SPEECH AT OPENING OF NATIONAL PRISON ASSOCIATION

 

November 16, 1889

Nashville, Tennessee

 

Ladies and Gentlemen:  The National Prison Association is nearly twenty years old.  We are therefore persons having some experience in the matter of welcomes.  Perhaps we may say, as I said to our friends at Toronto, two years ago, that we are experts in welcomes.  But I can assure you that, while the welcome of the Governor of Tennessee is in every way a most satisfactory one, it is by all odds the shortest that we have ever had.

 

As I took my seat in the presence of this large audience, I was warned by a friend that it would not do to read to an audience like this.  I was, as you can see, prepared to read.  I am advised instead of reading to make an impromptu speech.  This impromptu speech, is what I must give you without reading.  I see that you are of the same opinion with my friends upon the stand, and, since I am a believer not merely in the power of public sentiment but in the rightfulness of public sentiment (in the long run), I must submit.

 

Being experts in the subject of welcomes, I may say that in the places where we have heretofore met, we have usually heard some account, if the speech was by the governor, of the state; or, if it was by the mayor, of the city to which we were welcomed—an account not always lacking in laudation and eulogium of the state and city.  A very good account is generally given.  But in order to stand on a level with these gentlemen, as other people do who speak in public, I resorted to my library to see what I could learn about Tennessee.  And I learned that Tennessee is really, in many important particulars, unique in its history, in its present condition, and in its prospects.  This summer I had the good fortune to spend several days at a very interesting place called Lake Mohonk, in Ulster county, New York, a place of marvelous natural attractions.  Among the things told me there, I learned that from any of the lofty points about the lake a person with a long range of vision, or with the aid of a glass, on a clear day, can look upon the soil or the mountain ranges of six different states—New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.  But the citizen of Tennessee, standing on his own soil, can look out upon ten or twelve—not little commonwealths like Connecticut, Vermont or Massachusetts, but great states, any one of which is as large as all the states I have named.  Again, it is one of the advantages of Tennessee that you extend to and are bounded by eight different states.  And then, as I read further, I discovered that it is the opinion of people here, whatever the number and however great were the advantages of the states they look out upon, that no one of them has advantages conspicuous over their own state.  In addition to this, we all understand that Tennessee is located exactly, in this continent and nation, where it ought to be.  It is at the center.  As we speak of Pennsylvania as the “keystone state,” now we also may speak of Tennessee as the keystone of that arch which represents a republic, a union, a nation—“an indestructible Union of indestructible states.”  The early pioneers of Tennessee, looking upon the map and finding the parallel of latitude just in the right place between north and south, so that those who should settle on that parallel would be likely to have the best crops of the semi-tropics, the cotton and tobacco of the south, and best crops of the temperature zone, corn and wheat, judiciously so shaped their state as to run lengthwise along that parallel of latitude.  When we look at the state and read farther, we find that the surface is precisely what we would wish, suited to the best crops—corn, wheat, tobacco, hemp, cotton—and so rich as almost to need no fertilizer.  This is the soil.  But under the soil, unlike most quite rich and fertile lands, there is a mineral wealth, inexhaustible and unsurpassed by any equal area perhaps on the globe.  Having the surface as it ought to be, and that which is under the surface as it ought to be, the Tennesseean lifts up his head and says:  To be sure the same heavens are over me that are over the rest of the globe.  But no, not the same air; a purer and a better air and a finer climate belong to Tennessee than perhaps to any other equal portion of the globe.  So what is on the surface, what is below the surface, and what is above the surface are among the blessings of Tennessee.  Then it is in the center of the United States, as I have said, of that nation which occupies the best part of the central continent of the globe, lying between the Pacific on the one side and the Atlantic on the other, the best continent on the globe.  This is Tennessee: the center of the best part of the best of the continents.

 

But Tennessee does not welcome us alone, as I see by this audience.  We are welcomed to Nashville, and that is the central city of this state, and it has its advantages.  In every direction are rich lands and mines and their possibilities, and now, under improved railroad systems, as navigation becomes less, it is the central cities, those that are surrounded by land, which have the advantage over those that sit by the shore of the unproductive sea.

