BY FRANK TANNENBAUM
IT was late at night. All were asleep except four of us — three prisoners and myself. We were smoking our pipes and drinking tea in the warden’s kitchen and talking. Our conversation ranged over many things — things that are weird and fascinating when the mood of a silently creeping night has settled upon an isolated community. Suddenly I turned to one of the prisoners and said, —
‘Jack, how do you like working here? ’
He looked at me for a minute and replied: ‘ Well, I like to work for the old man [Mr. Osborne]; he is a clean-cut fellow, and you always get a square deal from him; but in here I am a servant.’ And then, pointing through the window where, in the distance, broken by a few glimmering lights, loomed the prison in outlines blacker than the night, he continued, ‘While there, I am a citizen.’
Puzzled at his answer, I asked for an explanation; and he enlightened me with the cheerful remark: ‘You must be simple. Here I have to do what I am told, just like any other servant; in there we govern ourselves as free men.’
A paradoxical state of mind for a convict, if one remembers the old prison system. Under the old prison system the privilege of working in the warden’s house was the final mark of confidence and the most cherished of all privileges. Here, apparently, while the boys liked to work for their warden, they regretted the fact that they were not active participants in managing their own affairs as they would be if they remained in the prison proper. This sentiment was concurred in by the other men.
While thus smoking our pipes and drinking tea, I was initiated into many of the mysteries of prison democracy — one of them, the keen sense of responsibility. I was told by one of the boys in the kitchen—a fellow with a smug face and bald head, with many fanciful tattoos on his arms and chest—that this business of running a prison was no ‘cinch,’ and that the chief trouble was that some of the men who had short ‘ bits ’ did not appreciate their full responsibility. At the last election, he told me, they had three tickets in the field: those who were in office and wanted to stay in; the independents who would have liked to get in; and the long-timers. I inquired for the distinctive platform of the long-timers’ party.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘ we fellows have most to lose if this system goes wrong. We are going to stay here after the others are gone, and it is up to us to see that nothing goes wrong, because we are the responsible party.’
I sauntered into the prison one day, and found myself in the League room, with half a dozen boys. An argument developed about the efficacy of the democratic method, and I found to my great surprise that democracy had staunch supporters here, stauncher than in some places that I know outside of prison. One of the men in the room — Mack, a great big fellow with broad shoulders, and a voice like that of a bull, husky and sturdy — said, with a bang on the table, ‘Well, be gad, I never worked in my life, but when I get through here I am going to try it, and I am going to be a labor agitator.’
That was curious. I somehow could not think of Mack as a labor agitator. I said, ‘A labor agitator, Mack! Why in the world that?’
Mack had never been a laborer. He had been a thief all his life. He looked at me with some scorn. ‘ Well, why not? ’ said he. ‘I tell you boys, this thing, democratic self-government, is the cure for all our troubles, and I am going to preach it when I get out.’
A little later in the day I was talking to one of the men doing time — a young man, straight, well-built, blond hair, a fine sensitive face, with a good education. Technically, he never completed it, having been expelled from some halfa-dozen colleges in succession. He told me quite frankly what the trouble was. He said, ‘I had too much money and too little sense of proportion. I am the black sheep in my family. I was never any good, but I tell you what — when I leave this place, I am going to preach the gospel of a square deal, and I am going to do it for the rest of my life. This is the first time I have seen it applied in practice, and it works. I have found a life’s job.’
One day I found myself talking to a farmer lad. His sentence was two years. I wanted his opinion. He said, ‘Well, two years is a pretty long time for a fellow to spend any place, especially in prison; but I tell you what, I ain’t so sorry that I am here. This is the greatest experience a man can have. I have learned more since I have been here than in all my other years put together, and I feel the better for it.’
Sitting with two professors from Harvard, who were visiting the prison, and watching a trial where five young lads, all under twenty-one, acted as judges, while a number of witnesses were being called, I observed the young boys, one of whom, who was doing life for murder, was the presiding judge. The judge was saying, as one of the witnesses went out, in answer to an objection that there seemed to be no evidence justifying the continuance of the trial, ‘That is not the point. I don’t think the fellow was guilty myself, but I do think some of these witnesses are lying, and the point, fellows, is, that we have got to learn to tell the truth or this darn machine won’t work.’
One of the professors turned to me and said, rather wistfully, ‘If we could only make our colleges more like this, what a different result our educational machine would achieve!’
