Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

Walls and bars online

. (page 12 of 14)
Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 12 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


turns into a two-edged sword that cuts into and
destroys the system that produces it.

First, the capitalist pocket is filled by the em-



PEISON LAKOE, ITS EFFECTS ON INDUSTRY 209

ployment of cheap labor — and then the bottom
drops out of it.

In the cheapening process, the pauperized mass
have lost their consuming power.

The case may now be summed up as follows:

First. Prison labor is bad ; it has a demoraliz-
ing effect on capitalist trade and industry.

Second. Child labor, tenement house and every
other form of cheap labor is bad; it is destruc-
tive of trade and industry.

Third. Capitalist competition is bad; it cre-
ates a demand for cheap labor.

Fourth. Capitalist production is bad; it cre-
ates millionaires and mendicants, economic mas-
ters and slaves, thus intensifying the class strug-
gle.

This indicates that the present capitalist sys-
tem has outlived its usefulness, and that it is in
the throes of dissolution. Capitalism is but a
link in the chain of social and economic develop-
ment. Just as feudalism developed capitalism
and then disappeared, so capitalism is now de-
veloping socialism, and when the new social sys-
tem has been completely evolved the last vestige
of capitalism will fade into history.

The gigantic trust marks the change in produc-
tion. It is no longer competitive but co-opera-
tive. The same mode of distribution, which must
inevitably follow, will complete the process.

Co-operative labor will be the basis of the new
social system, and this wiU be for use and not



210 WALLS AND BAES

for profit. Labor will no longer be bought and
sold. Industrial slavery will cease. For every
man there will be the equal right to work with
every other man and each will receive the fruit
of his labor. Then we shall have economic equal-
ity. Involuntary idleness will be a horror of the
past. Poverty will relax its grasp. The army
of tramps will be disbanded because the prolific
womb which now warms these unfortunates into
life will become barren. Prisons will be depopu-
lated and the prison labor problem will be solved.

Each labor-saving machine will lighten the bur-
den and decrease the hours of toil. The soul will
no longer be subordinated to the stomach. Man
will live a complete life, and the march will then
begin to an ideal civilization.

There is another proverb which the Latin race
sent ringing down the centuries which reads,
^^ Omnia vincit amor'', or ^^Love conquers all
things". Love and labor in alliance, working
together, have transforming, redeeming and
emancipating power. Under their benign sway
the world can be made better and brighter.

Isaiah saw in prophetic vision a time when na-
tions should war no more — when swords should
be transformed into plowshares and spears into
pruning hooks. The fulfillment of the prophecy
only awaits an era when Love and Labor, in holy
alliance, shall solve the economic problem.

Here, on this occasion, in this great metropolis
with its thousand spires pointing heavenward,



PEISON LAEOE, ITS EFFECTS ON INDUSTKY 211

where opulence riots in luxury which challenges
hyperbole, and poverty rots in sweatshops which
only a Shakespeare or a Victor Hugo could de-
scribe, and the transfer to canvas would palsy
the hand of a Michael Angelo — here, where
wealth and want and woe bear irrefutable testi-
mony of deplorable conditions, I stand as a so-
cialist, protesting against the wrongs perpetrated
upon Les Miserables, and pleading as best I can
for a higher civilization.

The army of begging Lazaruses, with the dogs
licking their sores at the gates of palaces, where
the rich are clothed in purple and fine linen, with
their tables groaning beneath the luxuries of all
climes, make the palaces on the highlands where
fashion holds sway and music lends its charms,
a picture in the landscape which, in illustrating
disparity, brings into bolder relief the hut and
the hovel in the hollow where want, gaunt and
haggard, sits at the door and where light and
plenty, cheerfulness and hope are forever exiled
by the despotic decree of conditions as ciael as
when the Czar of Eussia orders to his penal
mines in Siberia the hapless subjects who dare
whisper the sacred word liberty — as cruel as
when this boasted land of freedom commands that
a far-away, innocent people shall be shot down
in jungle and lagoon, in their bamboo huts, be-
cause they dream of freedom and independence.

