Experiences of a Prison Chaplain

“I did not tell them how sinful they were, but how good. I made my appeal straight for the good life.”

The study of the criminal, and of methods of punishing and reforming him, is one that has been occupying a steadily growing place in the thought of society. In no other branch of social science has there been more progress. The writer does not pose as an authority on the subject, or put forth the claim of being a special student of it, but as the chaplain of the state prison in one of our smaller states, for several years residing almost within a stone’s throw of the prison, and being familiar with its workings and intimately acquainted with its officials, as well as closely associated with the superintendent of its manufacturing industry, he gained some impressions which may have interest for the average reader.

The first fact to be emphasized as a result of observation is the one that is just now rapidly coming to be recognized by society in general, — namely, that there is in reality no distinct criminal class, but that criminals are mixed in with others in every class. That is, there is no particular body of people that is differentiated from the rest of the human family by reason of certain psychological and physiological characteristics, marked by certain hereditary traits, and possessed of special personalities, training, and environment, which can be gathered into a group by itself and correctly be designated as a criminal class. This used, until within very recent years, to be the popular notion, and was the basis of the treatment of the criminal. But modern social science, biology, and psychology, as well also as practical experience with the inmates of our penal institutions and the people of the slums, are disproving this old theory, notwithstanding Lombroso and his school.

In the prison in which I served there was during my term of office a college graduate, a man of previous high character and social standing, and of more than average literary and business ability; a revivalist; the son of a Baptist minister or exhorter; also, among the women, one or two not at all unlike or below the average woman of the common or working class. None of these named had the peculiar face, temperament, origin, or willful wickedness supposed to belong to every criminal. Crime was not in any sense their profession, as it was of the veteran safe-cracker who was serving a long sentence at the time. In fact, the one hundred and fifty inmates of this prison were as heterogeneous a company as any body of people of equal number one could find at large in the world, so great a majority of them being so dissimilar in mental and physical characteristics, appearance, features, and origin, as to prevent any possible correct designation of them as a class by themselves. Taken all together, they were exactly like the people one meets every day in the varied walks of life in the different strata of society. At a safe estimate, two thirds of them were imprisoned for crimes committed while the person was intoxicated, or as a direct result of intemperance, and the victims were not a whit different, when sober, from thousands and thousands of others who constantly drink to excess, but do not happen to commit any open or flagrant crime while in their cups. Of the other third some were serving a sentence for crimes known by every well informed person to be constantly practiced by both men and women in both high and low society, the only difference being that the few in prison were unskillful or unfortunate, and were discovered, while those outside were not. Others were there for crimes very common in society, but not common to any particular type or class of people. A few were professional criminals, making burglary, swindling, and the like, their vocation. Still others were the intellectually and morally weak who had become the victims of their laziness, weakness, passions, or low aims and desires, and the creatures of untoward circumstances.

It is true there are peculiar specimens of humanity in prisons, — cranks, freaks, degenerates, and hardened and vicious characters, — but so are there all these outside the prisons, mixed in with the other people of the world in the different grades of society. The deliberate, professional criminal, with peculiar and pronounced characteristics, and forming a different type of man and woman, is too infrequent to constitute a definite class, unless he, with many others not in prison, be considered as a member of a diseased class in humanity. Those who do not agree with this impression, and persist in believing that there is a distinct, typical, criminal class must, if they study society, and also become familiar with the inmates of our penal institutions, admit that only a small portion of the class is confined in those institutions.

This fact, that the average convict is not distinctly different from other people in manners and appearance, when dressed like his fellows and mingling with them in the common life, is shown by the many instances in which I failed to recognize discharged prisoners whom I afterward met on the street or at the railroad station, or who came to see me for a talk or for help before leaving the town. They were men whom I had spoken to Sunday after Sunday in the chapel, and seen time and time again at their benches in the shops, yet when I met them in citizen’s dress I did not know them, saw nothing about them different from the hundreds of people I met daily in the various walks of life; and the thought never entered my mind that they were or had ever been criminals until they made themselves known to me. In no instance was there a hall-mark on them to separate them into a class.

