Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

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time. I was given a cell occupied by five other
men. It was infested with vermin, and sewer
rats scurried back and forth over the floors of
that human cesspool in such numbers that it was
almost impossible for me to place my feet on
the stone floor. Those rats were nearly as big
as cats, and vicious. I recall a deputy jailer
passing one day with a fox-terrier. I asked him
to please leave his dog in my cell for a little
while so that the rat population might thereby be
reduced. He agreed, and the dog was locked up
with us, but not for long, for when two or three
sewer rats appeared the terrier let out such an
appealing howl that the jailer came and saved
him from being devoured.

I recall seeing my fellow inmates of Cook
County Jail stripping themselves to their waists
to scratch the bites inflicted by all manner of
nameless vermin, and when they were through
the blood would trickle down their bare bodies in
tiny red rivulets. Such was the torture suffered
by these men who as yet had been convicted of no
crime, but who were awaiting trial. I was given


a cell that a guard took the pains to tell me had
been occupied by Prendergast, who assassinated
Mayor Carter H. Harrison. He showed me the
bloody rope with which Prendergast had been
hanged and intimated with apparent glee spark-
ling in his eyes that the same fate awaited me.
His intimation was perhaps predicated upon what
he read in the newspapers of that period, for my
associates and I were accused of every conceiv-
able crime in connection with that historic strike.
I was shown the cells that had been occupied by
the Chicago anarchists who were hanged, and was
told that the gallows awaited the man in this
countiy who strove to better the living conditions
of his fellowmen.

Such was my introduction to prison life. I
can never forget the sobbing and screaming that
I heard, while in Cook County Jail, from the
fifty or more women prisoners who were there.
From that moment I felt my kinship with every
human being in prison, and I made a solemn res-
olution with myself that if ever the time came
and I could be of any assistance to those nn-
fortunate souls, I would embrace the opportunity
with every ounce of my strength. I felt myself
on the same human level with those Chicago
prisoners. I was not one whit better than they.
I felt that they had done the best they could with
their physical and mental equipment to improve
their sad lot in life, just as I had employed my
physical and mental equipment in the service

0^ THE


of those about me, to whom I was responsible,
whose lot I shared, — and the energy expended had
landed us both in jail. There we were on a level
with each other.

With my associate officers of the American
Eailway Union I was transferred to the McHenry
County Jail, Woodstock, Illinois, where I served
a six months' sentence in 1895 for contempt of
court in connection with the federal proceedings
that grew out of the Pullman strike in 1894. My as-
sociates served three months, but my time was
doubled because the federal judges considered
me a dangerous man and a menace to society.
In the years that intervened some national at-
tention was paid to me because I happened to
have been named a presidential candidate in sev-
eral successive camiDaigns.

But there was no real rejoicing from the in-
fluential and powerful side of our national life
until June, 1918, when I was arrested by Depart-
ment of Justice agents in Cleveland for a speech
that I had delivered in Canton, Ohio. I was taken
to the Cuyahoga County Jail, and when the in-
mates heard that I was in prison with them there
was a mild to-do about it, and they congratulated
me through their cells. A deputy observed the
fraternity that had sprung up, and I was re-
moved to a more remote comer. Just after I re-
tired that Sunday midnight I heard a voice call-
ing my name through a small aperture and in-
quiring if I were asleep. I replied no.


**Well, you've been nominated for Congress
from the Fifth District in Indiana. Good luck
to you!'^ he said.

When a jury in the federal court in Cleveland
found me guilty of violating the Espionage Law,
through a speech delivered in Canton on June
16, 1918, Judge Westenhaver sentenced me to
serve ten years in the West Virginia State Pen-
itentiary, at Moundsville. This prison had en-
tered into an agreement with the government to
receive and hold federal prisoners for the sum
of forty cents per day per prisoner. On June 2,
1919, the State Board of Control wrote a letter
to the Federal Superintendent of Prisons com-
plaining that my presence had cost the state $500
a month for extra guards and requested that the
government send more federal prisoners to
Moundsville to meet this expense. The govern-
ment could not see its way clear to do this, since
it was claimed there was plenty of room at At-
lanta, and if, as the State Board of Control
averred, I was a liability rather than an asset
to the State, the government would transfer me
to its own federal prison at Atlanta, which it did
on June 13, 1919, exactly two months after the
date on which I began to serve my ten years im-
prisonment — a sentence which was communted
by President Warren G. Harding on Christmas
day, 1922.

