Prison Cruelty

"The prison cannot be changed as long as the old basis of suppression and isolation is maintained"

To the uninitiated, prison cruelty seems to be a rare and isolated phenomenon. When on occasion instances of it become known and the community has its sense of decency outraged, there is generally a demand for investigation and removal of the guilty warden and keeper. With that achieved, the average citizen settles back comfortably into the old habits of life, without asking too many questions, and with the general assumption that, after all, it cannot be expected that prisons should be turned into palaces.

To him who goes into the matter more deeply, there is the added comfort, not only that the given warden has been punished for cruelty,-but that there are legal and constitutional provisions against its reappearance. Our laws provide against cruel and unusual punishments, and to the average mind, with its faith in the law, this is sufficient assurance against their repetition. These facts, added to the infrequency of the publicity, strengthen the general feeling that prison brutality is a personal matter for which particular individuals are responsible.

This is the general view. But to those who are acquainted with prison organization, brutality is a constant factor—constant as the prison itself; and the publicity which upon occasion makes it known to the public has only an accidental relation to the thing itself. It is some fortunate approach on the part of an inmate to the publicity forces in the community, or some accidental trial, such as brought before the public the current charges against Bedford, which makes it evident that brutality exists in a particular institution. It is obvious, of course, that, had it not been for the trial at which the charges of brutality at Bedford were brought in as a part of the court procedure, brutality might have existed for a long period of time without general public knowledge. I am stressing this point because it helps to carry the important fact that cruelty in prison and publicity out it are not closely related.

Historically, cruelty has always marked prison administration. We have records of brutality in prisons stretching over all written history, and including practically every nation of which we have written records. Prison brutality is both continuous and universal. Publicity, public indignation, investigation, removal of officials, and the institution of reform methods have, up to the present time, been ineffective in eliminating brutality from prison administration.

A prison is primarily a grouping of human beings involving problems of cooperation and discipline. As such, it gives room for the play of all the various emotions and instincts common to man in any other grouping. There is, however, one striking difference. This difference is that the man in the prison, just because he is shut out and away from the world, is forced, so to speak, to become a closer neighbor to himself, and therefore exhibits most of the instincts and passions, the loves and hates, the boldness and the fear, common to men, but in a more intense, more direct, and less concealed way. A prison is, in a sense, the greatest laboratory of human psychology that can be found. It compels men to live social lives—for man lives primarily by being social—under unsocial conditions, and it therefore strains to the breaking point those things that come naturally to people in a free environment. The fact that men are more sensitive, more self-conscious, more suspicious, more intensely filled with craving, more passionately devoted in hate and in love, just because most of these emotions are expressed in idea rather than in fact,—makes the prison a grouping of men requiring very delicate and sympathetic treatment. This is the general background which must be taken into consideration in the discussion of prison administration, and in any analysis of the forces that lead toward prison brutality. Like every human grouping, the prison group is complex, and all that one may hope to do in an analysis is to describe what seem the most important elements in the situation.


Our approach to the criminal is the first element in any consideration of prison brutality. It is obvious that somehow or other our feeling about the criminal is different from our feeling about other members of the community. We feel differently about him because we are under the impression, that he is a being distinctly different from ourselves. Just why he is different, or just in what degree he is different, or whether the difference is really one that is basic in the man himself rather than in our assumption about the man, does not concern the average person. We know that he is different. This belief is common to most people, and, in general, it is shared by officials concerned with prison administration.

The elements that go to the making of this attitude may broadly be described in the following terms. The first apparent fact is that we do not ordinarily distinguish between the thing a man has done and the man himself. We tend to translate a single isolated act into a whole being, forgetting all of the man s past, with its innumerable unrecorded emotions and deeds. We make the crime and the man synonymous. In common parlance we say that the man who has stolen is a thief, and the man who has committed murder is a murderer, summarizing all of the man in terms of the single fact with which we are impressed. We thus seem to transfuse the one act which we do not like into all of the man, who may, apart from that one act, be a very lovable person, and we place him in a category distinctly outside the pale of common association and consideration. He is different. Not only different, but he is worse. Any treatment which would seem unfair and unjust for people 'like ourselves' seems, even to the best of us, less unfair, less unjust, for him whom we have classified as different from and worse than ourselves.