 

But what are these material advantages?  Some friends sent me a magazine—I think it was the “New Englander”—having an article on the educational institutions of Tennessee.  It is not enough, in order to make a great state, to have soil, minerals, timber—to have only material wealth.  At last, the state consists of men and women.  The novelist, Mr. E.P. Roe, says that your best crop is not your cotton, not your wheat; the most interesting and the most valuable crop, and the one having the most outcome, is your boys and your girls.  And Nashville provides for them, and that is in the line of what I am here to talk about, for after all, this whole criminal business is a business of education.  Education, as I undertake to emphasize, is the means by which any prison can best reform the convict.  Better than that, it is the true education, in the larger sense, embracing all that belongs to the moral, the religious, and the intellectual; all that belongs to the character of women and of men.  It is education that makes men and women, and that finally makes the state.  Then we are here in the right place for our topic.

 

Twenty years ago, at Cincinnati, this organization was formed, a national society.  Prison societies had formerly existed in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York; but this national association was organized to carry into all parts of the country the discussions, debates and investigations which should bring people to correct views on the subject of prisons and prison discipline.  And now, what has been done in all this time?  I wish to read what the historian tells us was the condition of prisons in the United States a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, forty years ago.  I read from Dr. E.C. Wine’s book on “The State of Prisons and of Child-Saving Institutions,” which tells the whole story.  I read from the chapter on “Dark Age of Prison Life in the United States:”

 

 

For more than fifty years (1773-1827), Connecticut had an underground prison in an old mining pit, on the hills near Simsbury, which equaled in horrors all that was ever related of European prisons.  Here the prisoners were crowded together at night, their feet fastened to heavy bars of iron, and chains about their necks, attached to beams above.  These caves reeked with filth, causing incessant contagious fevers.  The inmates were self-educators in crime.  Their midnight revels are said to have resembled often the howlings of a pandemonium, banishing sleep and forbidding all repose.  In Philadelphia, all ages and sexes were mingled—the novice in crime, the hardened veteran, the debtor, the wretch streaming with blood from the whipping post, the vagrant, the drunkard, and the convict.  Intoxicating liquors were bought and sold at the bar kept by one of the prison officials; acquitted prisoners were kept for jail fees; the custom of garnish prevailed.  No instruction, religious or otherwise, was known there.  When the first sermon was preached, a man stood by with a loaded cannon and a fuse during the preaching.  In the Boston jail, in one year, a thousand debtors were confined in the same crowded room with a thousand criminals.  Men, women, boys, idiots, lunatics, drunkards, innocent and guilty, were mingled pell-mell together.  No restraint was put upon gambling, foul conversation, or quarreling.  The penalties were often barbarously severe.  During the early history of New York, Negroes were burned alive, sometimes with green wood, to prolong their agony; at other times they were hanged in iron frames, to die of starvation, their bodies being devoured by birds of prey.  In almost every village in the country, the stocks, pillory, and whipping-post were to be seen, throughout the eighteenth century.

 

 

Contrasting the prisons of the United States of today, with all their faults, with their condition then, we are encouraged to believe that the progress that has been made is an assurance, if we but do our duty, of the progress which we can command in the future.  I quote again:

 

 

But why multiply these sickening details?  Let us look now at the other side of the picture, though it be but a glance we can give to it.  It would be impossible, within any permissible limits, to go into any lengthened detail on this subject.  All that can be done will be to state the more important reforms which have been effected, and even this more after the fashion of a catalogue than a description.  Cropping, branding, whipping and torture in punishment of crime have been abolished, with an unfortunate exception in one small state.  Imprisonment for debt is everywhere done away with.  Intoxicating liquors have been universally shut out of prisons.  Penal labor, which in the English sense never had great currency among us, exists in none of our prisons today; but every industrial, or al least productive, labor has been substituted.  Commutation laws, by which prisoners by good conduct and industry may earn some abbreviation of sentence, are very extensively found on the statute-books of the states, and the effect is universally reported as excellent.  There is no longer any mingling of sexes, except it may be in a few extremely rare cases in small county jails.  Two state prisons for women only, and managed by women only, in Indiana and Massachusetts, are now in full operation.  Schools more or less effective exist in many prisons, and are accomplishing a great deal of good.  Libraries very generally exist in the northern and western prisons, and are much prized and much used by the prisoners.  Flourishing Sunday-schools are also now quite common, prisoners’ prayer-meetings have been established and are well attended in several of our prisons.  Judicious volunteer workers are quite generally admitted into the prisons to labor for the moral and spiritual improvement of their inmates.  This is especially the case where Sunday-schools exist.  In a number of our state prisons an absolutely clean record ipso facto rehabilitates the criminal on his liberation, restoring him to all the rights and franchises of citizenship.