I was aware of a marvelous change that came
over me during and immediately after my first


incarceration. Before that time I had looked
upon prisons and prisoners as a rather sad affair,
;biit a condition that somehow could not be rem-
edied. It was not until I was a prisoner myself
that I realized, and fully comprehended, the prison
problem and the responsibility that, in the last
analysis, falls directly upon society itself.

The prison problem is directly co-related with
poverty, and poverty as we see it today is es-
sentially a social disease. It is a cancerous
growth in a vulnerable spot of the social system.
There should be no poverty among hard-working
people. Those who produce should have, but we
know that those who produce the most — that is,
those who work hardest, and at the most difficult
and most menial tasks, have the least. But of
this I shall have more to say. After all, the
purpose of these chapters is to set forth the
prison problem as one of the most vital concerns
of present day society. A prison is an institution
to which any of us may go at any time. Some of
us go to prison for breaking the law, and some of
US for upholding and abiding by the Constitution
to which the law is supposed to adhere. Some
go to prison for killing their fellowmen, and
others for believing that murder is a violation of
one of the Commandments. Some go to prison
for stealing, and others for believing that a better
system can be provided and maintained than one
that makes it necessary for a man to steal in order
to live.


The prison has always been a part of human
society. It has always been deemed an essential
factor in organized society. The prison has its
place and its purpose in every civilized nation.
It is only in uncivilized places that you will not
find the prison. Man is the only animal that
constructs a cage for his neighbor and puts him
in it. To punish by imprisonment, involving
torture in every conceivable form, is a most
tragic phase in the annals of mankind. The
ancient idea was that the more cruel the punish-
ment the more certain the reformation. This
idea, fortunately, has to a great extent receded
into the limbo of savagery whence it sprang. We
now know that brutality iDegets brutality, and we
know that through the centuries there has been
a steady modification of discipline and method in
the treatment of prisoners. I will concede that
the prison today is not nearly as barbarous as
it was in the past, but there is yet room for vast
improvement, and it is for the purpose of causing
to be corrected some of the crying evils that
obtain in present day prisons and making pos-
sible such changes in our penal system as will
mitigate the unnecessary suffering of the help-
less and unfortunate inmates that I set myself
the task of writing these articles before I turn my
attention to anything else.

It has been demonstrated beyond cavil that the
more favorable prison conditions are to the in-
mates, the better is the result for society. We


should bear in mind that few men go to prison
for life, and the force that swept them into prison
sweeps them out again, and they must go back
into the social stream and fight for a living. I
have heard people refer to the ^* criminal coun-
tenance ' '. I never saw one. Any man or woman
looks like a criminal behind bars. Criminality is
often a state of mind created by circumstances
or conditions which a person has no power to
control or direct; he may be swamped by over-
whelming influences that promise but one avenue
to peace of mind; in sheer desperation the dis-
tressed victim may choose the one way, only to
find he has broken the law — and at the end of
the tape loom the turrets of the prison. Once a
convict always a convict. That is one brand that
is never outworn by time.

How many people in your community would be
out of prison if they would frankly confess their
sins against society and the law were enforced
against them"?

