Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

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place in the role of a convict than this gentle
soul. He was eligible for parole, but it was de-
nied him.

I should like to observe here that in the mat-
ter of parole the granting of some seems as
strange as the refusal of others to those who do
not know the hidden hands that pull the wires
behind the scenes. Money and political in-
fluence are frequently determining factors in
such issues.

This aflSicted prisoner made a special appeal
to the superintendent of prisons that the parole,
to which he was eligible, might be granted so
as to enable him to undergo a very necessary
operation at a hospital in New York, his home.
His request was denied.

At this time the superintendent of prisoners
was a minister of the gospel.

The wife of the prisoner went to Washington
and made a tearful plea to the Department of
Justice, but to no avail. Resigned to his fate,
the prisoner submitted to an operation in the
prison hospital in a most downcast frame of mind
and spirit.


Before going under the surgeon's knife he
asked me to write a telegram to his wife, reas-
suring her as to the operation being successful
and giving promise of speedy recovery. I wrote
the telegram and it was sent in accordance with
his wishes. The next morning I tip-toed into his
room and found him ghastly pale, scarcely
breathing, and unable to speak. In calling on
him I had violated a prison rule which forbids
a prisoner going into the room of another con-
vict. My instinct of common humanity compelled
me to persistently violate tliis senseless rule all
the time I was there. That evening my friend
was dead. The report came to me as a painful
shock, though it did not surprise me. It would
have required a contented, peaceful state of mind
for a man to have undergone such an operation
successfully outside of prison. In this man's de-
pressed condition the surgeon's knife only sealed
the doom that was already upon him.

His wife and children, a beautiful family, were
heart-broken. The tragic scene that was enacted
behind those grim, gray walls when the wife
came to claim the body of the beloved husband
and father cannot be described here. It was but
one of the many unspeakably moving incidents of
prison barbarity.

In many cases there are no loved ones to gent-
ly bear the convict's body back to the homestead
and the remains are unceremoniously carted to
the weed-grown prison burial ground to vanish


in that forsaken enclosure from tlie scenes of men
and there foil ignominy and disgrace by rotting
away in oblivion.

A prison hospital appeals not only to sympa-
thetic study by its many pathetic aspects, but it
excites all the emotions of the soul of a sensitive
human nature. I still feel the stab of pain I ex-
perienced on bidding my last farewell to my
mates, one in an adjoining room, his loyal wife
sitting by his side and the eyes of both filled with
tears; another close by suffering from locomotor
ataxia ; another with an arm gone and still another
paralyzed — and so on, in all the rooms and wards
surrounding me. Such suffering, misery, help-
lessness and despair ! "What pen or tongue could
do it justice? The wails of agony, the groans of
despair echoing through those sepulchral cor-
ridors the long, interminable nights through! I
can still hear them and they awaken me from my

Not only are these suffering wretches con-
victs, but they are the diseased and maimed in-
mates of a hospital within the prison. These in-
describably hapless victims are imprisoned in a
double sense. I have seen men die in there under
circumstances that would move a heart of stone
and bring tears to the eyes of those not easily
moved by another's woe.

One of the most harrowing aspects of the
prison hospital is the drug addict whom I learned
to know there in a way to compel the most vivid


and shocking remembrance of him to the last of
my days. It is incredible that a human being
mentally and physically afflicted should be con-
signed by a so-called court of justice in a civil-
ized and Christian nation to a penitentiary as a
felon, there to expiate his weakness; and yet,
hundreds of these unfortunates were sent to At-
lanta prison while I was there, and ofttimes I had
to bear witness to the horror of their torture
when they were summarily separated from the
drug they craved.

I have seen these addicts seized with the mad-
ness and convulsions peculiar to their condition,
and which are terrible even in memory. As many
as a score and more of these drug victims were
brought to the hospital at once, and the first few
days of some of them were filled with all the
ghastly and gruesome writhings, shrieks and en-
treaties, and all the hideous torments ever con-
jured up in the infernal regions.

