Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

Walls and bars online

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cheerfully obeyed, and no work done under such
rules as prevail was ever cheerfully accomplished.

On the contrary, the work that a man does
under the club of another is grudgingly and sul-
lenly done. There is no joy in a prison task.
Work behind prison walls is slavish in its very
nature and is done only under protest. No in-
telligent attempt has yet been made to organize
a prison on a scientific and humane basis to
achieve the best possible results under the best
possible conditions.

The very walls of the prison buildings betray
the convict labor that reared them. The bricks
in their lack of proper laying and the irregular
spaces that lie between them all denote a kind of
protest against the conditions under which work
is done while guards with clubs in their hands
stand by and watch.

Every prison is infested with that lowest of
mortal creatures — the stool pigeon. In prison
parlance he is known as ^Hhe rat". The stool
pigeon seems to be a necessary part of a prison


under club rule. Human beings ruled by brute
force resent and resist and properly so, at every
opportunity, and they must be spied upon and
watched and betrayed by their own fellow pris-
oners in order to be kept in subjection.

The stool pigeon is the silent ally of the guard.
He noses around to see and hear what he can
that he may report what he considers to be to
his advantage, and what may cause those spied
upon serious trouble. The stool pigeon finds his
reward in immunity from punishment and in pro-
moting his chances for the favorable considera-
tion of his application for pardon, or parole, or
commutation. This particular subject was the
source of frequent comment among the prisoners
during my term.

The stool pigeon and his encouragement in the
nefarious part he plays is in itself a reproach to,
and an indictment of, prison management. Not
for one moment should such a perverted creature
be permitted to function in a prison. The service
he is permitted to render betrays a condition
which condemns the prison by the very means it
employs as a low and demoralizing institution.

Chief among the features of the prison which
mark it as an inhuman institution is the mad-
dening monotony of the daily routine. The same
dull and deadening program is set for each day,
and no effort is made to relieve it by a change of
any kind. Almost everything is done in a hap-
hazard way. Prisoners are placed in positions


for which they are unfitted, and assigned to tasks
repugnant to their natures.

It is this daily and continuous monotony that
dulls the brain of the prisoner, saps his initiative,
very often in his youth, undermines his health,
and lays the foundation for his physical and men-
tal deterioration and final ruin.


Poverty Populates the Prison.

When we come to make an intelligent study of
the prison at first hand, which can only be made
by one who has had actual contact with convicts
and who himself has suffered under the brutal
regime that holds sway in every penal institution,
and arrive at a final analysis of our study, we
are bound to conclude that after all it is not so
much crime in its general sense that is penalized,
but that it is poverty which is punished, and
which lies at the bottom of most crime perpe-
trated in the present day.

In a word, poverty is the crime, penalized by
society which is responsible for the crime it
penalizes. Take a census of the average prison
and you will find that a large majority of people
are there not so much because of the particular
crime they are alleged to have committed, but
for the reason that they are poor and either
lacked the money to engage the services of first
class and influential lawyers, or because they
lacked the means through which they might have
been able to put off the day of final conviction and
sentence by postponements, continuances and
other delays, artifices and subterfuges, in the
handling of which high grade lawyers are skilled


adepts. A poor man cannot afford to pay fees
to attorneys who often use their offices to dis-
pose of witnesses whose testimony might be
damaging to the cases of their clients. The poor
man caught in the meshes of the law must run
his chances, whatever they are, and take the con-
sequences, whatever they may be.

It is too obvious to require special stress upon
the point that there are a thousand ways in which
the man with money who is charged with crime
may escape at least the prison penalty from the
moment that his bail money keeps him out of
jail and through all the myriad technicalities his
purse will permit him to take advantage of ; some
of these technicalities not infrequently have ref-
erence to the personnel of the jury that will try
his case, and other phases of the trial which can,
by the use and influence of money, be made to
serve to the advantage of the man who has it.

Instances without number might be cited in
support of this flagrant fact, but one will suffice
for the present purpose.

Charles W. Morse, a multi-millionaire, was sen-
tenced to serve fourteen years in Atlanta Federal
Penitentiary for illegal financial manipulations
involving millions of dollars. It was a rare in-
stance, indeed, that a man of millions should be
sent to prison, and it was only possible through
his having come into collision with still more
powerful financial interests. Now, prisons are
not made to hold multi-millionaires, but only the


impoverislied victims of their manifold manipu-

These favored few who may appropriate to
themselves untold wealth usually operate pru-
dently within the law under expert legal advice
and guardianship of the highest priced lawyers
in the land. The imprisonment of one of them
is an anomaly for which there must be special
and extraordinary reason.

Of course Mr. Morse was not permitted to
serve his sentence. From the moment the prison
doors closed upon him there ensued the most un-
usual solicitude on the part of the government
for his well being.

