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The silent South, together with the freedman's case in equity and the convict lease system online

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execution of private enterprises or public or
semi-public works. In a few cases the peniten-
tiary itself, its appliances and its inmates, all
and entire, are leased, sometimes annually or
biennially, sometimes for five and sometimes
for ten or even twenty years, and the convicts
worked within or without the prison walls, and
near to or distant from them, as various cir-
cumstances may regulate, being transferred from
place to place in companies under military or
semi-military guard, and quartered in camps
or herded in stockades convenient to their
fields of labor. In two or three States the
Government's abandonment of its trust is still
more nearly complete, the terms of the lease
going so far as to assign to the lessees the
entire custody and discipline of the convicts,
and even their medical and surgical care. But
a clause common to all these prison leases is
that which allows a portion, at least, and
sometimes all of the prisoners to be worked
in parts of the State remote from the prison.
The fitness of some lessees to hold such



a trust may be estimated from the spirit of the
following letters :


"LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS, January 12, 1882.
"DEAR SlR: Your postal of request to hand; sorry to say
cannot send you report, as there are none given. The business
of the Arkansas State Penitentiary is of a private nature, and no
report is made to the public. Any private information relative
to the men will be furnished upon application for same.
" Very respectfully,

" ZEB. WARD, Lessee.
"Z. J."

" LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS, July 2, 1882.

"DEAR SIR : Yours of date to hand and fully noted.

Your inquiries, if answered, would require much time and
labor. I am sole lessee, and work all the convicts, and of
course the business of the prison is my private business. My
book-keeper is kept quite busy with my business, and no time to
make out all the queries you ask for. Similar information is
given to the Legislature once in two years.

" Respectfully,


The wonder is that such a scheme should not,
upon its face, be instantly rejected by any but the
most sordid and short-sighted minds. It is diffi-
cult to call its propositions less than an insult to
the .intelligence and humanity of any enlightened
community. It was a Governor of Kentucky
who, in 1873, justly said to his State Legislature:
" I cannot but regard the present system under
which the State penitentiary is leased and


managed as a reproach to the commonwealth.
... It is the system, not the officer acting under
it, with which I find fault." 1

*This system springs primarily from the idea
that the possession of a convict's person is an
opportunity for the State to make money 1 ; that
the amount to be made is whatever can be
wrung from him ; that for the officers of the
State to waive this opportunity is to impose upon
the clemency of a tax-paying public ; and that,
without regard to moral or mortal consequences,
the penitentiary whose annual report shows the
largest cash balance paid into the State's treasury
is the best penitentiary. The mitigations that
arise in its practice through the humane or
semi-humane sentiments of keepers and guards,
and through the meagerest of legislation, are
few, scanty, and rare ; and in the main the notion
is clearly set forth and followed that a convict,
whether pilferer or murderer, man, woman, or
child, has almost no human right that the State
is bound to be at any expense to protect.

It hardly need be said that the system is not
in operation by reason of any malicious public
intention. On the part of lessees there is a most
unadmirable spirit of enterprise. On the part
of State officials there is a very natural eager-
ness to report themselves as putting money

1 Quoted in " Transactions of the National Prison Congress,
St. Louis, 1874," p. 325.



into the treasury, and a low estimate of pub-
lic sentiment and intelligence. In the people
at large there is little more than a listless ob-
livion, that may be reprehensible, but is not in-
tentional, unless they are to be judged by the acts
of their elected legislators, a rule by which few
communities would stand unaccused. At any
rate, to fall into the error is easy. Outlays for
the maintenance of police and courts are followed
with a jealous eye. Expense and danger keep
the public on the alert. Since neither police nor
courts can pay back in money, they must pay
back in protection and in justice. The accused
of crime must be arrested, the innocent acquitted
and exonerated, and the guilty sentenced to the
penalties of the laws they have violated. But just
here the careless mind slips into the mistake that
the end is reached; that to punish crime, no
matter how, is to deter crime ; that when broken
laws are avenged that is the end; that it is enough
to have the culprit in limbo, if only he is made to
suffer and not to cost. Hence the public resolve,
expressed and enforced through legislators and
executive officers, to spend no more money on
the criminal than will promptly come back in
cash nay, worse, to make him pay in advance ;
and hence, too, a total disregard of all other results
for good or bad that may be issuing from the
prison walls. Thus it follows that that arm of
the public service by whose workings a large part


