
producing really beautiful and artistic boxes and other articles, and
found some consolation for his awful fate in making them. But one day
while I was there his cell was entered by the guard, his boxes and plant
taken away and broken, and he was forbidden to do that work any more.
Visitors did not know about him.

This was malicious. But some of the things done by prison authorities
are apparently due to sheer stupidity and ignorance. For example, there
were some cows belonging to Atlanta prison, and some of them calved. So
there were half a dozen calves more or less, with prospects of more to
come. The authorities decided that the expense of rearing these
innocents was not justifiable; there was nothing in the rule book about
it; besides, the jail was not designed to harbor innocent creatures. The
minutes of the conference were not given out, and we can judge of what
passed only by the results. The order went forth that the calves be
killed; and the killing was actually perpetrated, and the bodies were
buried somewhere in the prison grounds. The story seems incredible, but
it was corroborated by several men cognizant of the facts. Why not, at
least, have turned them into veal?

I was speaking just now of the promiscuous herding together of prisoners
in prisons generally. No effort is made to separate the old from the
young, the educated from the ignorant; the hardened sinners from the
impressionable youths or newcomers; or (at Atlanta, except in the
cells), the negroes from the whites. Association of negroes with whites,
on a footing of enforced outward equality, is bad for both; not because
a bad white man is worse than a bad negro, but because the physical,
mental and moral qualities of either react unfavorably upon the other.
The negro, being the more ignorant as a rule, falls more readily into
degraded vices; the white man, being as a rule the dominant element in
the situation, masters the will of the negro, but cannot or at least
does not erect barriers against the latter's subtle corruption.

We must always bear in mind the abnormal conditions in a prison--the
misery of it, the dearth of variety and relaxation, the terrible
yearning for some form, any form, of distraction and amusement. The male
is parted from the female, and from the resource of children; his nerves
are on edge, his natural propensities starved, his thoughts wandering
and embittered; he finds no good anywhere, nor any hope of it. He will
seize upon any means of abating or dulling his cravings. The negro is
pliant, unmoral, free from the restraints of white civilization. In the
South especially, his subordination to the white is almost a second
nature; but he involuntarily avenges himself (as all lower races do upon
the stronger) by that readiness to comply which flatters the sense of
power and superiority in the other, and leads to evil.

I wish to say, in passing, that my allusion to negroes in this
connection is by no means to be taken as reflecting upon them all; some
of the men in Atlanta for whom I had the highest respect were negroes;
and I am inclined to think that the negro in his right place and
function is a desirable element in civilization, and, if we would treat
him aright, would do us as much good as we can do him. But the negro in
jail is at his worst, just as white men are, and he is made worse by
white companionship. There are more than two hundred of them in Atlanta
jail, and some of them are the worst of their kind.

What is true of the association of negroes with whites is not less true
of the association of what are called professional criminals with the
young and unhardened. Various prison authorities claim that they have
made some effort to prevent this contamination; but the only sign of it
that I could ever discover at Atlanta was that the old and the young are
not commonly assigned to the same cells. Obviously, however, a man young
in years may be old in crime; there can be no security in the age test
taken by itself; and no pretense of adopting any other test in a jail is

A young fellow, without inherited or acquired criminal tendencies, is
sent to jail for some inadvertent and insignificant infraction of law.
He had always meant to live straight; he had no enmity against society;
he had always thought of himself as well intentioned and law abiding.
But here he is; and he is shocked, shamed and appalled at the sudden
grip and horror of the jail. Upon a mind thus astounded and distraught
the professional criminal seizes and works.

The man of the world--of the criminal world--befriends him, chats with
him, heartens him, and soon begins to fascinate him with ideas which had
never till now occurred to him. He preaches the injustice and hostility
of all mankind, and the hopelessness of the convict once in jail ever
again reestablishing himself in the world. He tells his pupil that he is
damned forever by his fellow men outside, and that unless he be prepared
to lie down and starve, he must fight for life in the only way open to
him--the way of crime. Then he proceeds to show him, progressively, the
profits and advantages of criminal practises. It is only too easy for
the trained crook to overcome the resistance of the unhardened youth;
his arguments seem unanswerable; and the wholly justifiable feeling that
prison is wrong and an outrage aids the corruptor at every turn. A few
months is often enough to turn an innocent boy into a malefactor; a year
or more of such instruction leaves him no chance of escape; and many an
innocent boy finds himself in a cell for what seems to him a lifetime.

Last July, a justice of a State Supreme Court sentenced Thomas Baker,
little more than a child, to fifteen years in jail for--what? If your
mother was blind and helpless, and your stepfather came in and abused
her and beat her, in your presence,--a big brute with whom you could not
hope to contend physically,--what would be your feelings, and what would
you be prompted to do? Thomas Baker, trembling and sobbing with rage and
anguish, ran out of the house to a neighbor's, borrowed a shotgun, and
ran back and emptied it into the brute's body, killing him on the spot.
Fifteen years in prison for that! Shall we rejoice and say that justice,
at last, is satisfied?--But that is a digression.

No doubt, meanwhile, Thomas Baker's one consolation in life is the
reflection that he did succeed in killing his stepfather; and he will be
very ready to give ear to an older and more experienced man who tells
him that the only difference between good and bad in the world is that
those are called good who have power over those who are called bad; and
that the only way for him to get even for his wrongs is to become a
crook--and not be a fool!

The wardens and guards do not prevent these companionships; whether or
not they try to prevent them cannot be affirmed; but to my mind it is
plain that they could not prevent it, try as they might. It is an evil
inherent in prisons and ineradicable. As long as we have prisons, we
shall see judges like Thomas Baker's sending boys to jail for such
"crimes" as his, there to stay for fifteen years, more or less, and
there to be changed from innocence into diabolism. But Thomas was not
innocent, you say, but guilty. What is guilt? I find him innocent of the
guilt of standing inactive by and seeing that cruel fist strike his
blind mother's beloved face.

Anything unnatural seems unreal. I remarked some time ago that when I
was sitting in the court room being tried on charges sworn to by certain
postoffice officials, the dull and sordid scenes would sometimes vanish
before me, and I would say to myself, "It is an illusion--what is really
taking place is very different from this appearance."

This thought often recurred while I was in prison.

At meal times, the men would file in and take their places at the
tables; anon, the meal over, they would rise and file out--men whom I
knew, creatures like myself, slaves of an arbitrary power acting in
accordance with principles long since known to be false and mischievous.
And I would see men whom I knew, men like myself, jeered, insulted,
clubbed, dragged to the hole. I would see the dead bodies of men whom I
knew, men like myself, rattled out of the gate to the dumping ground and
dropped there and forgotten--men with wives and children still living or
dead in poverty and shame, their pleas unheard and their wrongs
unrighted. I would contemplate the long rows of steel cells, cages for
me and men like myself, locking us in for months and years and
lifetimes, for an example to others and for the protection of society
against our menace. I would glance, as I passed, at the aimless toilers
in the workshops, standing or squatting in the foul atmosphere under the
eye and rifle of the guard.

