The Background of Prison Cruelty


[The paper on ‘Prison Cruelty ,’ by Frank Tannenbaum, in our April issue, occasioned widespread and useful discussion. A large number of replies were received, of which the most interesting to us is the following article. On its receipt in its original form, we wrote, with some diffidence, to inquire how far it was genuinely the product of ‘the criminal mind.’ In reply came the following letter, which we have permission to print, and which we feel will serve to illuminate the article itself, now revised and expanded by the author. — THE EDITOR.]

Your letter of the 2nd is a bit disturbing. To go into details in regard to my experiences is out of the question, In these days, when detectives seem to have almost second-sight, and no person or document escapes their attention, a man must keep his own counsel. Moreover, I am conscious at once that any disclosure of certain events in my past would prey upon my mind to the breaking-point. This will be Greek to you if you have never had the fear of the past upon you.

I am trying to live a ‘respectable’ life and atone somewhat for days gone; but a criminal mind reformed has its own torments. I sometimes wonder if it pays. Actual atonement is almost impossible. If the article cannot be used without the details you ask for, please return it. I would not even have you make inquiries here. I am among people who trust me, and I intend to make good.

However, I will say that the article is autobiographical as far as it goes. It is not the whole truth, of course — just fragments of what I have learned in jail and out; and it is from the experience of the criminal mind. Any statement from the point of view of officers, wardens, etc., is the result of intercourse with them, and of observation, not from actual holding of such positions.
Yours very truly,
‘NUMBER 13.’


THE article, ‘Prison Cruelty,’ by Frank Tannenbaum, in the April Atlantic, made me feel as if an injustice had been done the public and its jail officials; and that the character and lot of criminals had been condoned as if pertaining to children of irresponsible age. Its implications seem to favor criminals. It seems to disregard the feelings and rights of law-abiding citizens. As a recital of actual conditions it has my indorsement, except that, as happens when only one aspect of such a problem is presented, the impression is conveyed that prison officials do nothing else except abuse those under their authority. Besides, the general reader would find great difficulty in judging what conception the writer has of words like discipline, punishment, and cruelty. Circumstances make all the difference in the world. An act called cruel under certain conditions, under other conditions would be leniency. It is a dangerous thing to picture the criminal as deserving at the hands of the public a careful and benevolent consideration which few ordinary citizens obtain.

The writer of that article has evidently had a prison experience of some sort. He mentions its external conditions, but I am much interested to know his mental and emotional attitude, to see why he has one attitude and I another toward the same subject. I wonder if he has had the criminal mind — knows what it is coldly to defy law or to hunt his human prey without mercy. I wonder if his mind is so well balanced that, while a criminal, he can yet see himself in his relation to others, the law, and himself, as if he were reviewing the case of another man. If he has been through this, I wonder that he can write as he does.

It happens that I know something about criminals and jail administration. I concede that there is much hardship and cruelty in practice — more in the South than in the North, more to black than to white prisoners. When a man enters the ‘ profession of crime ’ he automatically becomes a member of a class where the ordinary relations of life do not seem to apply. He becomes a member of a beastly and vicious class, where cruelty has the right of way. We do not call it cruelty when a bully gets back what he inflicted upon others. A neighbor of mine was found at the bottom of a pond, done up in a sack. No one was sorry, and the culprits were never hunted very industriously, so far as I know. His fate was just what he deserved.

‘Prison cruelty’ should not be discussed apart from its associations and causes, else we get an idea that the prisoner is the only one imposed upon. Let me lay down this as a first principle: prisoners themselves are the ones who invite and keep cruelty alive. Few wardens, much less the public, intend to impose upon men just for the fun of it. In most cases where a keeper seems to get satisfaction in this way, it is the satisfaction of getting back at a man who has aggravated him beyond endurance. I have often wondered what a criminal would do in a keeper’s place.

The very fact that there are criminals makes so-called cruelty inevitable. The causes are psychological, and are both outside and inside the prison. Besides arising from present and actual relations, it is an inheritance from preceding generations — a kind of racial habit. Space forbids any discussion of the terrible prison systems which have persisted even to our times in many foreign countries, and here and there in our own. The simple fact is that the criminal is regarded as an outlaw — a man who fills the lives of even the innocent with a nameless fear and dread. He is an enemy of private and public safety and welfare. He strikes in the dark — takes others always at a disadvantage. Is it human nature for the public to say to such a man: ‘Now we will give you a good home and kind treatment for doing this’? Judging from experience, I doubt if it ever will. If it ever does, private revenge will increase.