One young man, who occupied the room next
to mine shortly after I entered the hospital, in-
voluntarily compelled me to share his agony and
torture. For the first week or more he could
not eat a morsel of food, nor be at rest a mo-
ment. His eyes rolled in their sockets, he raved
like a madman, tore his hair, swore and prayed
by turns, begged to be saved one moment and
pleading for death the next — all this excruciating
agony for just one **shot of the dope'' for which
he would have bartered his soul to the devil.


This lad was under what is called the **cold tur-
key treatment, the drug being entirely cut off
in accordance with the rules of the prison. The
pity I felt for him and for others in a more
or less similar condition made me ill. Night after
night there was no sleep because of the suffering
and outcries of these wretched creatures.

Blame them as one may, how is it possible in
good conscience to punish them for their awful
affliction with a prison sentence as if they were
common felons. They are sick people who re-
quire special treatment, and not vicious ones to
be sent to the torture chamber of a prison, and it
is nothing less than a reproach to society and a
disgrace to our civilization that this malady is
branded as a crime instead of being ministered
to as an affliction, which it most assuredly is.

It would be quite as rational and humane to
send men to the penitentiary and make them slaves
of the galleys because they happened to have
cancer or consumption as it is to sentence and
treat them as criminals for being addicted to the
use of drugs.

In the light of such crude and barbarous mis-
apprehension of the evil itself, and the utterly
stupid and unscientific way of dealing with it,
we may well stand appalled as we contemplate
the startling and menacing increase in the num-
ber of **dope fiends '* all over the United States.

Very shortly after I entered the hospital a
brutal and bloody assault was made by a hospital


guard on passing a prisoner who was not an in-
mate of the hospital. The attack was utterly
without provocation. This guard, for reasons of
his own, appeared to be especially kind to me,
but a terror to the other prisoners. With a blow
of his club he felled his victim who cried aloud
that he had done nothing to warrant the assault
made upon him. The blood streamed from the
wound in his scalp.

The warden soon heard of the incident and
hurried over to the hospital to investigate it. He
jcame to see me at once and I told him what I
knew of the outrage. I had not witnessed the
attack, but I had heard the thud of the club and
the prisoner shriek from pain.

Let it be said to the warden's credit that he
discharged the guard instantly and the latter left
town that night, it being reported that some of
his previous victims were laying for him to
avenge the brutalities they had suffered at his
hands. He was never again heard from at the

At the time this guard was removed I ventured
to recommend a certain other guard to fill the
vacancy. He was appointed and has been there
ever since. After this incident occurred there
was a most radical change in the temper and
morale of the prison hospital. The terrorism
which had previously prevailed ceased, and from
that time forward there was an entirely different


moral condition and a different relation between
the guards and inmates of the hospital.

I was permitted by implied, if not by expressed
sanction of the prison officials, to serve and min-
ister to the sick and afflicted prisoners. I wrote
for them the letters they either could not write,
or were too ill to write; filled out their pardon,
parole and commutation blanks; interceded for
them whenever possible; gave them counsel and
advice when they sought it, and in the intervals
when we sat and smoked in the ''sun parlor '^ we
had many an hour of mutually heartening com-
munion together.

How often they brought me their letters, either
because they could not read, or because they
wished me to share in the grief or gladness that
might be contained in the missives from home!
I have often since thought that if I but had pos-
session of the letters received by prisoners at
Atlanta which I was permitted to read, and these
could be printed and bound they would present a
volume of prison literature that would make the
gods themselves cry out in jorotest against the
shocking cruelties now perpetrated upon the in-
nocent families of the convicts, to say nothing of
the prisoners themselves under the present harsh,
cruel and callous regime that obtains in every
penal institution in the land.


VisiTOKS AND Visiting.

The circumstances under which visitors are per-
mitted to see a prisoner are such that I did not
encourage my friends to come to see me. On the
contrary, I had too much respect for them to wish
to have them subjected to the rules of the prison
governing visits and visitors.