These conditions are as fruitful of danger to
the opulent as they are of degradation to the



212 WALLS AND BARS

poor. It is neither folly nor fanaticism to assert
that the country cannot exist under such condi-
tions. The higher law of righteousness, of love
and labor will prevail. It is a law which com-
mends itself to reasoning men, a primal law en-
acted long before Jehovah wrote the decalog
amidst the thunders and lightnings of Sinai. It
is a law written upon the tablets of every man's
heart and conscience. It is a law infinitely above
the creeds and dogmas and tangled disquisitions
of the churches — the one law which in its opera-
tions will level humanity upward until men, re-
deemed from greed and every debasing ambition,
shall obey its mandates and glory in its triumph.
Love and labor will give us the Socialist Ee-
public — the Industrial Democracy — the equal
rights of all men and women, and the emancipa-
tion of all from the cruel and debasing thraldoms
of past centuries.



CHAPTER XVIII.

Studies Behind Pkison Walls.

(Reproduced from the Century Magazine for
July, 1922, by Courtesy of Its Publishers.)
The prison has a place peculiarly and entirely
its own among the institutions of human society.
It is there that the human being is detached from
his former associations and isolated under rigor-
ous discipline to expiate his alleged offence
against society. It is the one place to which
men go only under compulsion and in humiliation
and shame.

When I was a boy the very word penitentiary
had a shocking effect upon my sensibilities, and
of course I did not dream that I would ever serve
a sentence as a convicted felon within its walls.
I had never seen a penitentiary, but I had seen
the filthy county jail in the town in which I
lived, and through its barred windows I saw the
imprisoned victims and heard their foul and
damning imprecations.

This gave me some idea of what the peniten-
tiary must be like and I wondered even then if
it were not possible to deal with our erring fel-
low men in a more humane way than by commit-
ting them into foul dungeons and treating them
as if they were beasts instead of human beings.



214 WALLS AND BARS

Later in life when I had become active in the
labor movement and had a part in the strikes and
other disturbances of organized workers, in the
course of which the leaders were not infrequent-
ly arrested and sent to jail, I came to realize that
the prison could be used for purposes other than
confining the criminal; used as a club to intimi-.
date working men and women after their leaders
had already been incarcerated ; used as a silencer
upon any expression of opinion that might not
happen to be in accord with the administrative
power.

So, I understood from the beginning that all
men who were sent to jails and penitentiaries
were not criminals ; indeed, I have often had cause
to think that the time may come in the life of any
man when he would consider it necessary to go
to prison if he would be true to the integrity of
his own soul, and loyal to his inherent, God-given
sovereignty as a human being. Such thoughts
would come to me after my many visits to jails
and penitentiaries to call upon friends and asso-
ciates in the labor struggle incarcerated there.

It was in the railroad strike of 1877 that I had
my first experience in seeing my associates in the
railroad union sent to jail, and I began to realize
that if I continued my activity I might some day
go there myself. Less than twenty years later
I had my first interior view of the jail as an in-
mate, and this experience awakened in me a keen
interest in the prison and its victims. The penal



STUDIES BEHIND PRISON WALLS 2l5

question has been to me an absorbing study ever
since.

The notorious old Cook County jail in Chicago,
for years the choicest picking for grafting poli-
ticians, reeking with vermin and infested with
sewer rats, comes vividly to memory as these lines
are written. It was there that I was initiated
into the moralities and mysteries of prison life.
I saw at a glance what that filthy pen meant to
the unfortunate creatures confined there, and at
once my sympathy was quickened, and I felt my-
self drawn to them by a fellow feeling which grew
stronger with the passing years.

Soon afterward I was sentenced to the Mc-
Henry County jail in Woodstock, Illinois, to serve
a term of six months upon the charge of con-
tempt of court for the violation of an injunction
issued by the federal court during the great Pull-
man strike in 1894. I had pleaded in vain for
a jury trial.

