Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

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could be multiplied by the hundreds. I would
not give the impression that I was the sole bene-
ficiary of these loving acts, for I have seen pris-
oners manifest the same regard toward each
other, in spite of the harsh rules and regulations
that seem to be calculated to crush magnanimity;
wherever it lifts its benevolent hand.

Just beyond the prison cells lies the campus
along the walls of which guards in uniform pass
back and forth swinging their Winchester rifles
as if they were going out to shoot squirrels. The
sight shocked me through and through with its
horrid significance as a symbol of man's inhu-
manity under the prison regime. For paltry pay
these guards contract to send a bullet through
the heart of some hapless wretch who might have


dreamed of liberty, and attempted to escape the
tortures of a prison hell.

I had been in prison about a week when I first
met Warden Zerbst, who sent for me and whom
I met in his private office. He received me kindly
and referred to the letter regarding me which
he received from Warden Terrell at Monndsville.
We had a frank conversation about the prison
and my relation to it as an inmate.

I told Mr. Zerbst that the prison as an institu-
tion and I were deadly enemies, but that within
the walls I should observe the rules and get along
without trouble. I gave him to understand that
I neither desired, expected, nor would I accept
any privileges or favors that were denied to other
prisoners. All I asked was that I be treated the
same as the rest, neither better nor worse. The
warden assured me that on that basis I should
have no cause for complaint.

So far as I personally am concerned I have no
complaint now to lodge against Warden Zerbst,
his successor, J. E. Dyche, or Mr. Terrell at
Moundsville, all of whom treated me fairly and

One day a prisoner found pasted on the wall of
his cell a quatrain, anonymously written, which
he copied and gave to me. I put it in here not
only as indicating the poetry that is often dis-
covered in the hearts of some prisoners, but as
a passionate appeal which all of them make for


those opportunities in society whicli are so often
ruthlessly denied them:

**0h, oft the sky's most glorious blue
Smiles through the captive's cell,

For he alone of heaven can think
Who dreams through nights of hell."


Shaeing the Lot of ^*Les Miseeables*'.

In the preceding chapter reference was made to
my cell and cell mates. To be more specific, I
was lodged in Cell No. 4, Range No. 7, Cellhouse
B. In this limited space I soon began to feel
that we had to set up a little world of onr own.

Cut off almost completely from the outside
world and from all former activities, the prob-
lem of what it was possible to do that would be
helpful or of some service to my fellow prisoners
as well as myself arose, and I found myself oc-
cupied in making a daily program and endeavor-
ing to carry it out. I missed greatly the papers,
magazines and other literature I had been re-
ceiving and reading. All this was completely ex-
cluded by order, I was told, of the Department
of Justice. This order was not revoked until a
few days before I left the prison. The issue was
raised at that time with the department at Wash-
ington by some of the more influential publica-
tions which had been excluded, and whose pub-
lishers demanded to know upon what authority
papers that were received and transmitted
through the mails were intercepted and prevented
from reaching their destination.

Not a socialist or radical paper, or magazine,


or book addressed to rne was allowed to reach me
until the revocation of the order that came near
the expiration of my term. These papers, when
they arrived at the prison, were torn up and
thrown into the wastebasket. Parts of them were
sometimes x^icked out and pieced together by
some prisoner employed in the office when they
contained something that he thought might
especially interest me, and he would hand these
scraps to me in the stockade.

For reasons not necessary to explain the prison
authorities took every precaution to have social-
ist and radical literature excluded from the pris-
on, and in this they were no more successful than
in keeping out ^'dope'' and other contraband

As my cell became my world, and I understood
its limitations, it began to expand and I so
adapted myself to my prison situation that the
steel bars and gray walls melted away. I set
myself at liberty in a way to demonstrate, to my-
self at least, the triumph of the spirit over the
material environment under any possible cir-
cumstances. During the day I was at my work
in the clothing room where I came into intimate
contact with a number of young prisoners, some
of whom were having their first taste of prison
life, and with whose co-operation the simple
duties exacted from me were performed in a
spirit of mutual sympathy which afforded me,
as I believe it did them, great satisfaction.


