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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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accounts of receipts and expenditures seem to
verify their assertions. The statistics of the
prison are given, not minutely or very compre-
hensively, but intelligently as far as they go, and
are valuable.

So much sunshine of right endeavor an un-
usually restrained Lease System lets in : the
Lease System itself exists only without the walls.
Only able-bodied convicts may be farmed out.
But just at this point the notion bred from a total
misconception of the true profits to be sought
the notion that a penal establishment must
live upon its income begins to show its fruit.
" Every enterprise that the board of directors,"
says its president, " have been able to devise for
using the labor that was compelled to remain in
the prison has been either summarily crushed in
its incipiency or seriously crippled in its progress
by the fact that we had not the means to carry
them to a successful issue. Attempted economy,
we believe, has proven a waste, and . . . the
State has suffered by a niggardly use of its re-
sources. The [permanent] buildings, too, have
been carried too far to be now torn down, and
less costly ones erected in their stead. They
must, therefore, at some time, be completed ; and
so long as they are permitted to remain in their



present unfinished condition, they are subject to
damage, from exposure to the weather, that will
often necessitate work to be redone that would
have been saved had they been steadily pressed
to completion. There would, too, be incalculable
economy in the police of the prison, if the con-
venient and compact building in progress of
erection could speedily take the place of the
scattered and imperfect wooden structures now
in use ; and the suffering endured by the convicts
in extreme cold weather, which is no part of
their sentence, but has been unavoidable under
the circumstances, would cease to be a source of
anxiety to the board of directors and a reflection
upon the power whose duty it is to relieve it."

The warden reports these temporary buildings
as devoid of all means for warming them, badly
ventilated, and entirely unfitted for use. A part,
at least, of the inmates were, it seems, congre-
gated in a stockade, which was " liable to tumble
at any time." The prison physician pronounced
these temporary quarters "the fruitful cause of
many deaths." The population within this
penitentiary was generally about three hundred.
About eight hundred, therefore, were scattered
about in companies under lessees, and in the two
years 1879-80 were at different times at work
on six different railways and one wagon road.
What their experiences were at these places can
be gathered, by one at a distance, only from one


or two incidental remarks dropped by the prison
officers in their reports and from the tabulated
records of the convict movement. There is no
hospital record given concerning them, nor any
physician's account of their sickness. When
they drop off they are simply scored as dead.
The warden says of them that many had " taken
their regular shifts for several years in the
Swannanoa and other tunnels on the Western
North Carolina Railroad, and were finally re-
turned to the prison with shattered constitutions
and their physical strength entirely gone, so that,
with the most skillful medical treatment and the
best nursing, it was impossible for them to re-

But such remarks convey but a faint idea of
the dreadful lot of these unfortunate creatures.
The prison physician, apologizing for the high
death-rate within the walls, instances twenty-one
deaths of men " who had been returned from the
railroads completely broken down and hopelessly
diseased." And when these deaths are left out of
the count, the number of deaths inside the walls,
not attributable to outside hardships, amounted,
in 1880, to just the number of those in the
prisons of Auburn and Sing-Sing in a population
eight times as large. Ten-elevenths of the deaths
for 1879 and 1880 were from lingering diseases,
principally consumption. Yet, year in and year
out, the good citizens of Raleigh were visiting



the place weekly, teaching Sunday-school,
preaching the gospel, and staring these facts in
the face.

Now, what was the death-rate among the con-
victs working at railroad construction ? The
average number of prisoners so engaged in 1 879
and 1880 was 776. The deaths, including the 21
sent back to die in prison, were 178, an annual
death-rate of nearly eleven and a half per cent.,
and therefore greater than the year's death- rat j
in New Orleans in 1853, the year of the Great
Epidemic. But the dark fact that eclipses every-
thing else is that not a word is given to account
for the deaths of 158 of these men, except that
1 1 were shot down in trying to escape from this
heartless butchery.