Very shortly after Mr. Morse entered Atlanta
prison the assistant surgeon general and next the
surgeon general of the United States paid him a
personal visit in their official capacities. As a
result of their visits, either directly or indirectly,
Mr. Morse was transferred to Fort McPherson
and placed in charge of two special nurses. The
examining physicians then reported to the de-
partment at Washington that in prison the
patient would die within three months, and that
his release would prolong his life to not exceed-
ing half a year.

Some interesting details which I possess could
be added here, but a few incidents will serve the
present purpose. According to common report
at the prison and elsewhere, including an admis-
sion by Mr. Morse himself, fabulous fees figured


in the affair. A certain lawyer who formerly
resided in Atlanta is understood to have received
a sum in six figures for his part in Mr. Morse's
release, and he is now practicing law in New

Harry M. Daugherty, one of the acting attor-
neys for Mr. Morse at that time (1908) who was
later Attorney General, also received a fee which
no poor man could ever have paid for a service
of which no poor man ever would have been the
beneficiary^ The man in the White House who
issued the order that cancelled the sentence of
the multi-millionaire and set him free is now
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United

It remains but to add that Mr. Morse, who was
to have died ten years ago, in the professional
opinion of the physicians who examined him, is
still alive, and has once more come into collision
with the Department of Justice at Washington
in matters that are said to involve more millions.

One more similar case is here cited.

Frank Xoble, a wealthy tile manufacturer, was
sentenced to ser\^e four months in jail in New
Jersey in November, 1922. Mr. Noble, with
twenty-nine other persons and nineteen corjDora-
tions, was convicted on evidence obtained by the
Lockwood Committee in New York City of hav-
ing violated the Sherman anti-trust law. Five
physicians examined the wealthy prisoner, and
as a result of their report President Warren G.

142 waijLS and baes

Harding ordered him released from jail on Janu-
ary 8.

Let it not be understood that any satisfaction
would come to me from seeing a rich man kept
in prison. I do not believe that a prison is a fit
place for any human being, rich or poor, and I
would not confine my worst enemy in its cruel

My feeling toward the prison from the hour I
entered it was such that I rejoiced in the de-
parture of each of those whose terms had ex-
pired, and I was saddened by the entrance of
every man whose shadow was cast upon its grim

If poverty, of which so many are now the help-
less victims, could by some magic of power be
abolished the prison would cease to exist, for the
prison as an institution is cornerstoned in the
misery, despair and desperation that poverty en-

The reason I believe that the time will come
when the shadow of the prison will no longer
fall upon the land is predicated upon my convic-
tion that the day will dawn when the scourge of
poverty — the foster parent of ignorance, im-
morality, vice and other ills that afflict the chil-
dren of men — ^will be Banished from the earth.

During my prison days I made it a special
point in my contact with the convicts to ascertain
to what extent their poverty, their lack of pe-
cuniary means, was responsible for their im-


prisonment. The conclusion was forced upon me
that an overwhelming majority were sent to
prison only because they did not have money to
take full advantage of the means afforded to
those who iDossess it of escaping the penalties of
the law in the prevailing system of its admini-

"When I stand before the turrets and battle-
ments of a prison I have a sickening sense that
the institution is the negation of hope, the
breaker of bodies, the blighter of spirits, — a
scowling reproach to society and a towering
menace to civilization. If any good issues from
it under its present regime it is in spite of its
cruel and repressive purposes and methods, not
because of them.

I am wondering in this connection what I
would think of myself if I inflicted poverty upon
my fellow-man and then damned him for being
poor by thrusting him into a steel dungeon to
expiate his ^' crime*'.

"When human society has become intelligent
enough to realize the responsibility for poverty
it will also be humane enough to refrain from
punishing its victims by consigning them to
felons' cells.

It is unfortunate that hitherto no scientific and
comprehensive method has been devised of as-
certaining and setting forth clearly to just what
extent poverty is directly and indirectly respon-
sible for crime. It may be pertinent to observe


here that it is certainly not a flattering commen-
tary upon society that so many find it easier to
steal than to earn an honest living.

We know beyond all question of doubt, after
the most searching investigations, that among
women poverty is responsible in an overwhelm-
ing number of cases for what is known as pros-
titution. Is it not shocking to think, for instance,
that a woman can command more money for traf-
fic in her sex in an hour than it would be possible
for her to earn in a week of legitimate labor?

The law's delay is the prolific source of not
only gross miscarriages of justice, but of the most
cruel discriminations against those least able to
bear it. Chief Justice Taft is on record as saying
that such delay is a burning disgrace to the
American system of jurisprudence. Here let it
be stated that the law's delay almost invariably
serves the interest of the man who has money
and to the disadvantage of the man who has none.