Strange as it may seem to most people, I found the prisoners on every occasion most interested and attentive listeners. Nor have I ever found a company of people in any church under any preacher who listened more attentively, more eagerly, throughout the speaker’s sermon or address, that did the congregation of prisoners to whom I spoke every Sunday morning in the plain, bare chapel. The same was true of them also in regard to the music and other parts of the service. And it was not that they were under guard and compelled under pain of discipline to observe the utmost quiet and order. Nearly every one of them was really interested, — was thoughtful and questioning in his mental attitude, — if the speaker gave them anything with sense and thought in it. However stale or indifferent to my word I might sometimes feel my regular church congregation on Sunday morning, I was always sure of real interest in my utterances when I faced the convicts in their unsightly garb at the chapel service. They were alert and keen, and often shoed by their expression, or by a straight look at the speaker, that they approved of his words, or wanted to argue them. And when it came to the question of really touching the heart and influencing it for good, or of stirring the sluggish mind to better thoughts and actually helping a person in his deeper life, I am confident I never did it to such a degree with any other people as with these convicts, and confident also that no minister can do it with his church people as he can with these people, if he be a minister of the right sort.

One cause of the deeper and keener interest of these criminals in the religious service and the preacher’s words was doubtless the fact that they had so little of these things, indeed, so little variety of any kind, in their lives. Many of these men had never attended church until they got into prison; but this newness would certainly wear off in a year or two, whereas the interest of these men seemed always manifested. On the other hand, there was a goodly number of Catholics who had always been familiar with religious services. The key to the matter is found in the fact that they were persons who were not and never had been overfed with all kinds of religious and mental food. They were not surfeited with ethical teachings, religious knowledge, music, public speaking, and all that is called culture, an article which some of the most indifferent Christians and church-goers pride themselves on possessing. The reason why the personal word and association of the chaplain impressed these people more strongly than the ordinary minister’s work does his regular congregation was because their need was greater, their lives had been harder, and the earnestness of a minister and man rally interested in their welfare appealed to them more strongly and brought forth greater response. The poverty of their present life, and their need of deeper and higher things, were powerful levers for the chaplain. Work among them was always interesting, sometimes inspiring, and often fruitful of definite, helpful results.

But having said this much, which seems rather flattering to the convicts, I must add that the preaching I gave them was not of the conventional kind, either in matter or method. That would hardly have made so favorable a showing with them, though even then I venture the belief that they would not have been much, if any, behind the average church congregation in attention and interest.

In associating with these men and women, and speaking to them, I always appeared and spoke as I felt, an interested, sympathetic, natural, real, human fellow man. I believe they felt I was a real man, and in earnest with them. I always spoke in a simple, direct, and conversational way, and on the practical themes of life. I did not deal with theology or the higher criticism, though I always interpreted the scripture lessons and texts according to the best knowledge at my command. I did not tell them how sinful they were, but how good. I made my appeal straight for the good life, and tried to show how religion, the faith, ideals, and good sense of Christianity, helped men and women to live that life. In a straightforward fashion I showed them the advantages of an honest, industrious, high-aimed life over the kind they had lived. I told them they were not so much wicked as weak, and urged upon them the strength to overcome the low and mean and criminal impulses and temptations which best them. I strove to make them feel that we were brothers in the great family of man and of God, and told them they had but fallen clear down the path of life along which we had all stumbled. I aimed to appeal to their manhood (and they all had some), not to their fear or credulity or highly wrought up emotions. I reasoned with them more than I dogmatized, pleaded more than I condemned. I illustrated all my points as far as I could with incidents and arguments from actual life, using as much humor as I could command, and pervading it all with an earnestness that, though simple and quiet, was always real. I never allowed myself to indulge in mawkish sentiment or emotion, or to harrow up their feelings by pathetic and remorseful pictures, either of the past or present of their lives. I did not torture or antagonize them by referring to aged, sorrowing, and broken-hearted parents, blighted homes, and blasted hopes; to ruined lives and early graves as a result of their weak and sinful careers. They got enough of that from their own consciences in the silence and solitude of their cells; but I held before them always the worth and beauty of the strong and good life and the inevitable penalty of debasement and wrong-doing. Neither did I ever speak on any subject in a way to produce excitement in them and leave them with highly wrought up thoughts and feelings. Instead, I quietly appealed to their reason, then to their conscience, and then to their heart, — their better selves.