To this, may be added three other and closely related influences which tend to strengthen the feeling of difference, and to justify methods of approach which are not in common use for people not so classified. The first of these three influences is undoubtedly the feeling that the man who is in himself bad is socially undesirable. A criminal is not only a bad man in moral evaluation, but he is a bad man socially. He is not fit, to put it in colloquial terms, to associate with other people better than himself, because he may make them bad; or, in other words, he is felt to be unsocial and deserving of some method of exclusion from the community of 'good' people who may suffer from contamination if he is lot loose.

The second, and, to some people, a very important consideration is the fact that a man who is a criminal is not only bad, not only unsocial, but also a man who has broken the law. This may not only involve a very strong emotional reaction for people to whom the law generally is a rather vague and sacred summary of all things forbidden, but it is undoubtedly a forceful fact in the life and the emotional reactions of officials, whose habitual business is centered about the enforcement of the law. A crime to them may, in fact, primarily be a violation of the law. In other words, apart from any 'badness' or 'unsociability' in the official immediately concerned, the breaking of the law may in itself create an emotional bias sufficient to carry a condemnation which, to ordinary people, is carried by 'badness' and 'social undesirability.

There is yet a third element, which, in a measure differing in different groups, contributes materially to the general conviction that the criminal is a sinful and vicious person. I refer to the general confusion in the minds of religious people between crime and sin. While not all crimes are considered sins, and not all sins are recognized as crimes, yet for most purposes there is a sufficient overlapping to add the flavor of sin and its consequences to the act of the criminal.

A criminal, to the ordinary person, is thus bad, unsocial, a violator of law, and a sinner as well. Provision is made in these four categories for the possibility of condemnation by almost every member of the community.

I have placed these considerations first, not because they are first in importance, but because they tend to define the approach toward the criminal, on the part of the officials who are to care for him during the period of punishment, expiation, or reform, or whatever you choose to consider the purpose of confinement. I say the purpose of confinement, because in ordinary criminal procedure confinement comes first and is the basis for punishment or reform.


The function of the prison is to keep the men confined. The function of the warden is to make sure that the purpose of the prison is fulfilled. He is primarily a jailer. That is his business. Reform, punishment, expiation for sin--these are social policies determined by social motives of which he, as jailer, becomes the agent. He is a jailer first; a reform­er, a guardian, a disciplinarian, or anything else, second. Anyone who has been in prison, or who knows the prison regime, through personal contact, will corroborate this fact. The whole administrative organization of the jail is centered on keeping the men inside the walls. Men in prison are always counted. They are counted morning, noon and night. They are counted when they rise, when they eat, when they work, and when they sleep. Like a miser hovering over his jingling coins, the warden and the keepers are con­stantly on edge about the safety of their charges---a safety of numbers first, of well-being afterwards.

This leads to some very important consequences. It is the core of the development of prison brutality. It feeding basis upon which a number of other important elements tending in the direction of brutality depend. The warden is human. Being human, he is strongly inclined to follow the path of least resistance. And the path of least resistance, in the light of the ordinary understanding of a prison warden, is to make jail-breaking hard, by making the individual prisoner helpless.

One of the ways of making it easy for the warden to keep the prisoner safely, is to prevent all possibilities of collusion among the criminals. He knows them to be dangerous and bad men, whose interests are diametrically an opposed to his. They are interested in freedom. He is interested in keeping them confined. Collusion is the greatest danger to the warden's programme. Collusion may be the means toward escape—this is the great fear of the warden. So he does what administrative interests direct under the circumstances. He attempts to isolate the individual from the group. It is easier to deal with one individual criminal than with a whole prison of criminals. And so the warden tries to achieve all the benefits of isolation, of solitary confinement, in fact, if not in form.