Just after being assigned to the clotMng room
I had my first brush with prison guards. Here
let it be said that some of the guards are decent
and humane fellows who treat the prisoners with
all the consideration the rules will allow, but there
are others who are scarcely a degree above the
brute and wholly unfit to have authority over
helpless prisoners.

There was one in particular whose duty it was
to escort the prisoners to the stockade. He was
ashamed of his club and refused to carry it. I
never once saw him with a club in his hands. The
hundreds of men he had in charge held him in
high esteem and they were the most perfectly
behaved body of men in the prison.

The incident which I am about to relate oc-
curred in front of the building in which I was
employed. The isolation building to which pris-
oners under punishment are committed was near
by. The rules forbade any communication with
them by sign or otherwise. All of the prisoners
in isolation were interested in me and would
watch for me to pass their grated windows. One
day one of them called me by name and waved
his hand in friendly recognition. I waved my
hand in return.

There and then I had committed a grave of-
fence against the prison code and was myself due
for a course of bread and water diet in isolation.
A guard rushed at me like an infuriated bull, up-
braiding me and taking my number. I calmly


told him to report me as he had threatened to do,
saymg that if I had violated a rule I was pre-
pared to take the consequences the same as any
other prisoner. The report of the incident rap-
idly spread among the other prisoners and great
excitement prevailed for a time.

Would they put me in the ^^hole"? That ques-
tion was repeated on every tongue. I neither
knew, nor did I care. I wanted what came to all
the rest of the prisoners under the same circum-
stances, whatever that might be. The guard re-
ported me to the deputy warden, and the latter
to the warden, as I was told, but nothing came of
it. It was my first reported infraction, and the
reader may judge as to the gravity of the offence.

Mealtime always presented a lively scene in
the general mess. Twenty minutes were allowed
at table and conversation was permitted during
the period. Breakfast, dinner and supper were
served at about 7, 12 and 5 o'clock respectively.
After supper we marched to our cells and there we
remained until the breakfast hour the following
morning. Fourteen consecutive hours every day
in the week to be locked in a cage with five other
men is a long and monotonous siege, as any pris-
oner will testify.

At Moundsville the prisoners were given an
hour of recreation in the yard after their supper
before being committed to their cells.

On one of his regular trips of inspection of
Atlanta Penitentiary Denver S. Dickerson,


former superintendent of federal prisons, came
to see me after he had concluded his business
with the prison, and in our interview I asked
him why the same arrangement could not be
made there that they had at Moundsville. I
pointed out what a benefit it would be to the pris-
oners and what a good moral effect it would have
upon them, especially during the sweltering days
of the long southern summer.

He agreed to see what could be done about it
when he returned to Washington. To my great
satisfaction the order was issued and became
effective with the beginning of summer and re-
mained so during the entire season. Each even-
ing all save those in solitary confinement were
given the freedom of the ball grounds where
prisoners may spend Saturday and Sunday after-
noons, and holidays. For some reason the con-
cession was allowed only that one season. I was
told it was not renewed because of the incon-
venience occasioned to the guards by having to
do extra duty during that interval.

The evening hours spent in the cell were de-
voted mainly to reading and conversation. Every
conceivable subject was brought under discus-
sion, and I was benefited as well as surprised by
the wide range of worldly knowledge possessed
by my fellow prisoners. One of them had
travelled extensively in Europe, as well as in
this country, and had an unending fund of in-
formation and experience to relate. Each of the


others had his own stories to tell, and here it
may be said that every man in prison embraces
in his person a volume of biography in which the
tragedy of life is written in agony and tears. In
the humblest among them there is in his life's
story and his failure to overcome the odds
against him a dramatic element that makes him
a study well worth while to any one who loves
his fellow man and wonders why he happened
to be marked by the fates to have his life — the
most precious thing of all he possesses — ^wasted
in a prison den.

