NATIONAL PRISON ASSOCIATION

July 14, 1888

Boston, Massachusetts

 

Governor Horatio Seymour, of New York, in his opening address as President of the National Prison Association at Baltimore fifteen years ago said:  “The name of this association fails to give a full idea of its scope and aims.  In terms, they seem to be limited to that class of men who have brought themselves under the penalties of the law.  But the moment we begin to study the character of criminals and the causes of crime we find that we are forced back to a scrutiny of our social system and of the weakness as well as the wickedness of our fellow men.”

 

Again in the same great speech he says:  “We would like to disown our common humanity with the downcast and depraved.  We are apt to thank God that we are not like other men.  But after listening to thousands of prayers for pardon, I can hardly recall a case where I did not feel that I might have fallen as my fellow man has done if I had been subjected to the same demoralizing influences and pressed by the same temptations.”  The theory of Governor Seymour is that the circumstances which make criminals, abound in our civilization; and that crimes are largely the outgrowth of surrounding social influences.  His contention is that “crimes always take the hue and aspect of the country in which they are committed.  They show not only guilty men but a guilty people.  The world deems those nations debased where crimes abound.  It does not merely say that the laws are unwise, or that the judiciary is corrupt or inefficient, but it charges the guilt home to the whole society.”

 

All who recognize and feel the full force of these pregnant statements are prepared to take broad and enlightened views of the question with which this society has to do.  The ordinary convict has few friends.  The general public thinks he fares well enough, and asks ‘Has he not made his own bed?’  Those who would reform him by improving his condition are not engaged in a popular work.  More discouraging still.  They find the great majority even of intelligent citizens almost altogether indifferent to the subject.  What the friends of a wisely humane treatment of criminals and of a more thorough understanding of the nature and causes of crime especially want, is a full and fair hearing—an intelligent and interested consideration of the question.  Hence the organization of this National Prison Association.  Hence this annual meeting of the society here in Boston.

 

All understand that if there is to be a valuable and permanent prison reform there must be a healthy and vigorous public sentiment on the subject.  The evils we deplore and seek to remove are not merely in the criminals themselves.  The great statesman of New England, and of our whole country, whose name is linked inseparably with Boston, in a totally different connection and on another subject, touched with his wonted depth and clearness and force the very heart of this whole matter.  In the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1821, Mr. Webster gave utterance to these weighty but not often quoted sentences:

 

“Our New England ancestors brought hither no great capitals from Europe.  Their situation demanded a parceling out and division of the lands; and it may be fairly said, that this necessary act fixed the future frame and form of their government.  The character of their political institutions was determined by the fundamental laws respecting property. The laws rendered estates divisible among sons and daughters.  The right of primogeniture, at first limited and curtailed was afterwards abolished.  The entailment of estates, long trusts, and the other processes for fettering and tying up inheritances, were not applicable to the condition of society, and not often made us of.  The consequence of all these causes has been a great subdivision of the soil and a great equality of condition; the true basis, most certainly of a popular government.  The history of other nations may teach us how favorable to public liberty is the division of the soil into small freeholds; and a system of laws, of which the tendency is, without violence or injustice to produce and to preserve a degree of equality of property.  Here we have had that experience; and we know that a multitude of small proprietors acting with intelligence, and that enthusiasm which a common cause inspires constitute not only a formidable but an invincible power.  The true principle of a free and popular government would seem to be so to construct it as to give to all, or at least to a very great majority an interest in its preservation.  To found it as other things are founded, on men’s interest.  The freest government, if it could exist, would not be long acceptable, if the tendency of the laws were to create a rapid accumulation of property.”  Mr. Webster, concerned in framing the Constitution of a Commonwealth, already illustrious, and with a great and inspiring future, dealt with these principles solely as he deemed them essential to that object.  He sought to establish institutions, as firm and lasting as the solid rock, and which at the same time in the words of Mr. Lincoln, would as far as possible five “to all men an equal start and a fair chance in the race of life.”  On the other hand Governor Seymour aiming to reform evils in the bosom of a mature and civilized society invoked the same principles to advance the purpose he had at heart.  He saw that the control and accumulation of vast property in a few hands, and the consequent poverty of the many were in their tendency surely directing the march of events towards either anarchy or despotism; and that these gigantic crimes against humanity were themselves the fruitful parents of those other and smaller crimes against society which prison reform especially seeks to remove or diminish.  He thought he saw clearly that any policy of government, any legislation State or National, tendency was to stimulate the greed for gold, the love of display and of luxury in the American people, and which emboldens the desperate speculator in commercial centers to sport with the sacred interests of labor and to unsettle the business of honest industry, tends also to pauperism and crime.  On the contrary any policy or legislation which tends to an equal and just distribution of property among all citizens according to the true value and merit of their work brings strength also to the side of morality and virtue, and diminishes in all directions the danger of criminal violations of law.  Indeed with labor fully rewarded we may confidently expect that the springs of crime will be more rapidly and surely dried up than by any measures whose direct aim is their extirpation.

