Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

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2653 Washington Blvd.

Chicago, Illinois

Price SI. 50

Copyright, 1927, by

Press of
John F. Higgins

376 W, Monroe St.
Chicago, lU.


The pen of the author of this book has been
forever silenced by death. To the suffering soula
who vision life only within gray stone walls,
through cold steel bars, whose days are sunless,
whose nights are starless, from whose melancholy
hearts hope has fled — to these, all of them victims
of a cruel and inhuman social system, this volume
is re-dedicated in tender and loving commemo-
ration of the writer by his brother and fellow-
worker, Theodore Debs.








* 945470



The Relation of Society to the Convict.

My prison experience includes three county
jails, one state penitentiary, and one federal
prison. — I have no personal grievance to air.
Special favors were never accorded me, nor would
I accept any. — Introduced to jail life in Chicago,
1894. — Eecognized my kinship with prisoners
everywhere. — Prison problem is co-related with
poverty which is a social disease. — Any of us may
go to prison at any time for breaking the law or
upholding it. — My spirit was never imprisoned,


The Prison as an Incubator of Crime.

The boy's first offense. — Convicted, manacled
and taken to prison. — How he is received and
what happens to him. — How he feels about it. —
He is thrown into contact with hardened crim-
inals; the degenerating process begins. — A few
days later the change is apparent. — He acquires a
new vocabulary. — His self-respect begins to
wane. — He has taken the^ first lesson in the school
of vice and crime from which he is to graduate
as a finished product at the expiration of his


I Become U. S. Convict, No. 9653.

Transferred from Moundsville penitentiary in
charge of an United States Marshal and three

deputies. — How I was received in Atlanta and my
first impressions. — The Bertillon system is ap-
plied. — Stripped, bathed and put in prison garb.
— In the office of the deputy warden. — My intro-
duction to the warden. — Assigned to duty in the
clothing room. — I begin to serve my sentence.


Sharing the Lot of Les Miserables.

My cell and cell mates. — The prison routine. —
Prison food and how it is served. — My first in-
fraction of prison rules; how it resulted and the
outcome. — Caged fourteen hours daily. — Getting
in touch with my fellow prisoners in the stock-


Transferred From My Cell to the Hospital.

Mingling with the diseased, the maimed and
the infirm. — The drug addicts and their treat-
ment. — Hospital guard clubs a convict. — The
blood-covered victim and the dismissal of the
guard. — The dying and the dead. — Eeading and
writing their letters. — My voluntary ministra-
tions to the suffering. — The moral atmosphere


Visitors and Visiting.

Privileges and the lack of them. — Restrictions
upon visits. — A guard sits between the convict
and his visitor to overhear. — A state delegation
pays me a call. — The curiosity of casual visitors
to see me is denied. — My visitors included Mel-
ville E. Stone, Samuel Gompers, Lincoln Steffens,

Norman Hapgood, Clarence Darrow, and other
prominent personages.


The 1920 Campaign for President.

Unanimous nomination by the New York con-
vention. — The notification committee appears. —
Eeception in the warden's office. — Addressing the
voters through weekly statements issued from
prison. — The inmates are enthusiastic and as-
sure the candidate he will carry the prison unani-
mously. — Receiving the returns on election night
in the warden's office. — I concede Harding's elec-
tion to waiting reporters.


A Christmas Eve Reception.

My fellow prisoners spread a bounteous table
of their gifts and make me their guest of honor. —
President Wilson denies Attorney General Pal-
mer's recommendation for my release, Christmas,
1920. — The beautiful aspect of prison fellowship.
— My comment on President Wilson results in the
suspension of my writing and visiting privileges,
and I am placed incommunicado. — The instant
and widespread protest, that followed, forces
revocation of the order.


Leaving the Prison.