 

 

Now my purpose is to speak of three topics only, out of the multitude of aims which this society has in view.  One is based upon this idea: Why is it that there such indifference in this country as to the condition of the convict?

 

One reason, as I believe, is that there is such difficulty, such expense, such delay, in the processes by which we try and convict criminals, that in the public mind there arises a natural resentment and hostility towards them, and we are disposed to say of the convict:  He has made his own bed; let him lie in it!  I believe the public mind would be far better able to listen impartially to discussions in behalf of prison reform, if there was an assurance that justice would be administered promptly, as it ought to be, without being delayed or defeated by unreasonable technicalities.  It is therefore a part of the duty of this association to call the attention of the people to these difficulties, and, among others, to the difficulty in connection with the jury system.  In so far as the jury system in England was a barrier between the despotism of the governing class and the innocent citizen, it deserves all the encomiums that have been pronounced on it.  But in America all this, as I insist, is substantially out of place.  The prosecuting attorney and the prosecution do not represent a despotic power over the people; they represent the people themselves.  The prosecution no longer represents despotic power exercised over innocent people, who need to be protected.  The technical rules, which humane judges contrived to protect innocent men pursued by unjust kings, are therefore out of place here.

 

Let me give you an example.  Last month, in all the newspapers of the country, there was published the statement that, in the Cronin trial in Chicago, 927 men, out of 1,091 who had been proposed as jurors, had “been excused for cause.”  In an intelligent country, like ours, what cause can be sufficient?  It is a rule throughout the United States, (with a few exceptions, where the doctrine I am in favor of has wiped it out), that the man who reads a newspaper account of a crime, forms an opinion about it, and expresses it, is “excused for cause.”  And the man who does not read the newspapers, or does not have opinions upon what he reads, remains to serve upon the jury!  Intelligence is excluded from the jury, which is made up of the ignorant!  Why, the men that do not read the newspapers and form opinions—if they do not do that, that should be cause for excusing them from jury duty.  What is the sensible rule?  Plainly this:  “You have read the newspapers and formed opinions; but, sir, on your oath, can you render a fair and impartial verdict, in accordance with the testimony that shall be submitted?”  and if the man qualifies himself on oath by answering “Yes,” is not he the good juror?

 

Take another rule about jurors, and see if there should not be a change in Tennessee, and wherever there has been no change.  The jury consists of twelve men, and the rule is now that they must render a unanimous verdict.  One of the most interesting men that talks at our meetings, but who is not here now, Professor Wayland calls that “the fetich of a unanimous jury.”  What a temptation, in these days, when wealth can do so much and is so powerful!  What a temptation to the bribe-giver and the bribe-taker is the fact that if you can get only one of the twelve to disagree, you may defeat the ends of justice!  Why, we live in a country whose foundation principle is that a bare majority of the people shall decide the most important questions affecting life and property and the destiny of the country.  A majority of barely one may change it all.  And I happen to know that that one may be very seriously questioned by very good people!  In such a country, where a bare majority does so much, to require twelve jurors to be unanimous in their verdict won’t do.  Suppose we say ten out of twelve.  Suppose we say three-fourths, and then, added to that, the trained lawyer, who sits as the judge, concurring in the verdict, and not setting it aside as against evidence or law.  Why shall not a three-fourths decision of the jury convict, the judge approving?

