Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

Walls and bars online

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prison history a case parallel to my own in point
of experience and results issuing therefrom.

I had been four times the candidate for Presi-
dent of the United States of the party represent-
ing the class toiling in penury and suffering from
whose ranks are recruited, under the lash of
poverty and misery, with but few exceptions, the
victims of penal misrule. Since my early boy-
hood, and practically through my entire life, I
had been in intimate association with working
people and those who are generally regarded as
the ** lower class''. My understanding of their
conditions, my perception of the basic social
causes that had preceded their predicament, and
my sympathy with them even in their transgres-
sions, which is usually the result of their
wretched lot, had preceded my entrance through
the prison gates.

The entire prison seemed to join in the sym-
pathetic reception accorded me. The question
was frequently asked, sometimes sneeringly by
the guards, and sometimes in a spirit of wonder


and admiration, by what magic I held the interest
of my fellow prisoners and won their affection
and devotion. The answer is a quite simple one.
I recognized in each of them my brother and
treated him accordingly. I did not moralize or
patronize my fellow convicts in the least. Men
who are caged and watched, spied npon and
hunted like animals develop certain latent in-
stincts that become amazingly keen and discern-
ing. Among these is the instinct to divine what
is in the heart of those who approach them.
They have been robbed of their respectability and
forever denied the chance to regain it, and, sen-
sitive as they surely are to this circumstance,
they are not apt to be impressed by those who
pose before them as their moral superiors.

They recognize no redeeming influence in
moralizing rebuke. They resent being patron-
ized, even the most ignorant of them, unless in
the prison atmosphere they have degenerated
into stool pigeons. No one who condescends to
serve these prisoners can win their graces or
exercise any salutary influence upon them. They
hunger for sympathy, but it must be genuine,
human, warm from the heart.

The late Father Michael J. Byrne, of the fed-
eral prison at Atlanta, was in all respects the
finest prison chaplain I have ever known. I had
no church affiliation, and for reasons of my own
I rarely attended devotional exercises at the
chapel, but I loved Father Byrne and we would


talk together many hours in my little room in
the prison hospital.

Devotional offerings in the name of the merci-
ful Jesus, who loved the poor and freely forgave
their sins, on an altar presided over by grim
visaged guards with clubs in their clutches ready
to fell the worshippers was not compatible with
my sense of religious worship. Before I entered
Atlanta prison attendance at chapel was com-
pulsory. Almost from the start I declined to
go myself, partly because of the hideous mock-
ery which the scene and setting made of sincere
worship, and I think that as a result of my reso-
lute protest the rule was modified and attendance
became voluntary, but the guards with clubs in
their fists remained.

Father Byrne ministered in the spirit of lov-
ing service to all alike, no matter how low some
might seem in the eyes of others, and that is why
he and I instantly became friends and co-oper^
ated with each other to the full extent that my
restrictions as a convict would allow. It may
seem strange, but it is nevertheless true, that
not only do the prison rules not counternance in-
mates being kind and helpful to each other, but
on the contrary, they forbid their being so, and
encourage their spying upon, betraying and hat-
ing one another so that all may the more readily
be kept in subjection.

In the prison hospital an inmate may be dying,
but the rules forbid him being visited by his fel-


low prisoners ; each convict must keep to himself
no matter how great may be his desire to clasp
the hand of a fellow prisoner whose affection he
may have won in the course of their suffering
and struggling together against the cruel and
senseless regulations. This is one of the prison
rules that I confess violating with impunity. I
should have preferred going to the dungeon,
known in prison jDarlance as *'the hole", on
bread and water, rather than to have obeyed that
rule. As a matter of fact, nearly every prison
rule is violated by eveiy convict who stays any
length of time in prison. If he would remain
a human being he must of necessity break the
rules in order to live. Men cannot, and will not,
be unsocialized even in a prison whose rules at-
tempt to wreck and ruin human character and per-
sonality in the quickest possible time by the
harshest possible methods. But the group
l^sychology prevails, and the rules go by the
board, though often at the expense of great suf-
fering on the part of those who transgress them.
Almost every prisoner who came to the hos-
pital expressed an immediate desire to have me
come and see him. Invariably I did so as soon
as iDOssible. I was able in many ways by vol-
untary ministration to ease their suffering and
brio:hten their wret-ched davs. Father Bvme ob-
served a remarkable change in the moral atmos-
phere of the hospital after I entered there. Men
no longer used foul language or told smutty