There are criminals who are mentally unfit ever to have their liberty. They are deranged. In other cases, the habit of crime, like that of drinking, masters the man. But the average criminal is as sane as anyone else. He boldly calculates every move, takes the risks, and does n’t whine at just punishment. He defies the truth. Even after he is caught, he pleads ‘ not guilty ’ and beats the public if he can.

Why do I stress the cruelty of the criminal ? For this reason. I have seldom intentionally harmed another man without great provocation, yet several times I have been the victim of gross injustice and maltreatment without excuse. Let me cite three principal instances. To two of the three men who meddled with me, I was simply a victim who happened along. In the first case, my trust was shamefully betrayed. Before I finished with this gentleman, he made restitution as far as he could at the time. I shall never forget the day when I learned what the second man had done. The papers said he committed suicide. Let it go at that. The third case was complex. A strike is called. I am satisfied with my work and pay, and stick, along with others. A striker warns me, another intimidates me, a third meets me on the way to work in early morning, tells me I must not go to work, and beats me over the head with a chair-leg. I am laid up six weeks. That man was unknown to me. At last I find him. Courts? They don’t help a victim very much. My assailant was acting for a ‘cause.’ I was nothing to him, except as I seemed to hinder his cause. I taught him that freedom is for me as well as for him.

Two results: the long worry and suffering from these and other trying experiences broke my nerve. I live in a kind of perpetual fear of what evil may come next, and have to seek the protection of quiet — in fact, am unfit for the usual rough-and-tumble with life. But what I want to emphasize is this: from perfect trustfulness and good-will to all men, I grew to hate those who wronged me without cause, and then to have little pity for criminal men as a class, although I have known individual prisoners whom I would help to the limit, because they did not have the criminal mind even if they had broken the law. And people at large are educated to this same attitude by their own experience, and by the daily press with its endless stories of crimes of every description.

Mr. Tannenbaum says the public regards the criminal as bad, unsocial, a violator of law, and a sinner; but he says it as if the public were mistaken, simply because at times the criminal behaves like ordinary folks. The above qualities are not abstract, unassociated with people’s feelings and affairs. A violator of law? Yes. But the real fact is that he has brought agony of mind or death to some person for some selfish purpose of his own.

Right here let me say a word in regard to the criminal’s attitude of mind, which seems to be a mystery to most people. They cannot picture just, how a man can meditate a crime, especially a cruel one, and get away with it. When they read that James P. Watson recently confessed in a Los Angeles court that he had killed seven women, they don’t see how he can stand the thought of it. And, by the way, what is a life-sentence as compared to such a record? And just how would you regard him if you were his keeper?

Preachers and sentimentalists often tell how conscience must make such men suffer. Sometimes it does — about as often as eclipses of the moon come. Just eliminate your idea of conscience, and you will have a fair idea of the criminal’s attitude. He simply gives no thought to what is called wrong action. There are just three items with which he reckons: to get what he wants; to plan a method of getting it without detection; and to get away in safety if possible, but to be prepared for the worst. To the ordinary man it seems wrong to take the property or life of another. Under the provocation which a criminal thinks he has, the stealing or killing is an impersonal affair. All he dreads is the result of detection.

To make this plainer, let me illustrate by a petty form of criminal action very common among respectable people. When you take a spoon at a banquet, get by the conductor without paying fare, take away a scrap of a book or chair from the national Capitol, or shrewdly save ten dollars on your taxes, conscience does n’t bother you unless it is a very sensitive one. Now just magnify the terms, and you have the big criminal’s attitude of mind exactly, only he does more of it. He talks of his crime as another would talk of his farming, takes pride in his skill, blames himself for a fumble; but repentance comes only if he is caught.

Of course, I am speaking now of the general criminal mind. Not even such a man does wrong just for the fun of it. Now and then there is such a freak who is so constitutionally — likes to steal or kill just for the pure animal lust of it; but most criminals work for a prime gain, the process being merely the means. The wrong to the victim is scarcely a factor. If they kill, it is just a part of the process of winning the prime reward. Their own interests loom so large that they altogether lose sight of the victim’s feelings or rights in the matter.