In the light of these conditions, the ward-
en's expressed pleasure in the gradual decrease
in prison population since 1877 in North Caro-
lina seems rather ill grounded and not likely to
last. It is certainly amazing that men of the
sincerest good intentions can live in full knowl-
edge of such affairs, or, at least, within easy reach
of the knowledge, and not put forth their protest
against the system that fosters and perpetuates
it. The North Carolina prison, it may be re-
peated, is managed, within its walls, on the public
account; but it is the Public Accounts System
suffocated under the Lease System and stabbed
by the glittering policy of self-support. In 1880


alone the Lease System, pure and simple, set free
upon the people of North Carolina, from its rail-
road gangs, 123 escaped criminals. The prison
added 12 more. The recaptures numbered 42.
Ninety-three remained at large ; just 5 more than
the total escapes for an equal period in every
State prison of every State in this country, ex-
cepting the other eleven managed in whole or
part upon the Lease System. The moral effect
of such a prison life on men herded in stock-
ades may be left to the imagination ; but one
other fact must be noted. In the two years
187980 there were turned into this penitentiary
at Raleigh 234 youths under twenty years of
age, not one of whom was under sentence for less
than twelve months.

It only remains to be asked, For what
enormous money consideration did the State set
its seal upon this hideous mistake ? The state-
ment would be incredible were it attempted to
give other than a literal quotation. " Therefore
it will be seen," says the warden at the bottom
of his resume of accounts, " that the convicts
have earned $678.78 more than the prison de-
partment has cost for the two years ending Octo-
ber 31, 1880."



In Kentucky the management of the State
prison seems to be in a stage of transition. Facts
that need no mention here 1 make allusion to it a
particularly delicate task. Yet the writer may
not assume that any one would desire that the
truth be left unsaid. Upon the candor and
generosity not only of Kentuckians, but of all
the communities whose prisons come under this
review, must the writer throw himself, trusting to
find his words received in the same spirit of
simple good citizenship in which they are offered.

After long experience with the Lease System,
there was passed in May, 1 880, an " Act to pro-
vide for the government, management, and dis-
cipline of the Kentucky penitentiary," by which
the prison passed back from other hands into
those of the State's appointed officers. The
Lease System was not discarded ; but certain
very decided modifications were made in it, lean-
ing toward the Contract System. The report
made by the prison officers and board, eighteen
months later, bears a general air of the sad con-
fusion that commonly belongs to a late and
partial extrication from disaster. It affords a
retrospective view of the old system extremely

1 At Louisville, Kentucky, where the convention before which
this paper was read was then enjoying the hospitality of the State.


unflattering ; but it also gives evidence that cer-
tain State officers, conspicuously the Governor,
were making an earnest and sagacious effort to
reform the entire penal system of their common-
wealth. Yet it seems plain again that they are
not a little handicapped by that false popular idea
of the prison's place in the State's governmental
economy, upon which the Lease System thrives
while the convict falls into moral and physical
ruin and society's real interests are sold for old
rags. It may be assumed that there is a reserved
determination on the part of those who have
taken the matter in hand, to raise the work of
reform to the plane it should occupy as soon as
the general sentiment can be brought to require
it ; but, meantime, the State's penal system has
risen, from something worse, only to the level cf
the system in North Carolina.

The officers whom the State, pursuant to its
scheme of renovation, placed in charge, put that
scheme into practice, to use their own words,
" whenever the costs of doing so involved only
a small outlay." The building that contains the
prisoners' cells, found " infested with all kinds of
vermin known to institutions of the kind," with
bad ventilation and rat-eaten floors was purged,
by convict labor, with coal-oil, fire, whitewash,
and tar. The grounds around the women's quar-
ters, " low and marshy, covered with water, in
rainy weather, ankle-deep for days," were filled



