NATIONAL PRISON CONGRESS

 

November 6, 1886

Atlanta, Georgia

 

When the members of the National Prison Association a year ago at Detroit, Michigan, accepted the invitation of the Mayor and the citizens of Atlanta, to hold their next annual meeting here, they counted confidently on having “a good time” in this young wide-awake and prosperous city. They believed that the welcome of Atlanta and Georgia, would not mean merely that social, friendly greeting, which cheers the visitor who enters a circle of unfamiliar faces and which at once places him at ease and at home, but they also believed the principles, the aims, and the methods of our association would have in this community that intelligent and hospitable hearing which is based on the scriptural maxim, “prove all things; hold fast to that which is good.”

 

The cordial and generous welcome by the Governor and the Mayor, as the representatives of the citizens, assure us that our anticipation will be more than realized. Our hope and trust are that the goodness of our cause will amply supply any defects in our presentation of it.

 

During the week that our meetings will be held in Atlanta-meetings open to all who will honor us with their attendance-the addresses, papers and discussions provided for in the programme which has been prepared for the occasion cover a very wide field. It is altogether fitting and proper that at the threshold of our proceedings a memorial address should be delivered by a distinguished citizen of New York, Mr. Dorshiemer, on the life and character of Horatio Seymour, the illustrious gentlemen who for many years was President of this Association, and was eminent alike as a statesman and as a philanthropist. A perusal of the programme for the week will show the intelligent reader that almost every important topic relating to prison and prison systems – to crimes and their prevention, to criminals, their treatment, occupations and reformation, of both sexes and all ages, will at some period of the meeting be not merely in order but under discussion by members of the Association. I do not, therefore, now enter upon any of these topics.

 

A few words, however, I may venture to offer as to the origin and transactions of the Association whose members have been so heartily welcomed, and as to some of its principles and purposes.

 

The founder and father of the National Prison Association was the late Rev. Dr. E.C. Wines, “the learned, devoted, and persistent leader of American reformers in prison discipline. In 1869 Dr. Wines proposed to the Prison Association of New York, of which he was Corresponding Secretary, the holding of a National Prison Congress, but the New York Association judged it inexpedient to take the initiative in favor of the proposed convention. Dr. Wines was profoundly impressed with the importance of his plan, and after consulting with a few gentlemen in Boston and New York he prepared a following raft of a call for a National Congress: “The undersigned, deeming prison discipline a vital interest of society, as well as one of the gravest of social problems, and, on both grounds worthy of the closest study and freest discussion, cordially unite in calling a National Congress for conference on criminal punishment and reformatory treatment, to be held in the autumn of 1870 in Cincinnati,”

 

The call received ninety-one signatures, classified as follows: Twenty-five wardens of prisons, seventeen superintendants of juvenile reformatories, eight members of boards of State charities, and fifteen general philanthropists.

 

In pursuance of this call was the first National Prison Congress held in Cincinnati in October, 1870. Its most important action, perhaps, was the appointment of a committee to take steps for the organization of a permanent National Prison Association, The objects of the Association as stated in the resolution of the Cincinnati Congress and afterwards in its charter and constitution are as follows:

 

1.      The amelioration of the laws in relation to public offenses and offenders and the mode of procedure by which these laws are enforced.

2.      The improvement of the penal, correctional and reformatory institutions throughout the country, and the management, government and discipline thereof, including the appointment of boards of control and other officers.

3.      The care of, and procuring suitable employment for discharged prisoners, and especially for such as may or shall have given evidence of a reformation of life.

 

A great deal of beneficial work for prison reform has been done by individuals and State and other societies in the century next before the organization of this Association, Surely there was urgent need for such work. The facts as to prisons and the treatment of prisoners during and before that period are strange, unaccountable and almost beyond belief.