A few instances will illustrate in part the effect of some of the preaching and teaching provided by the prisons for the convicts. One day I was met on the street by a well dressed and rather fine-looking man of about thirty, who spoke to me, and held out his hand for the usual handshake of acquaintances. I returned the greeting, but stared at him a little blankly, for I did not recognize him. He smiled, and remarked, “I see you do not know me, but I am one of the inmates of the State House up there,” pointing up the street to the prison. “My sentence expired this morning, and I leave town on the noon train. I have been to the stores buying some clothes, and have been trying to find you. I wanted to have a talk with you before I went way, and tell you how much good your preaching at the prison has done me. It will be a help to me as I make a new start in life, now that I am free again. I also wanted to tell you how much the rest of the men in there like your sermons, or rather your personal, practical talks, and are being influenced for good by them. I have been a teacher in the evening classes there of late, and the men often speak of you and say they like what you say and that it will help them to do better the rest of their lives. I wanted, too, to tell you about my case, and how I came to be serving a sentence in the prison, and have a good talk with you about my future plans, and your work with the men up there. You have helped me, and I thought it would be a pleasure to you to know it, and to know how much the other convicts think of you.” He then took a cigar case from his pocket and handed me a cigar, asking if I ever smoked. Receiving an affirmative answer, he said, “I wanted you to smoke this with me while we talked, but it is now so near my train time that I cannot stop. Take it and smoke it sometime when you are alone, and remember me. It is one of a package sent me by a friend at Christmas [it was now June], and I have saved these two or three to smoke with you and another friend or two when I got out.” We talked pleasantly for a few moments, on the village street about the prisoners, prison life, the chaplain’s work, and that of education in the institution, and of his own case and future plans and hopes, and then he shook hands with me warmly, and we parted. I have never seen or heard from him directly since, but I believe he had enough manhood and strength of character left in him to keep his word and live a reputable life after this experience and the new ideals and conception of life he had gained. He was not a criminal by nature or intention. His case was a peculiarly unfortunate, almost pathetic one, and is explained by the word intemperance.

The following instance will illustrate how a different type of man was affected in another way by the religious services and the words and work of the chaplain. It occurred with my predecessor just previous to me taking up the work. A convict who had served his time and been discharged called at the chaplain’s study the morning of his release for a personal and parting talk, and offered this evidence of his interest in the chaplain’s preaching. It was the custom of this minister not to announce the chapter and verse of his scripture readings at the chapel service, but simply to give the book, chapter, and verse of his text, which might or might not be in the passage read as a lesson. The ex-prisoner presented, carefully written out, a complete and correct list of the texts used and of the scripture readings, stating book, chapter, and verses, which were given for a period of two years in the preaching services. The location of the texts he could easily remember, and set down upon reaching his cell, but the passages of scripture read during this whole period he had had to find with no other clue than his memory of certain words and phrases that occurred in them. This he had done, and without the aid of a concordance, even, and the list was correct. The amount of time and patience it took to accomplish this, — find the book, chapter, and verses of a hundred or more Bible readings with nothing but a verbal memory of certain words and sentences to guide one, — can hardly be estimated by one who has not attempted the task. If his religious improvement was equal to his manifested interest, he was certainly greatly helped by the chaplain’s service.

The following incident is suggestive as showing the attitude of some of the convicts toward the chaplain, and their ingenious attempts to win his sympathy and assistance in their particular cases. On one occasion I received the following letter from one of the veterans in the violation of law. It is copied exactly, excepting that names and places and the prison stationery heading and rules are omitted:

Reverant Mr. O——
Luther M——. alias, etc., etc.
W—— Vt., Feb. —— 189—

Dear sir; you probably never heard of me, but i am part unitarian and part dutch, and if you can spare the time some time, to call here, i would like to talk with you very much. Fact is, i need a friend just now, and i think you can aid me materially, without much inconvenience, or any injury, to your self, otherwise be sure i would never apply to you. For i know a real man, and have as much respect for a real man, as the next one.

Respectfully yours,
M——, etc.