Fortunately for me and my convicted asso-
ciates of the American Kailway Union, the filthy
Cook County jail was over populated at the time
we were sentenced, in consequence of which we
were transferred to the county jail in Woodstock.
The farmers in that vicinity did not relish the
idea of my being ''boarded'' among them even
as an inmate of their jail. They had been read-
ing the daily newspapers and had concluded that
I was too dangerous a criminal to be permitted to
enter the county, and it was reported that they



216 WALLS AND BARS

would gather in numbers at the station on my
arrival and attempt to lynch me, or at least pre-
vent me from disembarking. When we arrived
at Woodstock a number of them were at the sta-
tion, but they had evidently been advised against
carrying out their enthusiastic program for they
made no hostile demonstration.

The jail at Woodstock was a small affair and
clean for a county lock-up. I soon had a satis-
factory understanding with the sheriff, a veteran
of the civil war, and got along without the least
trouble. During the latter period of my term I
conducted an evening school for the benefit of
the prisoners, and on my leaving they presented
me with a set of resolutions expressive of their
gratitude which is still a cherished testimonial in
my possession.

Some years later when I was touring the coun-
try as a presidential candidate I made a special
visit to Woodstock and received a great ovation
from the visiting farmers and the townspeople,
among whom was the sheriff who had been my
jailer and had become my friend. On another oc^
casion I was invited there to address a meeting
at the City Hall, the daughter of the sheriff, head
of the Eelief Corps of the G. A. E., having charge
of the arrangements.

Almost twenty-five years passed before I had
my next prison experience. The world war was
in progress and the excitement was intense. I
had my own views in regard to the war, and I



STUDIES BEHIND PRISON WALLS 217

knew in advance that an expression of what was
in my heart would invite a prison sentence under
the Espionage Law. I took my stand in accord-
ance with the dictates of my conscience, and was
prepared to accept the consequences without com-
plaint. The choice was deliberately made, and
there has never since been a moment of regret.
It was not because I yearned for imprisonment
that I took the position that human beings had
a higher call and a nobler purpose in life than
slaughtering each other and hating those they
could not kill, but simply because I could take no
other, although realizing fully that the choice led
through prison gates.

A sentence of ten years followed my trial at
Cleveland in which I permitted no witnesses to
testify in my behalf and no defense to be made.
When the government's attorneys were satisfied
that they had concluded their case against me, I
addressed the jury, not as a matter of defense
of the speech that had resulted in my arrest, trial
and conviction, but in an attempt to amplify and
supplement it so that there could be no possible
mistake as to my beliefs and opinions with re-
spect to the subject in controversy. It was an
unusual and surprising proceeding in a court-
room. I was entirely prepared to receive the
sentence of ten years pronounced by the judge. I
had stood upon my constitutional right of free
speech, and in this attitude I had the sanction



218 WALLS AND BAKS

and support of tens of thousands of people who
had no sympathy with my political views.

On the evening of April 13, 1919, I was deliv-
ered by United States Marshal Lap and his
deputies of Cleveland to Warden Joseph Z. Ter-
rell, of the West Virginia State Penitentiary at
Moundsville to enter upon my sentence. I was
permitted to serve but two months at Mounds-
ville when the order came from Washington for
my transfer to Atlanta Federal Prison. My
brief sojourn at Moundsville was entirely satis-
factory as a prison experience, for after my ar-
rival there I was introduced to the various offi-
cials and came into intimate and pleasant con-
tact with all the prisoners.

These experiences were preliminary to my ad-
venture at the United States Penitentiary in At-
lanta, where I was taken on June 14, 1919, and
served as an inmate until Christmas Day, 1921.

With this introductory sketch I shall now en-
ter upon the story of my actual prison life and
my study of the prison as an institution, the in-
mates confined there, the rules and conditions
under which they serve their terms, and the effect
of their prison experience upon their subsequent
lives.

Personally, I feel amply rewarded for the op-
portunity that was given me to see and know the
prison as it is, for while I was a prisoner at At-
lanta I learned more of a vital nature to me than
could have been taught me in any similar period



STUDIES BEHIND PKISON WALLS 219

in the classroom of any -university.

A prison is a wonderful place in the opportun-
ity afforded not only to study human nature in
the abstract, to examine the causes and currents
of motives and impulses, but also to see yourself
reflected in the caricatures of your fellow men.
It is also the one place, above all others, where
one comprehends the measureless extent of man^s
inhumanity to man.