How many lash and accuse themselves of
nameless and unnumbered crimes for which there
is no punishment save the torment visited upon
the individual conscience! Yet, they who so ac-
cuse themselves, assuming there exist reasons to
warrant accusation, would never admit to them-
selves the possession of a criminal countenance.
In Atlanta Prison I made it a point to seek out
those men that were called '^bad''. I found the
men, but I did not find them bad. They responded


to kindness with, the simplicity of a child. In no
other institution on the face of the earth are men
so sensitive as those who are caged in prison. They
are ofttimes terror-stricken; they do not see the
years ahead which may be full of promise, they
see only the walls and the steel bars that separate
them from their loved ones. I never saw those
bars nor the walls in the nearly three years that
I spent in Atlanta. I was never conscious of
being a prisoner. If I had had that consciousness
it would have been tantamount to an admission
of guilt, which I never attached to myself.

It was because I was oblivious of the prison as
a thing that held my body under restraint that I
was able to let my spirit soar and commune with
the friends of freedom everywhere. The in-
trinsic me was never in prison. No matter what
might have happened to me I would still have
been at large in the spirit. Many years ago,
when I made my choice of what life had to offer,
I realized, saw plainly, that the route I had
chosen would be shadowed somewhere by the steel
bars of a prison gate. I accepted it, and under-
stood it perfectly. I consider that the years I
spent in prison were necessary to complete my
particular education for the part that I am per-
mitted to play in human affairs. I would cer-
tainly not exchange that experience, if I could,
to be President of the United States, although
some people indulge the erroneous belief that I


have coveted that office in several political cam-

The time will come when the prison as we now
know it will disappear, and the hospital and
asylums and farm will take its place. In that
day we shall have succeeded in taking the jail out
of man as well as taking man out of jail.

Think of sending a man out from prison and
into the world with a shoddy suit of clothes that
is recognized by every detective as a prison gar-
ment, a pair of paper shoes, a hat that will
shrink to half its size when it rains, a railroad
ticket, a ^ve dollar bill and seven cents car-
fare ! Bear in mind that the railroad ticket does
not necessarily take a man back into the bosom
of his family, but to the place where he was con-
victed of crime. In other words a prisoner, after
he has served his sentence, goes back to the scene
of his crime. Society's resiDonsibility ends there
— so it thinks. But does it? I say not. With the
prison system what it is, with my knowledge of
what it does to men after they get into prison,
and with the contempt with which society regards
them after they come out, the wonder is not that
we have periodical crime waves in times of
economic and industrial depression, but the won-
der is that the social system is not constantly in
convulsions as a result of the desperate deeds of
the thousands of men and women who pour in
and pour out of our jails and prisons in never
ending streams of human misery and suffering.


But society lias managed to protect itself
against the revenge of tlie prisoner by dehuman-
izing him while he is in prison. The process is
slow, by degrees, like polluted water trickling
from the slimy mouth of a corroded and en-
crusted spout — but it is a sure process. When a
man has remained in prison over a certain length
of time his spirit is doomed. He is stripped of
his manhood. He is fearful and afraid. Pie has
not been redeemed. He has been crucified. He
has not reformed. He has become a roving ani-
mal casting about for prey, and too weak to seize
it. He is often too weak to live even by the law
of the fang and the claw. He is not acceptable
even in the jungle of human life, for the denizens
of the wilderness demand strength and braverj^
as the price and tax of admission.

Withal, a prison is a most optimistic institu-
tion. Every man somehow believes that he can
**beaf his sentence. He relies always upon the
*' technical poinf which he thinks has been over-
looked by his lawyers. He sometimes imagines
that fond friends are busily working in his be-
half on the outside. But in a little while the
bubble breaks, disillusion appears, the letters
from home become fewer and fewer, and the pris-
oner in tears of desperation resigns himself to
his lot. Society has won in him an abiding
enemy. If, perchance, he is not wholly broken
by the wrecking process by the time his sentence


is served, he may seek to strike back. In either
case society has lost. ^""^

I do not know how many prisoners came to me
with their letters soaked in tears. They sought
my advice. They believed I could help them over
the rough edges. I could do nothing but listen
and offer them my kindness and counsel. They
would stop me in the corridors, and on my way
to the mess room and say: ^'Mr. Debs, I want to
get a minute with you to tell you about my case".
Or, ''Mr. Debs, will you read this letter from my
wife; she says she can't stand the gaff any long-
er '\ Or, "Mr. Debs, my daughter has gone on
the town; what in God's name can you do about
it?" What could I do about it? I could only
pray with all my heart for strength to contribute
toward the re-arrangement of human affairs so
that this needless suffering might be abolished.
Two or three concrete cases will suffice as ex-
amples of the suffering that I saw.

