Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

Walls and bars online

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dollars that are sometimes necessary to keep him
out of jail. That boy may, by such initiation into
the ways of law and justice, be started upon a


career of reprisal for Trhicli society may pay
dearly, perhaps with life itself in the end.

Every community should have at least as much
interest in the condition and management of its
jail as it pretends to have in its schoolhouse, and
as it certainly has in its center of amusement and

The jail, after all, indifferent or scornful as
we may be to the fact, is not only an integral part
of the social fabric, but is a darkened room sepa-
rated only by a shallow door from the rest of the
apartments in the community house. If pesti-
lence prevails there, if moral miasma issues forth
from that cesspool the community is to just that
extent contaminated and imperilled.

The abuses of the prison system, and the
crimes against criminals in the perverted name of
law and order, are as constantly visited upon the
community responsible for them as a devastating
plague follows in the wake of disease and death-
dealing germs.

Every community should look into its jail, find
out who is there and why, how the prisoners are
fed, and if they are held for purposes of graft
that finds its way into the pockets of the petty
politicians, the chief of whom, in this case is the
sheriff of the county. The community should in-
sist that the men held in its jail be either tried
or released, for every hour that a man is held in
jail he is a liability, not an asset, to the commun-
ity which pays the tax that is levied against it to


feed and shelter its erring members. From the
purely selfish, monetary standpoint, if not from
the broader social questions raised, society at
large, and each component part of society, should
be concerned in this problem.

From the standpoint of the erring boy, the
young man, and the first offender the prison
problem is not the last rung of the social ladder
that he must mount, but the first one. Shall he
be branded with the flaming torch that writes in
scarlet letters the word ^^Convicf across his
brow, and condemned to a fugitive existence for
the remainder of his days because he chanced to
be unfortunate either through the manner of
birth, or through circumstances that he could not
control, or because of direful conditions with
which he could not cope with his poor physicial
or material equipment? For good or for bad, is
he not an inevitable product of the social system?
And should he be doomed at the first crossroad
in his young life because society had failed to
prepare for him a kindlier reception at his birth,
and ignored him thereafter, except as it might
exploit whatever brawn or cunning that he pos-

Youthful and first offenders are also the legiti-
mate prey of unscrupulous lawyers, the hangers-
on of police courts, who seek to extract every dol-
lar the accused can beg or borrow, and who all
the while know that the track is clear between his
so-called client and the penitentiary. Time with-


out number this type of lawyer keeps the prisoner
in a county jail under the pretext given to the
court that he is not ready for trial, that there is
more evidence to be obtained for his client, when
as a matter of fact the mercenary lawyer in his
craven heart knows he is seeking, not for evi-
dence with which to liberate the defenceless vic-
tim but to extract the last possible penny from
the man in jail before he is railroaded beyond his
reach to the penitentiary. I have known of help-
less prisoners to be pursued by avaricious lawj^ers
after they had begun to serve their sentences, and
the simple-hearted victims would often write to
their destitute families asking them to send their
last dollars to attorneys in exchange for a gilded
lie which the simple prisoners made themselves
believe was a fresh promise of liberty.

Let us now deal with the first offender who,
after interminable delays, is convicted and his
money gone. He has been pilloried, put on exhi-
bition in the courtroom before the gaze of the
curious, his plight ridiculed in the press. He
feels himself an outcast, friendless, and indeed
he is. The judge pronounces the victim's doom
from an elevated throne and passes on to the
next case. Persons accused of crime lose their
identity as human beings and become ^^ cases'',
just as workingmen are only ** hands" to some
employers. The sentence of the law is executed
with all the solemnity and ceremony of a funeral,
and the culprit, with head bowed either from


grief or rage, is led from the courtroom between
two feelingless factotums to begin his punish-
men — justice is served, society is avenged, and all
is well once more. But is it? Not so fast!