The visiting privilege is a very restricted one
in the average prison and Atlanta is no exception
to the rule. From thirty minutes to an hour is
the time allotted. Persons coming to see their
friend or loved one in prison are likely to be
shocked by the rude manner in which tiiey are
received by the guard at the main gate of the

At Atlanta a visitor must first pass two out-
post guards stationed on the reservation like
sentinels. These guards are armed with Win-
chester rifles, and as a visitor approaches the
main walk the guard comes out from his solitary
barrack and inquires his business. This is purely
perfunctory on the part of the guard for the vis-
itor invariably is permitted to pass on. The sec-
ond sentinel is quartered directly in front of the
main entrance to the prison. He also inquires
as to the visitor's business, and scrutinizes him


to see if he carries a camera or weapons, al-
though no search is made of the visitor.

By this time our friend from the outside world
has been impressed that he is about to enter a
prison, the inner workings of which are dark and
forbidding. Before the gate is opened to admit
him a guard peers through the bars and asks what
is wanted. If he is satisfied that the call is a
legitimate one he will open the gate; if not, the
visitor is sent away.

Once inside the penitentiary, the visitor is es-
corted to a little desk in the main corridor where
he fills out a small blank, stating the name of
the prisoner he wants to see, his own name and
address, and the reason for his calling upon the
inmate. The guard takes this slip and writes
the registration number of the convict in one cor-
ner. Then a hurried inquiry is made by the guard
to ascertain whether or not the particular pris-
oner has had his quota of visitors for that month.
If he has, the new arrival is told that he cannot
see the prisoner for that reason. In cases where
the visitor has come from a distance, and can
show that he has peculiarly personal reason for
his visit an appeal may be made to the guard who,
in turn, may obtain sanction from the warden, or
some other higher official, to grant the interview.
In cases of this kind the prisoner is always im-
pressed with the fact that a special dispensation
of justice has been made in his behalf.

A convict runner or messenger always stationed


in the corridor beyond the second gate takes the
slip from the first guard and goes to call the
prisoner, wherever he may be, who is merely told
that his presence is wanted in the office of the
captain of the guards. A prisoner so informed
does not know that he has a caller awaiting him,
and on the way to the office he has often con-
jured up in his mind some form of punishment
that is about to be meted out to him for reasons
that he does not know. This suspense is not long,
however, for he is escorted from the captain's
office to one of several reception rooms where in-
terviews with prisoners are permitted.

The visitor waiting in the corridor is now
notified that the interview is about to take place,
and he follows a guard into the reception room
where the prisoner is sitting on the far side of
a long, plain table. The room is perfectly bare,
and barred at the windows. The visitor must sit
on the opposite side of the table and keep his
hands in view of the guard who sits at the head
of the table and overhears every word that is
said, and sees that nothing passes between the
prisoner and his visitor. To prevent the latter
the table has underneath it a partition that ex-
tends down to the floor. No writing, not even
a scrap of paper is permitted to be handed to
the prisoner until it is first inspected by the
guard who may or may not permit the convict to
receive it.

A rather humorous incident is recalled here.


A friend came to see me and brought a letter that
he wished me to read. He attempted to pass the
letter to me, but the guard snatched it from his
hand saying, *^Here, let me see that''. He ex-
amined the document critically, but it was ap-
parent that he could not read it, and he had to
pass it to my friend and have it read to him.
The exceedingly stupid expression upon the fkce
of the guard while the missive was being read to
him indicated the grade of intelligence that is
placed and kept in a federal prison under civil
service regulations.

There are men in prison who will not permit
their wives and daughters, or, in fact, any woman
for whom they have respect, to come to see them.
The reason for this attitude on the prisoners'
part became apparent to the writer when he per-
ceived the low moral state of the prison in gen-
eral and some of its attaches in particular. No
man who is sensitive about that sort of thing
cares to risk having his wife or daughter made
the target of lewd and lascivious comments from
the guards or inmates. So far as any wantonness
may be manifested by the prisoners, it is at least
excusable on the ground that the manner and
method of their isolation is of itself unnatural,
and therefore gives rise to tlioughts that would
not be perverted were they not caged like wild
beasts and their natural instincts repressed, and
therefore unclean.

