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BY FRANK TANNENBAUM
"THIS is a very nice view, is n't it?' The warden was speaking- a tall broad-shouldered man in the early forties, with a rugged complexion, powerfully thick hands, and an open face with twinkling eyes. A self-made man, who had risen from the rank of a guard to his present position of responsibility in one of the largest prisons in the country. He had taken me to the old prison, and pointed to the place on the wall where, twenty years before, he had started his career, pacing the wall with a rifle on his shoulder. He was proud of his newly won responsibility and conscious of it - it was a new thing.
We sat on the porch facing the prison. A broad, quiet river flowed by the house, with a distant range of low hills, green and bright. It was a wonderful summer morning! The sun barely rising above the tree-tops, the dew still glistening in the shade, the birds singing in their varied, joyful, and madly hilarious moods, all gave the setting a cheerful atmosphere that filled every fibre with the love of life. In front of as was the prison-long gray walls partly covered with ivy, the ground round about planted with flowers, and the green grass neatly kept. The sun, driving the shadowed curtain of early
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dawn from the upper turrets of the inside building, made everything vibrant and happy.
We were sitting in soft chairs, smoking our pipes, looking at the prison, and talking about its manifold problems. The warden was a very good fellow, kind-hearted and well-intentioned. He was, however, a man of no learning, almost illiterate. His whole training was the training he had received in the prison; his equipment was that which the prison environment provided. A varied contact with many men who had come under his observation, combined with a natural exuberance and intelligence, with a background of good-will that had remarkably well escaped the corroding influence of the prison atmosphere, had given him a really unusual personal equipment and power. He was telling me that he had been trained under the greatest of prison men, and considered himself a good disciple. "These men can only be treated in one way
that is, strict and steady discipline. Always be just to the men, but punish them quick and sharp when they break the rules.' This completed his philosophy of life-strictness, justness, treat all men alike, and let punishment follow the breaking of a rule as
the night follows the day- without exception, without fuss, constant and inevitable. He liked to talk about himself, his experiences, the men he had met, the characters he had handled, and was proud beyond words that the men considered him 'square.'
We sped the rising sun into the upper sky by exchanging stories and adventures. Once, years ago, he had visited New York City, and the marvel of it still dwelt with him. He told me how he had been taken down the subway, had watched the crowds on Broadway, and stood bewildered before the 'crazy, shrieking, hair-tearing lunatics' in front of the Stock Exchange. The tall buildings impressed him, and the rumbling Elevated; but, most of all, the crowded East Side. 'I did n't tell my wife and children half that I saw, because they would n't have believed me anyway; and would you think that people would live like a lot of pigs, when they could come out here in the open and free West? But man is a funny creature, ain't he? and there is no explaining him.'
It was Sunday, and chapel-time came. He turned us my wife and me over to the assistant warden, with instructions to take us to chapel.
The assistant warden was a smaller man, stocky, a little gray, quiet, answering questions in monosyllables, and watchful. As the gates swung open, we followed him into the prison. This is one of the new structures, a model of the Auburn type-probably the best of its kind in the world. Everything was spick and span: the yard, the buildings, the halls, the brass, the marble floorall looked shiny. It would have been difficult to find a speck of dust. In answer to a question, the assistant warden said, 'We make 'em spruce 'er up.' The halls were strangely silent. We could hear the echo of our steps go rumbling down the line. Nothing was
visible but an occasional guard in his blue uniform and yellow buttons, standing in a corner, and saluting with his club as we went by.
The chapel, a half-circular room with something like fifteen hundred seats, was empty when we walked in and seated ourselves in the last row, the assistant warden standing at our back. The stained windows with their steel bars, the gray walls, heavy and barren, gave the whole chapel a sombre and dull setting. After a few silent and restless moments, a door opened. The assistant warden nodded his head, and a second later a brazen gong struck upon the air. Suddenly, we heard the shuffling tramp, tramp, tramp of a thousand prison feet, marching on us from all sides. They came down four aisles in single file, dressed in gray suits, their heads bare, their arms folded, shoulders stooping, bodies bent a little forward as if they were falling into the chapel rather than walking, eyes to the ground and faces turning neither to the right nor to the left. There was a listless weariness about these spiritless men, a kind of hopeless resignation, an acceptance of an unrelenting fate and a broken submission, that made the metaphor of 'being broken on the wheel' seem a real, stalking, ghost-like apparition. About every twenty feet a guard in blue uniform and Sunday suit, with shoes nice and shiny, and armed with a heavy loaded cane, kept company.