That this is the warden's purpose is made evident by a consideration of the facts. At Blackwell's Island, for instance, we were not allowed to have pencils or paper or thread in our cells, because these might become the instruments of communication with other prisoners. The rule of silence is another illustration of the general insistence upon isolation for the individual prisoner. I am not forgetting that isolation was at one time considered a reform; that the good Quakers who introduced it were convinced of the benefits of silent communion with one's self and of meditation upon one's place and fortunes in the world. Be the cause that brought isolation into prison what it may, to the warden it is a method of administrative efficiency which has little relation to the original purpose which made isolation an ideal. But isolation, suppression, the denial of association, of communication, of friendships, are things that men cannot accept in their completeness without resistance. Men resist isolation as men resist death, because isolation, complete denial of social relations with the group, is a kind of death. It leads to a gradual disintegration of self, a distortion of the mind, and to the deterioration of all that one hold valuable in personality. Sociability becomes to the prisoner the means of sustaining a semblance of normality in an abnormal environment. It is an instinctive adjustment, and is vividly insistent just in the degree in which it is suppressed. There is no room for compromise in that issue between the warden and the prisoner. The warden wants isolation. The men must have group-life. This fact has interesting results: it makes for the growth of a definitely two-sided social organization. There is routine, discipline, the formal, methodical aspect of the prison life which centers about isolation and safety of confinement for the prisoner; and its opposite—insistent, ingenious group organization and group—life within the sphere of isolation controlled by the administrative machine in the prison.

A visitor entering the prison sees one side—the formal, stiff, and disciplinary side of the prison. The prisoner knows the other. To the visitor there exists nothing but what is apparent. And what is apparent is formality, uniformity, evenness, and lack of variation. Everything looks alike.

And everything runs by the clock, the bell, and the command of the keeper. The rest is silence. It is the disciplinarian's ideal.

But inside of this formal organization there exists a humming life—a life of ingenuity and association. Right under the eye of the authorities, in spite of all the restriction imposed, in spite of the constant watchfulness, in spite of the insistence upon isolation, the men manage to find a means and method of achieving cooperation. Anyone who has been in prison can recall a thousand, ways of associating with the other prisoners. The prisoners break every rule in the prison. They talk, they communicate with each other, they exchange articles, and they even publish newspapers, in spite of all the attempts at isolation. They do it because they must. Never yet has there been a prison régime that successfully suppressed association. Not even solitary confinement does that.

In my own prison experience there are hundreds of instances which illustrate this constant violation of the rules, and the irresistible insistence upon association in some form. We were not allowed to communicate with each other, or to possess pencil or paper in our cells. But he was a poor-prisoner, indeed, who had not a little pencil and a scrap of paper hidden in some crevice of the wall. As for communication, the methods are as varied as the day. For instance, one of the boys would steal a colorless ball of thread from the shops, and when stepping 'Into the cell for the night, would slip an end to the man behind him, and that man would pass it on until it reached the end of the gallery; thrown on the floor, drawn against the wall, and tied inside a cell at each end of the gallery, it would serve as a successful means of communication throughout the night. All one had to do was to tie a slip of paper with the cell-number to the thread and give it a few jerks, and it would be passed on until it reached the designated cell.

Another instance illustrative of the insuppressible sociability of prison life is to be found in the following personal experience. Having been placed in solitary confinement and kept there for some weeks, and being denied the right to smoke, I was regularly supplied with tobacco in spite of all rules, and in spite of all watchfulness. But more striking than this is the story of a piece of pie that was sent to my cell. One of the boys working in the keepers' mess-hall decided that I ought to have a piece of pie. Pie was served only twice a year in that prison, on very special occasions. I had the two legal pieces of pie and one illegal piece, the piece of pie stolen from the officers' mess-hall by a prisoner. He placed it in a bag and put my cell number on it. As I was in solitary confinement and he was working outside the prison proper, the piece of pie must have traveled some three days and gone through many different hands; and yet it reached me without mishap, though in a rather dried and crushed form. As pie it tasted very good; but it tasted better still because it illustrated the intense social character that is characteristic of a prison group. It must be remembered that pie was rare to all the men, and that it would have tasted equally sweet to any one of them, and yet they passed it on without eating it.