Something strange and phenomenal had occurred just before I visited the prison. Nine motors filled with prisoners had gone to Manchester, New Hampshire, to give a play. They were practically without guard. On the way home, late at night, a blizzard developed, and in making a sharp turn in the road the two first cars, one with Mr. Osborne and the one immediately behind, took the right road, the others went astray. Mr. Osborne arrived at the prison with seven cars of prisoners missing. The other cars kept straggling in one by one as they found the way, the last one arriving about ten o’clock in the morning.
One group of prisoners had a particularly trying time of it. They ran out of gasoline, their car broke down several times, and finally burned, leaving them stranded and practically without money. In despair they waked a farmer and inquired for the county jail, planning to spend the night there and return to the prison in the morning. After making their way to a little town, from which a bus service was running in the direction of Portsmouth, and waiting until morning for the bus to start, they found that they had to borrow money to get back to the prison, as the little they had had been spent for gasoline. They all arrived safely at the prison by ten o’clock. One of them was a life-prisoner and another was doing twenty years; yet they had made no attempt to run away. Why? I don’t know very well, and the men don’t seem to, either. There is, however, a glimmer of explanation.
I talked to the lifer and asked him why in the world he had not run away, and he said, ‘What do you mean — run away? How the devil could I take the responsibility of leaving the men behind me to suffer the consequences of my having betrayed their trust in me? I went because they sent me, and if I had not come back they would have suffered the consequences.’ And then he continued without any apparent strain at all, ‘Why, the idea of running away never came into my head. I was sent to participate in a play and help raise some money for the boys. I enjoyed doing it, and I just came back as I was expected to — and that’s all.’
After a little silence he added, ‘We had so much trouble that night, we were so worried about how we would get back, that when we finally did come near the prison, we felt that home never looked better. It was the most natural thing for us to come back, and we did not think of anything else. The thing that I wanted most was to get a little rest, and then to tell the rest of the boys all about it.’
The boy of good family mentioned above was one of those who went on this trip. He said to me, ‘ This is an experience that I will never forget. There we were, all convicts, doing from two years to life, and free to run away, and yet no one did. What is more, I am sure if anyone had tried to do it, the others would have prevented him. There was a peculiar feeling of responsibility and of joy in carrying out the implication of this responsibility that exceeds anything I have ever believed to be possible. You see we were all free men — at least, free to run away; but our responsibility carried us back to prison, and yet you might almost say that we found our freedom in going back to confinement. Curious, is n’t it? Almost ridiculous to think that men free to enjoy the possibilities of a life without restraint should return voluntarily to imprisonment just because they had a strong feeling of attachment to the men they left behind. Probably, too, there was also in our minds the knowledge that the rest would suffer if we failed them, and you know, there is n’t a single one of us who regrets having come back. We feel that this experience has made the life of every one of us richer. I guess that we all came back because we were expected to and because everyone was sure that we would.’
One day in Auburn, as the sun was setting over the walls, and the dim shadows of the coming night were settling down on the prison, I stood with Tony in a corner and watched the men in gray pass by on their way from the shops to their cells. Tony is a young fellow, about twenty-one, a little above medium height, broadshouldered, well-knit, thick neck, round head, keen blue eyes, with a remarkably boyish face on which the lines of character and strength are just beginning to develop. He has a record of being one of the worst gangsters in New York City. From the age of fifteen on he dominated one of the large gangs on the upper West Side. He dominated it on the basis of personality. He proved himself the quickest, the bravest, the cleverest and the most honest — honest to his own group. He did not know any other honesty. Brought up in a family where the father was dead and the mother was poor, in an atmosphere where gangsters and professional criminals dominated his environment, he learned the fine art of being a professional criminal at an early age, and he learned it well. He knew nothing else. He had little schooling, and little experience beyond the horizon of his own immediate group, but that group he dominated. He had been tried on charges of various kinds, including murder, before this, but never convicted. Either he was too clever, or the witnesses were too much afraid of him, or, probably, he was never really ‘caught with the goods.’ Be that as it may, he was serving his first term in a state prison. Let me say that Tony was worshiped by his own group as a leader and loved as a friend.
I was standing there and talking with him when he turned to me suddenly and said, ‘ You know, Frank, I’ve got so that I can stand and “argue” with a man.’