stories. The relation between the guards and in-
mates had completely changed. It was as if the
hospital building was now occupied by a har-
monious human family instead of a lot of sullen
and incorrigible convicts.

Both the warden and his deputy commented on
the change which none appreciated more than
Father Byrne.

A visiting reporter once asked Father Byrne
how it was that I held such moral power over
the prisoners. His answer was : * * He just loves
them; he talks to them and then they're differ-
ent. There is something about him that wins
and changes them''. There is nothing mysterious
or occult about the ^^ something" to which Father
Byrne referred. It was merely an active mani-
festation of human kindness which all of us
possess, but which we are prone to smother be-
neath a crust of indifference to the suffering of
our fellow men.

The day before the death of this noble-spirited
chaplain he sent me a beautiful and touching
telegram congratulating me upon my release
from prison. The message read: ^^ Heartiest con-
gratulations and well wishes from your best
friend. God bless you. Michael J. Byrne,
Catholic Chaplain, U. S. Penitentiary." Father
Byrne is at rest. His memory will be cherished
by the thousands of convicts to whom he gave
himself as freely and ministered as lovingly as


the Nazarene Himself might have done in his

Love and service constitute the magical touch-
stone; they are, when fully developed and truly
expressed, one and inseparable, and more im-
peratively needed in prison than in any other
place on earth.

There is where Jesus Christ would be His per-
fect self in tender and sympathetic ministration,
and He would require neither guns nor clubs to
protect His person from insult or assault.

It is when men are most prosperous in their
individual pursuits that they are more apt to be
thoughtless and indifferent to the fate of others,
but when they are plunged into a common abyss
of misery and suffering they are likely to become
sympathetic and responsive to the touch of kind-
ness, and there is more redemptive influence in
a word of love and sympathy than in all the harsh
rules ever devised and all the brutal clubs ever
wielded to enforce them.

There was never a moment of mine in Atlanta
prison that was not mortgaged in advance. Many
of the prisoners could neither read nor write,
and they would come to me to have me read and
answer their letters, or to fill out their blanks
for pardon, parole or commutation, although
much of this had to be done by stealth as it was
in violation of the rules, and was several times
arbitrarily forbidden by the guards, especially
when prisoners were caught leaving my room. I


heard their sad stories, listened in sympathy to
their tragic appeals, placed my hand on their
shoulders and counselled them as an elder
brother, and while I was able to do but a mere
trifle of what my heart would have done for them,
I sensed the appreciation and gratitude that em-
braced the entire body of prisoners of all colors,
creeds and conditions.

The scene that occurred upon my release when
these 2,300 prison victims clothed as convicts,
yet with human hearts throbbing beneath their
tatters, spontaneously burst their bonds, as it
were, rushed to the fore of the prison on all three
of its floors and crowded all the barred window
spaces with their eager faces, cheering while the
tears trickled down their cheeks — this scene can
never be described in words, nor can it ever be
forgotten by those who witnessed that extraor-
dinary and unparalleled demonstration.

In that brief moment prison rules were
stripped of their restraining power, and men
though in prison fetters gave lusty expression to
their beautiful human impulses. It was the most
deeply touching and impressive moment and the
most profoundly dramatic incident of my life.
Men and women on the prison reserv^ation, in-
cluding the officials who bore witness to that un-
usual scene, stood mute in their bewilderment.
Never before had such a thing occurred, and
never in the wildest stretch would it have been
deemed possible.


