The State of Vermont contains a prison where the inmates are treated upon a novel plan. They are trusted and treated like other human beings; they come and go almost as freely as the members of the jailer’s own family; so far as possible whatever suggests punishment or disgrace is banished; and they are made to feel that their imprisonment is designed to improve them as men, and to restore them to social life not only with full self-respect but with the cordial respect of the community.
To do all this in defiance of the powerful prejudice against ‘criminals’ will be called a large undertaking. Up to a certain point it has been done, and that point is so advanced that we may almost consider the whole victory gained. In Montpelier, where this prison stands, the inveterate prejudice against prisoners has been swept away. So great is the significance of this achievement, denoting as it does a reversal of popular sentiment toward the criminal, that only something approaching a revolution in the prison system itself could have produced it. What was this?
I visited the Montpelier jail, where I spent the greater part of a day talking with the prisoners, first in company with the deputy sheriff and then alone, with full permission to discover opposition to the management if I could. In this way I made the personal acquaintance of the men. Later, on the main street of the city, whom should I meet but five or six of these very prisoners, walking along with smiling faces and a happy air, no more resembling the conventional criminal than did the merchants, workingmen and lawyers with whom they mingled. Here was one of the keys to the mystery. No officer was about, keeping an eye on them; no peculiarity of clothing indicated who they were; they were free to walk off if they pleased, and no one at the jail was worrying about them; and, best of all, the citizens of Montpelier, who knew perfectly well that inmates of the county prison were at all times of the day and evening at large in their midst, were worrying no more about it than were the sheriff and his assistants themselves.
And yet, four years ago when the system was first put into operation, a very decided tremor convulsed these very citizens. They were animated by all the righteous dread and abhorrence of the inhabitants of jails common to ordinary mankind. They believed that the men were dangerous, that they would run away, that it was treating them on wrong principles to give them such freedom, and that it was a disgrace to good people to have criminals going about unguarded on the same streets. But if you suggest these ancient and wholesome ideas to a Montpelier man now, he laughs at you; he is ashamed that four years ago he entertained such superstitions.
Nor was the sheriff himself much more confident when he inaugurated the change. As late as two or three years ago, when the men did not return promptly to the jail at the time appointed, he would become nervous and go out to walk the streets looking for them. That is all past now, not only because of the unsuspected traits of human nature that experience has unfolded, but because of the marvelous practical success of the system. During the four years, out of eight hundred prisoners treated upon the new plan only two attempted to escape, both of whom were recaptured and sentenced to long terms in the house of Correction for betraying the trust reposed in them. With such a record as this the sheriff no longer feels perturbed if his entire corps of prisoners is scattered in every direction during the day; and he is perfectly assured that at night they will reappear at the jail.
This great innovation in prison practice was made possible by a state law authorizing all sheriffs to set their prisoners at work either inside or outside the jails. The text of this law was as follows: ‘A male prisoner imprisoned in a county jail for being found intoxicated, for a breach of the peace, or for being a tramp, may be required to perform not more than ten hours of manual labor within or without the walls of such county jail each day of such imprisonment, except on Sundays or on legal holidays.’ To promote the end in view a prison board was established, composed of the assistant judges, the sheriff, and county highway supervisor, who ‘may require and compel said prisoners to work on the public highways within the county.’
In this law itself there was no particular advance everything depended on the execution of it. Commercial and humanitarian motives blended to further the passage of the law; for on the one hand hundreds of prisoners were sitting idle in the county jails eating the state into debt, and many were being transported at great expense from all parts of the state to the House of Correction at Rutland; and on the other hand young and impressionable offenders were being carried off to Rutland with more hardened men, there to receive an education in lawlessness from their experienced associates.
It happened that the sheriff of Washington County, in which Montpelier is located, Frank H. Tracy, was moved to apply the law to large purpose, not merely to save money for the state, which at first was the best popular appeal, but to regenerate the prisoners who came under his care. I was interested to know what motive underneath all others had prompted him to attempt this innovation, and found it to be the influence of one of his parents, who, though dead, was now far more alive to him than when living. ‘I thought of each prisoner,’ he explained, ‘as having a parent with the feelings and hopes for him that mine had had for me, and reflected that if the prisoners had grown up in the absence of such an influence they had been defrauded, and deserved only compassion, not blame, for sinking into the jail.’ Such was the creed of a man, the greater part of whose mature life had been spent in dealing with the so-called criminal classes. It might seem that one of this sensitive type could nowhere be more out of place than at the head of a jail, that he would be a weakling; but it is just this type, and this only, that ought to be at the head of jails; and as to this sheriff’s ability and success, it is enough to say that no man in Washington County could be elected to the office against him. A dreamer he is, but one who has dreamed to practical purpose.