I would consider that this dismal and inhuman pageant was going on age
after age as a cure for crime--while crime, all the while, was
increasing by percentages so astounding that we seek through immigration
statistics and records of increase of population to account for it--and
in vain. And I would tell myself, once more, that the thing must be an
illusion; it was inconceivable that an intelligent nation should
tolerate it.

If you found that you were taking bichlorid of mercury by mistake for a
sleeping draught, would you go on taking it? or would you clamor for an
antidote, waylay doctors for help, and disturb the discreet serenity of
hospitals for succor? But the nation, made up of such as you, continues
its prison nostrum, which slays a million for bichlorid of mercury's

A tragic farce--that is what prisons are. Enclosures of stone and steel
are built, and a handful of armed men are given absolute control over
several hundred beings like themselves. We, as a community, have erected
a system of laws which places us, as a community, in the attitude of
penalizing practises which we, as individuals, do not severely condemn.
Our morality, as publicly professed, is in advance of our morals as
privately exercised. When our neighbor steals or murders, we give him
the jail or the chair; but when you and I are charged with such deeds
and see the prison or the chair in our near foreground, we discover
ourselves to be less convinced than we had imagined of the rectitude of
our penal system. Of course, then, the faster we make laws to punish
crime, and the more we punish criminals, the more criminals are there to
punish. Our hypocrisy gradually is revenged upon us, one after another;
one by one we fall into the pit so virtuously digged for others.

And criminal law, meanwhile, becomes constantly more searching and
severe in its provisions, seeking to prevent crime by the singular
device of employing the best methods for multiplying it. The victims of
its activities are miserable enough in jail, and languish and die there,
and, if they were not very wicked before, are furnished with every
facility to become so; but they have not the consolation of feeling that
their being thus immolated on the altar of an outraged but non-existent
morality is doing them or anybody else any good. A prominent business
man was put in a cell yesterday; a political boss arrives to-day; a
college graduate, a judge, and a religious fanatic are expected next
week. But business, politics, the Four Hundred, the Law and religion are
no better than they were before.

The procession becomes ever more crowded; when is it to stop? Shall we
build more prisons, enact more laws? A leading counsel said the other
day, "Commercial crime is an effect and not a cause. The existing system
is responsible. We should prevent conditions that lead to crime and
resort to criminal courts as little as possible." And an
ex-Attorney-General observed, about the same time, "I sometimes think
that if we could repeal all the laws on our statute books and then write
two laws--'Fear God' and 'Love your neighbor'--we would get along
better"--but he added, "If we could get the people to live up to them!"
Yes, that is a prudent stipulation; and it applies just as well to the
myriad "laws on our statute books" as to these two.

I call prisons a tragic farce, and am sensible of an unreality in them;
but they are fortunately unreal only in the sense that they stand for
nothing rational or in line with the proper and natural processes of
human life. They are false, and the mind spontaneously reacts against
falsity and denies it. But here are half a million (or some say, a
million) men every year who suffer actual and real misery from this
falsity, and many of whom die of it; that is the tragedy of the farce.
And the fact that this falsity, prison, exists among us and has legal
standing and warrant, tends to demoralize every one connected with it,
and, more or less, the entire community. If its misery and evil were
confined within the circuit of its walls we might endure it; but it
spreads outward like a pestilence. It creates little jails in our minds
and hearts, though we never beheld the substantial walls nor heard the
steel gates clang together. We become jailers to one another, and to

There was a woman, the wife of a jailer, with a son four years old. At
first, her husband had lived in a house outside the jail, but latterly
he had been obliged to dwell within the jail walls.

His wife had seen and known too much of jails to be happy in such a
residence. She thought of her son, growing up inside prison walls, and
seeing the squalor and daily misery of convicts, and witnessing the
cruelties of the guards--mere matters of routine, but horrible
nevertheless. Her husband had come up from the ranks in prison life, and
was an efficient officer. He had no thought of ever changing his

One day he left the jail on business, and did not return till one
o'clock the next morning. Two keepers who had been left in charge heard
four sounds like pistol shots about ten o'clock that night, but supposed
them to be torpedoes exploding on the railroad that passed the rear of
the jail. There was an interval of an hour or so, and then came two more
shots. This time they made a search of the jail, but it did not occur to
them to examine the quarters of the warden, where his wife and his
little son were.

When the husband and father reached home, he went to his rooms; and
there he learned the extent of the misery and loathing which his
profession and his dwelling had created in the heart of the woman who
had loved him. She lay dead, with a bullet hole in her temple. The
little boy was also dead, shot through the heart by his mother's hand.
On the floor was the pistol, and four empty shells were scattered about.
Those first bullets she must have aimed at her son, but the horror of
the situation had shaken her hand, and she had missed him. Then had come
that interval, which the two keepers had noticed. What had been in her
mind and heart during those endless, brief minutes--her terrors, her
memories, her desperate resolve, now failing, now again renewed? If you
who read this are a mother, you may perhaps imagine the unspeakable
drama of that hour. At last, murder and suicide were better than the
jail, and she fired twice again, and this time did not miss.

"Insane" was the verdict. But it is perhaps reasonable to ascribe the
insanity to the conditions which found their black fruition in the
woman's act, rather than to the despairing creature herself. She had all
that most women would ask for happiness--a good husband, a darling
little son, an assured support. But there was ever before her eyes the
ghastly, inhuman spectacle and burden of the jail; she knew it through
and through, and she could endure it no longer. She pictured her
innocent boy growing up and following his father's trade. The idea
tortured her beyond the limits of her strength, and she accepted the
only alternative--death. She was not a prisoner--she was only a looker
on; but that is what prison did for her. And our press, echoing our own
will, and our courts, voicing our own laws, keeps on shouting, "Put the
crooks in stripes; show them no mercy!"

Shall we not pause a moment over the bodies of this mother and her son,
over this frenzied murder and suicide? They constitute an arraignment of
the prison principle not to be lightly passed over, or commented on with
rasping irony by witty editorial writers. That tragedy means something.
We cannot lease the community's real estate to hell, for building hell
houses and carrying on hell business, supported by our taxes and
advocated by our courts and praised (or "reformed") by our
penologists--we cannot do that without meeting the consequences. We see
how the consequences affected Mrs. Schleth in the Queens County, New
York, jail, last summer. It will affect other persons in other ways. But
it will affect us all before we are done with it. Hell on earth is a
tenant which no community can suffer with impunity.

If prisons are a good thing, it is full time they made good. If they are
a bad thing, it is full time they were abolished. The middle courses now
being tried in some places cannot succeed; no compromise with hell ever
succeeds, however kindly intentioned. But the devil rejoices in them,
recognizing his subtlest work done to his hand.

What shall happen if prisons are done away with? That question will
doubtless puzzle us for a long time to come. I have no infallible
remedy; but I shall touch upon the subject in my next and last chapter.