The man of financial resources has no trouble
to find the legal technicalities through which al-
most indefinite delay finally results in his ac-
quittal of the charges against him, or in the case
being forgotten altogether. On the other hand,
the man who has little money, or none at all, is
juggled by cheap lawyers through the courts un-
til his means are exhausted, and he is then kept
in jail for weeks, sometimes months, all the while
his presence there swelling the revenue of graft-
ing officials.


It is in the jails where many young men are
initiated into the ways of crime and are subse-
quently launched on criminal careers. When these
men leave the filthy pest houses and come to real-
ize the injustice they have suffered on account of
their poverty, and how indifferent society is to
it all, they are apt to conclude that they must
find ways and means to shift for themselves,
especially as they now bear the brand of Cain
for life, — for having a jail record is quite as irrev-
ocable as any other feature of their personali-

A few days ago a young man called upon me to
relate his sad story. He was a prisoner at At-
lanta while I was there. He was quite young,
and on his release he appeared to be deeply peni-
tent, resolving to ^^go straight" for the re-
mainder of his life. He soon obtained a satis-
factory position, but after being installed in it
he felt that he should be frank with his employer,
whom he now came to look upon as his bene-
factor, and concluded that he must tell him of
his prison record.

The employer was rather profuse in his ex-
pressions of sorrow for the former plight of his
new employee, but told him that he could not
afford to have in his employ a man who had been
a convict. Some persons might think the young
man was foolish in disclosing his prison record,
but the chances are the employer would have
heard of it anyway, and summarily dismissed him.


Now what IS a man to do who is not allowed to
make an honest living because he has been in
prison? The question answers itself. Is he not
almost inevitably driven into crime and sooner or
later forced back into prison by a society that
forbade him from earning an honest livelihood?

Many a man has revenged himself upon so-
ciety in the most gruesome and terrible manner
for having been denied the opportunity to live
down an error in his past life. I maintain that
the state, as a mere matter of self-protection, to
say nothing of its moral obligation, should con-
cern itself directly with men and women released
from prisons and see that they are provided with
a fair opportunity to maintain themselves and
their families in decency and comfort, and that all
possible encouragement is given them to lead
clean and useful lives. If this simple device
were at once made effective it would, without a
doubt, result in a material diminution of crime.

But almost the opposite manner now has public
sanction in dealing with ex-prisoners and con-
victs. It is taken for granted that they are all
vicious and incorrigible. Their very sentence is
prima facie evidence of their innate depravity,
and they are not only marked for perpetual
ostracism, but are to be pursued and hunted and
hounded back into prison again as if their crime
consisted in being turned back into society.

I have already referred to how the offender is
pilloried in the courtroom and how he is punished


there by exposure and hnmiliation even though
he may not be guilty of the charge lodged against
him. Much more could be said, also, about the
foulness of county jails and the contamination
of youthful first offenders who are consigned to
them, and of the process whereby criminals are
made and crime is spawned and fostered.

I shall conclude this chapter with a brief state-
ment of the foulest and most abhorrent and de-
structive evil of which the prison is the pestilential
breeding place. I vshrink from the loathesome
and repellant task of bringing this hidden horror
to light. It is a subject so incredibly shocking to
me that, but for the charge of recreance that
might be brought against me were I to omit it, I
would prefer to make no reference to it at all.

Every prison of which I have any knowledge,
either of my own or through my observation and
study, reeks with sodomy. It is the vice of vices
consequent upon the suppression of the sex in-,
stinct in prison life. I am unable to state here
the many hideous and unbelievable forms in
which this fearful and debauching vice is de-
veloped and practiced.

I saw the body and soul-destroying effects in
many of its victims and I heard tales of actual
occurrence that sickened and almost prostrated
me. It is this abominable vice to which many
young men fall victims soon after they enter the
(prison — a vice which often blasts their hopes,
ruins their lives and leaves them sodden wrecks.


It may be imagined that the perverted practicers
and purveyors of sodomy are its only victims,
but this is an awful mistake when we come to
realize that the depravity visited upon these un-
fortunate by the prison system goes back into
society to contaminate and corrupt to the extent
of their own pollution.

The stream of foul language that flows from
the lips of the sodomite registers unerringly the
degree of the depravity to which he has sunk as
an imprisoned human pervert.

Not as long as the prison is a punitive institu-
tion, and has the punitive spirit, and is under
punitive regulation can this shocking and dev-
astating evil ever be successfully coped with,
or its frightful consequences to its immediate vic-
tims and their ultimate ones be materially miti-


Creating the Criminal..

The most vitally important phase of the en-
tire criminal question is the creation of the
criminal and launching him upon his criminal
career. If the criminal were not created the
prison would be unknown. If, as seems to me
self-evident, the so-called criminal is a social
product, it is of supreme importance that society
should realize not only its own responsibility, but
the necessity of making the most searching in-
vestigation of the process whereby crime is pro-
duced, and devising means to suppress or at least
to mitigate the evil.