of all the immense labor and expenses of police
and courts must become either profitable or un-
profitable is handed over to the system which,
whatever else of profound mischief its annual
tables may betray or conceal, will show the
smartest results on the cash-book. And thus we
see, annually or biennially, the governors of some
of our States congratulating their legislatures
upon the fact that, by farming out into private
hands whose single motive is money the most
delicate and difficult task in the whole public
service, that task is changed from an outlay that
might have been made nobly advantageous into
a shameful and disastrous source of revenue.


If, now, we are to begin a scrutiny of this evil,
we shall do well to regard it first as it presents
itself in its least offensive aspect. To do this, we
turn to the State prison, or prisons of Tennessee.

The State holds in confinement about one
thousand three hundred convicts. The peni-
tentiary is at Nashville, the capital. On the 5th
of December, 1881, its workshops were acciden-
tally destroyed by fire, and those which have
taken their place are, if we may accept the warden's
judgment, the finest south of the Ohio River. 1

1 Unfortunately for this pardonable boast, the boundary given
cuts off all State prisons that exclude the lease management, ex-
cept one small institution in West Virginia.


An advertisement from the Secretary of State, in
a New Orleans paper of June 14, 1883, invites
bids for a six years' lease of the " Penitentiary of
Tennessee and the labor of the convicts, together
with the building, quarry-grounds, fixtures, ma-
chinery, tools, engines, patterns, etc., belonging to
the State." It is there asserted that the peniten-
tiary has been conducted on this plan already for
a number of years. The State's official prison
inspectors remark, in their report of December
30, 1882: "The Lease System, during our term
of office, has worked harmoniously and without
the least scandal or cause for interference on
the part of the inspectors. Rentals have been
promptly paid, and the prisoners worked in
accordance with law and most humanely treated.
. . To our minds there can be no valid objection
raised to the Lease System, under proper restric-
tions, especially if as well conducted as for the past
few years." They add the one reason for this con-
viction, but for which, certainly, there would be
none : " A fixed revenue is assured to the State
every year under the lease plan, as against an
annual outlay under State management." The
advertisement shows one feature in the system
in Tennessee which marks it as superior to its
application in most other States that practice it :
the lessees employ such convicts as are retained
"in the prison building at Nashville (many of
whom are skilled laborers and of long-term scn-



tence) in manufacturing wagons, iron hollow-ware,
furniture, etc." The terms of the lease are re-
quired to be " not less than one hundred thou-
sand dollars per annum, payable quarterly, clear
of all expenses to the State on any account ex-
cept the salaries of the superintendent, warden,
assistant-warden, surgeon, and chaplain, which
are to be paid by the State."

Here, then, is the Lease System at its best.
Let us now glance in upon it for a moment
through its own testimony, as found in the offi-
cial report of its operations during the two years
ending December i, 1882. At the close of that
term the State held in custody 1336 convicts.
Of these, 685 were at work in the penitentiary,
28 were employed in a railway tunnel, 34 were
at work on a farm, 89 on another farm, 30 in a
coal-mine, 145 in another coal-mine, and 325 in
still another. In short, nearly half the convicts
are scattered about in " branch prisons," and the
facts that can be gathered concerning them are
only such as are given or implied in the most
meager allusions. It appears that they are
worked in gangs surrounded by armed guards,
and the largest company, at least, the three
hundred and twenty-five, quartered in a mere
stockade. As the eye runs down the table of
deaths, it finds opposite the names, among other
mortal causes, the following: Found dead.
Killed. Drowned. Not given. Blank. Blank.


