Prison Cruelty

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

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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