It dawned on me slowly that he was really saying that this was the first time in his life when a difference of opinion did not involve a fight: that he could ‘ argue ’ with a man when he disagreed with him, rather than fight with him.
As the men kept filing by, he said, ‘ You know, when I first was elected top sergeant I was in a terrible fix. I wanted to punch everybody in the nose who broke the rules; but I knew that, if I punched him in the nose for breaking the rules, I’d be breaking them myself; and I could n’t do it. It was really a terrible thing. I wanted to give up the job, but I stuck it out.’ Then, with half a smile, ‘ You know, I think it did me a lot of good to stick it out.’
These are some of the evidences; I could multiply them by the hundred if there were the space, the patience, and the necessity for it. But enough has already been said, I think, to make the reader ask the question, ‘What in the world is it that makes the criminal, as we know him, behave in this paradoxical fashion? These men certainly do not sound like criminals or talk like them. And if not, why not?’
Well, that is a question which this article is going to try to answer. It is a hard question to answer, and the answer is bound to be unsatisfactory.
To understand fully the significance of democratic organization in the prison, we must understand the criminal before he comes to prison. The real criminal problem is the professional criminal, the man who has, for one reason or another, accepted law-breaking as a regular method of making a living. He is the criminal problem. Obviously, he is not the only one who gets into jail; but any prison procedure must be judged primarily by its influence upon the professional criminal.
The men who get into prison, as I have known them inside and out, tend to divide themselves into six fairly distinct classes, which overlap, it is true, yet each of which is sufficiently distinct to stand as a group, marked off from the other groups.
The first is what might be described as the casual criminal: the man who, having once committed a crime and been discovered, is probably never going to repeat the offense; the man who is weak rather than bad, who slipped under pressure and whose sensitive consciousness and feelings of shame, as well as other influences, such as home and family, tend to keep him from repeating the act, once he has escaped, or suffered, the consequences of his first breach of the law.
The second, and a very large, part of the prison population must be classed as economic criminals. When I was at Blackwell’s Island, in 1914 and 1915, the prison population of that institution increased one half. It rose from twelve hundred to eighteen hundred. What was true of that penitentiary was true of all the other criminal institutions of New York City, as I was informed by the Commissioner of Correction. It will be remembered that the winter of 1914-15 was one of the hardest we have had in a long time, New York City alone having some half a million men unemployed for many months. The statistics for last year, which have just been published, show a remarkable decline in the criminal population of New York. It was a comparatively prosperous year, and there was little unemployment. This seems to indicate that economic conditions have a direct bearing on the prison population. How much more it could be reduced by improving economic conditions still further, we cannot say. But it does seem obvious that in all probability the prison population will tend to decline with the improvement in the general economic background of the men who are to-day in prison. We thus have a definite group of men who get into jail when conditions fall below a certain level, and stay out of jail when the level is raised. This group must necessarily affect all the remaining groups. The recidivist cannot be considered altogether immune from the influence of a changing economic situation.
The third group, a group much more characteristic of the workhouse and the penitentiary than of the state prison, is one that might be described as derelicts. Not all men can pass the test of industrial civilization, and they break. Non-employment, sickness, accident, and other factors tend to develop irregular habits, nervous temperament, irritability, and lack of interest. They become the driftwood of the community, and some of them — one might almost say the best — drift into jail.
There was an old man in the penitentiary whom we used to call ‘Pop.’ For some twelve years he had come back every winter and left in the spring. I got to the penitentiary in February. He left in April and returned at the beginning of November, and I left him there when I was released in March of the next year.
One day I said, ‘Pop, why do you come back to this place so often?’
And he replied, ‘Well, my boy, what can an old man do? I ain’t got no home, no family; nobody wants an old man, and the work is too hard, even if I could get it. I am not a strong man any more. When spring comes I go across the river to the heights, sleep in a barn, mow a lawn here and there, chop a little wood, and get by. When it gets cold again, I come back to the city, take a few good drinks, then break a window and get six months in the “pen.” In this place I am at least sure of a bed and kept out of the cold.’
‘But,’ said I, ‘why don’t you go to a charity institution?’
‘Who — me? You must think I am a beggar. I tell you what, young fellow, I ain’t. I am a self-respecting man, and I’d rather be in jail any day than in a charity home.’
‘Pop’ is not an isolated instance. He is a type of the men and women who help to fill our city jails, and some of whom ultimately get into state prisons. They are the defeated in the struggle for life.