Visitors bringing fruits, candies, tobacco or


other articles to their friends behind the bars
are subjected to both surprise and disappoint-
ment. The guard takes possession of the gifts
with the statement that he will have to deposit
them in the office before turning them over to
the prisoner ; the chances are that the convict has
seen the last of the articles selected for him by
loving and tender hands. It requires no flight
of the imagination to figure out in whose hands
they have fallen, and will probably remain.
Articles without number brought or sent to me
by friends never came into my hands. Gifts to
prisoners are considered the legitimate spoils for
the prison attaches who handle them.

Incidentally, if you were a prisoner, and your
friend had sent a nice pipe, or a necktie, or any
other article of that kind, it would not be sur-
prising if it did not reach you at all. Very often
an inferior article is substituted for the one sent.
If you have a friend in prison and you send him
a fine pipe it is not unlikely that it will be re-
placed by a cheap pipe, and the helpless prisoner
is grimly amused when he receives your letter
and reads your comment about the nice pipe he is
now smoking in the solitude of his cell. A num-
ber of such instances were brought to my atten-
tion. A friend of mine in Florida who is a mer-
chant, sent me a large box containing animal
crackers done up in small packages. I always
gave those kind of things away, passing them
around among the other prisoners, and as I


opened the case I was happy in the thought that
these crackers would go a long way — there ap-
j)eared to be so many of them. When I had taken
out the top layer of packages the layers under-
neath collapsed; the box had been robbed before
it got to me, and had been skillfully " packed '^
so as to present an intact appearance.

There were a great many persons who were
desirous of visiting me at Atlanta, including a
considerable number of residents of that city and
vicinity, but for obvious reasons it was not pos-
sible for me to see them.

First of all, as I have said, I felt a reluctance,
as many other prisoners do, to have those I love
and esteem subjected to the humiliating condi-
tions imposed upon visitors by the prison regime.
In the next place, my attitude from the begin-
ning had been that I would permit the prison to
confer no privilege upon me, and I had no right
to expect any favors on this score. It was in
consequence of this that the report went out from
Atlanta that I had refused to see certain visitors.
As a matter of fact, such instances were due
either to my already having received the full
quota of visitors allowed by the rules, or else
because the visitor happened to have come under
the head of a certain order that was specially
issued in my case by the department at Wash-
ington, and which placed me incommunicado for
a time. In this position no press representative
was permitted to see me, nor in fact anyone else


save in the discretion of the warden. Of this
order of the department, which completely sus-
pended my writing and visiting privileges for a
time, I shall have more to say in a later chapter.

An interesting visit to me was that of the dele-
gation of socialists composing the state conven-
tion of the party in Georgia. This visit occurred
during the administration of Warden Zerbst who
had given the convention special permission,
upon their application, to visit me in a body.
There were fully a hundred or more men and
women in the delegation that came to the prison,
and I was permitted to meet them in the main
corridor where I was tendered their congratula-
tions in the most loyal and devoted terms, and to
which I made due response. It was to me a most
impressive occasion, and I doubt if a similar in-
cident ever occurred before in an American

During the informalities the guards stood by
attentively, and I felt that they were as respon-
sive to the beautiful spirit of the occasion as
their prison duty would allow. Tears glistened
in the eyes of most of these comrades of mine as
they took me by the hand one by one and passed
out through the prison doors.

It is true that I did receive many visitors in
the nearly three years that I spent in Atlanta
prison. As far as it was possible, I discouraged
persons from coming to see me. I knew well
enough that many of my fellow prisoners never


received a single visitor in all the years they had
spent behind those gray, grim vralls. Yet, I could
not share my visitors with these neglected souls,
and I wanted nothing that they could not have.
I anticipate the comment that this may be purely
sentimental on my part, but whether it is or not,
I tried to be careful lest some favor or privilege
were extended to me because of the position that
I had held in the outside world, that would em-
phasize in the mind and heart of the neglected
prisoner his own loneliness and isolation.