up. " Long rows of shanties or sheds, . . . un-
sightly and inflammable in the extreme," long
used in the hackling of hemp, were torn away.
The hospital and chapel were cleaned and kept
clean. Religious services were regularly afforded
by an official chaplain and at intervals by a
Catholic priest, and Sabbath instruction gradually
took shape with (let it be said to their praise)
members of the Governor's own family in charge.
The diminutive and dilapidated library was put
into shape and new books were added. But
from here on, the friends of the prison could only
pray for aid and relief The principal industry
continued to be, as it had been for many years,
working in hemp, under circumstances that made
it a distressing and unhealthful hardship. On
the ist of last January, 350 men were working
in that department without ventilation or bath,
and, says the warden, "the dust so dense that
it is frequently impossible to recognize a man
twenty feet distant." " It is certainly an act only
of common humanity that the evil created should
be counteracted by good and ample bathing
facilities." In the hospital, as a fit adjunct to the
hemp department, there were, in 1881, 144 cases
of inflamed eyes and 202 of acute bronchitis.
The kitchen was not adapted to the proper cook-
ing of the prisoners' food, and the hospital's re-
sponse was 616 cases of acute disease of the
bowels and 101 of impoverishment of the blood.



There was an entire absence of an intelligent
trained reformatory treatment, in accordance with
a knowledge of criminal character, recognition of
the criminal's unforfeited rights, and proper
prison discipline. In this shape stood matters
at the beginning of the year 1882, as viewed from
without. The inside history can only be con-
jectured ; but we get one glimpse of the convict's
sentiment toward his choking, blinding, life-
shortening daily task in the fact that, within the
eighteen months of the new regime, five men
purposely mutilated their hands so as to compel
the amputation of fingers, and two others cut off",
each, a hand at the wrist. What the fortunes of
the convicts leased out upon railroad construction
were and are, we are given no clew by which to
tell ; the report contains no returns from them, and
we have only the same general assurance that all
is well that is given as to those in Tennessee and
North Carolina.


Another view of the Lease System under
limitations is afforded in the "Annual Report
of the Board of Directors of the South Car-
olina Penitentiary for the fiscal year ending
October 31, 1881." The prison is not only
under a full corps of State officers, but, like
the North Carolina prison, it is conducted
on public account, the convicts only being leased,



and of these only such as are sent beyond the
prison's walls. Yet the overwhelming consider-
ation of self-support makes the spirit of the
Lease System dominant over all. The reforma-
tory features are crude, feeble, and purely acci-
dental. The records are meager. The discipline
is of that poor sort which is vaguely reported as
"administered only when necessary," addressed
simply to the prisoner's safe custody and the
performance of his tasks. The escapes, from an
average population of 632, were 36 ; the recap-
tures, 21. Most likely, to the popular eye, the
numbers are not startling ; but, if we look
around to compare them with the record of some
properly ordered prison of the same population,
we see the warden of the Maryland penitentiary,
under contract management, admitting with full
explanation and apology the escape of one pris-
oner, the first in ten years. The number of
escapes reported from the South Carolina prison
would have been forty, had not four escaped con-
victs been " found drowned " within two or three
days after their escape. A report with which
such numbers will compare favorably can be
found only by turning to other leased prison
forces. One reason why it may there be found
is that, in South Carolina, almost alone, a penalty
attaches to the lessees for each escape. " There
is now due the State," says the report, "in penal-
ties for the escape of convicts under contract


[meaning leased convicts] about $25,000." In
the chaplain's report, as in all chaplains' reports
under the Lease System, and probably in many
under better systems, is seen the familiar con-
junction of pious intention with a strange over-
sight of the inadaptability, to the incarcerated
criminal, of the ordinary technical methods of
religion in society. What response can there be
but a weary smile to the complacent announce-
ment that in this prison " there are now about
one hundred men and women who can repeat
the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the
Apostles' Creed, and the whole of Capers' Cate-
chism." But the humor fades out when it is
added, "We have also a Sunday-school, regularly
conducted by intelligent convicts" " I regard the
State Penitentiary, as designed by its originators,
as a great reformatory school, and I am happy
to believe, from personal observation, . . . that
this prime leading object is ... being faithfully
carried out." So writes this evidently sincere
and zealous divine, in the face of the fact that
the very foundation principles of reformatory
treatment were absent, and that constantly a
larger number of convicts were kept beyond his
reach than were left for him to preach to.

