CINCINNATI PRISON CONGRESS

 

September 25, 1890

Cincinnati, Ohio

 

I once heard Rev. Lyman Abbot, addressing a somewhat notable audience, say that those before him might, he thought, properly be divided into two classes—those who had, on the subject under discussion, a theory, and those who understood the facts.  Those who had the facts, he said, therefore had no theory, and those who knew very little as to theories were the men best acquainted with the facts.  That would hardly do, I think as a description of the society that has just been welcomed to this city.  Possibly at the beginning, twenty years ago, that a division would have been a fair one.  Then we had the leaders of the great prisons and the managers and the Superintendents and those who were in charge of reformatories, and they knew the facts; and we had scholarly men, philanthropists, those who had read and studied, and the classes were, perhaps, quite separate, but today, after having met for twenty years somewhat frequently in different ways, those who are the practical men have become thoroughly informed on that which was supposed to be chiefly understood by theorists, and those who were theorizers and speculators and general philanthropists have become, by frequent visits to prisons, to reformatories, and by constant contact with the practical men of prison life have become themselves, to some extent, practical men in the matter.

 

Perhaps the best known member of this society was Governor Seymour, of New York.  He was its first President.  I recollect with the utmost satisfaction his first, perhaps the greatest, speech that was ever delivered to this society.  A statesman, bright-minded and of large experience, a warm hearted, liberal man, looking at those less fortunate that himself as, notwithstanding, his brothers; he is no longer with us—he has gone to his reward—and if he could have been consciously thinking and meditating upon his past life during his later hours, just as the great change was coming, I cannot but think that the work he did in his lifetime in this connection in this society, and in other similar to it—the State Society of New York—could not but he looked back upon by him with satisfaction and gratitude in those last hours of his life. 

 

He, in speaking of this subject, says; “It is not for us to assume we are so far above and so much better than others that we not to be in any way concerned for our less fortunate brethren.”  In this speech he laid down the principle broadly, and with force, that the community, the society in which great crimes are committed, in which crimes increase, are in some real sense, in some real degree, responsible for those crimes; that society itself cannot be separated.

 

The crimes of today are due to the business and social spirit of today.  Consider.  There are two classes of crime in all the civilized countries, and especially, in our own country.  The crimes of capital, and the crimes of sudden wealth; the crimes of those avaricious people avaricious for money, not always want for money, but for the power, the want for the power that money gives; the power over place, over position, over office, over influence, over conventions, over legislative bodies I hope not yet over Courts, but the power of money gained rapidly, not always by the purest means.  That spirit leads to the crimes of those who are at the top of the wall of fortune, not always punished, not always convicted, two frequently admired and envied, and held up as the men to be admired and envied.

 

We hear it constantly said; “You have been laboring for twenty years, where is your fruits?”  The tree is known by its fruit.  Results are what test every human effort, organization.  It is work, it is value.  We reply the productiveness of this country has brought to it from abroad more than an even, fair share of the criminals abroad.  That is one things.  But again, the opportunities here by speculation, by gambling, by every description of illegitimate effort to make great fortunes, leaving others without that opportunity, is a great cause of crime in this country, and then, as I say with Governor Seymour, for all this the community itself is more or less responsible in their laws, in their conduct of business, in their general lives.  What is the remedy?  To do all we can by our legislation, by our conduct and genuine Christian system of regarding all around us as in deed and in fact the children of a common Father—as our brethren.  If I have a great fortune, if all my business is prosperous, is it not largely because of men working for low wages under me, and is it not well for business to pause and think; “Must I not share a portion of the profits of this prosperous business with those who make my business prosperous?”  When, therefore, the community sees and hears, as we do now and then, that in the three countries of Great Britain, France and Germany—and in our own country, perhaps—there are now, perhaps, a thousand firms in which, in some form or other, profit-sharing by the capitalist, by his own act, is enjoyed by all who labor under him.

 

Now to practical questions.  Any system of prisons to be complete and perfect must contain, probably, these things.  The first step of the criminal where the laws takes hold of him is when he is arrested for his first offense.  It is the first step that costs, we hear it said, and in the treatment of the criminal it is the first step that is important.  Let his arrest by managed so as not to encourage him to further crime, but to lead him away from crime.

 

The first step, after he is taken by the Constable or police, is that he is taken to the County jail in the country or the lock up of the city, to that class of prisons in which men are held to be detailed until trial for their crime.  They’re not guilty, perhaps, but they’re accused.  We have in this country from three to four or five thousand jails, lockups, places of detention.  What do we do with the young fellow who is arrested for the first time, for his first offense?  What are these places I have named?  We ought to understand it.  Well, the young fellow is carried where he is, maybe, put into the closest possible association with burglars and professional thieves, the pickpocket, the counterfeiter, the hardened criminal, there to be associated with them days, weeks and months perhaps, to be taught and instructed and encouraged in crime, to hate honesty, to hate society.  And we pay for that academy of crime hundreds of millions every year for these three, four or five thousand jails and their support.  How many of them are fit places for the young man to be put?   How many of them provide by their construction for the separation of that young man from the hardened teacher that is ready to encourage him and to teach him all that he needs to know to be a professional criminal?  Not one in one hundred!

 

We read with the utmost interest the graphic descriptions written by George Kennan, of the prisons of Russia and Siberia.  How easy it is to see the mote in the neighbor’s eye, and not discover at all the beam that is in our own eye.  Suppose some Russian George Kennan should pass through this country and look into all the jails and see the weeping, trembling boy placed in one of those jails in the midst of that circle of vile teachers, to hear the boy taught and suppose he should describe it just as it is!  There would be reading that would be interesting to the American people!

 

Then comes what we ought to have everywhere, what I think we have to some extent in Ohio here certainly, work-houses, district work-houses for those convicted of smaller offenses and where they are instructed in that best, not merely preventive of crime, but curative of crime, in habits of daily industry, of labor with their hands, so that when they emerge they will be able to earn an honest living.  That takes a lower grade.  Then comes an intermediate penitentiary for the younger ones, and that is not found, unfortunately, as often as it should be, and after that comes the great State prison.  That—the latter—should be retained as the place for the incurable, the irreclaimable, the professional.  

 

After all, if I were to talk all night I could not give to anything more importance upon this whole subject than the one idea with which I commenced, and that is the importance of the community thinking upon this subject and considering it.  The evil to be met is an evil that no man can entrench himself and his family against.  Your son and daughter are in danger.  We care nothing for what can be done by the burglar in taking your property, or breaking into this house or that, or picking your pocket, that is small, but he that leads your son to crime, either the crime of capital, which is at the top of the heap, or the crime of despair, which is at the bottom, breaks open the casket that contains the jewel of your soul.  The people of the country cannot think too long and too deeply upon this important subject.  It is worth considering.  As I look upon this audience I see that it is very much of the size of the audience that on a bright and beautiful day twenty years ago, we met in Cincinnati.  There were delegates present from the different institutions, and a few citizens.  The weather is on the wrong side tonight, and I am little afraid that on this side Cincinnati holds its own.

 

For your welcome, the welcome of the State and of the city, so felicitously attired, we are very grateful.  I enjoyed the acquaintance of one of the gentlemen, Mr. Follett, which was commenced a few years ago before we began our organization.  I am glad to know he is with us.  I hope he will warm up, and be more warmly with us in the future.  The City Solicitor—I am very much in favor of Cincinnati City Solicitors.  He is very sound, I note from what he said, on the general question.  That welcome which is valuable is that which tends to assure us that those who meet us and those who see us shall be interested on the right side of this very serious and important question.

 

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