 

If not mistaken in the drift of what has been said society itself is in large measure responsible for the crimes by which it suffers.  Where men and women are badly treated vice and crime always increase and abound.  The children who have known only want and neglect furnish more than their share of the convicts in all prisons.  Add to these, all who are educated to idleness—who have grown up without habits of labor, or the ability to labor, and you have the lion’s part of the prison population. 

 

In this aspect of the question as to the causes of crime and the whole community is interested in it and should give it attention, and earnestly engage in practical measures for its successful solution.  All who have given the subject the least sober reflection see that when a large element of population is without regular employment without education, without homes of their own, that not only will discontent and crime increase and prevail, but the foundations of stable government and social order will be imperiled.  In our country, with universal suffrage and the other essential features of free government, the causes of crime and the seeds of revolution and anarchy lie close together, and cannot be separated.

 

A generation ago we were surprised to hear from high authority the prophecy of a danger, which is today the darkest cloud in our sky.  It was said of Macaulay, when he died, by Edward Everett, that he was the most brilliant writer of our or of any age; whose works for thirty years have been the wonder and delight of all who read the English language beneath the circuit of the sun.”  Maucaulay leaned toward liberal sentiments.  But referring to American in a letter on Jefferson, written to Jefferson’s biographer, Mr. Randall, he said:

 

“Institutions purely Democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization, or both.”

 

“Either the poor will plunder the rich and civilization will perish, or order and property will be saved by a strong military government and liberty will perish.”

 

These opinions of Macaulay were heard by Americans with astonishment and with a lofty and almost scornful incredulity.  But events with their swift and powerful march are bringing rapidly the nation face to face with the question to which he referred.  It begins to attract, and to command attention.  Indeed, as Jefferson, said of the slavery question, it startles the thoughtful friend of our free institutions, “like a fire-bell in the night.” 

 

All must admit that in a country where the property is mainly held by a few men of great wealth and where the working men have very little education and almost no property, that free institutions are simply impossible.  The ideal community for a free government is one in which all are educated, and in which all are or can be owners of homes.

 

In America, as we approach this ideal condition the foundations of our institutions grow stronger.  As we drift away from it they are more and more in danger.  As long as the workingman can indulge a reasonable hope that by industry, temperance and frugality he can become the owner of a home, educate his children, and lay up a competency for his support in old age our country will continue to be free.  Homes for all and education for all, go together.  People who cannot earn enough to be the owners of homes are doomed to ignorance.  If ever our institutions, our laws and our customs—our social system and civilization—give to those who earn their living by the labor of their hands no such hope, the end predicted by Macaulay is inevitable and near at hand.  Whatever stands in the way of the workingman, who seeks by industry temperance, and frugality to secure a home for himself and his family, education for his children, and a support in old age, stands in the way of republican government in America.

 

Macaulay saw the great question of our time, and especially of our country, from the old world stand point.  With him the object of desire was to protect property, hereditary rank, and special privileges.  In the new world with the Americans, the main object of desire is to secure to all human beings their full and fair share of property, of education of opportunity and of hope. 

 

This high purpose has never yet been fully attained by any government on earth.  Perhaps in the order of Providence it never will be accomplished in absolute perfection.

 

Pauperism and crime have a perennial existence.  They cannot altogether be extirpated.  They will always present problems that will perplex the statesmen and the philanthropist.  This National Prison Association has therefore set forth as the reason for its being that pauperism and crime “are like fires in the social edifice ever kindling in its different parts, which are to be kept under only by watchfulness and care.  If neglected they burst out with the flames of anarchy and revolution and sweep away all orderly government.”  