One of the peculiar temptations which the
Lease System holds out to the communities em-
ploying it, as such communities are represented
in the jury-box, needs a moment's careful notice.



The States where this system is in vogue are
now, and have been for some years, enjoying a
new and great development of their natural re-
sources and of other industries than that colossal
agricultural system that once monopolized their
attention. There is, therefore, a vigorous demand
for the opening and completion of extensive
public works, mines, railways, turnpikes, levees,
and the like, and for ways and means for getting
them done as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Now, it is with these potent conditions in force
that the Lease System presents itself as the
lowest bidder, and holds forth the seductive
spectacle of these great works, which everybody
wants and no one wants to pay for, growing
apace by convict labor that seems to cost nothing.
What is the consequence? We might almost
assert beforehand that the popular sentiment and
verdict would hustle the misbehaving, with
shocking alacrity, into the State's prison under ex-
travagant sentences or for trivial offenses, and sell
their labor to the highest bidder who will use them
in the construction of public works. The tempta-
tion gathers additional force through the popular
ignorance of the condition and results of these
penitentiaries, and the natural assumption that
they are not so grossly mismanaged but that
the convict will survive his sentence, and the fierce
discipline of the convict camp " teach him to behave



But there is no need to reason from cause to
effect only. The testimony of the prisons them-
selves is before us, either to upset or else to
establish these conjectures. A single glance at
almost any of their reports startles the eye with
the undue length of sentences and the infliction
of penalties for mere misdemeanors that are
proper only to crimes and felonies. In the
Georgia penitentiary, in 1880, in a total of nearly
1 200 convicts, only 22 prisoners were serving as
low a term as one year, only 52 others as low a
term as two years, only 76 others as low a term
as three years ; while those who were under sen-
tences of ten years and over numbered 538,
although ten years, as the rolls show, is the
utmost length of time that a convict can be
expected to remain alive in a Georgia peniten-
tiary. Six men were under sentence for simple
assault and battery, mere fisticuffing, one of
two years, two of five years, one of six years,
one of seven, and one of eight. For larceny,
three men were serving under sentence of twenty
years ; five were sentenced each fifteen years ;
one, fourteen years ; six, twelve years ; thirty-
five, ten years ; and one hundred and seventy-
two, from one year up to nine years. In other
words, a large majority of all these had, for
simple stealing, without breaking in or violence,
been virtually condemned to be worked and mis-
used to death. One man was under a twenty



years' sentence for " hog-stealing." Twelve men
were sentenced to the South Carolina peniten-
tiary, in 1 88 1, on no other finding but a misde-
meanor commonly atoned for by a fine of a few
dollars, and which thousands of the State's
inhabitants are constantly committing with im-
punity the carrying of concealed weapons.
Fifteen others were sentenced for mere assault
and assault and battery. It is to be inferred
for we are left to our inferences that such sen-
tences were very short ; but it is inferable, too,
that they worked the customary loss of citizen-
ship for life. In Louisiana, a few days before
the writing of this paper, a man was sentenced
to the penitentiary for twelve months for stealing
five dollars' worth of gunny-sacks.