Blank. Killed. Blank. Shot. Killed. Blank.
Blank. Killed. Killed. Blank. Blank. Blank.
Killed. Blank. Blank. 1 The warden of the peni-
tentiary states that, " in sending convicts to the
branch prisons, especial care is taken to prevent
the sending of any but able-bodied men " ; and
that " it has also been the custom to return the
invalid and afflicted convicts from the branch
prisons to this prison " the penitentiary. Yet
the report shows heavy rates of mortality at these
branch prisons, resulting largely from such lin-
gering complaints as dropsy, scrofula, etc., and
more numerously by consumption than by any
one thing else except violence; rates of mortality
startlingly large compared with the usual rates
of well-ordered prisons, and low only in compari-
son with those of other prisons worked under
the hands of lessees.

The annual reports (taken as they could be pro-
cured, one for 1880, three for 1881, and one for
1882) of five of the largest prisons in the United
States show that, from the aggregate population
of those prisons, numbering 5300 convicts, there
escaped during twelve months but one prisoner.
In all the State prisons of the country not kept

1 One might hope these blanks were but omissions of ditto
marks, although such marks are not lacking where required in
other parts of the table ; but the charitable assumption fails when
it would require us to supply them under " Sunstroke " and
opposite the date of December.



by the Lease System, with a population, at elates
of reports, of 18,400, there escaped in one year
only 63. But in the one year ending December
I, 1 88 1, there escaped, from an average popula-
tion of about 630 convicts at these Tennessee
" branch prisons," 49 prisoners. Or, rather, there
were 49 escapes ; for some convicts escaped and
were recaptured more than once or twice. The
following year they numbered 50. If the tables
in the report were correct, it will be shown they
are not, we should know that the recaptures in
the tivo years were about forty ; but that which
is not known is, what public and private expense
in depredations on the one hand and the main-
tenance of police on the other, these ninety-nine
escaped robbers, burglars, house-burners, horse-
thieves, and swindlers, and these forty recaptures,
have caused and are still causing. The super-
intendent of prisons, making exception, it is true,
of one small establishment of less than a hundred
population, whence over a third of these escapes
were made, says the deputy wardens in charge
" deserve credit for the manner in which they
have carried out his instructions." Such is one
feature of the Lease System under an excep-
tionally good administration of it. What a con-
dition it had but lately come out of may be in-
ferred from three lines found in the warden's
report of the Texas penitentiary in 1880: "I
noticed in a recent Tennessee report that, from



an average force of less than 600 convicts, there
were 257 escapes in two years."

The convict quarters in the main prison, at
Nashville, are three separate stone wings, in each
of which the cells rise one above another in four
tiers. The total number of cells is 352. They
are of three sizes. According to modern sanitary
knowledge, a sleeping-room should never contain
less than 800 cubic feet of air to each occupant ;
but, of these cells, 120 contain, each only 309
cubic feet of space; another 120 contain, each,
but 175 feet; the remaining 112 contain but 162
feet each ; and nearly every one of these cells
has two inmates. Thus a majority of the inmates
are allowed an air space at night less than the
cubic contents of a good-sized grave. The phy-
sician of the penitentiary reports that the air
breathed in these cells is "almost insupportable."
He says of the entire establishment, "No amount
of remodeling or tinkering can make it comfort-
able or healthy." The hospital he and others re-
port as badly constructed and too small. " There
is no place for dressing the dead except in the
presence of all the sick in the hospital, or in the
wing in the presence of more than two hundred
convicts." Other details are too revolting for
popular reading.

The female department of the prison " over-
looks the prison yard in plain view and hearing
of the male convicts." " No woman," says the



warden, " should be sentenced to the Tennessee
penitentiary until the State makes better provision
for their care." " Had I the pardoning power, I
would reprieve every woman now in the peniten-
tiary and those who may be sentenced, until the
State can or will provide a place to keep them, in
keeping with the age in which we live." The
chaplain reports these women as having "aban-
doned all hope and given up to utter despair,
their conversation obscene and filthy, and their
conduct controlled by their unrestrained pas-
sions." He indicates that he has abandoned all
spiritual and moral effort among them ; but, it is
to be regretted, does not state by what right he
has done so.