Jenkins, but that is not his name, was a rail-
road man. Aged, 35. Married and six children;
the oldest a daughter, aged 16 years. His wages
were too small to support his family in decency.
He broke into a freight car in interstate com-
merce. Sentenced to five years in Atlanta. He
received a letter a little while before his term
expired telling him that his daughter had been
seduced and was in the **red light" district.
This man came to me with his tears and swore he
would spend the rest of his life tracking down


the man wlio ruined his daughter, and, upon
finding him, he would kill him. For days I sought
that man out and talked with him, and persuaded
him against his rash program. His wife stopped
writing to him. She had found an easier, but a
sadder, way of solving her economic problems.
His home was completely broken up by the time
he got out of prison.

Another prisoner who had been a small trades-
man, married and the father of eight children,
also broke into a freight car. It was his first
offence. He got five years. He showed me a
letter from his wife saying there was no food in
the house and no shoes for the children. The
landlord had threatened them with eviction.
That man was thirsting for revenge. Society
had robbed his family of the breadwinner. The
mother had too many children to leave them and
work herself. If society deprives a family of
their provider should it not provide for the
family? It would have been more humane to
have sent the whole family to prison.

Another young man, aged 25, showed me a let-
ter from his wife. He was married a little while
before he was convicted. His wife was pregnant
and was living with the prisoner's invalid mother.
She had written to him saying that unless she got
relief from somewhere both herself and his
mother had made up their minds to commit sui-
cide. They were destitute. They had been re-


fused further credit. They could endure the mis-
ery no longer.

Many men attempt suicide in prison. One
of the most damaging influences in prison life is
the long sentence. It produces a reaction in the
heart and mind of the man who receives it that
defeats its intended purpose.

Every prison of which I have any knowledge
is a breeding place for evil, an incubator for
crime. This is especially true about the influence
of the prison upon the youth and young man.
Of him I shall write in my next article.


The Pkison as an Incubatob of Crime.

The boy who is arrested for the first time
charged with an offence against the law, con-
stitutes one of the most vital and portentous
phases of the prison problem. He may be entire-
ly innocent, but this does not save him from go-
ing to jail and have a jail record fastened upon
him as an unending stigma.

If he happens to be a poor boy, as is most fre-
quently the case, he may be kept in jail, and
often is, for an indefinite period, notwithstanding
the constitutional guarantees of a speedy trial.
Very often this delay occurs through the manipu-
lation of the sheriff who derives a revenue from
feeding prisoners and keeping them in the county
jail. Thus, the sheriff's income is enlarged. It
is a notorious fact that prisoners by hundreds
all over the country are kept in jails, and their
trials are delayed or postponed because the
sheriff and others derive a direct income thereby
under a contract with the county for feeding

The scandalous effects of this pernicious ar-
rangement are apparent in the miserable food
given to prisoners in the average county jail;
helpless and untried boys and young men, pes-


sibly innocent, are kept in jail to their physical
and moral undoing.