The cell in which I had settled assumed the
institutional form of a perfect little democracy.
We had all things in common — or would have
had if we had had the things. This reminds me
of a little anecdote related by one of the convicts.

Two tramps who had spent the night together
in a box-car were wondering how and where they
were to get their breakfast.

'*What will we have to eat this morning' '?
asked the first one, whose sense of humor had
not deserted him.

**WelP', replied the second one, '*if we had
ham we would have ham and eggs, if we had the

But speaking seriously, I was never more free
in my life, so far as my spirit was concerned,
than I was in that prison cell. There was never
a harsh or an unkind word spoken in that little
community. When the lights were switched off


at ten o'clock, and we had to retire whether we
felt like sleeping or not, we bade each other good
night just as though we had been intimates all
of our lives.

The incentive to greed which dominates in the
other world was lacking there, and human na-
ture, unalloyed, had a chance to express itself,
and it did so in a spirit of mutual kindness and
understanding which greatly impressed me and
which I shall never forget.

These men were convicted felons, outcasts from
society, pariahs, and yet in their ministrations
to me and to each other in their unselfish desire
to give rather than receive, and in their eagerness
to serve rather than be served, they set an ex-
ample that might well be followed by some peo-
ple who never saw the inside of prison walls.

In our cell in the great Federal Penitentiary
from which the world was shut out we were alike
branded as criminal convicts, but in the little
community tliat we had set up in that cell there
was not the slightest trace of a criminal, and the
brotherly relation to each other, and the condi-
tion from which it sprang precluded the possi-
bility of crime or criminal intent from entering
that voluntary prison brotherhood.

The prison food was the one great unending
source of complaint. The same is time to a great-
er or lesser extent of every jail and prison in the
land. There was no lack of food at Atlanta so
far as quantity was concerned. The bread was
the one item about which no reasonable complaint


could be made ; as for the rest, it was the cheap-
est and stalest conglomeration of stuff that the
market afforded. Coupled with this was the fact
that the food was never properly cooked, but
steamed and stewed. Even had it been of better
quality when it left the market-place, it would
have been rendered unedible by the steaming
process. This ill-cooked stuff was served in a
manner to cause revulsion to all alike, and that
item in the prison life aroused more ill-feeling
and resentment than all other causes combined.

No satisfactory system of feeding prisoners,
free from graft, peculation and other corrupt
practices known to prison institutions has ever
yet been devised so far as I know. The usually
accepted theory is that anything is good enough
for jailbirds and convicts. That inhuman attitude
which is part and parcel of the prison discipline is
shared by society, any of whose members may
at any time become convicts either for breaking
the law or for upholding the law in time of public
excitement as well as in popular tranquility.
Whatever modification there may have been in
the barbarous punitive theory in relation to
offenders against society that system is still
stoutly upheld and vindicated in the wretched
menu and table service of every prison in the land.

It is extremely difficult to say whether men
who go to prison are ruined more quickly physic-
ally by the rotten food served to them, or morally
and spiritually by the harsh and bitter treat-


ment they receive. "WTiichever method of degra-
dation comes first in the inevitable prison proc-
ess of human deterioration, it can be said with-
out fear of contradiction that they are twin evils
in reducing men to caricatures.

To feed prisoners decently and wholesomely,
not extravagantly, but in a clean, plain and sub-
stantial manner to conserve their health instead
of undermining and destroying it, would do more
to humanize the prison and to make it reforma-
tory, rather than a deformatory, than any other
one thing that could be suggested in the prevail-
ing social system. But as to the necessity of the
prison at all I shall have something to say in a
later chapter.

Such a system, however, will never be estab-
lished until direct and effective measures have
been taken to eliminate the graft of one kind
and another in the contracts under which the
food is furnished, and in the handling of the food
inside the walls from the time it is delivered un-
til it is served to the convicts.