 

Passing from this general consideration of the causes of crime, and of the principles on which measures for their prevention should be based I wish to speak briefly of some of the specific objects of our association.  The end aimed at is the welfare of society.  The means favored by the congress are just, wise, and humane dealing with all offenders from the first to the last step in their lives.  True prison reform is in no reproachful sense sentimental.  It would watch, guard, provide and care for the criminal at the moment of his first arrest, at the city lock-up, at the county jail, at the work-house, at the reformatory, at the intermediate prison, at the penitentiary, and especially at every discharge of a prisoner from custody—not omitting, if society does exact life, to secure a decent respect and due solemnity at the closing scene.  All this work is eminently practical.  In it there is no place for the indulgence of the sensibilities merely for their own sake.  Al the methods and influenced employed whether in the line of penalties, of rewards, of education or best of all, of labor, should be consistent with and as far as may be penetrated by the genuine spirit and principles of the teachings of the Master.

 

I forbear to enter into details.  It is not necessary that I should.  The peculiar merit and value of this congress is that it secures the presence in one assembly of the heads of almost all of deliberators, penal and reformatory institutions of the United States and of Canada, where aided by chaplains, scholars and general philanthropists, every phase of the subject, as presented in this country and abroad can be investigated, debated and considered.  I now venture merely to touch two or three topics not expressly set down in the program of this congress.

 

From the beginning of Prison Reform in America under Doctor Franklin until this hour the county jail has been in the way of all beneficent progress.  That wretched bridge we do not cross.  One need not describe the average county jail.  It is everywhere known as the training school of crime, the principal recruiting station of the penitentiary.  Years ago the Secretary of the Howard Association of England reported that our jails were “institutions in which the worst evils of congregate idleness, imperfect separation of old from new offenders, and every kind of bad construction are so general as to retain the United States in respect to the great majority of their jails on the low level of Spain, Turkey, Egypt, and other semi barbarous nations.”  No doubt in some quarters advance steps have been taken since these words were written.  Thanks to gen. Brinkerhoff, of Ohio, it has been demonstrated that jails   are possible where cleanliness and order prevail, where the innocent by reason of complete isolation are not corrupted by the guilty.  Better still it has been found that this is perfectly practicable and can be done cheaply.  But the general fact remains that the United States is on the low level of Turkey and Egypt.  The jails constitute the primary grade in our prison system.  The battle must be kept up for their reformation until even the priest and the Levite do visit them.  Let us try to do something to remove this most stubborn of all the stumbling blocks in the way of Prison Reform.

 

Passing beyond the threshold of our prison system it is encouraging to know that as to the higher grades of prisons the world moves.  In all quarters improvement has come, or plainly is coming.  A few words only on the old contention about systems.  The lease system that is found in some of the southern States needs no comment here.  At our Atlanta meeting it was discussed in a most entertaining and effective way by representatives of the States where it exists.  Those immediately interested are pushing thorough investigations and pouring a flood of light upon it.  The lease system must soon go.  But the old controversy between the congregate or the Auburn system and the Separate or Pennsylvania system is still unsettled.  In no sense an expert I do not wish to call it up, but with diffidence, I venture to say as a witness that last fall at the Eastern Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, on a somewhat protracted visit, I saw or thought I saw new light on the old question.  The separate cell admits only a few faces, but enough to keep alive the social instinct, and with books, newspapers, writing materials, and above all with ample skilled labor, the inmate, as I thought I found him, was as contented and cheerful and as likely to improve mentally and morally as the convict to be met with in other prisons.  I find it difficult to think of him as more completely and impressively alone than the man who for days and weeks is in a crowd where he can speak to nobody and where nobody can speak to him.