 

Well, then, we have got the man convicted and sentenced, and now we take the case to the supreme court.  We have had, in Ohio, convictions in murder cases, after long and expensive trials, set aside by the supreme court.  Why?  Because the judges, on the merits of the case, after reviewing the testimony, thought the verdict was against evidence?  Not at all.  There was no doubt about that point; but because there was some mistake in the indictment, because some young attorney did not know all these technicalities, and did not introduce them in the indictment.  Would it not be wise, if, on looking at the testimony, the judge of the supreme court is satisfied that the verdict of the court below was on its merits right, that it shall stand confirmed?

 

There is another subject, about which I wish to speak, totally disconnected with this, and that is the question:  What shall be done with the hardened criminal?  Belonging, as I do, to that class of people who cherish a good deal of hope, even in dark and gloomy circumstances, I cannot say that we are to give it up, that any man is so depraved as to be beyond the reach of the divine beneficence.  But, as practical men connected with prisons, in one form or another, these gentlemen with us tell us that, whatever may be true of divine goodness, human sagacity has not yet been able to find any method or agency which will reform all; that a large percentage of convicts will remain criminals to the last; at the expiration of their sentences, they will leave the prison cell as bad as when they entered it; at the prison gates, they will leave all their good resolutions behind them, and will return to the community enemies to society, more dangerous than they were before they entered the prison.  But we turn them out, nevertheless, and they not only commit crime, but they lead younger men into crime, and so contrive that, while they themselves escape, the younger and less experienced may be caught.  When we get such a man again in custody, we sentence him according to the nature of his crime, not according to his character—not according to what he is, as we know him, but according to what he can be proved to have done.  If it is a burglary, for instance, we give him so many years; and this has to be done over and over again, and always at great expense.  Is that philosophy?  Is that reason?  We should put a man into prison, who is a professional criminal, as a lunatic is put into an asylum, to remain until he is cured.  That means what is called, among prison men, the indeterminate sentence.  The place for the professional criminal is the penitentiary; and until, in the judgment of a sound tribunal, passing upon that man, he is reformed, let him there remain.  Once a convict, always a convict.  This sounds like a hard doctrine.  Is it not in the long run humane?  Remember that every hardened criminal that you send out at the end of a short term, vindictive against society, is a schoolmaster to teach crime to the young about him.  The experience of this doctrine in England upholds it.  It is a wise and true doctrine.  At any rate, it is something for good people to think of.  Let the man, for his first offense, have the usual sentence, as now, perhaps; but, after that, let it be understood that he cannot leave the prison until, in the judgment of those who have carefully investigated the subject, it is safe for him to leave it.  But, if you must let him out, let him go as he goes out now in the state of Ohio, under parole, knowing that he will be returned to the prison the moment he enters upon ways which, we understand plainly, lead to crime.  Under that system, over four hundred have already been released on parole in the short time it has been on trial.  The prison authorities receive a report every month from the men themselves, and from their employers, what they have done, what they are doing, how much they have made.  The very moment that these reports cease, and it is found that the man is going to the bad, he is returned to prison without trial or much expense.  This parole system is another of the ideas that I wish to suggest.

 

And now, after all, the question is:  What is the best mode of reform?  After we have exhausted moral influences, and educational influences, and religious influences, we come to this class that cannot be reformed, except we employ them in productive, skilled labor.  There is a great deal said about this.  Great prejudices are excited in discussing it, but the better doctrine is finding its way into quarters interested especially in the question, and especially well informed upon it.  Let me read you the better opinion from the “Journal of Labor,” an organ of the Knights of Labor:

 

 

“When society finds it necessary to lock up one of the effects of its blundering, it ought to do what it can to eradicate the virus of vice and to enable the criminal to become a useful citizen—a blessing rather than a dangerous curse to the community.  To keep him idle will certainly not do this, neither will compelling him to work at something for which he has neither aptitude or fitness.  Employed he must be, and his employment must be of the kind best calculated to develop the man in him, and repress and obliterate the brute.”

 

 

Whatever specious arguments you may hear against this or that system of labor, do not be deceived as to one point.  It is not in the interest of laboring men, it cannot be in the interest of laboring men, that the convicted criminal shall be supported in idleness by the community.  Labor is for the interest of all, and it is the best method of producing reform. 