The breaking of the rules is constant, discovery frequent, and punishment follows discovery. To the warden discovery spells lack of discipline, lack of isolation, danger of collusion. It means that there are not enough rules and that there ought to be greater strictness. It means that the danger of collusion is serious and must be prevented. It does not mean to him that there must be association. So the rules are made more numerous, the discipline stricter, and the punishment more severe upon each hatred on the part of the prison group discovery of a new violation. But to the more constant, and irritation more prisoner punishment only intensifies the need for association. Punishment takes the form of a greater isolation, of more suppression, and for the prisoner has the result of greater discontent, more bitterness, and the greater need for friendship, for communication, and the very pleasures of attempted association, in spite of opposition. This simply means that the more rules there are, the more violations there are bound to be; and the greater the number of violations, the more numerous the rules. The greater the number of violations, the more brutal the punishments; for variety of the punishments and their intensification become, in the mind the warden, the sole means of achieving the intimidation of the prisoner by which he rules.

Brutality leads to brutality. It hardens official and inmate alike, and makes it the ordinary and habitual, method of dealing with the criminal. It adds hatred to the prisoner’s reaction against the individual official, and makes the individual official more fearful, more suspicious, more constantly alert, and develops in him a reaction of hatred against the prisoner, making the need for brutality the greater and its use more natural. This general consequence holds true for the whole prison. The punishment of the individual prisoner develops with in the whole prison a feeling of discontent and hatred because of the natural sympathy which the prisoners feel for one who they know t be mo more guilty than themselves; and particularly because solidarity of feeling is in proposition to individual physical helplessness. This adds to the tensity of the situation in the prison, adds fuel to the discontent, and makes the need for isolation in the light of the warden's disciplinary measures more justified, brutality more normal, hatred on the part of the prison group more constant, and irritation more general.

The use of brutality on the part of the warden comes as a comparatively natural process. It becomes a matter of administrative procedure and a normal expectation on the part of the prisoner. If the warden is to punish the man for violating the rules, his field of operations in very limited

The rules being numerous, the violations corresponding to their number, the bitterness increasing with the rules and their violations, all tax the ingenuity of the prison officials in meting out punishments that  will fit the crimes. The men in prison are already deprived of most of the privileges and rights which are ordinarily possessed by the free man. They cannot be taken away as punishment, for they are not there. The only thing at hand for the prison officials upon which to exercise their authority is the prisoner’s flesh and bones. They cannot deprive him of his property, for stone walls do a prison make. They cannot deprive of his property. In prison most men are equally propertyless. The privileges are few, and not sufficient to satisfy the need for punishment, Nor is there that dignity and social status which among free men may be used for purposes of control. Men in prison are not sensitive about their social standing. They have a social status all their own, it is true. But this is increased by punishment; for the punishment gives the prisoner a standing and honor in a prison community which is enjoyed among free men by a martyr in a good cause. The man must be punished. And this being the situation for which procedure must find a method—the dark cell, starvation for days at a time, beating, strait-jacketing, handcuffing, hanging to a door, or lifting from the floor becomes the immediate, instruments at hand. They become so through the limitation of the field of punishment. The habitual use of physical manhandling requires intensification to carry out the purpose of intimidation by which the prison authorities operate. In addition, the physical manhandling of the human body tends to develop an indifference to human. suffering and a craving for the imposition of cruelty, which increases with the exercise of brutality.

This is the general setting for the development of other phases of cruelty and brutality. A prison, just because it centers on keeping the prisoner from escaping, succeeds not only in keeping the prisoner inside the walls, but in keeping the sun out. A prison is a dark, damp, and cheerless place.