There is a class of criminals that gets on the nerves of their less aristocratic brethren in the business. They are the sleek, well-groomed, well-mannered gentry — bunco-steerers, promoters of fake investments, political thieves, and the like, who are so hard to bring to book because they have money and friends on their side. It is strange how much mercy and forgiveness the public has for such men, and how little for his poorer brother, who in nine cases out of ten has been fairly driven to crime by necessity or abuse.

The public is naturally interested in the detection, punishment, and reform of criminals, the last being the only item of interest in this article. The doing away with the public saloon is a long stride toward this goal; but the reform of criminals is about the most hopeless undertaking that I know of. A criminal may become an ex-criminal because he finds that crime brings more hardship than gain; but his attitude of mind in regard to the right and wrong of it does not change. Thus he is always a potential criminal and is very liable to take a chance on the quiet.

Yet some are permanently reformed, not because they are told that their way is wicked, or to consider the good of others, or to think what the world would be if all people were like them. Usually it is through some personal sympathy or some mysterious religious shake-up.

The great, problem of the reformed criminal is to readjust, his disposition so as to give conscience a chance to work. Only one who has made this fight can realize how difficult, it is for such a man really to feel that a deed is wrong. To this day, after years of hard discipline, I have actually to force myself by rule rather than by fine, sentiment to avoid that which others call wrong. This is not the result of ignorance, because I received an advanced academic education, was welltrained in morals and social obligations, and really possess the usual sentiments of normal men. Exciting in a criminal a new affection or interest is about the surest means of reform I know of, but the moment this is done in a professional way, the charm is lost. The sound of a child’s voice one night saved me from raising my weapon against the father, for whom I was watching — or was it cowardice? After finding that I had, by a curious turn of fortune, harmed unintentionally a good woman of my acquaintance, I was filled with the deepest regret and labored like a slave to make amends. Possibly, if criminals could be made to witness the harm, distress, and pain they cause, and to bear part of it, the experience might in many cases furnish the necessary swing in the mind to bring about reformation, or at least cessation from crime.


If the public is apathetic about the comfort of the criminal and the prison officials are harsh, it is because both parties know that they are dealing with a class of people who make life and property unsafe. The criminal is always the aggressor. His keeper lives in fear of that, and it gets on his nerves. He argues that, if the prisoner abused his freedom outside, he will abuse it inside, and ‘git’ him if he can. If the keeper comes to his position with an idea of reform, he usually finds that it is the prisoner who spoils his good intentions. The average criminal does not care for reform of character. His one great interest is for reform that will bring him more comfort in jail.

There are grades of criminals, of course. We have not yet learned how to deal with the unvicious class, but great advance has been made. Indeed, it takes time to distinguish them from the others. For policy’s sake, the worst often mask as the best and pose as the injured party. There are many who, except for seeming necessity or desire for revenge of a wrong done them, would not be in prison. In strict truth, they are not criminal. Too often they are massed with those who are brutal and criminal to the last degree. Justice is often blind in one eye. It is a common saying among us that a man who steals a horse is sentenced as severely as he who wrecks a bank. But discrimination between prisoners takes skill and machinery. That means increased cost; and that means more taxes from the working-people who behave themselves.

I have read much about the debasing conditions of jail life. One thing is sure — the keepers do not encourage bad conduct or speech among prisoners. Youthful prisoners should not be herded with the vicious class or old-timers, though some of the young fellows make the older turn green with envy. If the criminals don’t like the debasing company of each other, there is plenty of time to make a change to more elevating conditions. I have yet to be convinced that criminals out of jail are much different from what they are in jail. There are more in one place, that’s all. Anyway, they got pretty well debased before they put on stripes.

In jail, as out, the more evil-disposed seem to have predominance over the more moderate ones. The public seems to think the bad clement better organized than the good, more definite and determined in its aims, more united in pursuit of them. This is only apparent, the real difference being that criminals have the first play; then society must get into the chase. So it happens that it takes a dozen citizens to catch one criminal. Such business as gambling and liquor-selling does seem to be able to defy the will of the majority by its organization, just as corrupt political rings do, even though their numbers may be comparatively few. Criminals have no such powerful organizations. When, however, a man enters the profession of lawlessness, he does become a member of a class that has one aim and purpose, and the few who are the worst, create the criminal atmosphere.