I hate, I abominate the prison as it exists today
as the most loathsome and debasing of human
institutions.

Most prisons are physically as well as morally
tmclean. All of them are governed by rules and
maintained under conditions which fit them as
breeding places for the iniquities which they are
supposed to abate and stamp out.

When I entered the Atlanta Prison it was on a
common footing with all the rest of the prisoners.
I expected no favors and would accept no privi-
leges that were denied to others. From the mo-
ment I entered there I felt that I was among
friends, for the prisoners accorded me an en-
thusiastic welcome which I knew was genuine on
their part. I at once made up my mind that it
would be my constant endeavor to serve these
fellow prisoners of mine in every way that I could
and at every opportunity that presented itself. I
was not there long before I realized that my at-
titude toward the convicts was understood by
them and reciprocated in ways that shall always



220 WALLS AND BAES

remain in my memory in tender testimony of the
human fellowship that can blossom even in a
prison if nourished by kindness of heart.

When I was put into a second-hand prison suit
of blue denim I felt myself one with every pris-
oner in Atlanta. During the first two months I
was placed in a cell which was already inhabited
by ^ve other convicts, and these inmates did
everything that human beings could possibly do
to make me comfortable and my stay a pleasant
one. They were constantly seeking ways and
means to share with me whatever they had, and
from these simple souls I learned something
about unselfishness, and thoughtfulness, and re-
spect for another's feelings^ — qualities that are
not too common in the outer world where men
are more or less free to practice them without
being watched by brutal guards with clubs in
their hands eager to proclaim their authority
with the might of the bludgeon.

We sat side by side and ate the same wretched
food together, and after our evening meal in the
general mess we spent fourteen consecutive hours
together locked in a steel cage. I found my cell-
mates to be just as humane as any men I had
ever met in the outer world.

I have heard people refer to the *^ convict coun-
tenance". I never saw one. The rarest of hu-
man beings, the most cultured and refined
amongst us might in time become brutal by the
blighting and brutalizing influence of the prison



STUDIES BEHIND PEISON WALLS 221

if they should permit themselves to yield their
spirit to the degrading and debasing atmosphere
that permeates every penitentiary in the land.

By far the most of my fellow prisoners were
poor and uneducated men who never had a decent
chance in life to cultivate the higher arts of hu-
manity, but never in all the time I spent among
those more than 2,000 convicts did one of them
give me an unkind word.

There is infinite power in human kindness.
Every one of those convicts without a single ex-
ception responded in kindness to the touch of
kindness. I made it my especial duty to seek
out those who were regarded as the worst speci-
mens, but I never found one who failed to treat
me as decently as I treated him. My code of
conduct toward my fellow prisoners had the same
efficacy in prison that it had elsewhere. In deal-
ing with human beings I know no race, no color
and no creed. At the roots I think we are all
alike, governed by similar impulses that have
more or less the same results, depending upon
the circumstances in which we find ourselves
placed, and considering the conditions that at-
tend us. I judge not and I try to treat others
as I would be treated by them.

But in prison the human element is sadly dis-
counted and men are made by cruel and senseless
rules to fit into the criminal conceptions of them
which prevail under the prison regime.

The prison, above all others, should be the most



222 WALLS AND BARS

human of institutions. A great majority of the
inmates are there because of their poverty and
the direct or indirect results of poverty. Their
misfortune in life is penalized and they are
branded as convicts for the rest of their lives.

If an intelligent study could be made of each
individual case in a federal or state prison and
the result truthfully placed before the people the
nation would be horrified at the cruel injustice
which would be revealed. Most of the victims of
prison injustice are without friends of influence
to intercede in their behalf, and society in the
aggregate has no concern in them whatsoever.

The average prison is in the control of poli-
ticians who know little and care less about what
takes place behind the walls. Prison officials are
placed in responsible positions to reward them
for their political services and not with reference
to either their character or qualifications for the
office.

The warden and deputy warden of a prison
should have exceptional qualities to fit them for
the discharge of their important duties, and they
should be among the most humane of men.

One of the first things I discovered in Atlanta
prison was the wretched food provided for the
prisoners and the disgusting manner in which it
was cooked and served. The menu was confined
to a few poor articles which palled upon the ap-
petite and was the source of universal daily com-
plaint and dissatisfaction.