 

I do not however undertake—I am not competent to decide between systems, but with some confidence I can urge in the spirit of the familiar lines of Pope that “the system which is best administered is best.”  A good warden, with full power, will make a good prison.  Therefore, we must say that the main question in the due execution of criminal laws is how to get and how to keep, in every station from the policeman to the warden of the greatest prison, a man well qualified for his place.  Here again the remedy is with the community, for public sentiment controls.  Let all of these places be made, from highest to lowest, reputable and attractive.  Let the compensation be ample, and the term of Office altogether independent of partisan control if any appointments should be free from the spoils doctrine it is those which are concerned with crime.  Surely here party politics is out of place.  With this principle established by suitable legislation and sustained by public opinion all of these employments gain in efficiency and in the character of those who hold them.  We do not, I am inclined to think, fairly estimate the importance of the police of our cities.  The value of their influence of late years has vastly increased.  In manners, in conduct and character the police force grows better.  Let them have due honor.  Their heroism often rivals that of the battlefield, and more and more we look to them for the behavior of gentlemen.  Why should not the Mayor of the city take a pride in his police force akin to that felt by the Colonel as he commands his regiment?  The police force of our cities are at the critical point in the administration of the criminal law.  By example and conduct they educate.  Let them have every motive to do well which mode or appointment, adequate pay, permanency of employment, and public esteem can furnish and it will aid the friends of prison reform in almost every branch of their work.

 

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  The ranks of crime are recruited from the unemployed and the idle.  Habits of industry draw the young away from the vices which lead downward.  The corrigible criminal can not be reformed without labor, and the incorrigible, labor renders self-supporting.  The theory is gaining acceptance that in our prisons all that can be, should be reformed, and that all others should be permanently imprisoned where they can do no harm.  This last point was pressed with none too much emphasis by all who spoke upon it in our Atlanta meeting.  You will recall the words of Charles Dudley Warner.  “In coming time,” said he, “the world will look with amazement upon the days when it let well known determined criminals run at large, only punishing them occasionally, in short determinate sentences…the first step therefore in the extirpation of the criminals,” and I would add in the prevention of crime, is “to shut up on an indeterminate sentence all those who by a second offense place themselves in the criminal class, and compel them to labor for their board and clothes and the expense of their safekeeping.”  If there is any specific for crime in all its stages it is labor.  The influence of labor in building up character, and thus preventing crime, is a favorite topic with the press and in the pulpit.  Canon Farrar says [?] of Christ “of the first twelve years of his human life we have but a single anecdote.  Of the next eighteen years of his life we possess no record whatever save such as is implied in a single word.  That word occurs in Mark: “Is this not the carpenter?”  We may be indeed thankful that this word remains, for it is full of meaning and has exercise a very blessed influence over the fortunes of mankind.  There has ever been in the unenlightened mind a love of idleness; a tendency to regard it as a stamp of aristocracy; a regard it as a stamp of aristocracy; a desire to delegate labor to the lower and weaker; and to brand it with a stigma of inferiority and contempt.  But our Lord wished to show that labor is a pure and noble thing; it is the salt of life and the girdle of manliness; it saves the body from effeminate languor and the soul from polluting thoughts.  And therefore Christ labored; working with his own hands.”

 

The weak point in the education of our American youth is that the wise words of the press and the pulpit are little heeded in practice.  If the young of all conditions of life and of both sexes were trained to industrious habits; taught some form of useful labor; if education gave them the love of labor, the spirit of labor and the ability to labor, we should soon see the tide turn in our prison statistics.  Instead of a constant demand for more prison room we should be gladdened by a permanent decrease in our prison calendar.

 

I am detaining you too long.  All of these topics will be in order and under discussion in the meetings of the Congress during three or fours days of next week.  Our meetings are open to all and all are invited to attend them.  The general subject is of vital interest.  The evils this association labors to remove reach every household.  They endanger every individual, every family, and the Republic itself.  Whoever shall make a wise catalogue of the chief causes of crime in our country will find that the list he has made is identical with any trust worthy catalogue of the dangers that threaten the perpetuity of American institutions.  The well meaning citizen would stand by his country and her civilization.  That civilization was well described by Mr. Curtis at Gettysburg last week as “a civilization which means human welfare, the happiness of the individual man, a fairer opportunity, a nobler ideal, a more equally diffused well being.” But the citizen cannot by loyal to his country and faithful to her true significance if he neglects the children of misfortune, of poverty, of weakness and of wickedness who are, or who are in danger of being, enrolled in the ranks of crime.  From the earliest dawn of human society it has been an irrepealable condition of its existence that all men are indeed their brother’s keepers.

 

go to top of page