So it happens that reform of character is taboo. Catholic prisoners attend religious services because they are trained to it. Protestant ones attend because it is a change from the deadly monotony of cell life. Except in rare cases, a good record is sought only as a tool for shortening the prison term. They are few indeed who can stand the torment and petty persecution which any sincere endeavor to reach or maintain righteous character invites from comrades. That is one mark of a criminal — unwillingness to see another be a good man.

The criminal in general is just what the public thinks he is. He stands for destruction, yet he will not admit that he is wrong, or, admitting, boasts of it. In a certain jail we were allowed one free hour each week for visiting, and so forth. I ventured once to say to a group while we were talking about freedom, that, if the public thought jail-birds were safe citizens, it would n’t coop them up behind bars. One of the guards, overhearing me, later quietly informed me that I had better stow such talk or there would be hell to pay. And he was right.

Cruelty and intolerance in criminals may otherwise explain why harsh treatment is visited upon them, why officers ‘rush’ a criminal from the moment he is seen. The criminal’s point of view is to get away or fight; but the officers do not know what he is going to do. ‘ It is uncertainty that kills.’ Officers must get the first advantage if possible. Citizens, because helpless, are hung up on uncertainty. When a man or woman does not feel safe to walk on the street, at night, or to leave doors or windows unlocked, is it any wonder that the class of men responsible for this fear are regarded as the personification of cruelty? Moreover, all citizens have constantly before their eyes, and there is present in almost every business transaction, the evidence of this peril in the midst of freedom, this cruelty of the bad man toward the harmless. When they buy goods, write a check, or even receive Uncle Sam’s money, they have to be on guard against the criminal, the unsafe man. Officials and courts only partially protect. Law is made because there are criminals who prey upon society. All the advantage is on their side. It is not known when or where they are going to strike. Police, courts, and jails can’t do anything until after the crime is done. A large percentage of criminals escape discovery and punishment. With all the machinery of society, peaceable citizens suffer untold wrongs and cruelties at the hands of ‘bad, unsocial, lawless, and sinning’ men. Cruelties of the jail cannot be compared to those visited upon unoffending people by this class of men. Is it any wonder that public feelings thus engendered are manifested in penal machinery?

There is another grievance against the criminal. After he has made the public afraid, has pillaged life and property, and caused anguish in other ways where there was no provocation, either to get rid of honest work or for the mere adventure of pulling off the stunt, the honest and industrious people who own homes and wish to live in peace and prosperity must be taxed for the enormous expense of protection, detection, trials, and imprisonment connected with the programme of crime, and the criminal pays nothing back. This tax represents labor. The criminal is supported by the very society on which he preys.

There is much silly sentiment abroad among a lot of what I would call parlor uplifters, who have never had much to do with the hard and seamy side of life. They have been so protected that they are squeamish about suffering. Criminal character is unreal to them. I recall a man in Maine who killed a girl and her parents simply because she would not marry him. It cost the state a right smart sum to sentence him. Then some of these sensitive people, thinking of the long years before him, and very little about the enormity of the crime, sent flowers to the ‘poor fellow.’

I had a friend who liked to trust the prisoners under his care. He was a clean, fair-minded man. And yet the prisoners planned to brain him with hammers in the workshop at a given signal, as the door was opening, and make a dash for liberty. He shot two of them. The curious fact about this is that one of the two, who got a bullet through the neck, recovered, shortened his term by good behavior, became an honest workman, finally married, and now lives happily with his family.

Now my friend was regarded merely as part of the prison machinery. The prisoners had nothing against him but that. Why should a prisoner complain if he himself is regarded as a part of the machinery of crime, and sometimes gets a bit more than what is due? In this busy world, we have not time or ability to gauge and meet the exact needs of individuals. Criminals should get together and limit their number if they want more individual attention.

Mr. Tannenbaum implies that we should not treat criminals so very much differently from ordinary folks. Personally I have great difficulty in trusting a ' trusty,’ or even a reformed criminal. Somehow we are influenced more by the failures than by the successes in this connection. When one ‘trusty’ runs amuck, he thereby makes the lot of all other prisoners harder. I recall one of these whose good record had gained him the confidence of nearly every officer in the prison. The warden on occasion had him work about his residence. One day the warden’s wife was found murdered in the house. That trusty had done it.