The victim has already suffered every torment
and feels the keenest sense of shame and humilia-
tion, but this does not count in the matter of
atonement. He goes back to jail until the sheriff
can arrange to take him to the *^pen'\

The fateful day arrives! He is manacled,
sometimes hand and foot, and put on a train
where everyone learns he is a convict and se-
cretly mocks him.

He is delivered, signed for, sheds his name and
receives a number. He is no longer a man but a
thing. He has ceased to be a human being. He
is stripped naked under the clubs of guards who
hurl insults and epithets at him about his body.
He is put into a cheap prison garb that in itself
proclaims the status to which he has been re-
duced. He is examined in a rude and perfunctory
way by the physician's assistant who himself
may be a convict. He is made to sign a document
stating where his body is to be shipped in case of
death. He is handled as if he were a bag of malt
as he goes through the Bertillon system. Note
is taken and a record made of every mark upon
his body. All his personal effects are taken from
him. These are supposed to be shipped back to
his home, if he has one, and if he has money to
pay the charges. The chances are, however, his


effects will be stolen before they leave the prison,
if they have any value.

In this particular I have had some personal
experience, for when I went to Atlanta Prison
only a part of my effects that should have been
sent to my home arrived there. Whereas I indi^
cated that the traveling bag that I carried there
with me should be left among my personal posses-
sions in the prison, I was given a cardboard to-
mato case when I left as travelling equipment.
Among other things, I especially recall that cuff
and shirt buttons, small trinkets that were given
to me as mementoes by friends, and some shirts
and other articles that were sent to me, were
stolen after I arrived in Atlanta. I am making
no charges, but stating a fact. What happened
in my case happens in all cases in greater or
smaller degree.

But as to the boy ! The letter a week he is per-
mitted to write is censored, and those he receives
are opened and read. Little tokens of sentiment
are extracted and thrown away. Even a lock of
his mother's hair may not reach him.

If he should deign to go to the chapel to pray
and take communion with his soul a guard sits
over him with a club to sweeten his spirit and
temper his piety.

The miserable food he receives starves, rather
than feeds his body. The process in the mess
room is more like slopping hogs than feeding
humans, with the difference that hogs fatten


while humans starve. Here is where he makes
his first acquaintance with stale old beef hearts
and livers, and the classic brand of hash known
in prison parlance as ^* concrete balls '\ The
gravy is loud enough to talk and the oleo strong
enough to walk. Bugs and worms figure pro-
verbially in the prison menu.

The youth is beginning to realize the deadening
monotony of prison life. His spirit is crushed.
His sensibilities have become numb. His eyes do
not see beyond the height of the gray prison
walls upon which armed guards idle away the
hours by watching eagerly for an opportunity to
* Ving^' a fleeing jailbird.

He is put to work under the domination of the
man with the club. He is watched and reported
by the stool-pigeon who is himself a convict who
has wormed into the graces of the officials and
guards by spying upon his fellow prisoners.
Every prison is a whispering gallery. Whatever
is said is sure to reach the office promptly. No
criticism is tolerated, and no complaint may get
beyond the walls.

A prisoner cannot know the time of day, for
there are no clocks in prison, the purpose being
to cut the convict off as completely as possible
from the outside world in which he had his being.
The youth is thrown among all sorts and condi-
tions of old and hardened convicts, and he soon
acquires a new vocabulary peculiar to prison life.
The foulest language flowers in the poisoned at-


mosphere of the prison pen. There he is
schooled in the science of burglary taught by old
professors in the art, and he learns at first hand
from professional adepts all about every form of
vice and crime known to man.

Here, also, where his sex instincts are sup-
pressed, he is schooled in nameless forms of per-
version of body, mind and soul that cause human
beings to sink to abysmal depths of depravity
which the lower animals do not know. These per-
versions wreck the lives of countless thousands
and send their wretched victims to premature and
dishonored graves.

This is but one of the horrors of our modem
civilization and the prison is its native breeding


I Become U. S. Convict No. 9653.