 

I go one step farther.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  I know that to speak on questions of education before an audience in Nashville is to carry coals to Newcastle, but let me give one of my favorite crochets, which is that no education is a fit education, complete and perfect, for any American boy and any American girl, that does not fit him and her to earn their own living by the labor of their hands.  I am glad you agree with me.  It saves me the trouble and you the weariness of an argument in that behalf.

 

And now there is one other matter which is not in my paper, but of which I wish to speak.  In our neighboring state of Kentucky, a cruel tragedy has deprived the people of that state of two able, excellent, worthy men, citizens of unblemished name.  How does it happen, and who is responsible for it?  The question has been taken up bravely in that state.  Admirable editorials upon it can be read in the “Courier-Journal” and other newspapers, in which it is proclaimed that the cause of these deaths that brought grief and sorrow to family circles, and to large circles of friends, the cause and the responsibility, are at last in the public sentiment of the state of Kentucky.  Whenever such methods are sustained by public sentiment, is it not time, and is not this the occasion, in view of what has happened there, to reconsider this great question?  It is not at all necessary longer for brave men of the age of those men to exhibit proof to the public that they are not lacking in manhood and courage.  Unfortunately, perhaps, but surely, all these communities have already on one side or the other, had an opportunity to show, and have shown their manhood, and it is not necessary to risk the life of any man—to risk your own life or imperil the life of another—by the unlawful use of deadly weapons, or any mere personal affront by words or writing.  Think of it, my friends.  Let it be understood that every good man and every good woman will sustain the man who refuses on mere personal account to violate the law by the use of deadly weapons.  Let him be held in respect and honor rather than be pointed out as a craven. 

 

More than that.  Is there not a time and a place when individuals must speak out—when governors and legislators, men before the public and private citizens, may say, each for himself, whatever others may do, “I will let it be known to my neighbors that insults given by any man shall not, by me at least, be avenged by the unlawful use of deadly weapons.”  “But,” one says, “it is not for me to publish that about myself.  I need not obtrude my opinions before the public.”  My good friend, you are a lawyer, engaged in court, where controversies must occur.  You cannot afford to wait.  Announce in advance of the offense that you will not indulge in unlawful revenge.  After the offense, it is too late.  You cannot then say it, at least not so easily.  If you do, the reply comes, and it wounds you, “Oh, very conscientious you have become, now you are in danger!  That accounts for it!  It is unmanly fear, and not conscience, that moves you!”  Then, let it be announced beforehand by men who are in any conspicuous way connected with such dangers.  Where a man stands thus, who will insult him?  Where is the wretch who will insult a man of whom it is known that he does not avenge his own wrongs by the use of deadly weapons?  From that moment he is safe from insult by any man that has character enough to insult anybody.  In some way—it is not for me to devise how—this should be done.  I recall, in the history of our country, that remarkable event when a man like Aaron Burr could slay a man like Hamilton.  But from that day dueling, which was as common in New York before that as it is today in Paris or anywhere else—from that day the pulpit so spoke, and the press so spoke, that public opinion was so changed and reformed, that a duel in New York, among respectable men, was never heard of again.  That is the precedent to follow.

 

What spirit shall we invoke to guide all who speak and all who act upon the grave questions relating to human conduct and to accountability under human laws?  During almost forty years it has been the crowning felicity of my life to dwell with a companion, now gone to the world beyond, whose gift and whose delight it was to shed happiness on all around her.  Her joy was so radiant, because her life was the very incarnation of these few humble and precious words, which fell naturally from her lips:  “I know I am not good, but I do try to treat all others as I would wish to be treated if I were in their places.”

 

Surely, surely, my friends, if our laws and their execution, and if communities and individuals can be penetrated and controlled by the spirit of the Golden Rule, a solution will be found for every problem which now disturbs, or threatens to disturb, the foundations of our American society.

 

To those whom we all recognize as lending the chief ornament and grace to every pleasant scene of life, I have only to say:  For these beautiful flowers I most heartily thank you.

 

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