Among other visitors there were a number of
prominent persons who came to see me, and these
included Clarence Darrow, attorney, of Chicago;
Melville E. Stone, former general manager of the
Associated Press; Norman Hapgood, former
United States minister to Denmark and publicist;
Samuel Gompers, president of the American
Federation of Labor, and Lincoln Steffens, au-
thor and journalist. I have known Mr. Darrow
for many years. He. was one of my attorneys in
the federal court proceedings that resulted from
the great railroad strike of 1894 sponsored by the
American Eailway Union of which I was presi-
dent. I have had several very happy personal
meetings with Mr. Darrow since those distant
days, and not the least of the pleasant ones oc-
curred when he came to see me of his own
volition in Atlanta prison.

Mr. Darrow had been to Washington inter-
ceding in my behalf. He was on personal terms


witJi Newton D. Baker, then secretary of war,
and A. Mitchell Palmer, former attorney gen-
eral. Mr. Darrow reported to me that Mr.
Palmer had expressed himself as being more than
casually interested in my case, and that Mr.
Baker was not unfriendly disposed toward me.

Mr. Darrow asked me if I had any objection in
his seeing what he could do in my behalf looking
toward a possible release from prison, and if I
had any objection to others working along similar
lines with a similar purpose in view. I told Mr,
Darrow that I would ask for nothing for myself,
nor did I wish my friends to appeal specially in
my behalf for executive clemency. I told him that
I could not prevent my friends doing what they
could for me, but I wished them to base their ap-
peal and petition on the broad grounds of free-
dom for all the political prisoners, leaving no
one out who had been sent to prison because of
his opinions on a public question, such as the
war. "When Mr. Darrow left Atlanta he went
back to Washington, and had further interviews
with the higher officials there.

I met Mr. Gompers when he came to the prison,
at the invitation of the warden, to deliver an ad-
dress to the convicts in the auditorium of the
penitentiary. Mr. Gompers was courteously re-
ceived by the inmates, and their response to his
remarks was appreciative and generous. After
his prison address we enjoyed a brief visit in the
office of the warden.


Mr. Hapgood's visit was particularly pleas-
ant to me. He was at that time writing for a
newspaper syndicate in Washington, and I fol-
lowed his articles in the Atlanta newspaper that
published them. I understood that Mr. Hapgood
had visited me so that he might write a series of
articles about my case. After an hour's talk to-
gether he left, and I was much impressed by his
kindly manner, his charming personality and his
sincerity in the issue that had brought him to
Atlanta prison. His articles appeared a few
weeks later, and I am sure they had a salutary in-
fluence in directing the public's attention to the
fact that many men and women had suffered im-
prisonment because they had stood ujDon their
constitutional right to hold a point of view and
express it.

I had not seen Melville E. Stone for twenty-
five years. At that time Mr. Stone was editor
of Victor Lawson's Chicago Eecord, and we were
brought together through Eugene Field, whose
close personal friendship it was my privilege to
possess. At that time Mr. Stone and I under-
stood each other perfectly. He was on one side
of many public questions affecting the interests
of the common people, while I was on the other.
Those are matters not to be discussed here;
suffice it to say that Mr. Stone and I were per-
sonally friendly, and on the occasion of his visit
with me his eyes filled with tears as he took my
hand and told me that his faith in me as a man


had never wavered, and that notwithstanding the
fact that we were on opposite sides, he had never
permitted a reflection upon me as a man to re-
main unchallenged.

It had been my pleasure to meet Mr. Steffens
many years ago. He came to see me once in
Boston during the campaign of 1908 when I was
a candidate for President. His visit to Atlanta
occurred a few weeks before my release, and he
told me much about the political and economic
conditions in Eussia, where he had, spent con-
siderable time investigating and obselfving them.
Mr. Steffens was also interesting himself in the

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 5 of 14)