Just here it may be pertinent to observe that
the average county jail is an absolutely unfit
place in which to lodge any human being, how-
ever low his social status may be. As these lines
are written, this charge is confirmed in the report
of a state commission condemning the jails of
Indiana as unsanitary, foul and disease-breeding,
wholly unfit for human occupation. But if every
state in the union were to appoint a commission
to investigate its jails and prisons the conclusion
would be the same as that reached by the Indiana

We must bear in mind that the boy or young
man who is put in the toils is usually poor, and
his friends are without any considerable influ-
ence in the community. It may be that his par-
ents have had to devote every minute of their
time to the proposition of making an uncertain
living; the boy and his brothers and sisters, if
he has any, are neglected ; they do not receive the
proper attention in the home that is the right of
every growing child. Their education is often
neglected for the sufficient reason that their la-
bor power, such as it is, is required to help main-
tain what passes for a home, but which is often
a shack, a lair, a place in which mother and
father and their brood come to lay their tired and
weary bodies after the day's work is done. Such
an atmosphere is not conducive to the sweeter


amenities of life, but begets a sad, sordid and
drab existence, out of which all hope, some day,
to climb.

If the boy be a spirited lad he will rebel
against the conditions that obtain at home, the
significance of which he does not in the least per-
ceive. If, in this trying period of his young man-,
hood, he had at least someone who would extend
the helping hand, speak the kindly word, and give
the encouraging embrace, the boy might respond
to these beneficent influences and direct his steps
into avenues of useful citizenship. But up to
this moment society has not been collectively in-
terested in alleviating the conditions that make
for the so-called criminal. Society does appear
to be highly indignant when the boy or young man
rebels and strikes back in the only way that he
knows how to strike — in the way that he has been
taught by the social conditions in which he lives.
The policeman, the sheriff and the judge do pos-
sess intelligence enough to see the fact, but what
they do not see is the impulse in the boy to live,
which is before the fact, and the consequence of
their own blindness which comes in due time after
the fact.

I do not know if I should go to the length of
saying with the poet that **no hell is so black as
the court that sentences man to it", but I have no
hesitancy in declaring that no social system is so
stupid as the one that sows the seeds of vice and
crime and later becomes purple with indignation


and horror when the crop is ripe for picking.

As ye sow, so shall ye reap I

It may be unfortunate and a bit disconcerting
that the inexorable law of compensation must
forever operate in the affairs of society, for if it
could be repealed, or even suspended for a time,
mankind might be spared the unpleasantness of
gazing upon some of the human manifestations
that are wrought, willy-nilly, against the inten-
tions of most of us, who have, I take it, a more or
less generous regard for our fellow man.

Holding men in jail week after week, monthi
after month, as is commonly the case, is not only
one of the inexcusable vices of the present system
of administering the law, but is directly respon-
sible for debauching the manhood of the victims
especially the young and those of maturer age
who have committed their first offence.

If, finally, upon trial, persons so held are found
to be innocent of the charges against them, or if
the cases are dismissed for want of evidence upon
which to convict them, or other reasons, an irre-
parable injury has been done them by society,
not only in point of moral contamination, but in
branding them as jail birds, the record of which
is ineffaceable and might as well be stamped
upon their foreheads. That record will follow
them through every avenue and lane of life and
will serve to convict them in advance of any
charge that any malevolent person might subse-
quently bring against them.


The most vicious phase of all in this connection
is the fact that if the victim is finally convicted
after lying and festering in jail for three months,
six months, or even a year or more, the time thus
served is not allowed to count in his prison sen-
tence, which has to be served in full in addition
to the time spent in the county jail.

In the light of these flagrant abuses of our
helpless fellow beings, what else can the prison
be considered than a breeder of vice, immorality
and disease, and condemned as an incubator for
crime ?

Think of a boy 13, or 14 years of age, perhaps
wrongly accused, in such a place ; among the con-
firmed and hardened criminals of all types, learn-
ing their language, and absorbing their moral
perversions, and witnessing their spiritual decay !

How does such a boy feel, and what must be his
reaction to such a rude shock to his young life!
I am sure I know, for I have been with him. I
have seen his fear-stricken countenance, felt his
trembling hand in mine, and heard his troubled

Society, and those who function for it in the
name of the law should pause long and consider
well before putting the boy in jail for the first
time, — especially the boy who has not the few

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 2 of 14)