Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

Walls and bars online

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the law. If this were true one of two things
would follow, either men would no longer be sen-
tenced to prison and the prison would cease to
exist, or so many would be sentenced to prison


that innumerable additional bastiles wonld have
to be built to confine them.

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind
that, as a general rule, the criminal is created by
the society in which he lives, and his crime as a
rule is rooted in his poverty; yet little intelligent
attention is given to that vital and fundamental
phase of crime which has to do with the creation
of the criminal. Society is greatly agitated over
the epidemic of crime and cries out for protection
against criminals, little realizing that it is but
reaping the fearful harvest of dragon's teeth
sown by itself.

And what is the usual remedy proposed for
combatting crime which steadily increases in
spite of the church, the school and the country
club? Adopt more drastic laws! Increase the
police force! Pronounce longer sentences! In-
flict severer punishment on the evil doers, etc.,
etc., — all of which simply indicates the puerile
understanding we have of this social phenomenon
known as crime. All our efforts are put forth
to suppress the effect while blindly ignoring the
cause, and of course our efforts are futile and
barren of results.

Crime, in whatever form it may make itself
' \ manifest, is traceable in every instance to a
definite cause, and until the cause is removed
crime will flourish and grow apace with our
vaunted civilization. We deal with effects only
when we build prisons for the incarceration of


criminals that we ourselves have created and for
whom we are responsible.

The three boys, mere children, who were con-
victed at Chicago some years ago as *'car bam
bandits ' \ never had a home in any decent, whole-
some sense of the term. They were the inevitable
products of poverty and the slums. The only in-
terest that society had in them it imposed upon
them as a penalty of its own. neglect by hanging
them by the neck until they were dead.

Hard economic conditions under which life in
its richness and fullness and beauty is denied,
and under which gaunt necessity has sway, bear a
greater share of responsibility for the creation
of criminals and the commission of crime than
all other causes combined. The young man whose
wage is insufficient to enable him to marry the
girl he loves feels himself tempted to take what,
in his inexperienced youth, may seem as the
easier way to increase his scant revenue so that
he may realize his youthful dream. The girl in
the city store, or the factory, whose paltry
stipend barely keeps her in the actual neces-
sities of physical existence, and whose natural
desire to indulge in some of the beauty and en-
joyment of life which she beholds all about her,
and which are denied by virtue of her stem
economic condition, is peculiarly in a position to
yield to the temptation that may lead her into the
district from which there is no return.

The bitter struggle for existence is account-


able, directly and indirectly, for men turning
criminals and attacking by lawless means the so-
ciety which would lawfully allow them but a pre-
carious and miserable existence. The arrest of
a person, however innocent, is generally regarded
as prima facie evidence of his guilt. Had he been
innocent he would not have been arrested, so
concludes the average mind, and thus he is al-
ready convicted.

Is it not apparent at a glance that the first
step has been taken in creating the criminal when
he is placed under arrest, a circumstance which
is often heralded to the public in sensational re-
ports from day to day? After the arrest follows
the jail if bail money is lacking, as is frequently
the case, and the jail is most likely a filthy den
wherein the first offender receives a rude shock
not at all calculated to increase his self-respect,
or enchance his confidence in law and in his own
future. From the jail he is taken to court under
guard perhaps handcuffed, and there he is placed
in the pillory as a public exhibit. Everything is
done as publicly as possible for his benefit, and
all this occurs before he has been tried, and while
he is presumably entirely innocent.

The public does not know the secret shame and
humiliation which the untried culprit is made to
suffer in this round of public exhibition in which
he is the involuntary star performer. He is
being punished in the most cruel and harrowing
manner, and yet the unthinking crowd that ogles


him in a courtroom concludes that he has entirely
escaped punishment unless he is sentenced to
serve a term in a penitentiary.

Here let it be observed that the agony a man
not utterly devoid of self-respect suffers, the
punishment he endures as the result of his first
arrest, his initiation as a jailbird, his advertising
in the press, his exhibition in the courtroom,
guarded as if he were a convicted felon, are more
poignant, more terrible, and sear and scar his
spirit more deeply than any prison sentence that
may subsequently be imposed.

What does the man care about a prison sen-
tence so far as his shame and degradation are
concerned after he has experienced the prelim-
inary stages of his ruin and downfall in the pub-
lic and cold-blooded manner of his arrest, in-
carceration, trial, conviction and sentence? When
he finally reaches the prison his case as a convict
is settled and his status fixed as a part of the
criminal element. He may be still further
hardened in his bitterness and resentment, and
he may become sullen and defiant as he dons his
shabby prison garb, but it is almost certain that
from the time he enters prison the baser qualities
of his nature will be developed and find expres-

As a matter of fact, he was already branded a
felon before his trial began and, figuratively
speaking, he had already served his sentence be-
fore he was actually convicted.