Warden Joseph Z. Terrell, of the West Vir-
ginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville, a former
railroad station agent, had but recently been put
in charge of the prison when I began to serve
my ten-year sentence there on April 13, 1919. He
treated me with perfect fairness, and I got along
quite well and without the slightest trouble dur-
ing the time I was in prison there.

On June 13, just two months after my sentence
commenced, Mr. Terrell reluctantly informed me
that I had been ordered transferred to Atlanta.
The order came just in time to enable me to pack
my belongings and get ready for the train that
was to carry me to my southern destination.

Strict secrecy was enjoined by the government
as to my removal, and especially as to the train
upon which I was to take my departure. I have
since been informed that before I left Mounds-
ville the government officials commanded the two
telegraph offices in Wheeling to accept no mes-
sages from reporters or other persons about my
leaving West Virginia prison until the next morn-
ing. In spite of this attempt to effect profound
secrecy as to my movements, a leak occurred
somehow, for I was interviewed by a reporter


the same day at Cincinnati en route to the south.

It appears that I was too near the coal fields in
West Virginia, in which 1 had previously spent
considerable time organizing the miners who were
greatly agitated over my imprisonment. At one
mass meeting at Charleston, which was attended
by several thousand miners and other citizens,
resolutions were passed threatening a march on
Moundsville if I was not released.

Warden Terrell gave me a friendly introduc-
tion to U. S. Marshal Smith, who with his three
deputies, took me in charge on arrival at Wheel-
ing, whither the warden and his son had taken me
in their automobile. The marshal and his depu-
ties treated me with all consideration over the en-
tire journey. The marshal bore a letter from
Warden Terrell to Warden Fred. G. Zerbst at
Atlanta, commending me on the basis of my
prison record.

Shortly after the noon hour on the following
day, June 14, we arrived in Atlanta. The marshal
called for a taxicab.

** Where do you want to go?'' asked the chauf-

*^Take us to your best penitentiary, ' ' replied
the marshal. Less than half an hour later we
were landed at the gates of my new home, and
I was delivered, signed for, and the marshal and
his deputies took their departure, wishing me a
pleasant stay.

In the massive main corridor in which I found


myself I had my first view and received my first
impression of the sinister institution, known as
the U. S. Penitentiary at Atlanta. It seemed to
me like a vast sepulchre in which the living dead
had been sequestered by society. Through the
steel gate at the end of the corridor I could see
human forms hurrying back and forth under the
watchful eyes of guards with clubs, and they ap-
peared to me with all the uncanniness of spectral
shapes in the infernal regions. I was perfectly
calm and self-possessed for I had made up my
mind from the beginning that whatever my prison
experience might be I should face it without fear
or regret.

Such serenity is always vouchsafed by the
psychology of the man who follows the dictates of
his own conscience and is true to his own soul.
I could not help feeling aware of the curiosity
which my presence aroused among the convicts
and some of the officials. A few of the latter, I
observed, smothered whatever interest, hostile or
kindly, they may have felt over my presence by
a Sphinx-like sullenness which I readily compre-

There seems to be a studied mental attitude
on the part of most prison officials I have met,
particularly the guards, that has for its purpose
to impress upon the prisoner that the official is
wholly disinterested in the human equation, in the
natural impulses that make us what we are. He
strives to appear as unhuman as possible^^ and


this psychological sub-normality on his part
comes to fruitage in what is often his inhuman
conduct toward the prisoner. So far as the pris-
oners were concerned, I felt their kindly interest
expressed in their furtive glances toward me, and
their good will was apparent on every hand.

The guard in charge conducted me to a shower
bath where I divested myself of my clothing.
Every article, including a quill toothpick, was
taken from me and my garments were minutely
searched. The guard, I wish to admit, treated
me quite decently, although I confess that but
for my having steeled myself against whatever
might be in the program I should have felt out-
raged by the harsh and unfeeling method with
which the thing was done.