Sensational demonstration at parting and
agitation of the inmates. Leaving them behind
overcame me as with a sense of desertion and
guilt. — Pallid faces pressed hard against the
bars of that living tomb. — Outside the portals and

midway across the reservation, the warden and
his deputy stood aghast as there came from the
prison a demonstration repeated over and over. —
Never had the rules been thus violated at the de-
parture of an inmate. — Tearful, haunted faces,
swept by emotion, forgot for the moment hard
and forbidding prison rules, giving a last roar of
emotion as our auto was lost in the distance.


General Prison Conditions.

The guns on the walls. — The clubs in the hands
of the guards. — Brutal, stupid and unnecessary
rules. — Guards with clubs preside over devotion-
al services. — Inmates at the mercy of prison
guards. — Work of convicts grudgingly done. —
Stool pigeons play their nefarious part. — The
maddening monotony and its demoralizing re-


Poverty Populates the Prison.

With but few exceptions the poor go to prison.
— The moneyless man in court. — The law's delay.
— Holding the accused in jail under graft system
of petty officials. — In the pillory of a courtroom.
— Foulness of county jails and contamination of
youthful first offenders. — Perversion of natural
sex instincts and resultant vice and immorality.


Creating the Criminal.

How the lack of money presumes guilt in ad-
vance of trial. — Poverty the deadly nemesis on the
track of accused. — The process of creating the
criminal. — The arrest, trial and conviction as now

conducted, and the sentence that follows as now
served, almost irrevocably doom the victim to
physical and moral wreckage. — Why the prison
as a reformatory is not only a flat failure, but a
promotor of that which it blindly and stupidly
attempts to suppress.


How I Would Manage the Prison.

The civil service farce in relation to the guards.
— The prison under control of absent politicians
who have never seen it. — How the drug traffic
thrives. — Conflicting rules and a dozen petty
prisons behind the same walls. — The planless,
purposeless and aimless way of doing things. —
Eobbing the prisoners and starving their fami-
lies. — The redeeming power of kindness as a sub-
stitute for the brutalizing power of cruelty. — The
human element actually applied in Atlanta prison
and its amazing results. — A challenge to the pow-
ers and personalities that control jails, prisons
and penitentiaries in the United States.


Capitalism and Crime.

Capitalism and crime almost synonymous
terms. — Private ownership of the means of the
common life at bottom of prison evil. — Capital-
ism must have prisons to protect itself from the V
criminals it has created. — Proud of its prisons
which fitly symbolize the character of its institu-
tions. — The letter of a convict forty-eight years
behind the bars.


Poverty and the Pbison.

Intimate relation between poor-house and
prison. — Poverty the common lot of the great
mass of mankind. — It is poverty from which the
slums, the red light district, the asylums, the
jails and prisons are mainly recruited. — No ex-
cuse today for widespread poverty. — A barbarous
judge recommends re-establishment of the whip-
ping post. — ^Abolish the social system that makes
the prison necessary and populates it with the
victims of poverty.


Socialism and the Prison.

Socialism and prison antagonistic terms. — So-
cialism will abolish the prison as it is today by
removing its cause. — Capitalism and crime have
had their day and must go. — The working class to
become the sovereign rulers of the world. — The
triumph of socialism will mean the liberation of
humanity throughout the world.


Prison Labor, Its Effects on Industry
AND Trade.

Address before the Nineteenth Century Club at
Delmonico's, New York City, March 21st, 1899.


Studies Behind Prison Walls.
An article reproduced by the courtesy of its

publishers from the Century Magazine for July,


Wasting Life.

Eeproduced from The World Tomorrow for
August, 1922, by the courtesy of its publishers.

''The social environment is the cultural me-
dium of criminality; the criminal is the microbe —
an element that becomes important only when it
finds a medium which will cause it to ferment.
Every society has the criminals it deserves^'.

— Lascussagne.


While there is a lower class I am in it;
While there is a criminal element I am of it;
While there 's a soul in prison I am not free.


Beyond these walls,

Sweet Freedom calls;
In accents clear and brave she speaks,
And lo ! my spirit scales the peaks.

Beyond these bars,

I see the stars;
God's glittering heralds beckon me —
My soul is winged; Behold, I'm free!