What would you advise to check law breaking? A good practical answer to
that question would save civilized humanity a great many millions of
dollars every year.

The old answer was "jail" for minor cases and death for the others.
There was much to be urged in favor of the latter. Dead men not only
tell no tales, but they commit no crimes. Kill all criminals and crime
would cease. The device has been tried--it was tried in England for a
while--but the result was disappointing. It threatened to decimate the
population; and in spite of logic, it failed to discourage law breakers.
Criminals seemed to get used to being hanged, and drawn and
quartered--they no longer minded it. There is a psychological reason for
that, no doubt; though it is not so sure that psychology as understood
and practised to-day can find out what it is.

Moreover, the spy system, which always accompanies and thrives upon
severe legislation, became so productive of informations that it was
soon clear that the end would be the indictment not so much of a tenth
part of the population as of all but a tenth--or even more. So a
compromise was made; only murderers should be killed. That did not
lessen the number of murders, and seems rather to have increased them;
for the impulse to murder is commonly a very strong impulse, producing a
brain condition in which consequences are not weighed. Also, when the
community takes life for life, it appears to weaken the general respect
for life, and men can be hired to do a killing job for small sums.
Sentimental persons, too, insist on making heroes of convicted
murderers, which in a degree, perhaps, counteracts the depressing
conditions surrounding them. So we made another compromise.

This is not on the statute books, but it operates actively,
nevertheless. It is the development of the appeal industry among lawyers
for the defense.

"I will teach you to respect human life," says the judge, "by depriving
you of your own."

"Don't worry, my boy," says the culprit's counsel, patting him on the
back; "you'll die sometime, I suppose; but nothing is more certain than
that it won't be on the day set for your execution by his honor. And
I'll risk my reputation on your death being no less in the ordinary
course of nature than his honor's, and very likely--for he looks like a
diabetes patient--not so soon."

These anticipations often prove well grounded.

No one in the court room, therefore, is often more cheerful and
confident than is the prisoner doomed to the noose or the chair.
Besides, if all else fails, he may petition for pardon or for life

In short, the death penalty stays on the statute books, but the
community does not want it, though it has not the courage to demand its
abolition outright. It forfeits its self-respect, and the murderer draws
the inference that it is safer to murder than to steal. A thoroughbred
man does not compromise; he does one thing or he does the other, retains
his self-respect, and commands that of his fellows, whether or not he be
"successful." This nation is not thoroughbred as regards its laws, and
is neither self-respecting nor respected.

However, there is agitation for the abolition of the death penalty; and
possibly the futility and absurdity of such a punishment may finally
strike the persons whom we have picked out as the wisest and ablest
among us, and have put in our legislatures to tell us what to do and not
to do. Absurd though legal killings may be, they are not so absurd as
the persuasion that death is the worst thing that can happen to a man.
It involves little or no suffering, and is over in a moment.
Imprisonment involves much suffering, and lasts long, not to speak of
the disgrace of it, to those who can feel disgrace. The serious feature
about killing is, that it is final for this state of being, and when we
do it we do we know not what. But that is for the community to consider,
not the victim.

We cannot know what death means, but we can and do know what
imprisonment means, and so far as our mortal senses can tell us, it is
worse than death. But while we may abolish the death penalty easily, the
suggestion to abolish imprisonment staggers us like an earthquake. Every
moral instinct in our little souls leaps up and shrieks in protest; and
if that be not enough, we fall back with full conviction upon the
consideration of security of property. It is impossible to consider a
measure which would leave crimes against property unpunished. And what
other punishment for them than imprisonment is there or can there be?

Argument upon this matter evidently bids fair to drag in pretty nearly
everything else--sociology, political economy, religion, politics, law,
medicine, psychology,--the whole conduct of our life and history of our
opinions. But I must content myself here with a few words, and leave
volumes to others. That personal property has value is undeniable;
whether it be worth what it costs us, in the long run, and from all
points of view, may be left to the judgment of generations to come. Law
in its origins is Divine; whether our human derivations from it partake
of its high nature is debatable. Medicine and psychology, professing
much, have not explained to us what or why we are, or what is our degree
of responsibility for what we are and do. Politics sits on the bench and
argues through the mouth of the public prosecutor; is justice safe in
their keeping?

This age did not invent prisons, but inherited them from an unmeasured
past. It is a primitive device. The mother locks up her naughty child in
the closet or ties its leg to the bed-post. Society does the same with
its naughty children, though with one difference--the mother still loves
her child. She, following the example of God, chastens in love; but what
do we chasten in? If not in love, then in hate or indifference, or to
get troublesome persons out of our way without regard to harm or benefit
to them. And that is not Godlike but diabolical, being based upon
selfishness. The community being stronger than the individual, its
selfishness is tyranny or despotism. Many of us indeed may be willing to
admit that prisons are perhaps objectionable or altogether wrong in
theory; but surely something must be done with malefactors, and if not
prison, what?

The only answer hitherto is compromise--the old answer, fresh once more
from the devil's inexhaustible repertoire. We are willing to abolish the
death penalty, which is more merciful than imprisonment; but we are
unwilling to abolish the latter, because in spite of its inhumanity, it
seems to protect our property. In other words, we consider our own
interests exclusively, and the culprit's not at all--though we still
protest that our object in imprisoning is as much the individual's
reformation, as our own security. The fact, however, that imprisonment
brutifies and destroys instead of reforming is beginning to glare at us
in a manner so disconcerting and undeniable, that we feel something has
to be done; and in accordance with our ancient habit and constitutional
predisposition, that something turns out to be compromise. We sentenced
for murder, but put obstacles in the way of carrying the sentence out.
On the same principle, we will now retain prisons, but make them so
agreeable that convicts will not mind being committed to them.

That is the compromise; and it is already in operation here and there.
In the first place, numbers of good men and women, with motives either
religious or humanitarian or both, obtained leave to visit prisons, talk
with the inmates, give them religious exhortations, supply them with
some forms of entertainment, and in other ways try to lighten the burden
of their penal slavery. These persons deserve great credit. It was not
so much the exhortations or entertainments that did good, as the idea
thereby aroused in convicts that somebody cared for them. Between, them
and the community there was still war to the knife; but certain
individuals, separate from the community, were not hostile but well
disposed toward them.

A man fallen into evil may sometimes be redeemed by coming to feel this;
he will try to be good for the sake of the person who was kind to him in
his misery. I once asked a comrade in Atlanta whether if the warden were
to give him twenty dollars and tell him to go to the town, make a
purchase for him, and return, he would do so? He said, "No," and when I
asked him why, replied that he would know the warden had something up
his sleeve, and was not on the square in his proposition. I then named a
certain benefactor of the prisoners outside the prison, and asked if he
would do it for that person? After some consideration, he said that he
would, because he "would hate to disappoint" that person, and would
believe in the bona fides of that person's request. This man was held to
be rather a bad case; but he was still capable of acting honorably, if
the right motives were supplied.