The discipline of this main prison, as of the
" branches," seems to be only such as provides
for efficiency in labor and against insurrection
and escape. The warden's report intimates that
modes of punishment of refractory prisoners are
left "to the discretion of wardens and inspectors."
" When the labor is hired out," he says, " the
lessee demands punishment that will not cause
him to lose the labor of the man." Thus he lays
his finger upon the fact that the very nature of
the Lease System tends to banish all the most
salutary forms of correction from the prison man-
agement. " Under the present-laws and custom,"
says this warden, " the Tennessee penitentiary is
a school of crime instead of being a reformatory


institution. . . . There are now about fifty boys
in the penitentiary under eighteen years of age.
. . . Nine-tenths of them leave prison much
worse than when they came. . . . They are thrown
into the midst of hundreds of the worst criminals
the State affords, sleeping in the same cell with
them at night, and working at the same bench or
machine in the day. . . . The young and the
old, the comparatively good and the vilest and
most depraved, are thrown promiscuously to-
gether." *

Even that superficial discipline which obtains
in the prison, addressed merely against physical
insubordination, is loose, crude, and morally bad.
The freedom of intercourse among the convicts
is something preposterous. The State is actually
put into the position of bringing together its
murderers, thieves, house-breakers, highwaymen,
and abandoned women, and making each ac-
quainted with all the rest, to the number of about
five hundred a year. In an intelligently con-
ducted prison, each convict carries his food to his
cell and eats it there alone ; but in this one the
warden recommends that a dining-room be fitted
up for 1 200 persons. Convicts are given duties

'The roll of the Mississippi penitentiary shows, December, 1881,
in a total number one-third less, seventy boys to have been
received into the prison under eighteen years of age, some of
them being but twelve and thirteen, sentenced for life and terms
equivalent, in their probabilities, to a life sentence.



connected with the prison management; they are
"door-keepers," and "wing- tenders," and "roll-
callers." In one year the number of escapes from
within its walls, not counting those made during
the fire, was more than half as great as the total
of escapes for an equal length of time from the
State prisons of all New England, with New
York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio,
Indiana, and Illinois, where there were over
12,000 convicts. One woman escaped twice, and
another one three times, both within the same
ninety days.

The incapable simplicity of the prison's disci-
plinarians is pointedly shown again in a list of no
less than 101 convicts recommended for execu-
tive clemency, some for having helped to put out
the fire in December, 1881, some for holding
mutineers in check on the same occasion, and
some for running and telling on certain fellow-
convicts who were preparing to escape in dis-
guise. Reformatory discipline can hardly be
imagined as reaching a lower degree of imbe-

The chaplain's report is a bundle of crude
generalities, marked by a serene ignorance of the
badness of affairs, and by a total absence of any
tabulated or other form of accurate or useful ob-
servation. Some spelling, some reading, regular
Sabbath service, Sunday-school, all is recounted
in indefinite quantities, except the 33 admissions



into the "prison church." No feature is lacking
of that well-meant but melancholy farce which
religious prison work always must be when per-
formed without regard to the unique conditions
of life to which it is addressed. During the win-
ter of i88i-'82, the chaplain preached sometimes
to the convicts at Ensley's farm, where " they
seemed to enjoy the services very much"; and
this is all he has to say of the place where men
were being "found dead," and "killed," and

"drowned," and " "-ed. Nor was his silence

a mistaken discreetness ; for he writes :

" The objects sought by imprisoning offenders being the secu-
rity of society and the punishment and reformation of the guilty,
I am glad to say that these objects are certainly in a large meas-
ure being accomplished in many cases in the management of our
State Prison."

Having thus claimed a proprietary share in this
rotten institution, he wisely concludes with an
expression of timid uncertainty as to how many
of his "prison church" membership will finally
reach " the haven of eternal repose."

