October 12, 1891

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

 PRISON REFORM

 

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: The subject of Prison Reform lacks the interest of novelty. This is especially true in this community where it has been made familiar by the discussions of the press, of the pulpit, and by the presence in your city of one of the noted penal institutions of our country- an institution with a very high authority. Rev. Fred H. Wines, speaks of as “perhaps the finest prison structure, in its general arrangement, and in all its details, on this continent.” Although the phrase, prison reform, and the general facts and arguments relating to it, are well understood the need for more knowledge, more investigation, more discussion- to the end that there may be a wider and deeper interest, and especially more practical and solid work upon this vital question, does not grow less. The beneficent influences of local, State, and National societies on prisons, and prison discipline and management are plainly visible in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, and other States, but after all it is safe to say that a large majority of the prisoners accused or convicted of crime in the United States are dealt with in defiance of just and wise principles in these four vital particulars:

 

1.      The young and the thoughtless- the beginners in law breaking, and the accidental criminals, suspected of guilt, are arrested and lodged in city prisons or county jails, and there detained for trial, huddled together with old and hardened offenders to be educated and trained in the whole art and mystery of criminal life.

2.      Professional criminals are sentenced for short terms according to the supposed enormity of their respective crimes, and at the end of their terms are set forth to prey again upon society and to tempt and to instruct others to lead lives of infamy and of hostility to the welfare of the public

3.      Prisoners are discharged at the end of their terms under such circumstances that the imminent chances of ex-convicts, with all the world against them, are that they will be compelled to make a living by a return to their evil ways, and be confirmed in their enmity, to the well being and good order of society

4.      Our prisons in many, if not most cases, are under wardens and other prison officers who hold their places as political appointments, liable to be removed without regard to qualifications or experience on merely partisan considerations

 

These four pregnant facts, even if no other causes were in operation, would sufficiently explain the increase of crime in the United States. If the jails and lock-ups in our country - four or five thousand in number- are in truth, as they have been often aptly termed in most cases compulsory schools of crime, maintained at the public expense, we shall have from this quarter alone, an accession to the criminal classes  in each decade of perhaps forty thousand trained experts in crime. Surely, almost any change in dealing with the young-with the beginners in law breaking would be an improvement on the prevailing system. Jails and prisons so constructed and managed as to keep separate their inmates, such as are found in several States, and in Europe, would afford an adequate remedy for the evil. Until this can be done it would be far better to cut down largely the number of arrests and committals of the young.

 

The case of professional criminals has been largely discussed and is well understood by prison officers and those who are specially interested in prison reform. But it does not attract the attention of the general public, nor of law makers. The salient facts are universally known. Professional pickpockets, burglars, and thieves, thoroughly known as such by police detectives, are in all the large cities plying their vocation. They haunt all great assemblies. Recently, at Detroit, on an occasion that drew multitudes to that city, in one day over forty professional criminals were identified, arrested, and held in custody several days until the crowds of visitors dispersed to their homes. No specific crime could be proved against them-they were released without prosecution-but of course no suits for false imprisonment were brought against the officers who detained them. Such facts as these are daily spread before the public by the press. But this blot upon our criminal jurisprudence still remains. Hence the necessity for such meetings as this to call public attention, to arouse public interest, to bring to bear public opinion upon this monstrous abuse. The professional criminal belongs in prison, where he should be kept at work earning an honest living. How long should he be kept there? The answer is plain: until he is cured of his criminal habits if it keeps him a convict until the end of his life.

 

To the unreflecting all this may seem hard, stated bluntly as I have given it. But this is clearly one of the cases in which the way of the transgressor if now safe and pleasant, should in the interest of society, be made “hard.” There is ample scope for the indulgence of humane feeling and the practice of charity in dealing with our brothers, the criminals, in those testing days of temptation and peril when we see our convicts passing out of the safety of the prison into the dangers of freedom. What has society, what has the law, what have individuals done to protect and encourage the ex-convict on his discharge from imprisonment? Is there no human obligation, is there no christian duty to shield, if possible, these victims of the law from the perils which threaten them on every hand? To meet this demand and to do what is needed is beset with difficulties. But they are not insurmountable. The chief difficulty is not in the way, but in the will, to accomplish the desired result. A writer of repute, the secretary of the Howard association of London, Mr. William Tallack, says: “A union of voluntary and individual efforts with official action is very desirable, if not indeed essential in organizing for the assistance of discharged prisoners. There were in 1888 about seventy prisoners’ aid societies in England and Wales; or rather more than the number of prisons.” The government distributes annually about $20,000 amongst the English Discharged Prisoners agency on condition that  an amount equal to the sum granted in each case shall be contributed by local private beneficence. It is believed that the efforts put forth by Great Britain of late years for the aid of discharged prisoners, have materially contributed to reduce the number of criminals. Mr. Tallack says: “Discharged prisoners are a peculiarly ‘feeble folk.’ The difficulties and temptations which beset them are powerful, while their own strength is very small. They need the kind vigilance and wise help of societies and individuals.”