But this is not enough. The great mass of convicts could not be reformed
by "hating to disappoint" any particular person who had been kind to
them or trusted them. Their personal gratitude to the individual would
not stem the tide of their well grounded conviction that people in
general were neither trustful nor kind; and the numberless and constant
temptations of their life after liberation would prove too strong for
them. There have been instances to the contrary; touching and beautiful
instances, some of them; but they are far from establishing the
principle that Christian Endeavorers, or Salvation Armies, or prison
angels, or angelic wardens can effect the reform of men in prison. Some
stimulus much more powerful is required.

The next step in compromise was to improve the physical conditions in
the prison; to give more light and air and exercise, better food; to
mitigate or do away with dark holes, assaults and tortures. There were
many zealous critics of these leniencies; they said we were making
prisons so attractive that criminals, so far from being deterred from
crime by fear of punishment, would commit crimes in order to be sent to
prison. And they could quote in confirmation cases of men who had
accepted liberation at the end of their terms reluctantly, or had
actually refused it, or of men who had voluntarily returned to prison
after having been discharged.

There have been such cases; but they prove, not the attractiveness of
prisons, but their power to kill the manhood in a man. What does it not
suggest of outrage and degradation perpetrated upon a human soul, that
he should come to prefer a cell and a master to freedom! There may be
slaveries so soft as to invite the base and pusillanimous, but they are
more rather than less depraving than cruelties to all that makes
honorable and useful manhood. The deepest and essential evil of prisons
is not hardship and torture, but imprisonment. If choice could be made
between the two, every manly man would choose the former. No disgrace is
inherent in hardship and torture; but imprisonment brands a man as unfit
to associate with his kind. No mortal creature has or can have the right
to inflict it, nor any aggregation of mortals.

This is a hard saying, but I will stand by it. There were criminals of
all kinds in Atlanta with whom I was brought into contact. One had grown
rich by organizing a system of "white slavery" on a large scale. He
dealt in woman's dishonor and turned it into cash, and he saw nothing
wrong in it. This man was advanced in years, he was incapable of
regarding women in any other light than as merchandise, he was
insensible to their misery, and laughed at their degradation. He was
physically repulsive; his face and swollen body suggested a huge toad.
It would be foolish to associate the idea of reform with such a
creature. I felt a nauseous disgust of him; he seemed on the lowest
level of human nature.

But, contemplating him during some months, I saw little touches of
kindliness and good humor in him; he did not hate his fellows, nor wish
them to hate him. If the other prisoners ostracized him or cursed him,
he was painfully sensible of it, and even perplexed, and would try to
win their favor. I perceived that he had always lived in a world of
filth and sin, and knew no other. In that world, he had doubtless not
done the best he might, but which of us can say he himself has done
that? Had I been born and bred as he was, what would I be? What right
had I to call him unfit for my companionship? I had no right to do it,
nor had any other man. At last I shook him by the hand and wished him

There were men there who had committed merciless robberies, cruel
murders, heartless swindles, abominable depravities. I have felt greater
temperamental aversion from many highly respectable persons than I did
from them. Their crimes were one thing, they were another. Not that
crime does not corrupt a man--stain him of its color. But there is
always another side to him, a place in him which it has not dominated.
Given his conditions, we cannot affirm that he is not as good as we
are--that he is unfit to associate with us. And it behooves us always to
bear it in mind that to affirm the contrary is an unpardonable sin
against him of whom we affirm it; it works more evil in him than
anything else we can do, and places us who repudiate him in a truly
hideous posture. Shall we be more fastidious than God?

All crime is hateful; but I came to the conclusion that there is only
one crime which prompts us to hate the criminal as well as his crime
itself. For this crime is one which originates in our heart; it is not
forced upon us by need or passion or heredity. Therefore, it permeates
every fiber of our being, every thought of our mind, every impulse of
our soul; and we cannot say of it, this is one thing and we are another.
It is an unhuman crime; and yet there is no punishment for it among
human laws; rather, it is regarded as a mark of superiority. The most
respectable persons in the community are most apt to commit it. And it
was upon the suggestion and initiative of this crime that penal
imprisonment was invented, and is perpetrated to this day.

Christ condemned it; Christianity is based upon its repudiation; we call
ourselves Christians; and yet it is the characteristic crime of our
civilization. The Law and the Prophets are against it; it defies every
injunction of the Decalogue, for it takes the name of God in vain, it
steals, murders, commits adultery, covets and bears false witness; but
we clasp it to our bosoms, and actually persuade ourselves that it is
the master key to the gates of Heaven. What is it? It is the thought in
a man's heart that he is better, more meritorious, than his fellow.

It is engendered, most often, by a successful outward
morality--conformity to the letter of the Commandments--the whitening of
the outside of the sepulcher. But the stench of the interior
loathsomeness oozes through. The only person unaware of that stench is
the man himself. There is but one cure for it--what we call
Regeneration; which makes us sensible of that deadly odor, and drives us
freely and sincerely to detest ourselves in dust and ashes and bitter
humiliation, to pity, succor and love our brethren, and to wrestle with
the angel of the Lord for mercy. But we prefer to seek salvation from
evil in the building of prisons.

Now, this crime may survive even in prisons; but it is rarer there than
in any other aggregation of human beings. Therefore, there is a
wonderful sweetness in the prison atmosphere. It is a sweetness which is
perceived amid all the dreariness, stagnation and outrage, and it rises
above the vapors of physical crime, for it is a spiritual sweetness.
There men are locked in their cells, but the whited sepulcher is
shattered, and its sorry contents are purified by the pure light of
humiliation, confession and helplessness; there are no hypocrites there,
no masks, no holier-than-thou paraders. Their crimes have been
proclaimed, and branded upon their backs; pretenses are at an end for
them. It was wonderful to look into a man's face and see no disguise
there. "I am guilty--here I am!" This experience took the savor out of
ordinary worldly society for me. I go here and there, and everywhere
there is masquerading--the weaving of a thin deception which does not
deceive. We were sincere and humble in prison; but that is a result
which the builders of prisons hardly foresaw.

There was one more step toward compromise--to take the prisoner out of
his cell and send him outdoors without guards or precautions, nothing
but his promise that he would return when the work to which he was
assigned was done.

I read the other day an agreeable account of this "honor system." The
men were employed on road making chiefly, enjoyed the benefit of free
air and the outdoor scene, and kept order and faith among themselves.
But the prison walls were still around them, though unseen. They were
told that any attempt to escape would be punished by deprivation
thenceforth of all liberties--any attempt! and if the escape were
successful, the fugitive would know that the chances of recapture were a
thousand against one. Moreover, it was laid down that the escape or
attempt of any member of the gang would react upon the liberties of all.

This made the men guards over one another; it was not honor but
self-preservation that was relied on. And in any event, there was the
prison at last; the chain might be lengthened to hundreds of miles, but
it held them still. They were convicts; when their terms were up, they
would be jail birds. Society had set them apart from itself; they were a
contamination. "You are not fit to mingle with us on an equal footing."
Society might condescend to them, be friendly and helpful to them,
but--admit them of its own flesh and blood?--well, not quite that! "We
forgive you, but on sufferance; it is really a great concession; you
must show your gratitude by good works."

