December 3, 1892

Baltimore, Maryland

 

PRISON REFORM - NATIONAL PRISON ASSOCIATION

 

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen:

 

Fortunate, indeed are the members of this society, organized, as they firmly believe, in the interest of humanity, to find themselves in hearty sympathy and accord with the best sentiment of the good people of the city of Baltimore. Perhaps no other city treats with more tender regard its children of misfortune of all conditions. Institutions of religion and of education, libraries, works of art, monuments of patriotism, hospitals and whatever promotes intelligence and refinement are on every hand. With these advantages Baltimore also has the singular felicity of being forever associated “in the verse that immortality saves,” with the National ensign, which our accomplished scholar and poet describes as the flag that is destined one day to become the most august flag that ever floated in any wind under the whole heavens.

 

Our association is not a stranger in this city. Almost twenty years ago, January 21, 1873, the second annual meeting of the National Prison Association was held in Baltimore. It was presided over by Gov. Horatio Seymour of New York, and he delivered before it a very noble and most interesting address. It was short but dwelt so wisely with the vital questions which society must consider, that since its delivery I have rarely been called upon to speak on the general subject without quoting from some of its weighty and significant paragraphs. He was a statesman of experience, large minded and philanthropic, and he presented in clear terms the claims of this association upon public sympathy and support. He was confident and hopeful. He believed that convicts could be reformed by arousing their hopes and working upon their better instincts. The key to his faith was his own observation and experience. He said, “I have never yet found a man so untamable that there was not something of good on which to build a hope. I never yet found a man so good that he need not fear a fall.” With this faith stated at once so generously and shrewdly by Gov. Seymour we come again to Baltimore. We know very well that with the poor, halting methods which are now at our command, and which society now permits to be employed a large number of criminals will still remain the enemies of society. But we firmly believe that if all our measures can be thoroughly penetrated with the spirit of the Divine Master that no fallen man or woman is beyond the reach of the merciful hand of the Eternal Father.

 

From the time of John Howard down to the present day prison reformers have never enjoyed a large measure of popular favor. They have never been gladdened by any sudden, rapid, sweeping success of any part of their work in any country. If we limit our view to any one place and to any single point of time we shall not be encouraged by what we see before us. But with a juster and broader prospect we shall be stirred and cheered as we discover the beneficent changes which a few decades have wrought.

 

Take two examples. From the earliest days of prison reform the common jail has been an institution for the increase and perpetuation of crime. A horror, a shame and a disgrace to any civilized people. A place where debtors, where the accused who are innocent, where men held as witnesses charged with no offense, where the insane and idiotic, where the young, and where casual law breakers are all herded together subjected to contamination by closest intimacy and contact with old and hardened criminals. These jails have aptly been described again and again as compulsory schools of crime at the public expense. In essence and in fact they are public crimes committed by society against itself. This monstrous evil by which thousands are trained for crime still exists. But the war upon it plainly begins to tell. On the picture that portrays the most hideous scenes and facts sanctioned by our criminal laws a streak of light has fallen. Within a few years – since we met in Baltimore twenty years ago – more jails have been built in the United States, of such construction as to provide for the separation and classification of the inmates than were to be found in all the world before that time.

 

Another example is still more cogent; because the improvement is wider in its spread. Cruel punishments not long ago were deemed essential to maintain discipline in prisons. They were practiced in almost all prisons. No words can adequately describe their horrors. I would spare your feelings and my own. They were shocking beyond belief. And now they are disappearing. They are almost gone. The man who could inflict them would be shunned as more deeply guilty than the convict he had tortured. The sentiment grows and is almost universal in our prisons that cruelly brutalizes the wretched beings upon whom it is inflicted. The false and fatal notion that fear – the animal dread of bodily pain – is the main reliance in the treatment of convicts, is everywhere giving way to nobler sentiments and more humane practices. Our friend, Fred H. Wines, who has such a faculty for speaking wisely and tersely, said in his excellent speech at Cincinnati, “All human motives may, in the last analysis, be reduced to two, namely hope and fear. Of these two, hope is by far the greater and more ennobling.” This sounds the keynote of the reform of prisons and prisoners. Instead of relying on brutish fear the able and successful wardens of the famous prisons of our country make it the first aim to awaken and excite in the convicts under their charge a manly, elevating and inspiring hope. With this, and added to this guiding principle, the true prison reformer labors to introduce the spirit of the golden rule into the whole territory of duty embraced in the great subject of criminal jurisprudence. The prime object is the protection of society and individuals by the prevention of crime. The means by which we seek to attain this end are:

 

1.      The speedy and certain arrest, conviction and imprisonment of the guilty.

2.      The reformation of convicts by the valid reclaiming forces: religion, education and productive labor.

3.      The permanent incarceration of all prisoners who are not reformed

4.      The most effectual means to prevent crime is an unceasing conscientious and wise care in the training of the young.