As a single typical instance I may relate the
following incident:

It was commonly understood that there was a
regularly organized traffic carried on in the pris-
on kitchen at Atlanta in which the choicest foods
were privately sold and disposed of under the
government's roof. Two of my cell-mates had
told me that they knew of two employes in the
kitchen who had bought their jobs at a hundred


dollars each. In their positions they were able
to realize handsomely from the foodstuffs that
passed through their hands by selling it to fa-
vored prisoners in exchange for tobacco, which,
in prison, is equivalent to legal tender in the
outer world, and for cash when they could strike
a bargain either inside or outside, which was fre-
quently the case.

Eealizing that the general run of the prisoners
Avere the victims of this arrangement, and that
they were not getting the food the government
was paying for, I reported the matter to Super-
intendent Dickerson on his next visit and had
him confronted with the men who made the
charge; those men came before Mr. Dickerson
and named the purchasers and the sums they had
paid for their kitchen jobs.

Mr. Dickerson made notes of the evidence and
said the matter would be investigated. On his
leaving the city the two men who gave the testi-
mony and exposed the corrupt practice were re-
duced to menial positions, and thus were made
to pay the penalty for exposing one of the vicious
abuses that obtain within prison walls.

The stockade at the Atlanta prison in which
prisoners enjoyed their brief season of com-
parative freedom afforded excellent opportunity
for the study of human nature as it is influenced
by prison life. Each day, when the weather per-
mits, the prisoners, save those in isolation, are
permitted an hour in the stockade to which they


are escorted in relays by their respective guards.

On Saturday and Sunday afternoons when the
entire body of prisoners were allowed the free-
dom of the ball park, the social life of the prison
found its most interesting expression. AH sorts
and conditions of men mingled freely there — men
charged with every conceivable crime, and gener-
ally regarded as dangerous criminals. Yet, I
never saw a more orderly and well-behaved
crowd of people in the outside world.

When I appeared among them it was a con-
trriuous reception until the bugle called us back
to our cells. Scores of these prisoners had been
waiting during the week for the ojDportunity to
tell me their stories, to examine the papers in
their cases, to read their letters, and to give them
counsel. My time among them was wholly taken
up in this way and often I was unable to give
attention to all who wished to see me.

It was in this way that I came to know inti-
mately the men in prison, the kind of men they
were, how they came to be there, and their re-
action to prison life. It was to me a sympathetic
study of such intense human interest that I say
deliberately that I would not exchange the years
spent in prison for any similar period in my life.

It has been my conviction since having had the
actual experience that only the inmate, the im-
prisoned convict, actually knows the prison and
what it means to him and his kind. Even the
officials in charge and on the grounds, and in


close personal contact with the inmates, do not
know the prison. Indeed, they cannot know it,
for they have never felt its blighting influence,
nor been oppressed by its rigorous discipline;
nor have they suffered the mental and physical
hunger, the isolation, the deprivation and the
cruel and relentless punishment it imposes.

If one could read what the iron fist of the prison
traces in the heart of its inmate, what is regis-
tered there in bitterness and resentment, he
would know more about the prison than he could
ever learn in a life time as a mere observer or
even as an officer in charge.

Many persons visit prisons and imagine after
being conducted through its corridors and over
its grounds that they have learned something
about that mysterious institution; not a few of
them are impressed with the plaza at the front of
the reservation and with other external features
intended to relieve the grimness of the gray walls
and steel bars. They conclude that the state has
provided a comfortable resort and has done
handsomely by the criminals who are confined

As a matter of fact, they have been permitted
to make but a very superficial examination and
have been shown only such parts of the institu-
tion as were most likely to impress them favor-
ably, and to send them forth commenting upon
the humaneness with which the state treats its


Had these visitors and others, who complacent-
ly acx2ept the present prison as the final solution
of the crime problem, been obliged to spend a
month within the walls, submit to the iron dis-
cipline enforced there, eat the nauseating food,
and feel themselves isolated, cramped, watched
day and night, counted at regular intervals, and
dwarfed and dulled by the daily deadly routine,
they would undergo a radical change of opinion
in regard to the lot of men and women who are
caged like animals by human society.