Oh, the Pharisees! the taint of it will not come out so easily; and
until it does come out, to the last filthy trace of it, prisons will
continue to be prisons, and compromises will be vain.

I repeat--the evil of prisons is the imprisonment. You must not deprive
a man of his liberty. His liberty is his life. He may, and probably he
will, use his liberty to the endangering of your property or comfort;
but has your own career been wholly free from infringement upon the
rights of your neighbor? If you send him to prison, you ought to link
arms with him and go there, too. You have not been convicted by a court,
but your own secret self-knowledge convicts you. When the prison doors
close upon you, you will discover that you have suffered an
injustice--that you are the victim of a blind stupidity. Not in this way
can you be reformed. All genuine reformation must proceed from within
you--it cannot be compelled by locks and bars; freedom is essential to
it. Locks and bars arouse only the impulse to break through them, and
this primal and righteous impulse leaves you no leisure to think of
relieving your soul from stains of guilt.

The only imprisonment to which a man can properly be subjected is that
imprisonment of good in him which evil-doing operates automatically and
spontaneously; any outside meddling with that operation hinders,
confuses, or defeats it. Crime weakens and shackles you; to put shackles
on the body is no way to remove shackles from the spirit. It is the
gross blunder of a brutal and immature era, but we have continued it
down to the present day. Jail is still the remedy.

The newspapers the other day told of a man who had been sentenced to
forty years in jail for an assault. A woman, hearing the verdict, said,
"Well, that's better than nothing; but he ought to have got life!" We
are told in the Bible that we must not let the sun go down upon our
wrath. The wrath of this lady could not be appeased with forty years.
Think of what that culprit will be after forty years in jail. Assuming
for the sake of argument the extreme absurdity that he is alive by that
time, picture to yourself a fellow creature of his--and a woman--saying,
"I won't forgive you yet." I pity her more than I do him, whose troubles
in this world will probably soon be over. But when her time comes, with
what face, on what plea, shall she ask forgiveness?

But if there are to be no prisons, what shall we do to be saved from

I cannot for my part imagine any hard and fast plan being laid down in
advance. But it would seem reasonable, to begin with, to free ourselves
from the social crime of claiming superiority to our brethren. Having
removed that beam from our eyes, we may see more clearly how to abate
the motes in the criminal's. If we can bring ourselves to regard
prisoners and jail birds as inferior to ourselves only in good fortune,
which has kept us out of jail and put them in, we may find ourselves on
the road to remedying their lapses from moral virtues.

The majority of prison crimes are against property, and are motived by
want and poverty. If the man had opportunity to work for his living, he
would as a rule abstain from stealing. Other crimes are committed in
passion; but such criminals need education and training in self-control,
and (often) removal of the provocations which set their passions afire.
Many other crimes, and almost all vices, are due to physical or mental
disease, or to actual insanity. It is the doctor and not the jailer who
should seek the cure of these.

But there are also some persons, chiefly brought up or brought down in
our cities, who practise crimes, apparently, for sheer love of evil.
These gunmen gangs are the most depraved and malignant members of the
community; they will not work, and they rob and murder not from want or
passion, but because the suffering of their victims gives them pleasure
and ministers to their pride and self-esteem. Most of these gangs, as we
have too much reason to believe, stand in with the police, giving them a
percentage of their plunder, and getting protection from them for their

These creatures, as I have already suggested, are the distillation of
the various evils in our cities which society has failed frankly to
face, or genuinely to attempt to lessen. They are not responsible for
their existence, and, as they indicate a general condition, it can do no
good to kill them or otherwise put them out of the way; others would
take their place. They are not insane in the common sense, but they are
the product of insane social circumstances, responsibility for which
rests on us. They must be taken in hand individually, by workers
self-consecrated to that duty, and deterred from doing evil, and showed
the value of doing good. One might work a lifetime with some of them,
and have little to show for it in the end; but it took a long time to
build the pyramids and the Panama Canal, and to advance from the dugout
of the savage to the _Mauretania_. It is work better worth doing than
any of these.

Taking the situation by long and large, society must cease to be a sham
and become truly social. The thing seems inconceivable, and still less
practicable; but it is not. Nor has history failed to admonish us that
it has sometimes been the most difficult and improbable things which
have been nevertheless accomplished; as if their very difficulty, and
the labor and self-sacrifice involved in doing them, were themselves a

Europe, a handful of centuries ago, at the behest of a fanatical priest
or two, forsook all else and spent a generation in journeying to
Palestine and trying to get a certain city from the Turks.

The city was worth nothing to Europe; it was an idea that set them
crusading. Nothing else seemed so unpractical and feeble as the gospel
of Christ; but it crumbled the Roman Empire into dust, and has kept the
world guessing and maneuvering ever since--never more than to-day. On
the other hand, if you propose an easy job, something that can be done
with one hand tied behind you, and your attention is diverted, it is apt
to remain undone. Nobody can get up an interest in it. But talk of an
expedition to the South Pole, or a flight round the earth in a biplane,
with certainty of appalling hardships and all the odds in favor of
death, and you are mobbed with volunteers. Human nature likes to test
its thews and sinews.

Perhaps, however, nothing else was ever so difficult as to turn from our
flesh pots, our dinners and tangos, our summer resorts and winter
resorts, our business and idleness, and undertake to substitute for
prisons our personal care and help for criminals--to remove the causes
which led them to crime, to convince them of our good faith and good
will, and to disabuse them of their suspicion that we distrust them,
condescend to them, and despise them. For this prodigal brother of ours
has become a very unsightly and unattractive object during these
thousands of years of his sojourn among the pigsties and corn husks. He
does not speak in our language or observe our manners or contemplate our
ideals, or care for our refinements. We shall have to read again the
fairy stories where the prince has been changed by evil enchantment into
some uncouth and repulsive monster, but was redeemed to human form by
sympathy. The evil spell was of our working, and it behooves us to
overcome it. No one else can.

We must abolish the title of criminal as applied to any class or
individuals of our race in distinction from others, and use those of
unfortunates or scapegoats instead. They are our victims, and our
salvation depends upon our making good to them the evil we have done
them. It will not suffice to delegate the job to money, or to persons
chosen for that purpose; we must do it ourselves--make it one of the
main occupations of our lives. Riches and culture are fine things, but
making good out of evil is better. Its rewards may not be so immediate
or so visible, but they are real and permanent.

But I do not think morality will be enough to energize the effort;
morality should always be the incident and consequence of religious
feeling, not an aim in itself. As soon as it becomes an aim in itself,
it leads to self-righteousness, and paralyzes human love in its marrow.
And it is love, far more than wisdom, that is needed here. Love God and
keep His commandments; unless you first love Him, His commandments will
be left undone, or done only in the letter, which is the worst form of
not doing. But the way to love God is to love the neighbor, and the
neighbor is the criminal.