STUDIES BEHIND PRISON WALLS 223

Soon after I entered prison tlie question oc-
curred to me : why are men who work here not paid
for their labor? They are here mider punish-
ment for having stolen perhaps a few dollars and
promptly upon their incarceration the government
or the state jDroceeds to rob them of their daily
earnings, compelling them to work day after day
without a cent of compensation. The service
which the state exacts from a convict should be
paid for at the prevailing rate of wages to be
placed to his credit on the books, or shared with
his family, so that on leaving the prison he would
not have to face a hostile world in a shoddy suit
of clothes and $5.00 in his pocket as his sole capi-
tal with which to start life anew.

The clubs and guns in the hands of guards
present a picture well calculated to reveal the
true character of the prison as a humanizing and
redeeming institution.

As a matter of fact, the prison is simply a re-
flex of the sins which society commits against
itself. The most thorough study of prison in-
mates that I was able to make in the course of
my intimate daily and nightly contact with thou-
sands of them convinced me beyond all question
that they are in all essential respects the same
as the average run of people in the outer world.
I was unable to discover the criminal type or the
criminal element of which I had heard and read
so much before I had the opportunity to make
my own investigation. That there are moral and



/I



224 WALLS AND BARS

mental defectives in prison is of course admitted,
but the number is not greater, nor are the cases
more pronounced, than may be found outside of
prison walls.

However, in dealing with these imprisoned and
helpless beings in the prevailing prison spirit and
under the omnipresent iron clad regulations, they
must necessarily be regarded as a dangerous and
vicious aggregation in order to justify the brutal
and corrupt system which, under the pretense of
reformation, preys upon their misfortune. There
are many flagrant abuses and evils in the present
prison regime and these have their source and
incentive primarily in being in the control of
politicians who wax fat out of the misery of con-
victs by delivering them, in many states, to heart-
less contractors who in turn sweat and rob them,
not only of their labor but of their health and
very lives. The prison labor contractor is the
most merciless of slave-drivers.

I have seen enough of this shocking cruelty to
forever damn the institution in which such an
outrage upon unfortunates is practiced. In the
matter of convict labor the state virtually sells
its outcast citizens into abject slavery so that
thieving contractors, the pals of politicians who
control the prison, may fatten upon the pro-
ceeds of their crimes against so-called criminals.

Are the vultures who thus prey upon the help-
less, robed as they are in the soft raiment of re-
spectability, not actually lower morally than the



STUDIES BEHIND PEISON WALLS 225

victims of their inliumanity and piracy? And if
men should be sent to prison for robbery, are
not these official mercenaries the very creatures
who, instead of controlling the prison, should
themselves be imder its own brutal regulations?

That the vicious and corrupting abuses herein
set forth were recognized years ago by men who
honestly attempted to correct them is clearly
stated in a report to the New York State Legis-
lature issued more than half a century ago by
Professor E. C. Wines and Professor Theodore
W. Dwight, then Commissioners of the Prison As-
sociation of New York, from which I quote as
follows :

^^Upon the whole it is our settled conviction
that the contract system of convict labor, added
to the St/stem of political appointments, which
necessarily involves a low grade of official quali-
fication and constant changes in the prison staff,
renders nugatory, to a great extent, the whole
theory of our penitentiary system. Inspection
may correct isolated abuses; philanthropy may
relieve isolated cases of distress; and religion
may effect isolated moral cures; but genuine,
radical, comprehensive, systematic improvement
is impossible.^' (Italics are mine).

As long as the prison is in control of politicians
and under the supervision of their creatures, its
callous indifference to the inmates, its internal
vices and abuses, and its external reaction in fur-
nishing society with a steady stream of criminals



226 WATJiS AND BARS

trained in its own institution will continue, and
isolated instances of superficial improvement will
not materially reduce the evil and corrupting
power.

I am not at all inclined to exploit my personal
prison experience and should prefer to omit that
element entirely, were it not necessary to the pur-
pose of this article to include some reference to
it. It is to be doubted if there was ever before in


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14

Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 12 of 14)