The harshness, silence, twilight, discipline hold true, not only for the prisoner, but also for the keeper. The keeper, too, is a prisoner. He is there all day long, in this atmosphere of tense emotional suppression and military discipline, and, in addition, he is generally there at least two nights a week when on special duty. He is a prisoner. For him there is little beyond the exercise of power. This exercise is a means of escape and outlet, but it is not a sufficient means. It does not make the keeper a happy person. It makes him a harsh and brutal one. The keeper subjects the prisoners to military organization, but he himself is subjected to a rule. In the prison as he is all the time, in constant contact with the prisoners, of whom he sees more than of his own wife and children, his contact is chiefly physical. He has no social relations with them. The military discipline which he is subjected makes that a primary rule of procedure on the part of the keeper. The warden is not only afraid of collusion among the prisoners, but he is also afraid of collusion between the prisoners and the keepers. The general rule is that a keeper must not speak to a prisoner except on strictly official business, and then the words must be few and to the point. This is the ordinary rule, and the violation of it in the more strictly disciplinary prisons is followed by immediate and summary punishment.

There is, however, another reason why the keeper does not associate with the prisoner. After all he is a keeper, an official, a good man (at least in his own judgment). Whereas a convict is a criminal. For his own clear conscience' sake the keeper must, and does instinctively, make a sharp distinction between himself and the man whom he guards. This distinction in the mind of the keeper is absolutely essential. It is essential because we cannot brutally impose our will upon our equals and betters. We can do it only to those whom we believe to be inferior,—different,—and not as good as ourselves. In particular, it is helpful if to this feeling there is added a personal element of hatred. It all tends to make brutality there at least two nights a week when easier and more natural.

The keeper, of course, does not know all this. He does not see that his hatred power. The keeper, of course, does not know all this. He does not see that his hatred and contempt for the prisoner is a shield for his own conscience and a cover for his own morality. He believes the prisoner to be worse, just because he is a prisoner. This makes association between the prisoner and the keepers almost impossible, except as it expresses itself in dominance. The keeper succeeds in making a gap between himself and the prisoner, and the gap is filled by contempt.

But the prisoner is not at all ready to make the concession of inferiority. In fact, the prisoner feels that he is much better than the keeper and certainly as good as most other people in the community. This is the prisoner’s morality. To him—and within his experience there is room for reasonable conviction that all people are crooked, and that the chief distinction between himself and the others is that he has been caught and the rest are still to be caught. For if a man is not a thief he is a fool, or a poor 'simp' like the keeper, who cannot make a living at anything except torturing better and smarter men than himself.

I say this feeling on the part of the prisoner is understandable in the light of his experiences. The people with whom he has associated, the police who have hounded him, the lawyers who have prosecuted or defended him, the courts instrumental in jailing him, and the keepers who guard him are, as he well knows, and have been on occasion, subject to proper influence--'proper' meaning safe and remunerative approach. That being the case, the prisoner is convinced, generally speaking, that his conviction and sentence are unjust and unfair; that he is in a way a martyr; that justice and decency are on his side; and that the poor ignorant and simple-minded 'screw' knows nothing but brutality, is simply a person beneath his own class and worthy of nothing but contempt. The gap which the keeper fills on his side is on the other side filled to its limit by the prisoner.

It is necessary fully to understand what all this means to the keeper, and its consequence upon his mental- development. Most keepers enter prison as young men, long before maturity and experience have given them that larger and more sympathetic insight and understanding which come to most men as they grow older. They become the keepers of other men when they themselves are still immature and undeveloped. They are thrown into an atmosphere that tends to stifle initiative and personal activity of any kind. They are pressed from the bottom by their charges, and from the top by their superiors. They are in a vise that stifles, cramps, and destroys all spontaneity in their being, long before it has reached its full growth. Not being free men, in the sense that men are free in their work; not being able to play and laugh and associate humanly with the people with whom they are in the most constant companionship, they are not likely to be social. The suppression and the lack of personal freedom, the monotony of their existence, the constant atmosphere of hatred, suspicion, and contempt, tend to contort, to twist, and to make bitter the attitude of the keeper toward his charges. The only relation he can have with them is that of dominance, and the only pleasure and play he can get, the only exercise of initiative at his disposal, comes through the imposition of authority. He needs pleasures, because all men need pleasures; but his pleasures become, through the prison machine, the exercise of brutality for him and pain for others.