Who shall have the immortal credit of abolishing prisons--ourselves, or
our posterity? It will surely be done by our posterity if not by


Bubonic plague cannot be reformed; it is bad intrinsically and must be
extirpated. Born in Asiatic filth, ignorance and barbarism, it now
menaces modern civilization. While it killed millions in India or China
only, we endured it, but when we hear it at our own door we turn and
listen. The instinct of self-preservation, older and often more urgent
than Christianity, says, "Destroy it or it will destroy you!"

We send our scientific martyrs to the front, who perish in the effort to
solve the deadly riddle. We would pour out billions of money in the
fight if need come. Rich men will spend all they possess rather than
die, and see those they love die of it. Nations will do the same.
Compromises are not considered; no one talks of reforming the Black
Death. Unless it be jettisoned from the Ship of Civilization, progress
and enlightenment go by the board.

And yet the disease is but physical--attacks the body only. It does not
touch the immortal spirit. It has not rooted itself in the entrails of
our social economy and order. It does not undermine our common humanity,
or bankrupt human charity and infect it with indifference, suspicion or
mutual hostility. It does not prompt law and justice to play the roles
of persecution and oppression. It does not arrogate to itself the right
to judge between man and his brother man, protecting the one and damning
the other. It does not authorize us to say of the victim of sickness or
circumstance, "Throw him to the lions!" and to affirm of his torture and
death, "Serves him right!" Compared with such a plague as that, the
Black Death would appear benign.

Penal imprisonment is an institution of old date, born of barbarism and
ignorance, nurtured in filth and darkness, and cruelly administered. It
began with the dominion of the strong over the weak, and when the former
was recognized as the community, it was called the authority of good
over evil. Man took the reins of government from the hands of the
Almighty, and amended the Ten Commandments with statute law.

Evil is--to prefer the good of self before good of the neighbor; crime
is to act in accordance with that preference. Every son of Adam is born
to evil, and society is but his multiplication; but society could exist
only by the compromise that the hostility of man against neighbor should
mask itself as mutual forbearance. Impossible that every one should
possess every thing; therefore dissimulate your greed and divide. But
certain persons, missing their share either through non-conformity with
the doctrine, or by force of circumstances, stuck to the old principle
of each man for himself, and became "criminals." Their hand was against
society, and society's against them.

In eras before society became integrated, some of these non-conformists
prevailed over such strength as could be mustered against them, and by
hearty and forthright robberies and murders came to be leaders and
rulers of men--earls, barons, kings. The aristocracy of modern Europe is
descended from such stout rebels. They became reconciled with, and
organized, society, and aided it in war against the weaker of their own
sort; and it was they who devised prisons for such captives as it might
be inexpedient to kill outright.

All this did not alter the truth that all men are alike evil, and that
such as are not also criminals, forbear--at the outset at least--from
motives of enlightened selfishness. But in course of time, even enforced
good behavior breeds good intent, and "good" people. For God rules us
through our very sins, and will lead us, (with our passive cooperation)
to religion and regeneration in the end.

But the segregation of a criminal class is manifestly human, not Divine;
economic, not moral; illusory, not real. Consequently, pains and
penalties inflicted by men upon other men, by society upon individuals,
by the community upon "criminals," have no warrant of Divine authority,
but only of superior numbers or physical strength. The only proper
punishment for crime is the criminal's conscience, and if he have none
available, he is liable to the natural contingency that violence breeds
violence, and may get him in the long run--though it often happens that,
measured by mortal standards, the run is not long enough for us to see
the finish. We may console ourselves with the reflection that a finish,
somewhere, there will be.

Meanwhile, it is for persons of intelligence and good will to consider
whether, aside from physical penalties or jailing, we possess means for
inducing criminals to abstain from crime. Let us leave abstract
arguments and come to facts.

My license to speak in the premises is due to my being an ex-convict,
sentenced to Atlanta Penitentiary for a year and a day, but recently
released on "good time." I shall first give you a notion of what jail
is, and of what is done and suffered there; then consider what has
hitherto been done to alleviate prison conditions and abuses; and end
with inquiring whether these measures, actively prosecuted, will prove
adequate to the need, or whether something else and more is demanded. If

Purgatory is usually understood to be--as its etymology indicates--a
place where persons encumbered with evil accretions may have them purged
out of them, or stripped off from them, and so be fitted for the purity
and innocence of Heaven. It is therefore a beneficent institution. Hell,
on the other hand, was the inheritance of those whose evil is ingrowing
and cannot be removed--a place where they may live out their diabolical
or satanic natures and be punished and tortured by those of like nature
with themselves.

Our prisons were, in the beginning, frankly hellish in their object; men
who had incurred personal or society hostility were put in them to be
tormented from motives of hate and revenge. But during the last few
generations the humanitarian idea has come into being and has not only
ameliorated prison conditions in some prisons and to some extent, but
has caused prisons in general to cease being frank and to become
hypocritical--to pretend that they are purgatories, aiming not at
revenge but at reform. This pretense has been so industriously and
sagaciously put forward that ninety-nine outsiders out of a hundred are
misled by it, and believe that prisons are not, still, administered for
the destruction of their inmates, physical, mental and moral, with such
circumstances of cruelty and brutality as happen to suit the humor of
the arbitrary and irresponsible guards and wardens; but that they are
uniformly conducted with an eye to wooing away prisoners from sin and
crime, and persuading them of the beauty and policy of honesty,
gentleness and goodness. In fact it is probable that almost everybody
believes this, except the wardens and guards, and the prisoners
themselves--and a few Thomas Mott Osbornes and other prison workers who
have had an amateur peep inside the walls and caught a fleeting glimpse
of a horror or two before the discreet managers could get the door shut.

Not only so, but we read indignant articles in our morning paper about
the coddling of criminals; and witty writers will have it that prisons
are gentlemen's clubs where all the comforts of refined life are
combined with a voluptuous idleness, or with only work enough to avert
ennui. Criminals are depicted as waiting in cues at the gates of prisons
for admission, like the public at the doors of a popular theater; though
at the same time in another column, you may find the statement that, in
view of modern legal technicalities, it has become almost impossible to
get a man into jail. According to the logic of the witty writers, this
near-impossibility should be more deplored by the technicality-inhibited
criminals than by anybody else.

Prisons are not purgatories, nor gentlemen's clubs; they are just as
much hell as they ever were, and as their managers can make them. Apart
from any special leniency of local conditions, prisons are hell because
they are prisons--because you are confined there and cannot get out;
because you are a slave and have no redress; because your manhood is
degraded; because despotic power is entrusted to the men who handle you,
though they are never any better than you are, and are usually much
worse, and regard you as an asset to make profit from, a thing to be
driven and insulted to the last extremity and beyond it, and not as a
human being. Prisons are hell because convicts are punished for trivial
and whimsical reasons as much as for serious ones; and whether or not
the punishment involve actual physical torture, the insolence, disgrace
and injustice of it remain. Prisons are hell intrinsically, and always
will be; and whoever doubts it has only to commit a crime and be sent to
prison; that is the end of doubts.