When the prison-labor law came into effect, his own ideas of what to do with it were crude. He went about town searching for people to hire the prisoners. No one would have them; the sane and safe business men were not to be taken in like that; they comforted him with assurances that he must fail— the same business men who now send regularly to him for workers when they want help, in preference to picking up men on the street. Another drawback was that the men were insufficiently clothed for going out to work in the cold of a Vermont winter.
Since nobody else would trust jailmen to work, the experiment had to begin on Tracy’s own farm, where he set them to cutting bushes and wood, giving the state fifty cents a day for each and paying the men nothing. He got almost no return; only when he stood over them constantly could he extort even fifty cents’ worth of work. Later, when a water main was being laid, because of the scarcity of labor a dollar a day was offered and accepted for the prisoners’ services, all of it as before going to the state. Regular workingmen were receiving $1.75 daily. Dressed in distinguishing blue trousers and overalls and attended by guards, the prisoners did worse each day than the day before. The experiment was a grim failure.
One day, much discouraged, the sheriff called one of the group into his office for a heart-to-heart talk, asking him to say frankly why he did not do more.
‘I’m doing just as little as I can and not be punished, and I’m going to keep on. You would do the same,’ answered the man.
This ‘You would do the same’ caused Tracy to imagine himself in the prisoner’s place, and to see that the words were true. What incentive had the fellows to labor? They got nothing out of it.
‘If you could have seventy-five cents for yourself from your work each day, what would you do?’ asked the sheriff.
‘Try me,’ was the answer; and the next day he went out and worked as well as any free man in the entire gang—this incorrigibly obstinate idler while there was no incentive.
Such was the beginning of the system of paying the men all that they earn above a fixed amount, which goes to the state. One dollar a day is set aside from the wages of each for the state, while all in excess of that belongs to the earner. As it works out in figures, every man in ordinary health earns the full laborer’s pay of $1.75 a day, of which seventy-five cents is his, the sheriff acting as his banker and keeping the accumulation until he leaves the prison, when it is given to him in a lump sum.
The profits accruing to the state from the experiment have steadily increased. At the end of the first year they were $200; of the second, $500; of the third, $1000; after having paid for all clothing, tools, and supervision in the form of keeping the books and other clerical work. At the close of the fourth year, in the latter part of 1910, the gross earnings for the state were over $1800. Since an amount equal to three-fourths of this was retained by the men, their share was more than $1350. Some had been allowed to purchase necessaries for their families out of their portion, thus lessening the deprivation of their wives and children due to their imprisonment. During the whole period their labor earned above $6000, of which a total exceeding $2600 was kept by themselves. As a rule the men have carefully saved their money, limiting permitted purchases for themselves, to send it home to those dependent on them.
Since of the thirteen counties in Vermont but three or four have attempted to follow the example so well worked out for them, in view of the above results it is not surprising that indignation should be felt in the state at their failure to do so. In fact, the inertia of county officials is responsible for their failure to adopt the new system in obedience to the law. Under the Montpelier system the sheriff has to be a good deal more than the mere old-fashioned jail-master. He must develop a combined labor bureau and labor exchange, which means that he cannot sit and wait for people to come after his workmen, but must go out and solicit places for them, until the habit of hiring them is well grounded in the community. And we shall see that this is but the beginning of his new responsibilities if he is a big-enough-minded man for his place.
Now, the financial side of the undertaking, brilliant as it has been, is but the smallest part of the good it accomplishes; its real value is to be measured by its effect upon the characters and lives of the prisoners. On this point only one view is possible, and when it is understood, there can be no excuse for perpetuating the old system anywhere.