To the countless thousands of my
brothers and sisters who have suf-
fered the cruel and pitiless torture
and degradation of imprisonment
in the jails, penitentiaries and
other barbarous and brutalizing
penal institutions of capitalism un-
der our much-vaunted Christian
civilization, and who in consequence
now bear the ineffaceable brand of
convicts and criminals, this volume
is dedicated with affection and de-
votion by one of their number.


The deep, sincere and grateful acknowledg-
ment due the many friends and comrades, near
and far, not only in this country but beyond the
seas, who followed me so faithfully through the
very prison doors and who sympathized with all
their loyal hearts and literally shared every hour
of my imprisonment, can never be expressed in
words. By day and by night these devoted com-
rades were with me, so near that I could feel the
touch of their loving hands and hear their loyal
heart-beats in my prison cell.

From all directions, by mail and by wire, there
came the message of comfort and good cheer from
men, women and children, thousands upon thou-
sands of them, the number increasing with the
passing days to attest the growing sympathy and
loyalty of the host of steadfast devotees.

How lightly the sentence I was serving rested
upon me with such a noble legion of loving com-
rades to cheer and sustain me every moment of
my imprisonment ! To them I owe a debt of love
and gratitude that never can be paid. They all
but entered the prison and served my sentence
for me ; they not only sent me their precious and
heartening messages, food prepared with their
own dear hands, wearing apparel, and other gifts
as testimonials of their faith and constancy, but


they came in person over long and wearied
stretches of travel to give aid and comfort and
affectionate ministration in every way in their

The tender regard, the loving care, the unfail-
ing devotion shown to my wife to relieve her
loneliness and to enable her to bear with fortitude
the trials of my prison days; the aid and as-
sistance so freely and generously given to my
brother in meeting party demands and in the dis-
charge of official duties in my absence, constitute
a chapter of loving service and self-consecration,
a manifestation of the utter divinity of human
comradeship that can not be traced upon the
written page but must remain forever a hallowed

To these dear friends and comrades, beloved
and appreciated beyond expression, I now make
grateful acknowledgement and give thanks with
all my heart. I can not here attempt to call them
all by name, but vividly do they appear before me
in their radiant and inspiring comradeship, and to
each and all of them do I give hail and greeting
and pledge my love, my gratitude and my unre-
laxing fidelity to the cause they so bravely sus-
tained and vindicated during my prison days.

To these brave, noble hearts I owe my life and
liberation. But for their loyal devotion and un-
tiring agitation my life would have gone out be-
hind prison walls.

And now in turn I sense the solemn duty to


join and persist in the demand for the release of
all other comrades still immured in dungeon cells
until the last prisoner of the class war has secured
his liberation.


While still an inmate of the United States
Penitentiary at Atlanta, Georgia, the suggestion
was made to me by interested publishers that
upon my release 1 write a series of articles de-
scribing my prison experience. The sugges-
tion, coming from various sources, appealed to
me for the reason that I saw in it an oppor-
tunity to give the general public certain infor-
mation in regard to the prison, based upon my
personal observation and experience, that I
hoped might result in some beneficial changes in
the management of prisons and in the treatment
of their inmates.

While serving my term at Atlanta I saw so
much that offended me, as being needlessly cruel
and abusive; I came in direct contact with so
many of the victims of prison mismanagement
and its harsh and inhuman regulations, that I
resolved upon my release to espouse the cause
of these unfortunates and do what was in my
power to put an end to the wrongs and abuses
of which they were the victims under the present

If there are men and women anywhere among
us who need to have their condition looked into
in an enlightened, sympathetic and helpful way;
if there are any whose very helplessness should


excite our interest, to say nothing of our com-
passion as human beings, they are the inmates of
our jails, prisons and penitentiaries, hidden
from our view by grim walls, who suffer in
silence, and whose cries are not permitted to reach
our ears.