 

In all of these paths the progress at any given period seems difficult and slow, but in a generation it is unmistakable and encouraging. Leaving to others the high theme – the influence of true religion, which, in every walk of life in all Christian lands, is perpetually and inseparably united to the welfare of mankind, I ask your considerate attention to a mere fragment of the argument which goes to the bottom of the real question, which is: How to prevent the formation of criminal habits, criminal tendencies, and criminal conduct in our American society? If you would prevent crime the way is open, plain, direct, sure. It is as powerful and almost as inevitable as gravitation. The stream rises no higher than its source. But if skillfully confined and conducted it rises to the level of its spring. The young – the young – their lives are the ancestors of all the mature lives that follow. Save therefore the young if you would rescue society from crime. With the young safe all good interests are safe. Here is the pinch of the task. The deeply interesting problem is what can be done? And the answer, brimful of hope, is to be found in another question, namely, what has been done and what is now doing, in a host of ways and places, which was unknown to former generations in our country? Shall I turn for information to the great religious bodies? To the Protestants of every name? To the Catholics? To the Hebrews? If I were to put to them the question what have you done - what are you doing for the great cause of child saving? They would overwhelm me with trustworthy statistics that I could not repeat to you in many hours. Let me restrict the question so as to only include only that progress in the precious work of child saving which comes strictly within the plan and scope of prison reform. It touches all hearts. It will reach all minds, all hands, all pockets. It is the duty – the opportunity – the hope of our time. What a shining inventory it would be if I could read you a full list of all the benevolent, reformatory, educational and industrial institutionsand efforts for the benefit of the young which now engage the attention of the good and the thoughtful in our country. It would remind us of the wide range of topics which must be studied by the wise reformer. We should find in it, “the children’s fresh air funds” of the great cities; “homes for homeless children”; “the care of orphans;” “juvenile reformatories”; “industrial schools”; “ragged school unions”; “the boarding out system”; “the farm home” – but why continue the catalogue? It has no end. If you try to make it complete you will surely omit many blessed enterprises that, on second thought, you will prefer first to name. The children from the schools that marched on Columbian day – how all hearts were moved at the sight of them. The Indians of the Carlisle school marching with their implements of husbandry - what a greeting New York and Chicago gave them. The instinctive wisdom of the popular heart easily discovers the true strategic point in the struggle for the improvement and progress of America and of mankind. It will be found wherever children – wherever the young are found. All good men and women delight to labor and to aid in the work that will win in that field. It lies at every door – is under every eye – and is near to every hand.

 

An able man of large experience has said nine-tenths of our convicts have been made criminals in character or intention, if not in overt acts, before they were twenty years of age. Therefore the training of the young is the indispensable duty and chief business of every generation. Neglect the young and we enter the downward path. Diligently and wisely attend to the young and the temple of joy will open its doors to receive us.

 