Let every judge, attorney general, district attorney, and juryman at a
trial spend a bona fide term in jail, and there would be no more
convictions--prisons would end. Every convict and ex-convict knows that,
and eternity will be too short to obliterate the knowledge in him.

The unctuous plausibility of the pretense that prisons are beneficent
purgatories and not hells renders it the more sickening. Life is a
God-given discipline for men, and at best a severe one; but if we
believe in God, we know it is given in love, for loving ends. All mortal
life is an imprisonment; the laws of it are essential and natural, and
breaking them involves essential and natural penalties. God deputed this
regimen of love to parents, and to those who deal with their fellow
creatures from impulses of parental or brotherly love; but He never
licensed any man to punish another from revenge or hate, or in mere
indifference. He licensed no man to do it, nor any community or nation.
And whoever does it, serves not God but the devil; and if any crime be
unpardonable, it is that, because it is not essential or natural, but an
usurpation against nature, and breeds not reform but more evil.

Prison officials, in their treatment of prisoners, are not actuated by
love, but by indifference to suffering, or by animosity and brutality,
or by desire of profit, and therefore their work is impious and wicked.
And the longer they hold their office, the more hardened do they become
to the spectacle of suffering and outrage; the more heedless of justice
and mercy do they grow. They grow to disbelieve in any human truth and
goodness; all men are to them criminals actual or potential; breathing
and dwelling amidst crime, it enters into their own blood and temper.
They will have their debt to pay; but neither may those escape who
ignorantly or carelessly appointed them to office and hold them
there--the Government, and the nation which creates Government as its
representative. Ignorance does not excuse; knowledge on these subjects
is a sacred duty. Man cannot break the bonds of his brotherhood with
man; the blood shed will be required of him, and the usury of misery and

"Throw him to the lions!--serve him right!" Most of us have joined in
that barbarous cry upon occasion. But some of us have sickened at the
slaughter, and are for paring the lions' claws, or at least exhorting
them to roar less savagely, and to devour their prey in secret. But the
lions, with their attendant hyenas and jackals, have so long been
accepted as indispensable to the order and majesty of the State, that no
one likes to stand up to his God-given intuitions, and demand the
abolition of the whole prison circus. We hardly realize that the harm
criminals do society cannot equal the harm that society does to itself
by its handling of them and attitude toward them. The circus must go on,
of course; but--let us ameliorate its coarser features!

Let us make our prisons hygienic--larger cells, drainage, air, exercise;
let us select nice, kindly persons for guards and wardens; let us give
the convicts useful industrial occupation, which will not only keep them
happy and sane, but pay the cost of their keep to a tender-hearted but
economic state; let us even be very venturesome, and--with reasonable
precautions--put the men on their honor, suffer them to run out a little
way and labor in the free sunshine, upon their promising to remember
that they are not really free, and to return at night to their cages.
And after they have served their terms, and the souls within them are
moribund or dead, let us get or solicit jobs for them, and at all events
keep a sentimental eye on them for a while. All this--only let us keep
our prisons! For think what would happen if those terrible creatures
were let loose upon us, to keep on murdering and robbing us with
impunity! Remember that they are a class apart, unlike ourselves, whose
perverted nature, though it may be lulled by gentleness and tact, can
never become truly human.

No: the Laodicean spirit will not serve! I do not ridicule or belittle
the efforts of generous and genial men and women who give their spare
time, or their whole time, to bettering the plight of convicts. But the
diabolical spirit of the prisons sneers at them, and sits undisturbed.
Let air and sunshine come to outer courts and clean-swept cells; the
star-chambers and the secret dungeons remain. Let the outraged creatures
out, to stray to the extent of their honor-tether; they are slaves and
prisoners still. There were compassionate reformers in Ancient Egypt,
who tried to make the lot of the captive Israelites easier; but the
heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and God Himself must intervene before he
would let the people go. Nor does it help that the slaves themselves are
grateful for hard-won privileges, and that we read urbane descriptions
of smiling and rosy felons working on state roads in "Don't Worry"
camps. Is it ground for congratulation that the very victims of the
specious pretense of the eternal right and necessity of prisons should
have succumbed to that delusion? Does it not prove a need yet more
urgent to be up and at them? Is it not humiliating to know that men, our
brothers, partakers of our common nature, can be so abased as to kiss
the rod, and joke about their fetters, and accept as favor what none is
entitled to deny them?

Prisons are hell--we come back to that; and they are not and cannot be
made purgatories. Men competent to make them purgatories are not to be
had at Government prices; no duties more onerous than those of a fit
conscientious warden exist under the state; and how can we look for such
a man at a four or five thousand dollar salary? Twenty-five or even
fifty thousand would be moderate, and the men who are worth that are in
some other business. The foremost citizens of the nation would not be
too good for the job, and we content ourselves with ward heelers and
rough-necks, who undertake it not for the salary, but for the graft that
goes with it and exceeds it. Politics and graft sit in the warden's
office, and walk the ranges in guards' uniform, and crush the manhood
out of our brothers for money, and out of sheer wanton inhumanity. Of
all the inmates of the jail, these men are the veritable and
incorrigible and unpardonable criminals; for they were not driven to
crime by passion, hunger, drink or ignorance, they have not been reduced
to the state of desperate pariahs, outcasts and scapegoats of the race,
but they willingly embrace the function entrusted to them--the
Government license to steal, bully, torture and murder--with a grotesque
sanctimonious leer for the public, and for the convicts--what! The
regimen of hell!

This writer's statements seem a trifle emphatic, do they not? May we not
surmise that they are motived by some personal grudge? have we not heard
an old adage--"No thief e'er felt the halter draw with good opinion of
the law?" Would it not be prudent to take all this with a grain of salt?
Shall we be driven to rash measures by the objurgations of an

Of the right or wrong of my conviction and sentence I am not to speak
here, nor do they specially interest me now, except as illustrations of
the working of the machine. But personal grudge against officials of my
prison I have none. I was treated with consideration and lenity. I came
out in better condition upon the whole than I went in, both of body and
spirit, though nothing would have been easier than to murder me under
the forms of routine prison discipline. What was the reason of this? I
was never informed; I might guess at it, but I don't know. Nevertheless,
the sweetness and light of the prison dispensation as regarded myself
did not blind my eyes or stop my ears to what was being done to others,
not elected to dreams thus beautiful. I saw men beside whom I sat at
meat or labored in the vineyard, fading and failing day by day; I saw
some of them die of broken hearts or broken bodies; I heard their
stories and was certified of their truth; I saw the cart rattle out of
the gate with the pine box containing the body of the man who could only
thus find freedom; I visited the graves of those who had been needlessly
and sometimes wantonly slain. I could not ignore these things because I
myself escaped them. After a few months of durance, I went forth free,
leaving behind me men as good as I or better, sentenced to serve years,
lifetimes, under treatment which I cannot imagine myself as surviving at
all. My grudge is deep, but no personal one.