There was a reason for this unheard of dem-
onstration, and it was not all of a personal na-
ture. I arrogate to myself no importance what-
ever on account of having won the friendship of
these convicts. They did vastly more for me than
I was able to do for them, and the only point I
make in this connection is that if the prison were
conducted in the spirit and with the understand-
ing that we convicts had for each other the whole
penal system would at once be revolutionized;
instead of being a bastile for debasing and de-
stroying the unfortunate it would become in the
true sense a boon to society as a reclamatory and
redemptive institution.

The prison as a prison in the common accept-
ance of that term will always be a tragic failure.
It is not only anti-social, but anti-human, and at
best is bad enough to reflect the ignorance,
stupidity and inhumanity of the society it serves.
But this is not to say that improvement of the
prison while it lasts should be discouraged. On
the contrary, until the time comes when social
offenders are placed under scientific treatment
instead of being punished as criminals, every
effort should be put forth to improve the moral
and physical condition of our county jails, our
state prisons and our federal penitentiaries.

For myself, I heartily commend all that is
being done to arouse the people to a consciousness
of the festering evils which now thrive in these
places. There needs to be created a public senti-


ment that realizes that for its own self -protection
the community must clean up the prison as far as
that may be possible and make it a place where
criminal tendencies may be checked and over-
come instead of being encouraged and confirmed
as they now are to the ruin of their immediate
victims, and their increasing detriment to so-

Space will not permit more than a brief sum-
mary of the fundamental changes required to
humanize the prison.

First of all, it should be taken out of the hands
of politicians and placed under the supervision
and direction of a board of the humanest of men
with vision and understanding. This board
should have absolute control, including the power
of pardon, parole and commutation. Such a
board as this would at all times be in immediate
touch with the prisoners and have intimate
knowledge of prison conditions and possibilities
for improvement.

The contract system, wherever it prevails, is
an unmitigated curse and should be summarily

Prison inmates should be paid for their labor
at the prevailing rate of wages which should be
placed to their credit in the books of the institu-
tion or shared with their families so that when
the convict is released he will not have to return
to a sundered home and face a hostile world.


Not a gun nor a club should be in evidence in-
side the walls.

The prisoners themselves, at least 75 per cent
of whom are dependable, as every honest warden
will admit, should be organized upon the basis
of self-government and have charge of the prison,
select their own subordinate officers, their own
guards, their shop and other foremen; establish
their own rules and regulate their own conduct
under the supervision of the prison board.

Under such an organization the morale of the
prison would at once improve, the spirit of the
prison would be humanized, there would be bet-
ter discipline, more incentive to work, and better
results in every way, and all at a greatly reduced
expense to the community.

There will be men to challenge these proposals
as visionary, if not vicious, but I would prefer
nothing more than the opportunity to vindicate
my faith in human nature by being permitted,
without any pecuniary compensation, to make
such a demonstration,


Wasting Life.

(Reproduced from the World Forum for Au-
gust, 1922, by Courtesy of Its Publishers.)
If there is any surer way, any more effective
method of wrecking manhood and wasting human
life than our present penal system affords, the
Satanic thing has not come to my attention.

Six months have passed since I left that dismal
cemetery of the living dead, the United States
Penitentiary at Atlanta, and yet I see as vividly
and appealingly as they appeared the day of my
departure, the pallid faces of my fellow-prisoners
pressed wistfully against the steel-barred win-
dows of those gloomy catacombs.

The weary tramp of that mournful procession
of convicts marching silently, solemnly, inter-
minably, back and forth, back and forth, still
echoes dolefully in my ears and I shall hear, like
muffled drumbeats, the shuffling footfalls of that
spectral prison host to the last hours of my life.
What deliberate destruction, what senseless
sacrifice, what tragic and appalling waste of hu-
man life!