 

Merit, ability, experience ought to be the controlling consideration in all appointments of prison officers. Mere partisan appointments corrupt the prison and add no strength or prestige to the political party that makes them. It was said in the war, a good colonel makes a good regiment. A good warden, with ample power, will make a better prison, even under a bad system, than a poor warden under the best system. The spoils doctrine is nowhere more out of place than when it controls the appointment of prison officials.

 

When prison reform began its work in Europe and America no words could adequately describe the conditions of the prisons in even the most enlightened nations. It was horrible and shocking beyond the power of language to tell. The prevailing sentiment with those who questioned the necessity for reform was that the valid motive to deter the guilty from crime was the fear of punishment. No doubt the dread of punishment is an element to be regarded in all prison discipline. But its power has been all in the past, and still is greatly overrated.

 

In illustration of this point I read a short editorial of the recent date from an English newspaper, the Leeds Mercury, of Saturday, August 29th, 1891:

 

It surely is a long while since there was such a succession of horrible deeds as have recently been brought to light in this country. Unhappily, the North of England has contributed a large proportion of the black list. Last week several men were put to death by the hangman, having been found guilty of taking the lives of their fellows, and it might have been hoped for that a brief time at least the public mind would cease to be shocked by similar atrocities. There has been no respite, however. For some people the scaffold has no terrors when their brutal passions are aroused. There was a servant girl murdered at the Ivy House Inn, Linthwaite near Huddersfield, at the close of last week. The ruffian had stabbed her in the throat after having, it is believed attempted to outrage her. At Stockton-on-Tees on Saturday last, a woman was found in her house dead, and shockingly mutilated. A man with whom she had been living afterwards gave himself up to police, confessing that he had attacked her with an axe while she was cleaning the fender, and then used a knife to  put her out of her misery.’ At Bolton on Sunday a married woman died from a gash in her throat, which she alleged had been inflicted by her husband in a quarrel. The man has been discharged the magistrates, however. On Sunday, at Manchester, a man stabbed his brother in the heart with a chisel. At Burnley a young woman has confessed that she choked her baby, and then put it in a tin box in which the decomposed remains have been discovered. A few days ago the body of a lad was found at Natherton, near Cannock, secreted over an oven in his father’s house. The lower part of his face had been blown away, probably by a gunshot. His elder brother has been arrested. At Hull, the bodies of a young married woman and her child were taken from a timber pond on Sunday morning, and a coroner’s jury has returned a verdict of ‘Willful murder’ against the mother, while finding that she herself had committed suicide. These are only a few of the more shocking cases which have been reported during the week.”

 

Mr. Fred H. Wines says: “All human motives in the last analysis may be reduced to two, namely hope and fear. Of those two hope is by far the greater and most ennobling.” For reformation in prison, he wisely says, the bases are “labor, education, and religion.” To prevent crime – to remove temptation-the same means, labor, education, religion, with the added stimulus which hope gives where employment and opportunity are within the reach of all, will furnish society its surest relief.”

 

Finally, the vital question is: will society take up the subject and see that its representatives and agents who make and execute the laws shall understand and do their whole duty with respect to the causes of crime and the treatment of the criminal? Society and its members suffer greatly by crime, and in every community they are in some substantial degree responsible for the crimes by which they author. Crime, its causes, its results and its treatment are in a very real and deep sense part of the business of every community and of all its members. On this head whenever I touch upon it I recall and quote from a weighty speech at one of our earlier meetings by Governor Seymour of New York. In his inaugural address as President of this Association he said:

 

“We are apt to look upon the inmates of prisons as exceptional men, unlike the mass of our people. We feel that they are thorns in the body politic, which should be drawn out and put where they will do no harm. We regard them as men who run counter to the currents of our society, thus making disorder and mischief. These are errors. In truth criminals are men who in a great degree are moved by the impulses around them; their characters are formed by the civilization in which they move. They are in many respects, the representative men of the country. Crimes always take the hues and aspects of the country in which they are committed. They show not only guilty men but a guilty people. The world deems those nations to be debased where crime abounds. It does not merely say that the laws are unwise, or that the judiciary is corrupt, but it charges the guilt to the whole society.”

 

Society cannot safely neglect its criminals. The cost of crime is a burden on every public treasury, and finds its way to every man’s pocket. Its calamities are no respecters of persons. They reach the purest domestic circles and the happiest homes. The golden rule is as sound in the eye of a true public and private self interest as it is in religion. The doctrine of Cain is no more false in religion than it is in philosophy and common sense. “We are indeed our brothers’ keepers.”

 

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