Teansferred From My Cell to the Hospital.

After spending two months in a cell during tlie
blazing hot summer of 1919, and starved rather
than nourished by the food, I was reduced to
almost a skeleton. My normal weight is 185
pounds, but at the time of my transfer to the
hospital I weighed less than 160. Reports as to
my being in a critical condition reached the out-
side world, and the warden received frequent in-
quiries both from the press and my friends con-
cerning my health.

It was at this time that the press in Atlanta
received advices from New York that I had been
reported dead. The warden was besieged with
inquiries by telephone and otherwise. Not con-
tented with his assurance that I was alive, the
press representatives came to the prison and
would not be satisfied until the warden sent for
me to appear before them and contradict the re-
port of my demise. But it must be confessed in
all candor, that in all but the spirit there was
scarcely enough left of me to make a successful

Having heard these alarming reports, my com-
rades in Ohio, from whence I had been sent to
prison, asked Mrs. Marguerite Prevey, who had


been one of the signers of my bond in the federal
court at Cleveland, to come to Atlanta to make
a personal observation of me. Mrs. Prevey ap-
peared to be greatly shocked when she saw me
and noted the change that my physical condition
had undergone in prison. After my interview
with her, unbeknown to me, she saw the warden,
and as the result of her talk with him I was or-
dered transferred to the hospital that same

Upon being advised of the order I protested
and endeavored to see the warden to have it re-
voked, but he had already left for his home. The
recollection of my former reception at the hos-
pital when I went there for examination on being
admitted to the prison lingered to remind me
that I was not welcome there.

That evening in the hospital I had a brusque
interchange with Mr. John C. Weaver, the prison
physician, who, I felt had not a sympathetic feel-
ing for me. But subsequently we came to a mu-
tual understanding and were on most agreeable
terms all the time I was there. The following
morning Dr. Weaver explained in a friendly way
that I had been ordered to the hospital where I
might have the care and attention that he said
my condition required, and that I would soon
realize the change was to my advantage. Dr.
Edgar S. Bullis, who at that time was the as-
sistant physician, had said, in answer to an in-
quiry, '^Debs may die any minute '\ This re-


port reached the Department of Justice at Wash-
ington and a telegraphic order was issued by
Attorney General Palmer for a special exami-
nation and for an immediate report of my con-

My heart action was weak on account of the
low state of my vitality, and this was the ex-
citing cause of the alarming statements that
eminated from the prison. Just what kind of an
official report was issued in my case the rules
did not permit me to know, but I could not help
wondering why on two separate occasions special
information as to the state of my health was
ordered from Washington, knowing that, save in
a single instance which is too well known to merit
mention here, no prisoner had ever been released
from Atlanta on account of his physical condi-
tion, or because of the probability of his dying
there. Many inmates died in the prison hospital
while I was there. Some of the cases were too
pathetic for words. Mothers, fathers, wives and
children often entreated in tears that their be-
loved might be returned to them and allowed to die
at home rather than in prison with its attendant
disgrace to the bereaved ones. But all in vain !

I recall a number of particularly tragic and
heartbreaking instances. There is space to relate
but one of them.

A fellow prisoner of exceptionally fine fibre,
with whom I became quite intimate, was taken
seriously ill and brought to the hospital. He was


a man of refined nature who loved music, litera-
ture, children and pets. We had spent some very
agreeable hours together. This was his first
offence against the law, and he became a convict
as the result of an unfortunate business trans-
action, his lawyers having completed his ruin.
No man could possibly have been more out of

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 4 of 14)