“PRISON REFORM”

 

November 22, 1888

Chicago, Illinois

 

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen:

 

This greeting is more agreeable to me than perhaps you imagine.  The purpose of this meeting is to attract attention to prison reform.  The speeches are of small importance if the attention of the people of Chicago is drawn to this important question.  The State Board of Charities, knowing I was coming to attend the presentation of the testimonial to the worthy warden of the penitentiary at Joliet, who has been called to Pennsylvania invited me to address you.  He is worthy of any testimonial that may come to him, and I am proud to be present.  He is doing glorious work.  It did not occur to me what I was to meet to-night, and it makes it entirely unnecessary for a methodical presentation of the question.  The cause is won when we get the ear of the people.  I am not here to say I am aggrieved at the action of Mr. Wines in pushing me forward.  He seems to know that this question is a kind of hobby, as it were, of mine.

 

The purpose of our meeting, of course is to increase the public interest in this question.  This association, to which Mr. Wines and myself belong, is composed of people engaged in the reformation of criminals and the management of prisons.  It has for its objects the improvement of the criminal law and the procedure to execution; the improvement of prison discipline, and the care for the prisoner after he is discharged.  There is a doubt, I suspect, in the public mind regarding the speedy execution of the law, and the lack of confidence in even, exact, prompt and speedy justice in the administration of the law leads the people to have less respect for it.  I believe the press should give this matter some attention.  What attracts the most attention in the crime recorded in the newspaper of today?

 

What is it we read most about?  The bribing of officers?  The violation of trusts in all kinds of business?  The disappearance of the man who handles the money of the savings bank?  It is the breach of the trust.  Again and again the perpetrators of these crimes find refuge across the line.  The petty burglar we have no trouble in getting, but it is these men who escape.  Can it be that England and America can not command the diplomacy needed to protect the people?  Public opinion will govern sooner or later.  Then, is it not the thing for the press and the leaders to take hold of these questions?  Then what follows when the criminal is captured.  Delay.  Delay in getting a jury.  Men are excluded from jury because they have read about the case.  I don’t know that the law needs correction in Illinois.  There seems to be a fear that the innocent will be convicted of crime.  The danger is in the escape of the guilty.  When the indictment is correct, and the criminal is convicted, and the conviction is proper on the merits of the case, you do not know but that some higher court will set the verdict aside on some technicality. 

 

Public opinion is necessary to correct this.  Let there be a fair trial, but let be a speedy.  Let the public mind rest with confidence in the just administration of the law, and then the public is in a fair way to look to criminals having honest treatment.  I will not go into detail to express the working of this prison association.  In all its meetings are the leading wardens, chaplains, and officers of the leading institutions of the States.  The discussions have led to a marked progress for humanity in all the prisons of the United States.  I can go to the detectives in Chicago to-night and ask, “Are there any notorious criminals here?” “Yes,” will be the prompt answer.  Such and such a one is here or was here the day a certain crowd was in town.  I suppose my friends here can tell of more than six times that some of these crooks have been convicted.  The principle we have reached is, that for the hardened criminal, the unreformable criminal, the place for him is prison for life.  Let your laws be so framed that when the criminal, who has been convicted a second time, is caught again his criminal career will end by imprisonment for life, and you will find that the criminals will go around Illinois. 

 

I am not here to pass on who may be reclaimed.  Divine beneficence is able restore any human being to confidence.  But that is done by divine beneficence only.  The prison can not reform all, and we must not send them out to prey on the community, and worse than that, to teach crime to the young.  I go to prison.  Here the public mind needs to consider.  Crime is the enemy of society.  In the mind of the criminal there is an irrepressible conflict with society.  Now how shall we reform them?  What can prison officers do?  There is one means far beyond any other.  With it many can be reformed.  None without it.  Without it the prisons become rotten.  Chicago stands well in a school in this line.  The Manual Training School.  What is it?  The one thing needful is to teach every boy, rich and poor, by skilled labor to earn an honest living.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  An idle brain is the devil’s workshop.  In the State of New York they say their prisoners shall be idle. 

 

Giving them over to the devil and his work?  We need not stop to ask what the public can afford.  There is one thing it can not afford, and that is to prevent skilled labor in the prisons of the country here is a question of large importance, in which all prison management agrees, and we want the people to know it.  There is another theory about which we all agree.  There is much told about prison systems.  A good warden, with competent assistants, under any system, makes a good prison.  We need good officers to enforce the law at every stage.  I include all, even the policemen.  How important is it that all, from highest to lowest, are competent and conscientious.  I’m not here to say anything for or against political parties.  We must have parties in a republic.  We have doubts about a man who does not know what party he belongs.  But there are some offices where partisanship is out of place.  The prison and politics are terms that have no agreement.  If you want good officers let them be independent of elections.  Let the reformatory, the penal and benevolent institutions be independent of politics.

 

I want to return to the question of the police.  We do not sufficiently regard the grave duty they perform.  The first time an erring boy falls, he falls into the hands of the police.  Let him be a man who knows how to comprehend the situation.  Let it be qualification that gives a policeman his place.  You, here in Chicago, know the brave things the police are called upon to do.  The soldier is honored by all the world.  When he enrolls his name it is for life or death, and if escapes let him be honored all his life, and I extend it to the police.

 

More depends on the privates of the army than is supposed.  Mr. Lincoln thought it was the nameless men of the ranks who fought the battles.  Let us respect the policeman and when we approach him we know we will be respected.  This is not ideal.  Do you remember the police of thirty years ago?  When you have a procession you are proud to put a platoon of uniformed policemen in front to clear the way.

 

Society can not well afford to neglect its weights.  The wretched and guilty are everywhere.  Whether society would have it so or not, we are our brother’s keeper.  Crime and vice reach and ruin the happiest household.  No man can afford to neglect this question.  I think I am looking on 500 people who should come forward and enroll their names on the books of this association.  I hope you will come.

 

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