I shall not at present discuss Government measures of so-called
mitigation--suspended sentence, parole, indeterminate sentence. In the
intention of their originators they may have appeared beneficent; in
practise, they proved sinister and abominable means to cruelty and
despotism. There can be no compromises with hell.

But can I pretend to solve the age-long problem of the right handling of
crime in the community? I am not wiser than my fellows, but I have felt
and known at first hand more of certain grievous wrongs than most of
them have, and even those who have known and felt may not possess the
opportunity or facility to speak that I have. I must say what is in me,
and leave to the collective judgment of the nation, and to the further
teaching of time, what shall be changed, abolished, and done.

One thing seems plain--there must be an act of faith. Worldly wisdom and
enlightened selfishness have been tried out thoroughly and are
thoroughly discredited. Their proposal was first to cure crime, and only
after that was done, to abolish prisons. But it turns out that prisons
generate, teach, perpetuate and inflame crime; never extirpate it,
though they often deter specific persons from continuing a criminal
career by either killing them outright, or destroying in them their
effective spiritual manhood. Therefore the selfishly enlightened and
worldly-wise shake their heads and declare that crime in criminals is
ineradicable. If medicine for crime be futile, save as a temporary
physical preventive, all that is left to us is to continue it as a
preventive, while admitting its impotence as a cure. Protection of
society is the paramount consideration.

Yes: but is society protected by prisons? John Jones has been jailed for
burglary, it is true; but straightway Tom Brown, Jem Smith and Reginald
Montmorency start in as train-robber, murderer and confidence man. We
have sown the dragon's tooth, and reap three for one. Lynch your negro,
and before the smell of roast flesh is out of the air, several fresh
cases of rape are reported.--But there is no visible connection between
alleged cause and effect--it just happens so.--Yes, but if it does
happen almost invariably, we cannot avoid the suspicion that a
connection, even though invisible to the outward eye, there must be.

Moreover, on what grounds does society claim protection against evils
for which its own constitution and administration are responsible? The
greatest happiness of the greatest number?--Are we so happy, then? The
happy man has been sought for long, but the seekers still delay to
return. To what end shall we cut the cancer out of the body politic, if
it sprout again in a more vital spot? If we could only reach the cancer
germ!--But the germ is not found by the knife. There are more criminals
than there ever have been heretofore. The jails are over-crowded; we
must either build new ones, or transform those we have into castles of
refuge to which good people may fly to escape the criminal nations
outside; there will be no over-crowding then!

Let worldly wisdom and enlightened selfishness retire, and listen for a
while to believers--fanatics even. An act of faith: that is to say,
first abolish jails, and then see what can be done with criminals! It is
vain to beat about the bush; we must face the alternative. The syllogism
runs thus: criminality is incompatible with true civilization--with a
normal and secure society. Jails are a crime; society makes and warrants
jails; therefore society is criminal. And the abolition of
jails--repudiation both of the principle and of the concrete fact--is
the only way to social redemption.

The one escape from this conclusion is, of course, denial that jails are
a crime. I will not further contest that point, but only repeat: Let the
deniers and doubters try a year behind the bars, themselves, and then
register their revised opinion.

But, obviously, though jails are a crime, they are not the only crime;
there are also the specific crimes of individual malefactors; and it
seems inevitable that by relieving these of prison restraints, we must
increase the prevalence of crime in the community, however much we might
be absolving the community itself from its characteristic crime of
jails. Is there any answer to that?

I am not logically constrained to make any, because if jails are a crime
they should be abolished, let the consequences be what they may. But I
will suggest two considerations. Individual crimes are the outcome
either of a pathological condition in the agent, or of conditions in his
nurture and environment which are due to social negligence or hardness
of heart. These conditions tempted him beyond his power of resistance,
or reduced him to desperation; in other words, no sane and normal man
commits crimes for the fun of it, and as not he but society created the
conditions, the latter must shoulder its part, at least, of the blame.
And this implies that it should devote itself to so improving these evil
conditions as to give the criminal a fair chance.

That is easily written, but it involves nothing less than a radical
readjustment of our whole attitude toward life. It also brings me to my
second suggestion--that this should be accomplished. We must embark upon
a great adventure--the greatest, so far as I know, ever undertaken in
this world. We must overcome the anti-human prejudice that there is a
distinct criminal class; we must recognize the latent criminality in us
all, and regard those in whom from latent it has become active as such
men as we, but for fortunate circumstances, would have been. There is no
other distinction between them and us.

Can brotherly companionship and trust reform them? If all of us
sincerely and practically united in trusting and companioning them,--so
sincerely as to convince them of the fact--I would have small
misgivings. But we can expect no universal revolution to kindness. Many
of us, probably the vast majority, would fail to rise to the height of
the occasion. Yet I can believe that many would achieve that faith and
stanchness; enough to make a beginning of success. And I have no doubt
whatever that, so far as the kindness was credited by its objects, they
would do their part. Few men that I or any one have known in jail have
been incorrigibly wicked at heart. There are indeed incorrigibly wicked
men, but they are at least as frequent outside as inside jails, because
the crime of wanton hatred and cruelty to others which is theirs, comes
only accidentally if at all under the cognizance of our law.

When jails are razed and their inmates let forth, they are not to be
left to shift for themselves. They are to be taken heartily and
unreservedly into the community, made a part of us, protected against
want and against their sinister propensities, given work to do, taught
how to work, compensated for it, and shown by constant example the
wholesomeness and beauty of good and decent living. Will they rob and
murder their hosts? Such calamities will no doubt occur here and there;
there have been martyrs in all great causes, and will be in this. But
blood so shed will not be wasted. And if the nation, or a considerable
part of it, turns resolutely and persistently to its mighty task, it
will not fail in the end.

There is nothing original or startling about the Golden Rule as a
proposition; but it will seem to tear us to pieces when it is put in
practise. But that will do us no harm; we have been long enough
compacted together in error and selfishness. The revolution will come;
it is still for us to say whether it shall be outward and terrible, or
spiritual and benign. Penal imprisonment and all that it implies is not
sane nor safe; and the cry, To the lions--serves him right!--belongs to
the dark ages, and not to the future.--_Reprinted by kind permission
from Hearst's Magazine for February, 1914_.


The long, high wall that shuts out life--
That death-in-life holds in its coil--
Its height and reach cannot prevent
The sky, nor check the immortal strife
We wage with hungry Fate, nor spoil
Our desperate hope, nor circumvent
Dreams, that redeem our aimless toil!

What Fear and Ignorance have built
Shall pass, with Ignorance and Fear,
Before the breath of Love; and men,
Casting aside the mask of guilt
That baffled, mocked and cursed them here,
Shall know each other once again!
--And must we die, release so near!

_Written in Atlanta Penitentiary,
October, 1913_.)

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