These two elements—the exercise of authority and the resulting enjoyment of brutality—are the keynote to an understanding of the psychology of the keeper. They are both the result of the prison organization, and both feed upon suppression. The exercise of authority has a very peculiar influence on most men. It tends to make them domineering, abrupt, harsh, inconsiderate, and terribly opinionated. This is true to the nth degree in prison. In the outside world, authority is limited by the freedom of the subject. In the army, the soldier can always desert; in the factory, he can always quit his job. Both of these have obvious limitations, but they are not limitations that are absolute. They can be overcome in despair, in anger, or in disgust. But in prison there is no escape from authority. The authority of the keeper and the warden is absolute, and the weakness and helplessness of the prisoners are absolute. What this means is that the influence of authority tends to show itself more quickly and more conspicuously and more effectively in the prison than it does in any other organized community. The influence of domination upon those who exercise power is apparently proportioned to the weakness of. those on whom the power is exercised.

Let me illustrate: I remember one day a young Irish lad was brought as a keeper into our prison. He was a small, thin-faced lad of about twenty-one. He had a coat some three sizes too large for him and a cap that reached down over his eyes. When he first made his appearance inside the walls, standing beside a long row of marching men in gray, he made a very pitiful sight. His face was a little pale, his shoulders stooping, his coat slipping down (because it was top large), his feet drawn together, a club hanging limply between the legs, his head down, his eyes on the ground. He seemed very much frightened, indeed, apparently fearing that these terrible men in gray would jump at him and bite him. But in time, as the boys who marched by smiled rather humorously at his obviously frightened appearance, he began to straighten out, to raise his eyes, to move his cap slightly upward. This change of appearance was visible from day to day. The cap moved just a little higher and he raised his eyes a little farther off the ground, his feet were a little more apart, his shoulder’s a little straighter, and his limp club began to swing a little more everyday.

In two months young Kelly was a new man. He strutted like a peacock in his morning glory. His shy, rather frightened expression had been replaced by a harsh, domineering, rather cynical one, with just a little curl of the lower lip to the right of his mouth. He became the worst guard we had in prison. He was the youngest guard we had there. They all become a little more cautious when they become older, because they find that a prisoner may on rare occasions have a 'come back'; but it takes time to learn that, and Kelly had not learned it. He became the most hated man in prison, and actually drove a gang under his charge into mutiny, so that they nearly killed him. After that Kelly was a little more cautious. He exercised his brutality on the isolated individual and was more circumspect with the group.

I have gone to this length to describe a change which took place in that boy, because I am convinced, both from observation and from what I know of prisons, that this is a fairly characteristic consequence due to the exercise of dominance within prison walls.


The prisoner gets some pleasure trying to beat the rules of the game laid down by the prison administration. These facts, combined with the morbid lonesomeness of an isolated prison community, with the intensity of the atmosphere, make the need for excitement a physical craving, at least, for some of the guards. There is thus a passion developed for cruelty in prison on the part of the keeper, which is unmistakable, and for which testimony is to be found in almost every prison memoir and the report of almost every investigation of prison cruelty. Nothing can explain the ingenious tortures, the readiness and almost the pleasure with which they are inflicted, except a strong desire in terms of emotion (rather than reasonable conviction of their utility) for their imposition. Hanging people by their wrists, handcuffing them to their doors, making them wear head­-cages chained around the neck, beating them with clubs and doing other brutal things cannot be explained in terms of discipline or its effectiveness. This seems especially true when the evidence of brutality is set against the psychology of the man who has been a practitioner of that type of brutality for many years. Let me describe one in stance of what was, undoubtedly, cruelty of this particular type. 