The inmates of prisons are not the irretriev-
ably vicious and depraved element they are
commonly believed to be, but upon the average
they are like ourselves, and it is more often their
misfortune than their crime that is responsible
for their plight. If these prisoners were treated
as they should be, with due regard to all the
circumstances surrounding their cases, a very
great majority of them, instead of being dis-
eased, crazed and wrecked morally and physic-
ally under a cruel and degrading prison system,
would be reclaimed and restored to societv, the
better, not the worse, for their experience.

In this, society as well as the individual would
be the gainer, and to that extent crime in the
community would cease.

Shortly after my release negotiations were
concluded with the Bell Syndicate of New York
for the publication of a series of prison articles
to appear simultaneously in newspapers sub-
scribing for them throughout the country. These
articles, written for the capitalist-owned dailies,
had to be prepared with a distinct reserve to
insure their publication. This concession had to
be made to avoid peremptory refusal of any


dieariiig at all through the public press of the
abuses and crimes which cried to heaven from
behind prison walls.

It was therefore made a specific condition by
the Syndicate and a guarantee to the papers
subscribing for the articles that they should con-
tain no ^ ^ propaganda ". The reason for this
precaution on the part of the capitalist press is
perfectly obvious and self-evident. Any intelli-
gent understanding of the prison system as it
now exists, based upon a true knowledge of the
graft and corruption which prevail in its manage-
ment, and of the appalling vice and immorality,
cruelty and crime for which the prison is re-
sponsible and of which the inmates are the help-
less victims, would inevitably mean the im-
peachment of our smug and self-complacent capi-
talist society at the bar of civilization, and the
utter condemnation of the capitalist system of
which the prison is a necessary adjunct, and of
which these rich and powerful papers are the
official organs and mouthpieces.

It was this that these papers had in mind when
the assurance had to be given them that my arti-
cles would contain no *^ propaganda '\

They did not want, nor do they now, the truth,
the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,
about our corrupt, brutalizing and criminal-
breeding prison system to be known to the peo-
ple, for they know not only that such a revelation
would shock and scandalize the country but that


it would expose and condemn the impoverishing,
enslaving and crime-inciting social system of
which they are the organs and beneficiaries.

When the opening article appeared the fol-
lowing bracketed notice was placed at its head :

(**The views expressed in this article and in
the others of this series are those of Eugene
V. Debs and not of the Bell Syndicate, Inc.
Mr. Debs has agreed not to insert any political
propaganda into the article/')

Well does the capitalist press know that the
naked truth about our foul prison system would
be the deadliest kind of ^ Apolitical propaganda''
against the capitalist system which created and
is responsible for that festering evil, and against
the equally foul political parties which uphold
capitalism and perpetuate its corrupt and crim-
inal misrule.

The capitalist dailies were desirous enough to
have the articles, knowing they would create in-
terest and have a wide reading, thus proving a
feature of value to them, but tiiey wanted them
toned down, emasculated in fact, to render them
harmless as possible and at the same time secure
them against the danger they so mortally dread
of containing other than their own ^^ political
propaganda". They insist upon a monopoly of
their own brand, and such is their faith in its
efficacy, that they will tolerate no encroach-
ment upon their vested propaganda interests.


Soon after the first article appeared complaints
were made from various quarters that there was
*' propaganda'^ in the series. This justified
them in expunging entire paragraphs and finally
in not publishing at all the closing articles of
the series.

The first eight and the tenth to the thirteenth
chapters in this book constitute the series of
twelve articles given to the daily press through
the Bell Syndicate and are here reprinted through
their courtesy.

In this connection it should be said that but
nine of the twelve articles furnished the press
were published, and in some instances the papers
struck out parts and paragraphs they did not
like on the ground that they were ^ ' propaganda ' '
or ^^too radical", thus withholding from their
readers the very points of information and the
very vital passages to which the writer was most
anxious to give publicity for the end he had in

To the twelve original articles there have been
added three chapters for the purpose not only of
amplifying the treatment of the subject, but that
the writer might discuss more critically and
fundamentally the vital phases of the prison
question, including especially the cause of and the
responsibility for this crying evil, than was pos-
sible in the newspaper articles.