Oh, if we were but more hmnan in our spirit
and attitude toward the wayward boy or girl,
the erring and unfortunate amongst us, what in-
finite pain and trouble and expense we could
escape ourselves, and what tragedy and grief we
would spare our victims!

How far better it were to quietly caution the
young against their indiscretions than to have
them spied upon by detectives and matrons,
trapped and seized and exposed, their good name
blasted, and their future destroyed. The reason
for this is that the minions of the law, not always
too scrupulous in its administration, thrive in
crime, hold their official tenures, and receive
their emoluments and rewards from crime.


How I Would Manage the Prison.

Civil service regulations have little efficiency
under a corrupt political system. The farcical
nature of civil service rule as it applies to the
selection of minor officials and guards in federal
prisons is reflected in the low character, the
ignorance, brutality and general unfitness of
some of these functionaries who secure and hold
their tenure through political ''pulP' on the out-
side in spite of civil service reform.

The prison warden cannot remove his guards
except for specific flagrant misconduct and the
immimity they thus enjoy is a virtual license to
them to bully and intimidate the prisoners. The
fundamental evil in the present prison regime is
that the institution is under the absolute control
of office holders and politicians who, even if they
had the inclination, have not the time to concern
themselves with prison affairs.

Attorney General Daugherty, for example,
who was vested by law with almost absolute
power of control over federal prisons had prob-
ably never seen one of these institutions. He
had the power of life and death over every one of
the thousands of inmates, and yet what does he
know, what could he know of his own knowledge


of the prison in whicli they are confined, the con-
ditions that exist there, and the many evils and
abuses of which they are the suffering victims?

He had to rely absolutely upon what was fur-
nished him in the way of information upon his
subordinates who, like himself, derive their in-
formation from still other subordinates who may
perhaps be thriving in, and are possibly the di-
rect beneficiaries of the conditions which cry for

The drug traffic is one of the most pernicious
and shameless evils of our prison system. It
could not exist without official connivance and for
this reason has never been suppressed in any
federal or state prison. In certain instances the
most sensational disclosures have been made of
the traffic in ^^dope'', organized by prison officials
and attaches, whereby the inmates by submitting
to gross extortion were furnished with the drugs
and appurtenances for their use by the very
officials who were hired and paid to suppress such

It so happens that I had an active hand in the
sensational and shocking exposure that was made
some years ago of the appalling conditions in the
federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, and
which created a national scandal. An official
shake-up followed, for the facts were too flag-
rantly in evidence to be concealed, notwithstand-
ing the tremendous political pressure from the
outside brought to bear to that end. One of the


high officials of Leavenworth was accused of per-
verted practices with the inmates and was al-
lowed to resign. Expensive suits of clothes were
made by prison tailors for political patrons of
the officials. Worst of all, however, was the
organized drug traffic under the control of guards
and other officials who derived enormous revenue
from furnishing the iamates with the ^'dope"
with which to debauch and destroy themselves.

I was at that time one of the editors of a Kan-
sas paper which had a national circulation. Tak-
ing the cue from certain reports which reached
us, we conducted a secret investigation of Leaven-
worth Prison in which we had the co-operation of
certain minor officials and inmates. After ascer-
taining the facts, we proceeded to make the ex-
posure in a series of decidedly sensational issues.
All kinds of reprisals were threatened by prison
officials and politicians.

Space will not allow a detailed review of the
case here, but I must at least make mention of
my having been indicted in the federal court in
Kansas for my part in the exposure. The in-
tention of those who had been exposed was to
clap me in Leavenworth Prison along with the
rest of their victims, but they found that I and
my associates were sure of our facts and that
we courted the most searching inquiry. For
reasons sufficient to themselves, the prison and
court officials reconsidered their course and
quietly struck the indictment from the docket.


Some of the prison rules must have been in-
spired, if not written by such humorists as Arte-
mus Ward and Mark Twain, or such satirists as
Bernard Shaw and Henry L. Mencken. I shall
allude to the rules of Atlanta Prison, but there is
little difference, if any, between these and the
regulations that obtain in other penitentiaries.

For instance, one rule says: *^You must not
try to escape". This naive injunction issued in
the shadow of the cold steel which bars every
door and window in every solitary building with-
in the towering walled enclosures surmounted by
sharpshooters would seem to be a trifle superflu-

Another rule to which reference has already
been made, provides that inmates are expected to
''Cheerfully obey all rules". Comment is un-

Still another forbids an inmate to approach an
officer in addressing him within six feet of his
august presence.

*'You must uncover your head in respectful
manner and touch your hat or cap if out of doors
in addressing or being addressed by an officer or
guard" — but the official keeps his hat on his sov-
ereign head. I am wondering what Lincoln would
have thought of that rule.