The introduction a prisoner receives and the
way be is put through the initial stages of his
sentence are not calculated to impress him with
the fact that a prison is a human institution. The
rigorous treatment he receives will not convince
him that he had been placed there to redeem him
from his transgressions and reclaim him as a
human being. On the contrary, the process em-
bitters him against all who had any part in his
plight, estranges him from whatever kindly in-
fluences that may still be operating in his behalf,
and alienates him from society which, in the first
and final analysis, is responsible for him, and,
perhaps in the end must answer to him.

After the bath I was clothed in cheap faded


blue denim which had been discarded by some
prisoner who had gone out into the world. In
company with several others who, also, had just
arrived, I was escorted to the kitchen where our
first meal was served, the dinner hour in the gen-
eral mess having passed. Save for the bread, I
could not say what the meal consisted of as I
could not make it out, nor did I attempt any in-
ternal analysis of the menu. The food and the
manner in which it was served created nausea
rather than an appetite. While we sat at the
table a bulky guard stood over us swinging his
club and delivering himself in a gruff voice of
certain instructions as to table conduct at the
prison. I suspected that a passage or two in his
culinary flight was made for my benefit, and I
applauded in silence.

A little later the routine led to the hospital,
where I was subjected to a physical examination ;
sundry blanks and reports, descriptive of me and
my physical condition, were filled out for the
prison archives.

The ** mugging gallery*' was next visited and
there two pictures were taken by a convict pho-
tographer — one profile and one full-face — for the
rogue's gallery. Before the camera was snapped
a narrow plate showing my registration number
was put around my neck. I was next assigned to
a temporary cell with one other convict who had
arrived on the same train with me. He was a
young man who had but recently married. He


would serve a year for taking some goods out of
a freight car to piece out Ms wages which were
too small to provide for his family. I had been
shocked when I first saw this young man on the
train, his feet and hands shackled and an expres-
sion of mingled terror and humiliation ui3on his
countenance. The sad picture of that wretched
and dejected youth will forever remain in my
memory. He was assigned to a sewing machine
and he seemed happy when he could renew the
missing buttons on my prison suit.

I was taken in turn to the office of the Protes-
tant and Catholic chaplains who questioned me
about my spiritual beliefs and denominational
affiliation. I gladly affirmed the first in a way
that I fear was not clearly comprehended by
these estimable gentlemen of the cloth, whose in-
tentions, I am sure, were the best; as regards the
second inquiry, I had to disappoint both of my
interrogators for in my mind true and sincere
spirituality carries with it no theological or de-
nominational partisanship.

On this point I should like to digress a mo-
ment to say that when I went to Atlanta prison
attendance at the chapel services was compulsory.
Guards with clubs in their hands and scowls on
their faces were stationed inside of this sanctu-
ary where pious appeals were made to the pris-
oners to emulate Jesus and follow His teachings.
The setting and the appeal were most incongru-
ous to say the least, and my refusal to attend such


a ghastly travesty upon religious worship was
later followed by an order that made chapel at-
tendance optional with the prisoners. But the
guards with clubs were not displaced and for that
reason, if for no other, I did not attend.

The day following the inquisition in the office
of the chaplains a number of us new arrivals — a
dozen in all — ^black and white, stood around the
desk of the deputy warden. It was a motley crew
rather than a picturesque audience. I was in the
midst of what are called the lowest types of crim-
inals flanked by Negro murderers, and yet, I
never felt myself more perfectly at one with my
fellow beings. We were all on a dead level there
and I felt my heart beat in unison with the heart-
beats of those brothers of mine whose hunted
looks and wretched appearance were proof
enough to me that they had been denied a decent
chance in the outer world ; I felt that I, who had
fared so infinitely better, was bound to love and
serve them as best I could within the prison walls
in which we were alike victims.

One of the Negroes in that little coterie said to
another of his race a few days later in referring
to me:

**I would stay here for life to see that man go
out." He meant it. There was to me a whole
beautiful Christly sermon in those few words
for that poor unlettered black brother.