To begin with, what does it do for the health of the men, on which character is primarily based? They leave the jail rugged and healthy from the sane and vigorous existence they have led while there. Their habits have been regular,t hey have been daily in the open air when work could be had, their food has been substantial, the atmosphere in which they lived salutary. We can understand why many of them should go forth in a great deal better condition physically than they were when they entered.
Through having worked in this manner they have escaped the formation of the loafing diathesis. Among the many crimes prisons have to answer for, their creation of chronic loafers is one of the gravest. A prisoner isn’t responsible for becoming a lazy loafer if he isn’t allowed to work. He very probably goes out and remains what the state made him, a loafer; and gets a second term to punish him for it, and make him a worse loafer. The amazing system of American justice penalizes him for what it has made of him. But the Vermont plan not only doesn’t produce loafers, but by putting a double premium on good work goes far toward curing those already manufactured by society; for besides the pay for work there is the still more enticing reward of getting out of jail and being a practically free man the whole of each day. Furthermore, who would feel like physical work if his muscles had been softening for want of exercise in the stale atmosphere of a prison for from twenty to a hundred days or a year? The bare thought of enduring it is horrible, apart from its ineradicable effects.
Prison idleness breaks the current between the man and life, so that when he emerges it is hard for him to form connections again. If he had a job before, it is now lost. Who wants an ex-prisoner, anyway? He must begin to hunt work, and to hunt under suspicion; his nerve has probably weakened a little too; therefore, after a series of failures he gets well drunk and goes back to jail for another term at the public expense. These obstacles to reformation are swept away when the prisoner preserves his connection with the community by working in it like any one else. In many cases when liberated he simply keeps right on at the same job, or his worth as a worker is known and he easily gets another. If he wants to go elsewhere he has money in his pocket to do it, not as a shame-faced pauper either he has a good round sum to go on, an advantage which preserves many of these prison graduates from vagabondage.
And not only do others respect him even though he has slept behind bars, but he respects himself. Why prisons should be employed to break down men’s self-respect remains for wiser people than exist to-day to explain. Those among whom and for whom he works see him every day behaving himself, and soon, practically forgetting that he is a ‘criminal’ or a ‘convict,’ treat him as if he were not one. Nevertheless he does not forget his actual position, and a state of contrast is created in his mind which stimulates him to reformation. That state of contrast is this. Having always been accustomed to stand on a level with his neighbors and associates, the imposition of a jail sentence brings soreness and humiliation; he believes that others despise him and wish to shun him; when he finds that they do not, and that they still treat him as a man, a feeling of mingled surprise, gratitude, elation, and pride awakes in him; he learns for the first time the value of social esteem and determines to deserve it. This is the psychology of reformation. It would be still better, however, if he were certain that no one would scorn him for his lapse.
The only adverse feeling justifiable toward a lawbreaker is that he is weak or deficient; and it is a sufficient humiliation for him to be considered so, without an accompaniment of aversion or scorn. Would it not be well also to inquire with some care whether most criminals actually are deficient or weak? Many people go so far as to think that society imposes such hard conditions on the under half of the wage-earners that the commission of some of the lesser offenses is a saving evidence of strength and manhood, being the protest that a self-respecting man ought to make against the unrighteous conditions, — the only protest also that some of them have yet learned how to make.
In the Montpelier jail I noted a buoyancy and cheerfulness that I had never seen in any other prison. Other prisons have a sickening pall of gloom upon them, from which an inmate for even the briefest period takes permanent soul-poisoning. It is like going to a hospital to be cured of one disease and catching a worse one there which devitalizes the victim for life. Every ordinary jail reeks with this moral infection. Its germs pervade the place just as the most noxious physical germs filled the English prisons of the eighteenth century, killing the inmates, keepers, and magistrates by wholesale. Now, it is the deadly spiritual atmosphere corresponding to this that the Vermont system has conquered and expelled. It is no use to pulverize a man’s soul with punishment; if you would make him better you must show him a better kind of happiness than he has been accustomed to, you must begin with small doses and increase them just as rapidly as you find his system can stand more, until he has contracted the higher-happiness habit so firmly that he cannot throw it off. That is what our prisons ought to do for men, and can do for them; the Montpelier prison is doing it as far as its resources allow.