The prisoner who makes the mistake of getting
into the wrong cell may be punished under the
provision of another rule.

Personally, I not infrequently found myself


violating the important rule that my shirt had to
be buttoned at the band. Most of the time there
was no button at the band. It seems strange to
me that pockets were allowed in jumpers or over-
alls, for a specific rule forbids prisoners from
putting their hands in their pockets.

Prisoners are required to rinse out their
mouths and keep their lips and tongues free from
tobacco stains. (This rule might be extended to
the outside).

Whistling or singing is in violation of another
rule, — and no wonder, for what business has a
song to be heard in a dungeon?

In the prison's present raw, haphazard, utterly
unscientific state of management almost every-
thing is done in a wrong, fruitless, wasteful way.
There is little method and no system.

There are, in fact, in every prison a dozen or
more little prisons and the inmate is subject to
the regulations of them all, and not infrequently
these regulations are in conflict. On a number of
occasions I found myself violating the rules of
one of these prisons while endeavoring to obey
the rules of another.

The various departments are under control of
petty officials and each is an autocrat in his own
sphere. There is often clash of authority, but in
a final test they all stick together for their mutual
protection. And it should be remembered that
not one word in the way of a report or a com-
plaint in regard to what goes on is permitted to


be sent out by the inmate while he is behind the

If the prison were scientifically organized and
humanely conducted prisoners would be sys-
tematically assigned to useful tasks and paid ac-
cordingly, instead of being robbed by the state
and their families allowed to suffer penury and
want. What possible excuse or justification can
there be for the state robbing a helpless prisoner
of his labor and subjecting his family to starva-

In a great many cases the prisoner himself
was guilty of no such crime against society as
that which society perpetrates upon him and his

I marvel at the incredible stupidity that blinds
the men in control of prisons to the redeeming
power of kindness as a substitute for the de-
structive power of brutality. Every instinct of
our nature protests against cruelty to the help-
less and defenceless, yet of all places where it is
most needed mercy is least practiced in the treat-
ment of convicts. I have seen men of mild tem-
per and gentle disposition made sullen and
vicious by harshness and I have also seen the
toughest specimens of ^'bad men'* softened and
made gentle by a kind word and the touch of a
friendly hand. Upon this point I can admit of
no possibility of a doubt as to the saner and
humaner method of dealing with the prison pop-


In hedging a prisoner about with stern and re-
pressive rules to reinforce the intimidation of
the frowning ways every effort is seemingly
made to exclude the human element in the fra-
ternity of prisoners and in the autocratic rela-
tion assumed toward them by their keepers.
The guard and the inmate cease to be human
beings when they meet in prison. The one be-
comes a domineering petty official and the other
a cowering convict. The rules enforce this re-
lation and absolutely forbid any intimacy with
the human touch in it between them.

The guard looks down upon the convict he now
has at his mercy, who has ceased to be a man and
is known only by his number, while, little as the
guard may suspect it, the prisoner looks down
upon him as being even lower than an inmate.

I have a thousand times had this borne in upon
me touching the relation of the guard and the
prisoners in his custody.

Not until the prison problem in all of its vari-
ous phases is recognized as of national instead
of local concern can it be dealt with in a compre-
Ihensive and effective manner.

Scientific experts would find here a field of
boundless opportunity for service second to none
in value and importance to humanity. Plans could
be formulated upon a nation-wide scale for the
development of the country's resources, for the
opening of highways, the reclaiming of swamp
lands and desert wastes, and the construction of


public works of all kinds to absorb tbe labor of
every prison inmate in a useful and constructive
way so that he could be remunerated for his ser-
vices at the prevailing rate of wages without
coming into demoralizing competition with his
fellow worker in the outer world.

This would at once create an incentive to the
prisoner to do his best, to look up and to feel he
was having a fair chance to retrieve himself.
His wages would meanwhile support his family
and educate his children instead of allowing
them, as now, in penury and under ostracism,
to become a charge upon the community.

But what could be done under rational control
to correct the abuses and improve the conditions
of the prison as it exists today? Very much
indeed could be done were it not for the organ-
ized opposition of the prison power itself to any
radical departure from the present corrupt, in-
efficient and extravagant system. Men whose
positions are at stake do not look with friendly
eyes upon such a change as is contemplated in
this proposal.

Thomas Mott Osborne is intensely unpopular
among prison officials of high and low degree, for
they see in his plan of prison management the
abolition of the corrupting and grafting misrule
of which many of them are the beneficiaries.