In the 'cooler' of Blackwell’s Island we had a keeper whose business it was to look after the men in that particular place. He was a tall, lanky, slim, pale-faced person, with a bald head, except for the fringe of yellow hair hanging loosely down the back of his head. His general name in the prison was 'String Beans,' because he looked like a string bean,—-long, lean, and crooked, except that he was yellow rather than green. His special name, the name given him by the boys in the cooler, was the 'Chippie Chaser.' He had a very long face, with a mouth that hung down and had no teeth in it, and eyes that were inside of his head, just a little green and rather small. He looked, as a matter of fact, the nearest thing to a copy of the proverbial devil, or what might have passed for his assistant, that I have seen outside of a picture book.

I do not want to be unkind to the 'Chippie Chaser? He had been a keeper for twenty years; practically his whole life had been passed in looking after, men in their weakest and in their most brutal moments. He had been, for a long time, in charge of the confinement of the men in the cooler, or in the dark cell, before the cooler took its place, and his contact with the men was in their most helpless and least interesting moments. Confined in this little room of twenty-eight cells, locked away from the rest of the prison, his was a very dull and monotonous life. I was there fourteen days as a prisoner, but he had been there for many years as a keeper, and it is not the place where a man can keep his senses in a normal state over a long period of time. Men are put in the cooler for special discipline, and in. this particular case the discipline took the form of depriving us of our beds, our clothing (except pyjamas), our food, except two slices of bread and a gill of water every twenty-four hours, and of keeping us there until we were broken in spirit or succumbed to the gnawings and deterioration of a hungering body. It was his business to care for us and those like us who had been there before throughout the years. It was not a pleasant job and it did not tend to make a pleasant man.

We called him the 'Chippie Chaser' because he used to chase the little birds off the window that would occasionally come there with early morning and chirp a morning song. To a man in the cooler, hungry and unwashed, with a broken body and a sick, melancholy soul, a cheering note from a little bird was a very pleasant sound. It used to refresh and lighten our' burden. He knew it. That is why he chased the birds away. We knew that was why he did it, and we cursed him. But the more we cursed, the happier he seemed to be. He had developed a desire, apparently, to make us curse, to make us suffer, to exasperate us, if he could. If the bird did not provide the occasion, he would find other means to provoke us. He would stand down there on the floor and look up at us on the galleries, each one of us standing against the barred door, straining our necks to look out, and he would call us every name that he could think of. He would say things to us that cannot be said anywhere but inside a prison, where men are locked safely behind their bars. He knew a great many vile names—he had spent many years in an atmosphere where adjectives of human disrepute were a specialty. And we would say them back. But we who were hungry and weak would soon tire of this game, and, leaving the honors to him, would retire to our corners exhausted.

At times, however, not having had enough excitement, he would take a pail of cold water and spill it into the cell of one of the boys. It must be remembered-that we slept on the floors, that for greater comfort the floors were hilly and the water would not all run out, that the windows were kept open, and that it was cool at night. A pail of water did not tend to add to-the comfort of the situation. We responded in the only way we could—by exasperation. We howled and screeched, gritted our teeth, grabbed our buckets and slammed them against the doors, raising a desperate, maddening sound, that must have been heard in heaven. And he, standing down there looking up at the galleries where the men were foaming at the mouth with exasperation, would rub his hands, open-his toothless mouth, and shout above the din of the banging buckets against the iron doors, 'This is hell and I am the devil.'

I take it, of course, that this is probably an unusual example of cruelty. But if it is different, it is different only in degree and not in kind from other types of prison cruelty. Prison organization, being what it is, leads to cruelty, and the cruelty tends to vary in form and particular emphasis with the special person who exercises it.

It must be remembered that to all of this there is to be added the fact that men who live in small cells, on poor food, without sufficient exercise or air, without the soothing influence of wife or family, in an atmosphere of suppression and extreme self-consciousness, become weak and sensitive. They tend to exaggerate the importance of little things, their nerves are on edge, and their response to imposition, even of the slightest degree, is likely to be disproportionately intense. All this only goes to make each little rule, which seems unimportant and of no consequence to an outsider, a heavy and unsupportable burden to the prisoner.