There is much said and written these days,
especially by lawyers in trial courts, about crim-
inal psychology. The subject has, in my opinion,
been considerably overdone. If the criminal in-
stinct actually exisits in the human beiag as a
positive factor in his mental and physical organ-
ism it is so rare and exceptional as to make it a
subject for pathological treatment, and only by
extravagant exaggeration can it be regarded as a
prevalent psychology. Most men and women
who, by the lofty professional criminologists,
would be charged with having a criminal
psychology are simply the victims of social in-


justice in some form, and when the canse of this
is ascertained and removed and the victims are
accorded human treatment in terms of love and
service their *' criminal psychology'* at once

I should rejoice in the opportunity to take a
dozen of the most pronounced cases wherein
criminal psychology has been established by the
professors who delve into the mysteries of the
underworld, place them in their proper environ-
ment, surround them with wholesome influence,
and give them such incentives to right living as
every human being should enjoy, and then see
what becomes of the ^* criminal psychology'* with
which these dozen human specimens are supposed
to be afflicted. It has been a matter of such com-
mon observation with me that poverty, generally
speaking, is the basis of crime that in discuss-
ing this phase of the question I am under the
necessity of repeating and emphasizing such ref-
erences to poverty in relation to crime as were
made in preceding chapters.

I have seen boys in jail not because they had
committed crime, but because they could not fur-
nish bail for their release until the charge of
crime lodged against them was proven at their
trial. They were not guilty, but were presumed
to be innocent, for they had not been tried. Yet,
they were in jail and their poverty was therefore
their crime. Many a hardened criminal of today
was started on his career in some such way, as


I learned from the heart to heart stories I heard
from their lips as we sat together in the shadows
of the prison walls.

At this point there occurs to me a most
poignant and concrete incident in relation to the
point I have just made, with the exception that
the case concerns a girl instead of a boy. Be-
tween the period of my sentence in Cleveland in
September, 1918, and my going to Moundsville
Prison to serve it in April, 1919, I made an al-
most daily speaking tonr of the territory em-
braced by the federal judicial district of northern
Ohio, being joermitted so to do by the court that
had pronounced my sentence. An appeal in my
case was at that time pending before the Supreme
Court of the United States.

I had filled a speaking engagement near Cleve-
land, after which I visited the county jail and
took to several of the inmates some cigars, to-
bacco and confections. As I was about to leave
the grim and forbidding institution I heard the
shrieks of a girl, and turning around I saw a lit-
tle lass, certainly not more than 16, struggling
between two policemen and pleading with them
not to throw her in jail because of the disgrace
that she felt would come upon her mother and
knew would fall upon her. I made hurried in-
quiry of the officers and learned that a police
matron was the direct cause of the plight of this
child, who had been spied upon by the elder
woman when the girl, in desperate economic


necessity, had solicited a man on the street and
taken him to her room. There she was pounced
upon by the matron, taken to the police station
and from there sent to the county jail to await

I had but a few moments in which to catch a
train that would take me to my next speaking en-
gagement, but I went to the office of the sheriff
and left some money which I hoped would pay
the immediate costs of the girl's case, and re-
quested that if there was any change it should be
turned over to her. If there had been the least
human kindness, sympathy and understanding in
the police matron who made the arrest after spy-
ing upon the girl and hunting her down, she
would have found a way to mainfest it by caution-
ing the child against continuing the sad life which
she had involuntarily persuaded herself to fol-
low. It seems to me that the innate instinct of a
woman would have prevented the matron from
adopting the brutal and unreasoning course
which she, in her infinite ignorance, probably
deemed a most worthy and virtuous action.

I am not unmindful of the fact that many peo-
ple will uphold the matron and will consider that
she vindicated the best interests of society by
causing this child to be branded not only as a
common prostitute, which she was not, but stig-
matizing her for the rest of her life as a woman
with a police record. Between those who adhere
to this point of view and me there yawns a


psychological chasm as broad and as deep as that
which stretches between love and hate.

No man and no women, more especially no boy
and no girl should ever be put in jail for being
unable to furnish bail. We declare that under
our benign code a man is innocent until he is
proven guilty and the next moment we lock him
in jail before he is tried. If the honor of men
were appealed to, and they were trusted to put
in their appearance when they were needed, as
was the common practice among Indians under
their tribal code, few would betray the confidence
reposed in them, and far better it would be should
such rare instances as a betrayal of confidence oc-
cur, than that a single innocent boy should be
lodged in jail and given a police record and
started on his criminal career. In such a case a
crime is indeed committed, a crime of cruel and
tragic consequences, and society itself is the

The man with money is never the victim of
such a crime. His money and not necessarily his
innocence keeps him out of jail. He can furnish
bail though he may be guilty, while the poor man
must go to jail though he may be innocent. Yet
we proudly boast that all men stand equal before

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 8 of 14)