The interesting part of this letter is the writer’s statement that he is part Unitarian and part Dutch, made with a view of strengthening his appeal to my sympathy by trying to establish a kinship with me. He had heard somehow in the prison that I was a Unitarian minister, not knowing that Unitarian was the name of a religious denomination and not of a nationality. I went and saw the poor man, who had begun to break down in mind and body, and had a long talk with him, but the things he wished me to do for him were impracticable and entirely useless. So I could only reason with him as tactfully as possible, and give him what little hope or encouragement I could discreetly offer.

The way the very rudimentary education which was attempted in the prison appealed to some of the men is shown by this remark of one of them, a man past fifty, who was struggling desperately to learn to read and write. He said to his teacher, a fellow prisoner, after a particularly hard struggle with a lesson one evening, “If I learn to read and write while I am in here, I shall be glad I got in.”

As a rule, the convicts were not sullen over their fate as prisoners, or rebellious at the attempts made by the prison officials to help them. The following instance is an exception. One Easter the women of my church conceived the idea of purchasing small bouquets and tying to each a card with a verse of scripture written thereon, and giving one to each of the prisoners at their Easter morning service. Two young girls were stationed either side of the chapel door with the flowers, and were to hand each convict a bouquet as he crossed the threshold and broke the lock-step with which he is compelled to march until inside the building. I watched the proceeding from the low platform of the pulpit, and it was a striking, almost a touching scene; those two fair and innocent maidens in all the grace and purity of youth handing a bunch of fresh and beautiful flowers to those coarsely garbed and hardened men as they filed silently through the door and to their seats. As I looked, I noticed that one man, rather young and of good appearance, sullenly ignored the whole matter, and refused to take from the little maid the simple token of beauty and of others’ thoughtfulness which she tried to hand him. His act impressed me deeply, and I felt there was little hope of any appeal touching a person whose heart was so hardened and rebellious against society, and all attempts to brighten and uplift his life. I looked up his case later, and found that he was not a vicious or hardened criminal; that his offense was not a bad one or his sentence a long one; but that he felt the injustice of society, and hated the laws and people and circumstances that placed him where he was; and that he stolidly refused to accept any expression of sympathy or kindness from the people whom he considered to be against him.

A study of the religious side of these men’s lives I found to be interesting. A little more than half classed themselves as Protestants, a little less than half as Catholics, and about one sixth claimed no religion at all. It must be said that those who professed no religion of any kind were not only no worse than those who did, but in some cases much better prisoners. The warden once told me that in his long experience the worst cases he had to handle were the men who made profuse profession of religion. Said he, “When you find one of them who sings hymns and prays a good deal and professes to be very pious, look out for him; he’ll make trouble.” And in a measure I found this to be true, as it also was that the one who talked the most about himself, boasted of his courage, and threatened suicide if he could only get a weapon, was the weakest and most cowardly. That kind you never found trying to escape or attempting to take his own life. But the silent, non-communicative man you might find gone some morning, or dead in his cell by his own hand. The warden had a quick and effective way of silencing those who cursed their fate, and boasted they would take their own life if only they could get something with which to do it, usually a pistol. To such he always said, when he heard them talking. “Come with me to the office, and I will give you a revolver or a knife for the purpose, if you really want to do it.” That always ended their bravado, and none ever accepted the invitation. As a rule there was very little of this, however, or of exaggerated religious profession, and I found but little difference in the character and attitude and conduct of the men, whatever religion they professed, or whether they professed none at all.

While on this point, I may as well state, what was a surprising and puzzling fact to me at first, that I found the women convicts on the whole much more unsatisfactory to deal with than the men. They seemed much less interested and responsive to religious things and to all high appeals, being either less intelligent or more hardened and depraved. Their indifference to religious services and to my talks to them may have been owing partly to the fact that the service for them was held on a week day instead of Sunday, and in the parlor of their quarters instead of in the chapel (they were not allowed to attend the Sunday service with the men, and they were too few to have a separate service in the chapel), and was thus very plain and informal, partaking not at all of the dignity and churchly nature of the usual religious service. But in any case they seemed to me more hopeless of improvement than the men. The case of one of the women will illustrate this fact, or at least show the grounds for my impression. She was tried for murdering her husband, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged. During the course of the trial, the pronouncing of the sentence, and the transfer to the prison, she manifested not the slightest concern, giving no sign of fear, sorrow, or remorse. She journeyed to the prison bedecked in ribbons and loud colors, and carried her head high and defiantly. But when, in the prison chambers, she was being divested of her tawdry ornaments and glass jewelry, she broke down and wept bitterly, and pleaded like a broken-hearted child to be allowed to retain this trash.