There is at least one more element to be considered in the discussion of prison cruelty: the relation of the well-intentioned warden to this whole scheme of rule and discipline. The better intentioned the warden is, the more likely is he to become cruel, if he maintains the old prison organization. He generally comes into prison a comparatively ignorant man in so far as the real significance of prison organization is concerned. He knows very little about the actual workings and consequence of the prison r6gime. He comes, generally, with the same attitude toward the prisoner that is characteristic of most people. The men are bad and he is going to reform them. Not understanding the vicious circle of prison isolation and its results, he assumes that reform consists in the changing of a few of the more stupid rules, and that in doing so he will have laid the basis of complete regeneration of the prisoner.

But this is, of course, an idle dream. The prison cannot be changed as long as the old basis of suppression and isolation is maintained; and he finds to his dismay that the men do not reform; in spite of his good intentions, the men continue breaking the rules. He does not know that they must break them, so he thinks they break them because they are bad. He is a conscientious person. He means well by the community. He is outraged at a lack of gratitude on the part of the men. He becomes convinced that there are a few men who are incorrigibles, and that these few must be made a lesson of for the greater benefit of the rest. So he falls back into the older ways. Were he an indifferent man instead of a reformer, he would let things go their way and not be oversensitive about them; but just because he is sensitive, just because his intentions are good, just because he means well, he has a tendency to lose his temper, to damn the fellow who would take advantage, as he puts it, of his own good-nature, and his cruelty rises with his good intentions. I do not say reflection is cruel; all I say is that he means well and his cruelty is only an indirect reflection of his good intentions.

This point may seem strange, because good intentions are in themselves held, as a general rule, in such high esteem. In prison organization, however, what is important in the consideration of cruelty and its development is the fact that the old prison system exists in terms of suppression and isolation of the individual and in a denial of a social existence; and just so long as this is the major fact in prison adminis­tration, just so long is cruelty inevitable, and just so long can the cruelty phenomenon not be eliminated by a few changes in rules and regulations.

The chief merit, from this point of view, of Thomas Mott Osborne's work lies in the fact that the emphasis, instead of being upon isolation, is upon sociability; that through self-government the men are given an ever-increasing degree of inter-relationship and communication, association, group problems and esprit de corps. This, simply means that the prime cause of the development of the cruelty phenomenon ceases to operate, because isola­tion from the group ceases, and the less isolation and suppression, the less hatred, bitterness, lonesomeness, morbid self-consciousness, and moodiness; the less pressure there is upon the individual to escape, and therefore the less need there is for isolation. Just as isolation works in a vicious circle leading on to greater isolation and to more cruelty and more isolation, so its reverse leads to a lessening of the pressure upon the individual; the more sociability, the less need for cruelty and the resulting greater sociability.

I do not want at present to go into an analysis of the results upon the individual of social organization in prison. It must, however, be obvious that its first consequence is to eliminate the greater part of the evil results of the old system, to make those non-existent; and secondly, it tends to introduce a new set of consequences which emphasize the social aspects of human life, which develop initiative, self-restraint, cooperation, powers of group-activity, and all the characteristics that come from freedom of participation in the activities of the group. It brings new problems and new evils, but they are the problems and the evils of association and not those of isolation. And these new problems are the problems of democracy, and their control is to be found in the methods of democracy. Just as the old system tends to desocialize and to distort the prisoner, this new system of social organization tends to socialize the unsocial criminal, and to develop the undeveloped mind of the man who has lived—as many prisoners have—a very one-sided and incomplete life.

Presented by

Frank Tannenbaum

Ross Douthat joined the Atlantic staff as a reporter/researcher in 2002. Now an associate editor, he edits the letters section of the magazine, oversees "Primary Sources," and writes on topics ranging from higher education to national politics to celebrities' religious conversions.

Ross is 2002 graduate of Harvard University, and his Ivy League experience inspired his 2005 book Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, which Booklist called a "withering indictment of Harvard's institutional culture," and The Wall Street Journal praised for its "rare lyricism." He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review, Policy Review, and Details, and he blogs, intermittently, at A native of New Haven, Connecticut, he now lives in Washington, D.C.

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