It was typical of this revolution in jail method that when a circus visited the city, Sheriff Tracy purchased tickets for as many of the prisoners as desired to go, and sent them off, unattended, to enjoy themselves. Eleven went, the others refusing because they preferred the money they would earn by helping the farmers, who were then under pressure in the hayfields. It was an excellent chance to run away, for the circus continued till after dark; yet every one of them was back at the jail fifteen minutes after the tent closed, although among the eleven were men with the incentive of a long term to tempt them to escape.
The system has succeeded because of the trust reposed in the prisoners and the freedom accorded them. Under the old law it was an honor to get out of the cage into the corridors, while now none are confined in the cage unless for exceptional reasons.
Vermont goes after visible drunkenness with a rod of iron. For the second offense the law punishes intoxication with ten to fifteen dollars fine and costs, or an alternative penalty of thirty days in jail, or, if the judge desires, both. The last of these sentences, the combination of fine and jail, gives the poor chap who cannot pay his fine ninety-six days in prison—thirty days of direct penalty, forty-five days to serve out the fifteen-dollar fine, and twenty-one days more to extinguish costs. It is difficult to see why the state does not punish itself much more than it punishes the drinker by this law, except where the labor system is applied.
The law is also unjust, for seldom is any one but a poor man caught in its net. One with money pays his fine and walks gayly off, while one chargeable with the sinister crime of empty pockets not only loses his liberty but receives a brand. Of course, this phase of the injustice is not peculiar to Vermont, being still a widely prevailing barbarism of criminal procedure. The remedy is to let a man out on probation to earn his fine if he can’t pay it, not detaining him in prison a day.
Doubtless the first question to occur to many will be how the working classes of the region have regarded this form of prison labor. It is a very pertinent inquiry, because Montpelier and the section about it are the stronghold of organized labor in Vermont. At first the innovation was viewed with suspicion in labor ranks, but all that has passed and given place to a feeling of grateful appreciation of the sheriff’s efforts. Thus far the prisoners, although they may have learned a trade, have only been sent out to common work; but I was assured by one of the trade-union leaders that there would not be the slightest objection on the part of the unions to any man with a trade exercising it, provided he were given union wages, as for doing common labor he is paid current wages. No objection is made to the part of his earnings that goes to the state, which is considered a legitimate division.
This position is so entirely reasonable that it seems that, if applied at large, it would solve the prison-labor problem. Apparently, only, does the prisoner come into competition with the outside worker in a way disadvantageous to the latter, through the circumstance that the prisoner gets his board and lodging in the jail while the free man has to pay for his. If some of the prisoner’s wage is withheld toward meeting the state expenses for his subsistence, however, he is doing the same as the outside laborer, except that his landlord is the state instead of a private boarding-house keeper. But if, on the other hand, the prisoner does not work to pay for his jail-keep, who does foot the bill? The taxpayers, of whom the working-classes are a large percentage. When prisoners are maintained in idleness the working people provide their full share of the prisoners’ support, if not, through being unskillful tax-dodgers, a good deal more than their share. The portion of the prisoner’s wage reserved by the state cuts down these taxes, thereby enlarging outside laborers’ incomes; what is sent to the prisoner’s family often saves it from requiring aid from the town, thus again reducing taxes.
As to the inmate’s competition with other laborers: if he were out of jail he would be competing just as much and no fault would be found. What element of difference is added by his being confined for wrong-doing? His being disciplined for breaking a law has no relation at all to his right and duty to earn his living exactly as if he were free.
Injustice would arise if the prison were to send skilled men out to toil for less than union wages, for the reason that this would be state discrimination against the unions in their struggle to improve the standard of life. To avoid this it will be sound policy for prison authorities to place out at ordinary work all skilled laborers who are declared incompetent by employers to earn union rates at their trade. No employer would then be tempted purposely to cheapen a prisoner’s value in the hope of getting his services for less pay.
The general prison-labor problem can be met with justice to all parties by extending this system to all prisons, wholly abolishing the objectionable contract0labor plan. For men who cannot be trusted to go outside to work on the terms described, various forms of productive labor should be provided within the jail walls by the state authorities, every species of exploitation being excluded ant eh men receiving their proper quota as wages. The product could be sold on the market at market rates with entire fairness, since the men would be in every sense precisely like other productive laborers, except that they would be working inside one walled space instead of another. Men who would otherwise be working and competing for work in private factories would as prisoners merely be transferred to another factory, owned by the community. The work and competition would remain the same as before.