As they reached the end of the aisle, the guard struck the marble floor with his loaded 'butt,' and the men turned half around, and filed in front of their seats. He struck the ground again, and they faced the platform. Another rap from the stick, and this sound seated the men. This continued row after row, until all the men were in their seats. When the doors were closed, the guards placed at their proper distances, facing the men, with their sticks in front of
them, another rap on the ground and the hands of the men dropped to their sides. In all this time not a head had been turned, not a sound, not a whisper, not a word, nothing not even a verbal command had escaped the thousand men in the room. Nothing but the tramping, shuffling feet, the iron clang against the marble floor- and the stooping forms dressed in gray.
A few minutes later, a signal from the watchful master of ceremonies at our back, and a side door on the stage opened. A man dressed in black was ushered on to the platform. He was a little man, bald-headed, with thick eyeglasses and a red puggy face. As he crept across the platform, he kept pushing his hands into his pockets, pulled out a yellow paper folded many times, and began to open it. He placed the paper on the speaker's desk in front of the platform, pulled out a red handkerchief, mopped his face, cleaned and adjusted his thick glasses, hemmed and coughed a few times, stuck the paper against his nose, and began to read. He had a thin, squeaking voice, which did not reach half across the room.
It is difficult to describe the setting and the bearing of the spiritual leader of this silent and subdued flock without seeming unkind and ungenerous. I write without prejudice and without bias but one must tell the truth. He was an ignorant man. He stumbled over the big words, would get half-way through them, only to turn back for another start. There was nothing inspiring about him, nothing cheerful, nothing interesting. It was dull, stupid, insipid. The men could not hear what he read as he read to himself, and could not understand him as he swallowed his words. The whole performance lasted some fifteen minutes, including a few prayers; and then the little man on the platform folded his yellow paper and scuttled off through the side door,
As the door closed, the first sound of the keeper's stick against the marble floor roused the men in the last row. They stood up, folded their arms, faced half-about and began to shuffle out, followed by the next row and the next, and so until the end. Each movement was determined by the sound of the keeper's stick.
As they came out, we got a better look at the men. Most of them were young and tall, broad of shoulder and well built men reared in the West, on farms, who had come into the cities and been dragged into the whirlpool of undercurrents that brought them to prison. Their faces were gray, their eyes sunken, dim, dull, and moody. As they noticed us sitting in the last row, their eyes shifted a little in startled surprise, — it was unusual for visitors to be seen downstairs in the chapel, but hastily, fearfully, their eyes turned to the ground again when they noticed the little silent and grim figure at our back.
The tramp, tramp, tramp of the men could be heard as they crept down the distant halls. Silence fell upon the chapel-a hard silence, a feeling of horror, suppression, and distortion pervaded the air and filled it with something of infinite sadness. I turned my head to look at my wife, and the tears were running down her cheeks tears that would not be controlled. When the last sound had died down, a keeper appeared at one of the doors, nodded his head, and the guardian at our back said, 'We can go now.' I asked if the men had to attend chapel. He said, 'Yes, prayers is good for them.' I have been haunted by the chapel service. Never before had I seen anything quite so humiliating, inhuman, and sterile.
Is this a typical Sunday morning service? No, I have seen others more cheerful, less grim- places where laughter and applause could be heard, where
prayers were intermingled with other things. I have seen services where there was some eloquence and a manly voice; but this picture is typical of the spiritual stagnation in prison. It is typical of the order and the discipline in prison of the system, regularity, formalism, and, too frequently, of the silence. There is no spiritual life in the average American prison. There is no hope, no inspiration, no stimulus, no compulsion of the soul to better things. It is hard, cold, frozen, dead. This is so true, so general, so all-pervading, that one might describe the whole prison system in these few words and I say this after seeing something like seventy penal institutions this summer.
The little Ford engine labored mightily as we barely climbed the steep hill to the State Reformatory at YAs the car reached the top of the hill, I could see, about a quarter of a mile away, a massive building with many towers, surrounded by most beautiful grounds. An uninitiated person would have taken this for some strange mediæval castle magically transplanted to this most favored spot, set off against many hills, with a clear blue sky above and mile upon mile of smiling rich fertile farm-lands below. This, however, was no castle of an ancient knight
it was the stony home of many a poor lad who had been placed there for the good of his soul and the safety of the community. This, at least, is what the kindly people would have said. This was a reformatory to make bad boys good.