I must not leave the discussion of our subject without attempting to spread before you a part at least of the answer to the question: With all that law and voluntary societies have done for the improvement of criminal jurisprudence in the United States, why do we not see greater and better results? My reply is that among our people of American birth and parentage, a careful reading of the statistics for the past generation will show that crime has largely diminished and is still decreasing. Strike from the appalling catalogue of crime in our country all of the law breaking due to immigration of recent years and the claim of Prison Reform in the United States will be amply vindicated. The crimes of Europe are laid at our doors. The traditional policy of the fathers of our country was liberal, generous, beneficent and wise, in the conditions that confronted our infancy in the family of nations. They sought, in familiar phrase, to make America the home of freedom and the refuge of the oppressed of every race and of every clime. In the past I have been extremely reluctant to depart even a hair’s breadth from this traditional policy of the fathers. Confident and hopeful of the educational and regenerating power and influence of a republic where religion and conscience are free – where public schools abound, and where all are trained to rule under a government of the governed, I have heretofore stoutly maintained that our country, without anything more than a temporary inconvenience can absorb, assimilate and enroll as citizens any number of aliens likely to seek our shores. But plainly, immigration, as it exists to-day, is the lion in the path of the progress of America. The facts and considerations urged upon our attention by intelligent philanthropists in Massachusetts, New York, and other sea board States, showing that those States are constantly and heavily burdened, by the shipment to their ports, of chronic paupers, lunatics, and criminals from abroad, have created a wide spread and earnest popular sentiment that immigration ought to be extensively and firmly restricted by effective National legislation. The importance and soundness of this conviction I can no longer call in question. Five millions of immigrants in each decade are now landed in America. A high authority, Mr. Wines, places the number of the criminal and defective classes in the United States at one in a hundred of the total population. The proportion among the immigrants of recent years is believed to be much greater. It has been estimated as high as thirty in a hundred among the inhabitants of some of the European countries from which in late years the emigration has largely increased. Consider the awful significance of an increase of our criminal population, in a single decade of many thousands, by emigration from Europe alone. Formerly the love of liberty and the laudable desire to better their condition were the leading motives of emigration from Europe to America. Now employers of large bodies of men wanting cheaper labor, the agents of steam ship companies, speculators in land in the thinly settled States, stimulated by their greed for gain and worse than all the increasing efforts of European communities to send to America their chronic paupers, lunatics and criminals have given to this question a gravity that has not before belonged to it. It has become an evil that deeply concerns every worthy element of our population. The naturalized citizen, as well as the native born, the day laborers no less than the well to do, are alike interested. The question belongs to no religious sect, to no political party, nor to the people of any particular employment or condition. All who love their country should unite and insist that the reform should be speedy, thorough and complete.

 

One other topic and I will relieve your patience.

 

The full intent and meaning of republican – of free institutions, seems not to be yet fully understood, by a great many good people even in this country. The old world ideas still prevail among us. It is thought that government here, as in the despotisms abroad ought to perform all the duties, or a large share of the duties, which society owes to itself or to its members. I would not disparage the importance of able executives or of wise legislators, but in America, public opinion at last will govern, and the citizens are indeed the sovereigns. If republican government fails in America it will not be the work or the neglect of any chief magistrate or of any congress. If failure comes it will be by reason of the neglect of intelligent and prosperous citizens who are so swallowed up by the cares of business or the pursuit of comfort and pleasure that they are compelled to turn over public interests to the less occupied or less capable. This neglect has greatly increased of late years.

 

Organization is essential to the efficiency of power. With it convictions and ideas blossom into facts and realities. Without it they remain barren speculations. But as so often happens with favorite popular tendencies this one is going to dangerous extremes. In actual practice it is stamping out personal independence, individual judgment and conscience, and the sense of responsibility to the claims of the most sacred duties. The tendency of power is always to the hands of the few – to irresponsibility and despotism. The individual member of the organization is gradually superseded and suppressed in the supposed interest of the organization itself. This is tantamount to saying that the arbitrary will of despotic leaders has taken the place of the legitimate aim of the organization. One of the capital defects of corporations, trusts, and labor unions is their secrecy. They do not take the public into their confidence. Secrecy often leads to crime. For example, consider the crime of embezzlement which has grown to be so common that we expect to see some marked case in every morning newspaper. It is mainly due to the omission of careful, constant and thorough inspection of the work and accounts of all subordinates trusted with funds. This neglect does indeed lead men into temptation and the managers of banks, railroads and insurance companies must share in some degree in the guilt of the men under them. One remedy for this evil thus briefly sketched is found in voluntary associations of citizens interested in the welfare of their less fortunate fellow men where intelligent discussions are open, free and public – where the press and representatives are always welcome - and where the effort and the tendency are to counteract that indifference to the condition of the poor and needy, which is at last the enemy most to be dreaded in a free country, namely, the apathy of good citizens with respect to the evils which do not seem directly to concern themselves. With a vivid sense of responsibility to the Unseen, and a constant and living purpose to aid our fellow beings – especially those who most need our aid, we shall surely find the largest measure of gratification and happiness that belongs to this stage of existence.

 

 

I close by quoting the sentiment of a distinguished gentleman who is the executive officer of the Peabody and Slater Education Funds, Hon. J.L.M. Curry says: “As a man, a patriot, a Christian, I have labored for the education of the Negro. Nor have I been entirely unselfish. For I know we are bound hand and foot to the lowest stratum of society.” I repeat: “We are laboring for the reformation of the criminal. For I know we are bound hand and foot to the lowest stratum of society.”

 

Whittier – our best beloved poet says in his beautiful and familiar hymn:

 

“We bring no ghastly holocaust,

We pile no graven stone:

He serves Christ best who loveth best

His brothers and our own.”

 

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