The fourth class is the accidental criminal: the man who runs counter to the law by accident, often the accident of good intention. In a fight that is innocent enough, a blow may be struck which has fatal consequences. Or it may be that some friend has broken the law, and in seeking to escape the police appeals for protection, for the hiding of stolen goods. The arrest of the criminal involves the well-intentioned friend, who is convicted of having received stolen goods. To this class belongs also the man who, in a passion or a fight, has struck a blow which had a worse consequence than he planned. Many men behind the bars belong to this group. Sometimes, having come to jail by accident, a man continues to come through choice, a choice determined by the loss of social position, the ruin of his fortune, the acquisition of new habits, the making of new friends, the perversion of morals, the development of a feeling of hatred and revenge. A criminal record is a kind of branding of both the soul and the body. The man becomes marked, and often the police and officials help determine the destiny of the forces which an accident set in motion.
The fifth class is the definitely sick — and there are such men in prison, though not all the sick ones are there, and, in spite of the popular impression, not all who are in prison are sick. I use the word ‘sick’ in the sense given to it by men who speak of crime as a disease, or of the criminal as diseased. There are men who are, by native capacity and content, not fit or able to live a normal life within the strained conditions of our social organization. They are often diseased, physically and mentally. These men belong in a hospital — not in a jail. But they are not so important a part of the prison population as the prison psychiatrist generally tends to indicate. The psychiatrist’s conclusions will have to be checked up by a much wider analysis of the people outside of prison before his description of the characteristic features of the criminal can be accepted as conclusive.
This leads us to our last class, the professional criminal. He is the centre of the prison problem. Recidivism is no proof of mental inferiority, of physical deformity. The evidence of those who have been in prison and who know the criminal best — the professional criminal — is contrary to any claim that would make recidivism in itself a proof of inferiority. The professional criminal is a man who has accepted crime as a profession. He has developed an aptitude for it, a liking for it. The habit, the environment, the ties of friendship, the group adhesiveness, all tend to keep him where he is. He gets there, generally speaking, through the open door of the juvenile institution. A discussion of prison democracy must be concerned with its results upon these men.
The professional criminal is peculiar in the sense that he lives a very intense emotional life. He is isolated in the community. He is in it, but not of it. His social life — for all men are social — is narrow; but just because it is narrow, it is extremely tense. He lives a life of warfare and has the psychology of the warrior. He is at war with the whole community. Except his very few friends in crime he trusts no one and fears everyone. Suspicion, fear, hatred, danger, desperation and passion are present in a more tense form in his life than in that of the average individual. He is restless, ill-humored, easily roused and suspicious. He lives on the brink of a deep precipice. This helps to explain his passionate hatred, his brutality, his fear, and gives poignant significance to the adage that dead men tell no tales. He holds on to his few friends with a strength and passion rare among people who live a more normal existence. His friends stand between him and discovery. They are his hold upon life, his basis of security.
Loyalty to one’s group is the basic law in the underworld. Disloyalty is treason and punishable by death; for disloyalty may mean the destruction of one’s friends; it may mean the hurling of the criminal over the precipice on which his whole life is built.
To the community the criminal is aggressive. To the criminal his life is one of defense primarily. The greater part of his energy, of his hopes, and of his successes, centres around escapes, around successful flight, around proper covering-up of his tracks, and around having good, loyal, and trustworthy friends to participate in his activities, who will tell no tales and keep the rest of the community outside. The criminal is thus, from his own point of view, — and I am speaking of professional criminals, — living a life of defensive warfare with the community; and the odds are heavy against him. He therefore builds up a defensive psychology against it — a psychology of boldness, bravado, and self-justification. Thegood criminal — which means the successful one, he who has most successfully carried through a series of depredations against the enemy, the common enemy, the public — is a hero. He is recognized as such, toasted and feasted, trusted and obeyed. But always by a little group. They live in a world of their own, a life of their own, with ideals, habits, outlook, beliefs, and associations which are peculiarly fitted to maintain the morale of the group. Loyalty, fearlessness, generosity, willingness to sacrifice one’s self, perseverance in the face of prosecution, hatred of the common enemy — these are the elements that maintain the morale, but all of them are pointed against the community as a whole.