The funerals in the prison were naturally most sad and depressing and hard to conduct. They were for men of whose life little indeed could be said, those who died there being, of course, as a rule, the more hopeless cases, since almost all but the very long or life-term convicts lived to leave the prison. I did not have to officiate at an execute during my service. Several inmates were under sentence of death, and the date of execution for a man and woman jointly convicted of murder occurred while I was in office, but just a month before the day their sentence was commuted to imprisonment for life by the governor, and I thus was spared the hardest, most trying duty, and the necessity of witnessing the most painful and barbarous scene of prison experience.

I found one particular in which the men in prison differed radically from mankind at large, — they would always rather work than loaf. Without exception they dreaded the holidays when the outside shops closed and their own was compelled to do the same. The punishment for any slight misdemeanor which they dreaded the worst was that of keeping them from work when they were feeling well. And in the majority of cases the men were intelligent and fairly careful workmen, learning to operate their machines and use their tools readily.

The discipline and customs of prison life I always found provocative of thought. Particularly impressive to me was the scene of the convicts in their coarse suits of red and black marching in long files, silently, and with the lock0step, to and from the chapel on Sunday mornings, and the shop on week days. There was almost never a Sunday service or a mid-day meal when there were not one or more visitors. To watch the men file across the prison yard into the chapel, or past the slide in the kitchen wall where they all took their dinners on tin plates, and passed into their cells to eat their silent and solitary meal, while officers in the yard and guards with rifles on the walls kept close watch, — this scene invariably deeply impressed the spectators, and sent them away with serious thoughts on the great problems of civilization.

The phase of prison life against which I protested was the way the men are dressed when confined there. To take a man who has committed crime and whom society desires to see reformed as well as punished, and to brand him as an outcast and object of fear or contempt by clothing him in an ugly and fantastic garb and cropping his hair, and then to provide a minister to preach religion to him, by talking of the beauty and blessing of human brotherhood, love, and kindness, and of equality before God, always impressed me as pathetically incongruous, a travesty upon Christianity, and a mockery of humanitarianism. The doing away with this custom is, I believe, one of the first steps to be taken in making the religious and reform work in penal institutions effective. It is not in accordance with natural methods for a man to grow rapidly better in character and truer to society while he is thus marked as an object of dread and contempt, and his wrong-doing and degraded position are so coarsely and constantly emphasized.

A word should be said, in passing, on the subject of a maudlin sort of sentiment for prisoners which is sometimes manifested by the public, particularly by a certain class of women. This sort of thing is more harmful than otherwise in the work of controlling and reforming them. Convicts are not sentimentalists or fools, in the vast majority of cases, far from it. They are cold, hardened, shrewd men, thoroughly acquainted with human nature and the ways of the rougher world, and they quickly see through the weakness of oversympathetic and emotional persons, and are likely to take advantage of it.

These men know their guilt and what they deserve better than any one else, and do not, as a rule, cry baby or pretend innocence. The way to appeal to them and help them is not by pity, sentimentalism, or effeminate gush, but by virile manhood, a rugged sense of justice, and the calm, strong reasonableness of a better character and truer life. And the first step toward the end to be accomplished by this method is for the would-be helper of the criminal to become thoroughly acquainted, if possible, intimate, with him. For it is, after all, the contact of personality, and the personal, humane touch, that accomplish the most and the best with the vicious and unfortunate of mankind. But just as there should be zeal with wisdom in every good work of life, so there should be sympathy with discretion, sentiment with sense, in dealing with criminals. I was told of one chaplain in the history of the prison where I served whose sympathy for the convicts became so strong, and at the same time so foolish, that he went so far as to plan with some of them for their escape, and had to be dismissed from his office as unfit.

