September 13, 1892

Cleveland, Ohio

 

PRISON REFORM IN THE OHIO STATE CONFRENCE

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN:

 

I wish to invite your attention briefly and without rhetoric or method to some part of the answer to the question: Why should good citizens give their hearty support to “The Ohio State Conference of Charities and Correction?”

 

Every civilized country, the world over, undertakes to provide for the children of misfortune within its borders and also to protect the public and individuals from the vice and crime which imperil or threaten their safety or welfare. Every enlightened and wise society makes these two classes of duty the corner stone of the temple of their religion. How extensive this obligation is - what it includes – no man can fully state without profound and protracted study – without the widest investigation – without prolonged and varied experience. The volume that shall contain this whole territory of duty - that shall adequately deal with the greatest and most mysterious questions of this life – the questions of evil and suffering - must have many chapters. Chapters whose mere index of contents no frivolous or hasty hand need hope to prepare. Let me by way of suggestion give some of the headlines showing a part of the topics that belong to the general subject we are considering

 

1.      The blind and their well being from the cradle to the grave.

2.      The deaf-mutes and their training and education

3.      Orphans and all neglected children

4.      The feeble-minded youth

5.      The insane and the epileptic

6.      The poor who are unable to work

7.      The sick and the wounded

8.      The drunkards

9.      The criminals of every grade – the young, the reclaimable, the hardened - from the tramp to a fiend who would burn a city or murder a family.

10.  Men - and saddest of all, women, too – who wish to lead honest lives, - who are seeking work and needing work who cannot find it.

This is but a partial list of the victims of misfortune, of vice and crime, found in the very bosom of all civilized society. How can they be dealt with so economically, so humanely and so wisely as to satisfy the consciences and hearts of all good men and women? Shall we also say, so as to satisfy ourselves if those we wish to benefit were our own sons and daughters, our own brothers and sisters, our own fathers and mothers? Now how is this indispensable work in fact actually done? How is this imperative work of society discharged?

 

I am speaking only of public charities and correctional institutions, and of the legislative and executive control under which their affairs are administered. Their laws, their rules, their methods, in brief the entire management depends upon the intelligence, fidelity, discretion and humanity of public officers who directly and indirectly are chosen at popular elections in cities, counties and states, which elections in the main are merely ratifications of the nominations made by political conventions and partisan caucuses. I would not on this occasion or any occasion sanction by my example the indiscriminate condemnation of public officers and of party government which is so often heard in this country and in Great Britain. Our officials from the lowest to the highest may be taken as fairly representative of the fitness for self-government of the communities by which they are elected. Wherever in our country the people by intelligence, morality, vigilance and public spirit are best fitted for home rule, all the functions of civil government are best performed. Where the people lack these essential qualifications officials are apt to be incapable and unworthy. Public officials in America are, as a general statement, as good as the people who elect them deserve to have. Condemnation of public officers is largely condemnation of private citizens- and of society itself. So of government by means of political parties. We need not complain of it. It is one of the conditions of free government, and political parties are as patriotic and wise as the people among whom they exist. My conviction is that no other great country was ever better governed than America. But the fact remains that hosts of officials who are charged with the varied delicate and difficult task of providing laws, homes, teachers, custodians and practical systems of treatment for the unfortunate and the guilty, are none of them chosen for any special fitness, natural or acquired, for such responsibilities. From the law maker to the lowest executive officer the greater number are chosen because they are sound on the tariff question, the currency question, or perhaps on some ephemeral issue such as the building of a court house, or the location of a county seat. Of course the result is, and must be, that interests which vitally concern many families and individuals and the general welfare and progress of society are neglected or badly administered. The blame for this is not altogether with the officials. They are almost always willing to hear and to give heed to advice and information tendered in a friendly manner and spirit. As a rule they are solicitous to know and to follow that public opinion on which depends their popularity, their places and their pay. What, then, is to be done? The answer – the sufficient answer is before us. This intelligent assemblage, this State organization of men and women, who without compensation are willing to give their time and their efforts to the study, the investigation and the improvement of our public charitable and penal systems and institutions is at once a pledge and an instrumentality in the right direction. In this country ideas are master, if the people who hold them are alive, awake, and determined, If they are indifferent, half-hearted or timid, their opinions, their ideas never become the ancestors of actions or results. Therefore the necessity for meetings and organizations like this. Hence the need for the Ohio State Conference of Charities and Correction. The intelligent self-interest of public officers, just as they are found in Ohio to-day, will lead them to accept and appreciate the friendly suggestions and the disinterested aid of this organization to the end that abuses may be reformed and beneficent changes adopted.

 

The dependent, defective, and criminal classes supported and cared for by the public in Ohio number over 50,000. The yearly cost of their maintenance, food, shelter, and other necessities is probably $4,000,000. The property needed for their care - such as infirmaries, farms, asylums and prisons-amounts to many millions. The expenditures for the arrest, trial, conviction and transportation of criminals and misdemeanants adds largely to the burden of annual taxation. If by wiser methods these classes can be diminished in number - be rendered more nearly self-sustaining, or if even an undue increase of this population can be prevented, surely this subject even in a mere pocket point of view is worthy of attention, These facts which thrill the pocket nerve are mentioned chiefly by way of reply to the possible objection to this Society that it stands exclusively on a sentimental basis. This objection is not warranted by the facts. Our Society in all its lines of operation can be justified to the hard-headed practical man who pins his faith to common sense and to trustworthy tables of statistics. Even in the lowest sense of the phrase it does not pay well-to-do people to neglect any class of the victims of poverty, of vice, or of crime. When we dwell upon the larger and better sense of the phrase - when we think of the awful vicissitudes of condition which time and the irrepealable and irresistible laws relating to human destiny are continually bringing home to stricken hearts and hearthstones: When we give due regard to the fact that in our country all gates are open to all – the gates to paths that lead downward as well as to paths that lead upward - that the wheel of fortune ceaselessly turning carries in three or four generations the lowest up to the highest places and the highest down to the lowest places – that there is truth in the shrewd saying that: “it is only three generations in America from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves.” When we come to scan the actual situation we shall find no man is, no woman is, or can be safely entrenched against the calamities and sorrows that follow in the train of vice and crime, nor against the bodily and mental “ills that flesh is heir to.” Living as we do in the closely compacted, but ever shifting elements of our rapidly growing communities, we are imperatively required to cast aside that cold indifference, sometimes haughty, sometimes thoughtless, and always too common, which rests on the doctrine of the first murderer who asked “am I my brother’s keeper?” If we would sit safely and happily at our own firesides we shall adopt and vigorously and cheerfully act upon the reverse doctrine that we indeed are and must be our brother’s keepers.

 

How sweet are wedding bells – and how sweetly if they are remembered for long years – if- if the marriage proves to be happy. But the unhappy marriage mars the scene and carries grief – perhaps shame into many a family circle from no fault of its own. We need not doubt or hesitate in this good cause. It is in large measure our own business. It will promote our own welfare. If the calamities we would alleviate or avert can never even touch the hem, even, of our garments, we have the consolation to know that we are trying to follow in the footsteps of the Divine Master who healed the sick, who gave eyes to the blind and ears to the deaf and whose whole life and teaching pointed out to us that the surest road to our own happiness is to try to add to the happiness of others.

 

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