 

They are so atrocious and forbidding that one cannot even attempt fully to state them before an intelligent audience like this. Turn to the pages of any volume of history or fiction in which the author dares truthfully to expose the miseries of prison life in civilized countries to the period referred to and the thoughtful and fair-minded will be at no loss to discover why civilization and Christianity have moved forward with such halting steps. Read in McMaster’s History of the People of the United States the state of the prisons only a few years ago in the very communities which we get our favorite systems of popular education and you will turn from that chapter of vile things with a loathing words cannot express. Mark Twain in his Prince and Pauper – a book which old and young find as fascinating as Robinson Crusoe – gives a picture of the harsh and cruel times in England reaching down almost to the present century, when petty offences were punished with death – and when all imprisonment was infinitely worse than death.

A writer in the North American Review of July, 1839, is a very valuable article of more than forty pages describes the prisons of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and other States as they were sixty years ago-between 1820 and 1830. The details are too shocking to be repeated. The results he states can be given in a few sentences. He describes the prisons “as the abodes of horrible sin, and filthy, squalid unalleviated misery.” Again he says “a prison was a place where scarcely any one visited except on official business. *** The result was that a prison became a secret place governed by its own laws, or rather by its own precedents;** an abode of misery in the midst of an enlightened city in which no man not belonging to it had any knowledge of what was transacted behind its walls** Thus it was that every prison in the land was a hotbed of crime. Murders, thefts, robberies, were devised there day after day. Every human being who came within the sphere of its influence of such a system inevitable became more depraved. The very means of preventing crime in fact became the means not only of not only multiplying it, but also of rendering it more cautious, more expert, more systematic and more dangerous.”

 

I forebear to extend these quotations. They afford an indication-a very faint indication it is true of the deplorable condition of prisons and prison discipline in our country and throughout the world when prison reforms and prison reform associations began their work. In America the importance of association was recognized before independence was achieved. Before the organization of this National Society State and local associations were formed, the investigation of prison abuses was vigorously pushed and the publication of the results discovered soon attracted public attention. Great good was accomplished by these societies. But soon after the civil war Dr. E.C. Wines fully informed of the necessities and difficulty of the situation, had the sagacity to discover that with the vast changes effected in the relations of the people of the States by the amendments of the Constitution, and perhaps still more, by the increased facilities for intercourse, that so far as the interests of prison reform are concerned the people of all the States are indeed on people. The criminals of New York to-day may next week ply their vocation in Chicago or in Atlanta. The people of each State are interested in the prison systems of every other State. A bureau of information and statistics relating to crime and prisons at Washington would be of significant value to the country as a part of the Department of Justice. Dr. Wines wisely recognizing the new conditions in our country by reason of alterations of the organic law, and improved means of intercommunication founded and organized the National Prison Association.

 

It has held successful and instructive general meetings in Cincinnati, Baltimore, Saratoga, St. Louis, and Detroit, and special meetings in New York, Chicago, and other cities. Present and taking part in all proceedings of its meetings have been the most distinguished practical experts who have the control and management of the leading penal and reformatory institutions of our country. If you name the famous prisons and reformatories of the United States and the eminent specialists at their head you find you will have named prominent and influential members of this society. In like manner the eminent students and writers- those who have investigated at home and abroad the whole subject of prison and prison discipline are active participants in the work of this association. Practice and theory, experiment and speculation, observance and experience, the man of books and the man of works are found here side by side. No one familiar with the discussions and the papers of the society, can fail to have noticed the increasing harmony in principle, purpose and methods of all the elements brought together in its meetings.

 

Its faith is that the people of the United States are forever hereafter to be more closely united than ever before. We believe that by our institutions and by the nature of things we have and are compelled to have the same interest, the same history and the same destiny. Our union in the language of the Supreme Court, is “an indestructible Union of indestructible States.”

 

We go one step farther. We believe society is so compacted together, that Providence hath so ordained and doth so govern things that whether we would have it so or not we must be and are our brother’s keepers. No man’s family is safely entrenched against vice and crime and the shame and wretchedness to which they lead. Let the outcast and the criminal be forgotten or disregarded and our whole society will suffer from the taint of human degradation. Like a blood poison it will spread through and through the system until it reaches the heart. This serious and mighty truth imposes a duty which no civilized society and afford to neglect. No well informed Christian society ever will neglect it.

 

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