If life, human life, is the most precious thing
in the world, then the punitive prison pen is the
most wicked thing in the world, for it blasts and


ruins, pollutes and destroys the lives that are
committed to its pestilential moral and physical

I have seen boys in their teens confirmed per-
verts and degenerates after a few weeks in one
of those penal incubators of depravity and crime.

And I have concluded in the light of my per-
sonal observation of what the penitentiary does
to the young that I would rather plead guilty to
murder than to putting a boy in a penitentiary
for some trifling offence and branding him a con-
vict for life.

As a rule only the poor go to prison. The
rich control the courts and the poor populate the

Morgan and Rockefeller are strictly law-abid-
ing. The hundreds of millions produced by
others flow into their coffers through legal chan-
nels. They would scorn to steal. They want
only what is coming to them and they and their
retainers and mercenaries see that they get it
and that it keeps coming. As good Christians
these eminent gentlemen believe the jail the
proper place for the wretch who steals rather
than starve at honest work or hunting a job.

The wholesale robber acts safely within the
law of his own making; the legalized looter is
eminently respectable, but the petty larceny thief
is a despised criminal and is properly sent to jail.

During the late war the government of the
United States was robbed openly, brazenly of


billions of dollars by the patriotic profiteers and
contractors who precipitated the war for the loot
it would yield them, but no one in his right mind
expects one of them to be sent to the penitentiary.

The combined stealings and robberies of all
the thieves, burglars, safe-blowers and highway-
men in the penitentiary at Atlanta would be but
a trifle compared to the loot of a single profiteer
and this explains why the former are convicted
felons and the latter eminent patriots and

There is a strong incentive to steal in a system
in which the great fortunes are uniformly
achieved through monopolized privilege and
legalized spoliation while the hardest kind of use-
ful work yields but a wretched subsistence.

In this system almost anything pays better
than honest work and useful service, and what
more natural than that men should seek the
** easier way'' to get a living? And what more
inevitable than that the deluded victims should
land in a ghastly prison-house, caged like ani-
mals, for the ** protection of society*'?

If there is any one thing settled beyond ques-
tion in criminology it is that the criminal, so-
called, is the product of society, and in caging
him like a beast, society in its blindness and
brutality but bruises the body and scars the soul
of its ill-fated offspring in punishment for its
own sins.

In the nearly four years I spent among them


as a fellow-convict I came to know the inmates of
prisons intimately enough to believe in them as
human beings; to be convinced that as a whole
they are far more sinned against than sinning,
and to be willing to cast my lot with them as
against the social cruelty and misunderstanding
of which they are the victims.

The following pregnant paragraph quoted from
Lascussagne denotes keen insight and scientific
understanding, and challenges serious considera-

^'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.

This means that society will have its criminals
to deal with, and that the evil will become more
and more costly and menacing, until society
ceases producing criminals.

The staggering cost and the appalling menace
to society from that source were set forth in
startling terms in a treatise on '^Crimes and
Criminals'' published by Dr. Lydston twelve
years ago. The following summary is taken from
a magazine review of that work by Charles Ers-
kine Scott Wood :

'* Probably the most astonishing conclusion
reached in the study of this book is that society
must alter its cold and brutal indifference to


crime and criminals or it will be devoured by
criminals just as the invisible germ of consump-
tion devours the strong body. It is not so much
a matter of humanity and sentiment as it is one of
self-preservation. Dr. Lydston shows that
though the population of the United States in-
creased only 170 per cent from 1850 to 1890,
crime increased 450 per cent. After making al-
lowance for the tendency of legislatures to de-
clare more and more crimes there still remains a
vast increase of crime out of proportion to in-
creased population. Professor Charles J. Bush-
nell of Washington, D. C, says it is slowly driv-
ing us toward bankruptcy, and calculates that the
United States is spending as a people Six Billions
a Year in its wrestle with crime. Professor
Lydston puts it at only five billions. But
billions on the machinery to cope with crime is
enough to make even the thoughtless think. Pro-
fessor Lydston admits, too, that the sum spent
in private detective and other unrecorded chan-
nels probably greatly swells the total. We are
crazy to spend billions on armies and navies — •
to encourage ourselves into war — ^but we give no
heed to the mortal disease in our midst. In war,
not criminals are killed off, but the flower of the
young men, leaving the degenerates in greater
proportion than ever".