Seated at his desk the deputy warden delivered
an odd admixture of instructions, orders and


warnings. It was his official duty to relieve him-
self of the same homily on arrival of all incoming
prisoners. We were given to understand that
^*the goblins would get us if we didn't watch

The deputy, who was a rigid orthodox Calvin-
ist, had previously officiated as foreman of a
chain gang in Fulton County, Georgia. In the
lecture which he delivered to us he bore especially
on the penalty that would be imposed for the use
of foul language. He repeated some of the
frightful words in common use in the vocabulary
of convicts, and he threatened dire punishment to
any who might repeat them. It is a fact, how-
ever, notwithstanding his rigorous discipline and
his solemn threats and warnings, that foul lan-
guage continued to flow. Its usage is fostered,
not repressed, by club rule and black-hole tor-

I would be laying no flattering unction upon
myself if I should say that merely by speaking
kindly with my fellow prisoners, treating them
as equals, making them feel as I felt that their
interest was mine and mine was theirs, the use
of foul language declined to such a happy degree
in the prison that it was a matter of comment
among the prisoners and officials. I remember
especially one convict who had been in Atlanta
many years and was destined to spend his re-
maining ones within those gray walls. This man
had been cruelly treated all his life by guards.


He had known no law that was not enforced with
the club. He had been brutalized, and whatever
human impulses to do good he might have felt
were crushed by those who held him captive.

This man used foul language the same as the
rest. I understood the reason for it, and my
sympathy went out to him. I put my arm across
his shoulder and told him that if he must use that
kind of language to please not employ it in my
presence, not because it hurt me, I said, but be-
cause it hurt him.

*^I hate to think of you,'* I said to him, ** using
that fine body of yours as a sewer from which
to emit such filthy words. '^ He perceived me,
and soon this man's vocabulary was free from
foulness except when he saw a stool-pigeon whom
he loathed and abominated.

The deputy warden, upon hearing that this
man had almost cleansed his vocabulary, sent for
him one day and asked him how he had succeed-
ed in doing it

^* Mister Debs jest asked me to,'* he replied
simply. **He is the only Christ I know anything
about, 'cause I see how he lives and feels about
these things. There is as much difference be-
tween Mister Debs and the rest of the people in
this place as there is between mud and ice-
cream." I know that my black brother greatly
exaggerated my little part in his partial refor-
mation. The good was in him, and I had merely
brought it to his attention.


On leaving the deputy warden's office my fel-
low prisoners and I were returned to onr tem-
porary cells, and the following day we were as-
signed to onr respective duties. I was given a
clerical position in the clothiag room where the
outfiitting of the prisoners takes place, and
where, also, prison supplies are stored and fur-
nished to the several departments.

My duties were very simple and entirely agree-
able as prison service. The official in charge
treated me well and all the prisoners employed
in that department vied with each other in help-
ing me to get along. After the day's work we
were allowed half an hour for exercise in the
stockade before supper, for which twenty min-
utes was allowed. I was not eager about meal-
time. I was in Atlanta prison nearly two weeks /
and pretty well starved before nature forced me
to become receptive to the food and the manner 1
in which it was served.

After a few days in a temporary cell I was
assigned to my regular cage which was occupied
by five other men, one of whom was a German,
one a Jew, one an Irishman and two Americans.
Being the latest arrival I should have occupied
an upper bunk, but the German, who had the
lower, insisted on taking the upper and giving
me his own sleeping slab. He also insisted on
making my bed, as I had some difficulty in making
it up so it would pass inspection. He continued
this kindness all the time I occupied that cell.


He likewise did my laundering of the smaller
items of apparel that had to be done in our cells.

This German was sentenced for five years be-
cause some liquor had been found in the lodging
house of which he was tlie proprietor and at
which soldiers were quartered during the war.
This is one of the many savage sentences that
was brought to my personal attention, and which
excited my indignation and revolt. I never knew
a finer man, and I could not have been treated
more kindly and considerately had these five con-
victs been my own brothers. Upon the German's
release from prison be sent me a beautiful pipe,
and he has been writing to me ever since.

Incidents of human kindness in this prison also

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 3 of 14)