There is impropriety in permitting a private firm to conduct a prison shop, even on the most favorable commercial terms for the state, because for many of the prisoners the work should be a form of treatment and upbuilding, which necessitates favoring the weak and deficient. To accustom prisoners to think of themselves as fully reinstated members of industrial society, between whom and others there is no break, is the best way to cure the criminal habits of most of them.
On the question of applying the honor method to long-term penitentiary men, I think the conclusion is fair that it could safely be extended to a great number. Its advantages to them would first need to be made clear to their minds: they would have to be shown in how many ways their lives would be made happier if they proved trustworthy, and that most of the hardships commonly incident to imprisonment would be removed, reducing the gain from escape, even if successful, to a very small sum.
And it seems to me that this is the real secret of the honor system. Jail life can be made so decent, so humane, so upbuilding, interesting, and even inspiring, that for the average convict it will be superior to the existence he leads in the outer world. Why should he run away from it then? What would he gain? But is this not a negation of the true prison purpose? Isn’t it rewarding a man for crime? Will it not fill up the prisons with men who will commit light crimes in order to break into jail and enjoy themselves as in a secure home?
What if it does, if they are evolved into better men there, fitted to live in general society afterward on their own feet? If that can be done for them by jails, we ought to found other such institutions for men to reside in for improvement, free from the ordeal of entrance examinations on the crimes to their credit, with exclusion as the penalty for having abstained from crime. They would pay their way by their work. But if they did not pay their way in immediate cash, in the long run they would remunerate society with compound interest by becoming better-grade human beings.
There is nothing so costly to human society as the criminal. He supports the policemen, the detectives, the sheriffs, the lawyers, the judges, the jail-builders, the providers of prisoners’ food and clothes. Not, of course, bearing all these massive fees of ‘justice’ out of his own pocket, but out of the pockets of the community, which he forces to pay the bills. Think of the criminal’s power to bleed society, like war and disease, without a scintilla of gain. Would it not be worth while to plant a few institutions, to be mostly supported by the criminal himself, to cure the criminal? Would it not be socially cheaper, in something like the ratio of infinity to one? Until these regenerative institutions are devised, I see no objection to making the jails so attractive that criminals will voluntarily stay in them until cured.
Crime is a disease that usually exists in the body, of different entity from the prison committing the crime. It is a disease of society, which merely breaks out in open manifestation in this and that individual in whom the social circulation particularly concentrates the poison. And the jail, properly understood, is a hospital for these exceptionally infected persons. That is, it should be so, and it is illegitimate as anything else.
In the earlier stages of the honor period, before the convict completely realizes the benefits of the prison cure, other very potent incentives not to take flight when trusted can be brought into play. A heavy penalty in the form of a much lengthened sentence, with deprivation of many privileges, will act as a strong deterrent; pursuit with such vigor as to render final freedom almost an impossibility will increase the restraint; and the formation of a prison public-opinion among the better inmates, resting upon an appreciation of the treatment accorded them, would erect a barrier to the escape of others which would be almost equal to complete prevention.
These propositions are happily, not mere theory. The Montpelier experiment has, in its field, demonstrated them. The inmates enter the lists as coöperating reformers of their weaker brothers. Or if, as may be, the rebellious are the more high-spirited and daring, the majority help to curb them in order to establish firmly a régime in which prison life in its whole extent will be redeemed from its contaminating sordidness and degradation.
There is no reason why this state of mind cannot be generated in the majority of penitentiary inmates. Convince them that society is not bent upon revenging itself on them for their crimes, and the work is three-fourths done. If this is doubted we have only to consider the results of the parole system, which is a kindred branch of criminal reform. How profoundly prison practice is being transformed by the growth of parole may be seen from an event which not very long ago would have dumfounded society. It is related in a dispatch to eastern newspapers from Los Angeles:1 —
‘A murderer, four highwaymen, five burglars, two forgers, and three ordinary citizens sat down last night at a banquet in a prominent hotel as the guests of Leonard Mordaunt, himself an ex-convict, who is now at the head of the Prison Parole fund of the Union Rescue Mission.