But are these bad conditions necessarily charge-
able to the Lease System ? No, and yes. They
have been dwelt upon to show with what a state
of affairs the system will content itself, its in-
spectors, the State legislators, and the community
at large. It has nothing in it to produce a
knowledge of and desire for a correct and honor-



able and truly profitable prison management. Its
interests make directly against both individual
and institutional reform. The plea of self-support
on which it rests, the price it pays for its privi-
leges, whether corruptly intended or not, are a
bribe to officials and to public alike to close the
ear against all suggestions of better things. For
example, see the report of the two inspectors of
the Tennessee prisons. Excepting a letter from
another hand, quoted by them, their whole bien-
nial report is less than one hundred lines. A
little over half tells of the fire and the new work-
shops. A little less than half is given to the
praise of the Lease System, upon the lonely merit
of cash returns, and to a recommendation for its
continuance. For the rest, they content them-
selves with pointing the Legislature to the reports
of the superintendent, warden, physician, and
chaplain of the penitentiary, whom, they say, "we
indorse most heartily as attentive to their re-
spective duties, and alive to every requirement
of the law [which the warden reports as painfully
barren of requirements] and the dictates of hu-
manity in the discharge of their duty." How-
ever true this may be of the executive officers, it
is certainly not true of the inspectors themselves.
They do not certify to the correctness of a single
roll or tabulated statement, or imply that they
have examined any one of them. They do not pre-
sent a statistical figure of their own, or recom-


mend the taking of a single record among all the
valuable registries that should be made, but are
not, because the facts they would indicate are
either absent or despised. Indeed, their silence
is in a certain sense obligatory; for the omitted
records, if taken, would condemn the system they
praise, and the meager records that are given
swarm with errors. It would have been hard
for the inspectors to say anything worse for
themselves than that they had examined the re-
ports. The physician's is an almost unqualified
denunciation of the whole establishment; the
superintendent's is three-quarters of a page of
generalities and official compliments; and the
warden's tabulated statements confusedly contra-
dict each other. Even the numerical counts are
incorrect. One convict, distinctly named and
described, appears in the list of escapes but
once, and among the recaptured three times.
One, reported escaped twice, is not once men-
tioned among the recaptures. Four convicts
(one of them serving a nineteen years' sentence)
reported among the recaptures are not on the
prison roll, nor are they reported as pardoned,
discharged, transferred, died, blanked, or in any
other way disposed of. A convict, Zach. Boyd
by name, under life sentence, expected soon to
die of dropsy and recommended by the warden
for executive clemency, is enrolled neither among
the dead nor the living. The inference is irre-



sistiblc that the prison's officers do not know how
many convicts they have or should have. In the
list of " Commutations," names occur repeatedly
that are not in any list of inmates on hand or re-
moved or released. Several convicts are reported
as white men when they escaped and as colored
when recaptured, and one or two pass through
two such transformations. All search by the
present writer for occasion to lay these errors
upon the printer has proved unavailing. The
fault is in the prisons themselves and the system
on which they are managed. Such a condition
of accounts might be excused in the rosters of
a retreating army; but it is not to be believed,
while there is room for doubt, that the people of
an American State will knowingly accept such
stupid and wicked trifling with their State's good
name and the safety of society, or even such a
ghastly burlesque of net revenue.


Yet when we pass across the boundaries of
Tennessee and enter any adjoining State, except-
ing only Missouri, we find the same system in
operation, operating viciously, and often more
viciously than in Tennessee. North Carolina,
during the two years ending October 31, 1880,
held in custody an average of 1090 convicts.
The penitentiary proper and its interior industries
were being controlled under public account.



Shoemaking, brickmaking, tailoring, blacksmith-
ing, etc., the officers report, were either already
profitable or could be made so, and their detailed

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Online LibraryGeorge Washington CableThe silent South, together with the freedman's case in equity and the convict lease system → online text (page 8 of 13)