This showing from an authoritative source
leaves no room for doubt that our method or lack
of method in dealing with crime and criminals is
not only an unmitigated failure but is itself a
crime that indicts our social system and im-


peaches our civilization. And this is especially
true of the penitentiary in which society avenges
itself on its helpless victims by branding them as
convicts, ofttimes for trivial offences, shutting
them out from the world, locking them up in steel
cages at the mercy of brutal keepers with clubs
and guns to insult and intimidate them, to break
their spirit, and destroy their manhood and self-

At least seventy-five per cent of the inmates
of every prison are not criminals but have sim-
ply been unfortunate, and every decent warden
will admit that they would at once retrieve them-
selves if given their liberty and a fair chance to
make good in the world. But instead they are
held in deadening captivity year after year, cut
off from family and friends, branded and ostra-
cised, compelled to subsist upon wretched if not
rotten food, their natural instincts repressed,
their pride insulted, and outraged until they are
diseased, perverted, crazed, wrecked in body and
mind, and to what purpose that does not mock
and blaspheme the Author of their being?

I have made the statement and I repeat it here
that if every jail, every prison, every penitentiary
in the land had its doors flung wide open and
every inmate were given his liberty the harm that
would result to society would be vastly less than
the harm society now suffers in wasting the lives
of hundreds of thousands of unfortunate souls,
breaking up their homes, wrecking their families,


and launching upon itself the avenging crime
waves which threaten it with destruction.

It is a pity indeed that the judge who puts a
man in the penitentiary does not know what a
penitentiary is. No one knows or can know but
the inmate. See his crushed spirit, look into his
troubled heart, if you can, and you may have some
conception of what a penitentiary is, for there is
where it leaves its deadly and everlasting mark.

Some of the finest men I ever met are behind
the bars of the Moundsville prison and the At-
lanta penitentiary as convicted felons. The story
of each would make a volume of tragedy. The
fates conspired to place them where they are.
They are anything but criminals. I would rather
be in their rough prison shoes than in the polished
foot gear of the judges who sent them there.

In the years I spent in prison I associated
freely with all the inmates without regard to
color or condition. I made it a point to seek out
the ones known as the worst among them, and
never in a single instance in all that time was I
given the least offence or did I hear an unkind
word from their lips. I looked upon them all as
my brothers and fellow men and treated them ac-
cordingly, and they uniformly treated me in the
same way. The poorest among them were happy
to have me share whatever scanty favor was per-
mitted to come to them from the outside. I
never saw men more sympathetic and consid-
erate, and I know that many of them would have


had their own sentences extended to see me givea
my liberty. Most of them, poor and hard-work-
ing, had been treated harshly all their days and
were strangers to kindness and to the touch of a
friendly hand. How quickly they responded to
the first word of greeting, how readily they un-
derstood, and how gladly they returned kindness
for kindness!

All these men want on earth, the great ma-
jority of them, is a decent chance to make their
way in the world. And that is precisely what
they are denied under the present savage system,
the punitive spirit of which still lurks in the dark
ages and disgraces our vaunted civilization.

This vast army of our fellow-beings, given
their liberty, a fair opportunity and the right
kind of encouragement, would at once retrieve
their standing, walk the streets good citizens, do
their share of useful work, support their families
and educate their children, but this will never be
until the people are awakened to the economic
cause of the prison problem and to the stupendous
waste of human life inherent in their blind and
stupid attempt at reformation.

The entire prison regime is rank with its own
innate putrescence. Graft permeates every pore
of the system and the greasy palm of ** political

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 13 of 14)