There has also been added an Address before
the Nineteenth Century Club at Delmonico's,


New York City, on Prison; Labor, Its Effects on
Industry and Trade, March 21st., 1899; an arti-
cle contributed to the Century Magazine for July,
1922, and another to The World Tomorrow for
August, 1922, and reproduced here by the cour-
tesy of those periodicals.

In the latter chapters I have undertaken to
show that the prison in our modern life is essen-
tially a capitalistic institution, an inherent and
inseparable part of the social and economic sys-
tem under which the mass of mankind are ruth-
lessly exploited and kept in an impoverished
state, as a result of which the struggle for ex-
istence, cruel and relentless at best, drives thou-
sands of its victims into the commission of of-
fenses which they are forced to expiate in the
dungeons provided for them by their masters.

The prison as a rule, to which there are few
exceptions, is for the poor.

The owning and ruling class hold the keys of
the prison the same as they do of the mill and
mine. They are the keepers of both and their
exploited slaves are the inmates and victims of

As long as the people are satisfied with capital-
ism they will have to bear its consequences in the
prison sentences imposed upon increasing num-
bers of them, and also bear the poverty and mis-
ery which fall to the lot of those who toil and pro-
duce the wealth of the nation.

The prison at present is at best a monumental


evil and a buming shame to society. It ought not
merely to be reformed but abolished as an in-
stitution for the punishment and degradation of
imfortunate human beings.

Terre Haute, Indiana, July 1st., 1926.


The Eelation of Society to the Convict.

A prison is a cross section of society in which
every human strain is clearly revealed. An
average prison, and its inmates, in point of
character, intelligence and habits, will compare
favorably with any similar number of persons
outside of prison walls.

I believe that my enemies, as well as my
friends, will concede to me the right to arrive
at some conclusions with respect to prisons and
prisoners by virtue of my personal experience,
for I have been an inmate of three county jails,
one state jDrison and one federal penitentiary.
A total of almost four vears of mv life has been
spent behind the bars as a common prisoner; but
an experience of such a nature cannot be meas-
ured in point of years. It is measured by the
capacity to see, to feel and to comprehend the
social significance and the human import of the
prison in its relation to society.

In the very beginning I desire to stress the
point that I have no personal grievance to air as
a result of my imprisonment. I was never per-
sonally mistreated, and no man was ever brutal
to me. On the other hand, during my prison
years I was treated uniformly with a peculiar


personal kindliness by my fellow-prisoners, and
not infrequently by officials. I do not mean to
imply that any special favors were ever accorded
me. I never requested nor would I accept any-
thing that could not be obtained on the same
basis by the humblest prisoner. I realized that I
was a convict, and as such I chose to share the
lot of those around me on the same rigorous
terms that were imposed upon all.

It is true that I have taken an active part in
public affairs for the past forty years. In a
consecutive period of that length a man is bound
to acquire a reputation of one kind or another.
My adversaries and I are alike perfectly satis-
fied with the sort of reputation they have given
me. A man should take to himself no discom-
fort from an opinion expressed or implied by
his adversary, but it is difficult, and often-times
humiliating to attempt to justify the kindness of
one's friends. When my enemies do not indulge
in calumny I find it exceedingly difficult to an-
swer their charges against me. In fact, I am
guilty of believing in a broader humanity and
a nobler civilization. I am guilty also of being
opposed to force and violence. I am guilty of
believing that the human race can be humanized
and enriched in every spiritual inference through
the saner and more beneficent processes of peace-
ful persuasion applied to material problems
rather than through wars, riots and bloodshed.
I went to prison because I was guilty of believing


these things. I have dedicated my life to these
beliefs and shall continue to embrace them to
the end.

My first prison experience occurred in 1894
when, as president of the American Railway
Union I was locked up in the Cook County Jail,
Chicago, because of my activities in the great
railroad strike that was in full force at that

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 1 of 14)