As I rang the bell and presented my credentials to the keeper, he looked at me doubtfully. 'Whom do you want?' said he, with the sharpness of a rasped temper.
"The warden,' said I.
'Yes, I know he is busy; but as I shall have to see him before I leave, you had better take these in to him now.'
After a while I was presented to the warden - a tall, bony, straight-backed old man, of about sixty-five or seventy; gray, thin-lipped, sullen, and obviously displeased. As I came in, he motioned me to a chair and then turned suddenly on me. Pointing a long sharp finger in my face, he said: 'I know you. You are from one of them damned reform committees who believe in coddling the prisoners. Well, I don't. I have been in this business forty years, and know what I am talking about. You can't coddle these fellows you can't do it. Let me tell you. I don't like these sniffling committees that come around and investigate that come around and tell a man like me, who has been in this business forty years, how to run his prison. It is just like telling a general how to run his army. But I don't care; I will show you everything. [I was shown the sum total of nothing. But in his blustering way, he told me everything I wanted to know.] I have nothing to hide. I treat the men right; they can learn a trade, and if they are willing workers, they can earn some money — and work is good for them. This is not a bad prison. Men who are here from other prisons always tell me this is better than most. But I run this prison. No rough-neck can come here and think he is going to rough-house it. If he tries to, I fix him. I fix him. This is my job. A little while ago they transferred a fellow in here who said that this place was like a kindergarten, and that he would show everybody how to eat out of his hand. Well, I fixed him. He started by getting into a fight with one of my officers. I took him out into the yard, put him over a barrel, stripped him the way his father used to do, and put the cane to him- I have a good
birch cane. I fixed him good and fine. No bones broken, no rough stuff, no permanent marks. It will wear off in good time. And when I had given him plenty, I riveted a seventy-pound ball and chain round his ankle and put him back in the shop from which he came. It did n't take long, only a little longer than it does to tell. But I fixed him. He has been a good dog ever since.'
The warden stopped; his face relaxed a little, he looked at me as if he were well pleased, wiped his thin lips with the back of his hand, reflected a minute, and then said, 'Would you believe it I told this story to a bunch of women the other day when they asked me to speak, and they hissed me for it.'
He was sincerely perplexed, and naïvely thought that the women must either have been 'crazy,' or affected by the 'new-fangled' ideas.
This story brings me straight to the question of prison discipline in the United States. There has been so much agitation about this particular question, and it is a crucial question, that a survey of how things stand at present is bound to be of interest as well as significant. I must begin by saying that the agitation has mainly been outside of prison - that those affected by it were mostly people who have little or nothing to do with the prison situation. There are a few exceptions, a few indications that all the agitation has not been entirely in vain: a few changes in method, a possible reduction in the number of men punished, a relaxing of the rules a little in regard to talking and the lock-step, the abolition of such things as the strait-jacket (I am not so sure about this: rumors of its existence reached me in more than one place, but I did not actually see it),
and the abolition of what was once a common practice, of hanging men up by their wrists and swinging their bodies off the floor.
Let me introduce into this discussion of the situation the following quotation from the Detroit News of January 27, 1920:
'Harry L. Hulburt, warden of the prison, explained to the committee how the flogging apparatus is worked. The man to be flogged is blindfolded, handcuffed, and shackled at the ankles. Then he is stretched out on a long ladder, which is made to fit snugly over a barrel. The prisoner is blindfolded, the warden said, so that he will not see who is flogging him. [The warden told me, when I visited the institution, that he did it himself, as he thought that no one else should be allowed to do it.] His back is bared and a piece of stout linen cloth is placed over the bare spot. The instrument used in the paddling is a heavy strap about four inches in width, punched with small holes about an inch apart and fastened to a handle. The strap is soaked in water, according to the warden, till it becomes pliable; Dr. Robert McGregor [one of the best and most conscientious prison doctors that I met on the trip], prison physician, holds the pulse of the man being flogged and gives the signal for the flogger to stop.'
The article then goes on to detail three different cases of flogging. We will quote only the first.
"Thomas Shultz, boy of twenty-one years old, seven months after being sent from the insane asylum, was given 181 lashes and kept in the dungeon during the period of the flogging for nine days and fed on bread and water. . . . Nov. 3, assaulted guard. For this and other minor offenses, none of them serious, he was sentenced to receive 181 lashes. Nov. 4, he received 40 lashes. Nov. 5, he received 35 lashes. Nov. 6,