‘It was largely through the efforts of Mordaunt that twelve of the guests were released from San Quentin on parole, and the particular purpose of the meeting was to have them meet Frank Mulford, State Parole Officer. The banquet was such a success that it was decided to hold another, to which all paroled men in Los Angeles will be invited. There are about forty-five here. Mordaunt believes such gatherings will serve as a moral support to former criminals.’
How far society should press its activities to prove its freedom from motives of revenge toward the criminal and its will to raise him to the highest level of manhood, does not fall within the scope of this paper. Sheriff Tracy believes that each prison should have an officer exempted from all the ordinary duties of a sheriff, to devote his whole time to developing personal relations with the men, to studying them individually, to learning what forces have shaped their lives, and to thinking out ways to counteract the tendencies that have been produced in each to offend against society. Such work would be extremely arduous, and would require a man of high intellectual grade and character. Nevertheless the saving to the people would be great. The deeper causes of crimes would be unearthed and published in reports to the community, suppling the first essentials for the prevention of crime. It might be found, for example, that the chief root of crime is irregular or insufficient employment, when the first duty of the state, in order to empty the prisons, would be to organize demand for labor so that no one would be idle. Nothing should be easier to do if society realized its importance. The wealth created by the labor of the men would support them and pay all the costs of organizing the work they might do.
Not to understand the sense of injustice over their imprisonment which rankles in many of the prison group, would be to fail to grasp one of the principal threads of reformation. The unfortunate fact, as Sheriff Tracy illustrated from his own knowledge, is that they are often justified in their resentment. ‘The rich,’ said he, ‘escape by process of law, because they can buy legal skill. They press their case farther in the courts than the poor man can do, and get out on technicalities.’
The principle carried so far in Vermont is beginning to work elsewhere. Deputy Sheriff Richardson, of the jail in Worcester County, Massachusetts, is introducing music into that institution, for the moral development as well as the entertainment of the prisoners, believing that the monotony of prison life has a ruinous effect on the natures of the men.
Probation officer James P. Ramsey, of Lowell, Massachusetts, who receives about twenty-five per cent of all the cases convicted in Middlesex County, affirms that the records of his work show that ‘sixty-seven per cent of those he has helped have reformed permanently and gone back to industrious and respectable life.’
Prisoners in the Rhode Island State Prison and in the Providence County jail are about to be given a share of the profits of those institutions.
Another incitement to the adoption of a new penal system is the awakening to the cruel ravages of consumption in the jails. Dr. J. B. Ransom, of Clinton Prison, Dannemora, N. Y., finds that from forty to sixty per cent of all deaths in the prisons of the world are due to tuberculosis, and that at times the mortality from this cause has reached eighty per cent. Of the five thousand prisoners in New York State alone, one thousand are tubercular. ‘There is no greater error,’ he declares, ‘than to imagine that tuberculosis in prisons, because of the isolation of the institutions, does not constitute a great danger to society at large. There are twenty thousand tubercular prisoners in the penal institutions of the United States, and the overwhelming majority of these, when let loose, return to the very classes of people—indigent dwellers in congested districts and stuffy tenements—where the disease is most quickly and most virulently spread. Tuberculosis is a disease that invariably spreads from the lower strata of society upward.’
Dr. Ransom’s proposed remedies are ‘a systematic campaign for the treatment of tubercular inmates of prisons, jails, detention institutions, and charity institutions, the most important features of such a campaign being the establishment of special institutions for treatment and the providing of outdoor work.’
These campaigns would obviously be needless if the prisons were made sanitary and a healthful regimen of outdoor work were provided before the inmates contract the disease The writer was informed that a remarkable improvement in the health of the prisoners in the Vermont State Prison had followed from the introduction of a proper ventilating plant by the present management.
Finally, a new and just form of prison sentence, which will displace the punitive system, is already beginning to find acceptance. Five thousand dollars was embezzled from a Los Angeles theatre and dissipated in high living by a man twenty-one years old. He confessed and received this sentence from the judge: —
‘You shall stay at home nights. You shall remain within the limits of this county. You shall not play billiards or pool, frequent cafés or drink intoxicating liquor, and you shall go immediately to work and keep at it until you have paid back every dollar you stole. Violate these terms and you go to prison.’
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- February 5, 1911. ↩