The convict force of Georgia, already more
than once alluded to, presents the Lease System
under some other peculiarly vicious aspects. For
example, the State is bound by, and is now in
the fourth year of, a twenty years' lease. The
convicts, on October 20, 1880, were 1185 or
1 1 86 in number (the various exhibits of the
biennial report differ widely in some of their
statements). They were consigned to three peni-
tentiaries in three different counties, each of
which had " several branch camps." Thus they
were scattered about in eleven camps over at



least seven counties. The assurance of the
"principal keeper" is that in all these camps they
are humanely treated. Every " permanent camp "
has a hospital, a physician, and a chaplain. But
there are other camps that have none. Reports
from other officials and from special committees
of citizens repeat the principal keeper's assur-
ance in the same general terms. And yet all
these utterances unconsciously admit facts that
betray the total unfitness of the management for
the ends it ought to have in view and its gross
inhumanity. From the " General Notice to
Lessees " the following is taken, with no liberties
except to italicize :

" In all cases of severe illness the shackles must
be promptly removed." " The convicts shall be
turned off of the chain on the Sabbath and
allowed to recreate in and about the stockade."
Elsewhere the principal keeper says, " When a
convict is sick, the chains are to be taken off of
him." As to the discipline, he reports 35 escapes
(7 burglars, 3 house-burners, 9 murderers and
would-be murderers, I forger, 3 robbers, 7 thieves,
and others whose crimes are best unmentioned),
with no recaptures ; and the surgeon reports nine
men killed, three of them by fellow convicts.
" You will observe the death-rate to have greatly
decreased in the last two years," says the prin-
cipal keeper ; but the death-rate, when observed,
was found to have decreased only to about twice

i S 6


the rate of properly planned and managed estab-
lishments of the kind. This, he reports, is one-
half what it had been. His tabulated statements
relating to the convicts, though lamentably scanty,
reveal an amount of confusion behind them that
is hard to credit. One table, purporting to show
the whole 1 186 convicts in confinement, classified
by the crimes under which they were sentenced,
has not a single correct number in it, and is an
entire hundred short in its true total. The num-
bers, moreover, are so far out of the way that
they cannot possibly be the true exhibit of some
other date substituted in error. They report 1 84
under sentence for burglary, whereas the roll
shows 467, and they entirely omit 25 serving
sentence for forgery, and 23 for robbery.


We have already noticed, in the prison and
convict camps of this State, the feature of cruel
sentences. Let us look at another; to wit, lavish
pardons. It is but typical of the prisons under
the Lease System, wherever that is found in
unrestrained operation. Here may be seen a
group of penal institutions, the worst in the
country by every evidence of their own setting
forth : cruel, brutalizing, deadly ; chaining, flog-
ging, shooting, drowning, killing by exhaustion
and exposure, holding the criminal out to the
public gaze, publishing him to the world by



name and description in its reports when he goes
in, every alternate year while he stays in, and
when he dies or goes out ; putting under foot
every method of reform worthy of prison science,
mocking such intelligent sense of justice and
mercy as he may have, and doing everything that
can be done to make his heart and conscience
harder than the granite of his prison walls. Yet
these prisons are sending forth from their gates a
larger percentage of their populations, pardoned,
than issues in like manner from all the prisons
of the country managed on intelligent reforma-
tory systems. Nor can the fault be confidently
imputed, as is often hastily done, to political
design or mere pliability in State governors.
The horrors of the convict camps, best known to
the executive, the absence of a discipline calcu-
lated to show who is worthy of clemency, the
activity of outside friends usurping this delicate
office, are potent causes ; and the best extenua-
tion that can be offered is that a large proportion
of these pardons is granted not because the
prisoner has become so good, but because the
prison is so bad.

i S 8



This is conspicuously the case in Texas. In
the two years ending October 31, 1880, the Gov-
ernor pardoned one hundred State convicts from
the Huntsville (Texas) penitentiary. Over one-
fourth were children from ten to sixteen years of
age, and nearly another fourth, says the superin-
tendent, " were hopelessly diseased, blind, crip-
pled, or demented, . . . simple objects of pity,
the sight of whom would have excited commis-
eration in hearts of stone."

For some years past Texas has had in custody
about two thousand convicts at once. They are
under the Lease System, some of whose features,
at least, give dissatisfaction to the State's prison
directors and to its Legislature. The working
of convicts remote from the prison, though prac-
ticed, is condemned, and the effort is being made
to bring the management into conformity with a
statute that requires as many of the convicts as

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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 9 of 13)