Coming directly to the question of improving
the prison as it exists today, the first thing I
would do would be to take it completely out of


the hands of politicians and place it under the
absolute control of a board or commission con-
sisting of resident men and women of the high-
est character, the humanest impulses, and the
most efficient qualifications for their task. The
board or commission should have complete and
final authority over the prison, full power of
pardon, parole and commutation, and in every-
way charged with the responsibility to the state
or the community for the management of the

In the next place, I would have the prison
population organized upon a basis of mutuality
of interest and self-government. I would forth-
with remove every gun and club from within the
walls and dismiss every guard. At Atlanta
Prison, for example, there are about 125 guards
maintained at an enormous expense and the
prison could be managed far better without

The most efficient guards and the only ones
interested in making the prison clean and keep-
ing out '^dope'' would be those chosen by the in-
mates from their own ranks. As previously
stated, any honest warden would admit that 75
per cent of the prison population consists of de-
cent, dependable men, and with this for a founda-
tion I would proceed to build up the superstruc-
ture of the prison's self-determination.

T\^olesome, nourishing food is the vital ele-
ment in the sustenance of physical life and in


prison is even more imperatively necessary than
in any other place, save a hospital. The federal
government makes sufficient allowance for this
purpose, but there is a wide space between the
treasury from which the money is drawn to the
table upon which the food is served, and in the
present process the food deteriorates sadly in
various ways before it reaches the convicts. The
matter of feeding the prisoners should have the
most careful and thorough supervision of the
officiating board who could, without doubt, devise
a method of having the food furnished that the
government pays for free from graft and pecula-
tion, and cooked and served in a clean, decent and
appetizing manner.

The industrial life of the prison should be
organized and systematized under the direction
of the board, supplemented and in co-operation
with a subordinate body chosen by the convicts of
the prison. It might be necessary to employ a
few experts or specialists from the outside, but
nearly all the minor official positions in the
offices, shops, yards, cell-houses and about the
grounds and walls could and should be filled by
the inmates.

I would have all the prisoners congregated to
hear the announcement of the proposed changes,
inviting their suggestions and appealing for their
co-operation and support. This would be a di-
rect appeal to their honor, their self-respect, as
well as their intelligent self-interest, and there


wonld be few indeed wlio wonld fail to respond
with gladness of heart. An overwhelming ma-
jority wonld give eager acclaim to the new ad-
venture, especially if the proposal were submit-
ted and the appeal made in a spirit of human
kindness and even-handed justice.

I would have the great body of prisoners com-
pose a parliament established for self-rule and
for the promotion of the welfare and common
interest of all. A code of by-laws and regula-
tions would have to be adopted, subject to the ap-
proval of the governing body of the institution.

An executive council consisting of inmate mem-
bers should be created having power to hold
daily sessions to receive suggestions, to hear and
determine complaints, subject to appeal to the
governing board, and to have general supervision
and direction of affairs within the prison. Minor
bodies for special service of whatever nature
could be provided for as the situation might re-

The limited space at my command prevents
further amplification of my idea of prison manage-
ment, but I have a profound conviction that it is
fundamentally sound and practical — so sound
and practical that I challenge the powers that
control our prisons to give me the opportunity
to put it to the test in any prison in this country.
I should guarantee to greatly improve the morale
of the prison the first week, to reduce the prac-
tice of immoral, health-destroying habits, and


the admission of *^dope'' to the minimum; in-
crease the efficiency of the service, reduce ma-
terially tlie expenses of maintenance, and return
the inmates to society in a different spirit and
appreciably nearer rehabilitation than is now
done or possible to be done under the prevailing

I should expect no remuneration for my ser-
vice, but should regard it as a contribution to
society in return for my education in and gradua-
tion from one of its chief penal institutions.

In this connection I cannot refrain from ex-
pressing to my readers the conviction that the
economic and social ideals which I hold, — ideals
which have sustained me inviolate in every hour
of darkness and trial, would, if once realized,
not only reform the prison and mitigate its evils,
but would absolutely abolish that grim and
menacing survival of the dark ages.


Capitalism and Crime.

Crime in all of its varied forms and manifesta-
tions is of such a common nature under the
capitalist system that capitalism and crime have
become almost synonomous terms.

Private appropriation of the earth's surface,
the natural resources, and the means of life is
nothing less than a crime against humanity, but
the comparative few who are the beneficiaries of
this iniquitous social arrangement, far from
being viewed as criminals meriting punishment,
are the exalted rulers of society and the people
they exploit gladly render them homage and

The few who own and control the means of
existence are literally the masters of mankind.
The great mass of dispossessed people are their

The ancient master owned his slaves under the
law and could dispose of them at will. He could
even kill his slave the same as he could any do-
mestic animal that belonged to him. The feudal
lord of the Middle Ages did not own his serfs
bodily, but he did own the land without which
they could not live. The serfs were not allowed
to own land and could work only by the consent


of the feudal master who appropriated to him-
self the fruit of their labor, leaving for them but
a bare subsistence.

The capitalist of our day, who is the social,
economic and political successor of the feudal
lord of the Middle Ages, and the patrician mas-

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 9 of 14)