Of course I could not have this contact with convicts and prison life without being led to think deeply over the causes for it all. My feeling is (and I am only giving impressions, not dogmatizing) that they lie largely and fundamentally in the economic and industrial conditions of society, conditions which make the production and distribution of wealth so unequal, often unjust; and which as a result create extreme riches and dire poverty, produce artificial social classes and array them against one another; which cause hard times and take away the opportunity from large numbers for remunerative employment for long periods; which make the poor man who steals a loaf of bread to be called a thief and punished, while the rich man who steals half a million form the public is called a financier and let alone; conditions that thus fill certain persons with a sense of injustice, make them reckless or dissipated, and then lead them to crime. Closely connected with this lies the second basic cause, which is a lack of proper education and training in early life. The truth of this is evidenced by the change in some of the prisoners after they have learned a trade or mastered a machine, and had the benefit of even the meagre education, religious and secular, which the prison gives them. Of course intemperance, passion, lust, and perverted natures are fruitful immediate causes, but they are only immediate. These others lie at the bottom, working both directly and indirectly to produce criminals.

The great trouble with these men is that their souls as well as their bodies are in prison. Their minds persistently dwell on the lower levels of life. The first great step toward the prevention of crime (since the economic conditions of society cannot be changed except by slow and long methods), and the first great duty of the state, is to provide for all its children early in life compulsory mental and manual education and training. The record of Tuskegee Institute under the wisdom of Booker Washington is an example to every state in this particular. Very few, if any, of its graduates have ever been found in jail or in prison, intemperate or poverty stricken. And what they received at the hands of the institution was a little of the education that fits one for life, makes one intellectually and industrially competent in the economic struggle of civilization. Some such training as this, provided by the state for all who do not get in other ways, would go to one of the roots of criminality.

But having already a body of criminals on its hands, with which it is trying to deal in a humane and reformative way, a second great duty devolves upon the state. This duty is, I feel, to maintain industries which will provide work, a fairly comfortable home, respectable associates, and a thoroughly democratic treatment for the convict who has served a sentence and come out of prison, and who wants to do better, and will try to, if only he can get decent employment and wages and be treated like other human beings. Here is the weakest point in our whole penal system. When a man comes out of prison now, no matter how good his intentions are and how hard he tries to live right and to get on, the world is against him. Unless he has influential friends or some unusual thing in his favor, it is well-night impossible for him to find reputable employment and maintain the better life he desires to lead. He is branded as a criminal, and the world distrusts him. In many cases it forces him down and out, and sends him back to the old life. It does not answer this point to say he can go where he is not known and begin all over again. Most men do not have money enough to go very far when they come out of prison, and if they did, it is next to impossible in these days for a man to obtain employment without furnishing references or giving some account of his past career. I have tried this as a clergyman in disguise, and know whereof I speak. Of course this plan will not save all those who are discharged from prison from going back to dissipation and crime. Some of them, perhaps, nothing will ever permanently redeem. But I am confident that the first state, or the first individual, that establishes an industrial centre, where discharged convicts can always be employed at a variety of occupations on something like an equal footing with the rest of their fellow men, socially and economically, and can stay as long as they behave properly, and desire to stay, will render a great service to humanity. Such an enterprise would do more than anything to reduce the number who go back to the old way after once serving a sentence in prison, and who thus swell the list of that worst of all classes of men and women, the chronic criminal and habitual time-server.

It is my impression that the work of the right kind of chaplain, together with that of the lay officials of our prisons, is most interesting and fruitful of good for society. The convicts are not the terrible creatures public imagination often pictures them, but are instead exceedingly human, especially on the better side of their nature. They are responsive to strong and manly personality, to the efforts and appeal of the sensible, earnest clergyman who ministers to them, and the officers and others who come in contact with them. The best preaching, even of the right kind of a chaplain, will not, probably, make churchgoers of many of them after they leave the prison, but it will make better men of some of them. As I went among the prisoners, preached to them, and became familiar with them all, I grew to have a deep interest, and almost an affection, for them as a whole. As it is said that there is only a very faint psychological line which separates the sane man from the insane, so there is a very slight difference between convicts and men who are not. A very small circumstance or a slight turn of fate will often determine which is which. I am convinced that the work that is being done by the students of criminology, and by the officials in our prisons to-day, is among the most important of the time, and that the advance made in this particular is one of the things that marks most surely our progress in civilization.