When tales of suffering are related apart from their connections, our sympathies are stirred. We lose sight of the fact that the only way to subdue some prisoners is to subject them to harsh treatment. A warden, before a meeting of intellectuals at Colorado Springs, was once asked how he dealt with difficult cases. ‘I spank them with a board when they need it,’ was the answer.

They were horrified until he told them some of the reasons for it. Rules are not made to make prison life a burden. Most of them grow out of necessity. If prisoners are forbidden to approach an official without permission, or to cross a certain line on the floor, there is good reason for it. One hundred prisoners might not intend harm; but the next one might kill the officer or lead a rush for liberty.

The keeper must be master. Since confinement arouses discontent and ugliness, the margin of suppression must be in favor of the master, not the slave. The amount of deviltry that prisoners do not think of simply can’t be thought of. The keepers deserve our sympathy, and not very much advice from visionary reformers is of any assistance.

When a criminal, by his conduct, for a considerable time, shows that he wants to make good, people are much inclined to give him a fair chance and employ him; but trust comes slowly. They do not think of him as they do of other people, simply because they can’t. I have accepted a murderer with perfect friendliness; and others did who knew his history. He was goaded to the act. The court had sense enough to allow for that. He took his sentence like a man. He never complained of cruelty. He helped the woman whom he had made a widow in the support of her family.

But the ordinary criminal cannot expect cordiality from the public. His mental attitude, his speech, his actions, all distill a subtle poison in the presence of good people. In very many cases, his presence would mean a perpetual shock to good taste and breeding, and the young would have to be shielded. Somehow wickedness makes devoted missionaries, who work by insidious or plausible methods of such character that they reach all classes.

There is some needless discipline in jails, and there are instances of abuse by keepers. As in civil life, some rules and customs outlast their usefulness. The problem of getting competent help in such institutions is very difficult. Jails are not the only places where mistakes are made. Eternal vigilance over wrongdoers is a very trying job. Like boys with a good-hearted, moral-suasion teacher, criminals think a warden an old granny or an easy mark unless he is strict; and they will abuse privileges. Those who really appreciate a warden’s good intentions are very few. The problem of justice to the individual criminal is difficult, because he is a member of a class that has abused trust and covered its trail.

The criminal, and the public too, chafe under maladministration of law. Too often a court trial means merely a battle of lawyers’ wits, not a sincere attempt to handle the case for justice to all concerned. The mind of the accused cannot be laid open for inspection. In spite of all mistakes, I feel that he gets more justice from public and keepers than he allows to his victims. About all society can do is to confine him so he won’t have a chance at more victims. In the absence of restitution to people he has harmed, it may be conceded that the criminal should pay some of the obligation in discomfort. Those who suffer at the hands of criminals seldom advise mercy. Even advocates of leniency and prison reform are cured by being subjected to experience at the hands of a criminal — by having their money stolen or a son killed.

I believe in justice to criminals. I believe also in justice to those who suffer at their hands. Pardons often prove to be wrongs to society. I have good reason to know that our penal system is faulty. There is some reason for the criminal’s contempt of our courts. Trivial causes often work great harm. I know a certain case that was decided wrong because the foreman of the jury missed his supper. I rejoice in the movement to give the poor man a chance in court.

So long as criminals set the pace for cruelty, public interest in their comfort and enjoyment will be uncertain. The advocate as well as the lawless should remember that he who commits crime forfeits the privileges and rights and enjoyments of honest men. Whenever a man shows a sincere desire to reform, officials and courts should give him as much assistance as possible. The fake will always make this difficult.

In closing, let me say that I am in favor of the parole and association principles for special application; but there must always be isolation and punishment in the background for that vicious number who will obey no system without compulsion. The persecuted public will always demand some form of confinement and punishment of those who make life and property unsafe. Just so long as the criminal is cruel to the public, the public will see that the criminal gets some of his own medicine.

Just this to close. The Bible says: ‘ The wages of sin is death.’ I can’t seem to fathom the truth of that. It does n’t seem to tally with experience; but the word death is mild compared with what the criminal comes up against. Even if he escapes the police, there is besides something mysterious inside and outside of him that it is no use to try to beat. I can’t explain it.