The criminal is not conscience-stricken, because his warring psychology justifies his depredations upon society. His morals centre around the conviction that dishonesty (against the community) is the best policy, and more, that dishonesty is a characteristic prevailing element among other people; that the difference between the criminal who has been in jail and the rest of the community is that they are yet to be in jail.
This leads us to the criminal’s background. Where does he come from? How does he acquire this peculiar concentration of the qualities characteristic of most other people, in this perverted but intense form?
The average professional criminal begins his career as a boy, often as a child; a bad boy, a naughty, turbulent, energetic, and noisy child. Some of them begin their lives of ‘crime’ as early as the age of seven. More than twenty per cent of our criminals are under twenty-one. Raised most often as he is in poor families, in overcrowded rooms, the young boy receives little care and attention. At a very early age he generally is left to roam. The home is a place where he sleeps and has his meals — poor meals, often irregular ones and dirty. He lives in the street with other boys situated like himself, and they organize into gangs. Each little boy is striving for leadership, and fights are constant. Not living his life at home, he lives it in the street. He plays craps, collects pictures, trades, bargains, steals, avoids the policeman, hears stories of brave criminals, and being poor, finds means of increasing his expenditures for sweets, moving-pictures, and other boyish extravagances by illicit games and by being introduced to the practice of older boys. This is the setting for the average boy. What makes him into a criminal ultimately is not his gang life so much as the fact that his gang life is his only important outlet.
This boy finds school life rather monotonous, dull, uninteresting. The teacher is overburdened. The boy needs sympathy, love, understanding, some occupation that will give bent to his energy and discover his interest. His home brings little influence to bear upon that tendency. The school falls short of fulfilling the needs of this boy, who needs so little and yet needs it so much. He is a truant. The teacher is helpless. The mother is both helpless and hopeless. The boy is left to drift, except for the truant officer. But the truant officer, the policeman, the society for the prevention of cruelty to children, and other institutionalized elements in the community that concern themselves with this boy can generally give him everything but what he needs: he needs sympathy and understanding, and these are the two things that are rare indeed among institutionalized people and concerns.
Ultimately he gets into trouble. Some special prank, some participation in the illegal conduct of older boys, too frequent staying away from school, anything that a boy may easily do when adrift, lands him in an institution. But an institution for ‘incorrigible’ boys is the last place for an ‘incorrigible’ boy to be sent to. Institutions generally, regardless of their motives or objects, proceed on the basis of discipline, and the boy needs growth. Suppression does not suppress, it distorts.
One who would understand the possibility for evil, for emotional distortion, of juvenile institutions must talk at length with men who were brought up in them. He would be startled at the tales of cruelty, barbarism, neglect, and mistreatment, which, if they were not so widely corroborated by practically all men who have been brought up in such institutions, would seem unbelievable. I do not accuse of cruelty the men and women in charge of them. All one has to do is to understand the conditions under which they operate. They are but human, given to exasperation, given to becoming callous and indifferent, occupied and troubled with personal interests which make system and method essential for dealing with children. System and method imply regularity, and regularity implies, where children are concerned, inevitable deviation, difference, and friction; and to maintain regularity, discipline becomes necessary, and the limits of discipline vary very widely: they vary as widely as the human beings concerned vary; and what that means in the life of the children one need not specify, except to say that it means suppression.
The length of institutional life varies. It is, however, usually long enough to institutionalize the boy, in the sense that it tends to make him unfit for any normal and regular occupation. If he does not stay there until he is twentyone, he very often returns two or three times to some juvenile reformatory institution before he reaches that age. He returns because his experience in the reformatory has done nothing, generally speaking, to add to his adaptability. In the institution he has learned bad habits. I remember one ‘ hardened ’ criminal saying to me, ‘I was sent to a juvenile institution at the age of eleven, and returned at about fifteen as a good pickpocket. I went to a reformatory at seventeen as a pickpocket, and returned as a burglar, with all that implies in one’s life and habits. As a burglar, I went to a state institution, where I acquired all the professional characteristics of the criminal and have since committed all the crimes, I suppose, which most criminals commit, and expect to end my life as a criminal.’
He was a kindly old fellow, with a twinkle in his eye, and I asked him, ‘Dutch, how do you feel about the game, anyway?’
‘Well,’ he replied, ‘my boy, when youse been in jail as long as I have, you don’t feel much about what you do to other people who ain’t your friends.’
In the institution the boy makes a few friends, and when he is released these generally become the centre of his emotional existence. He is a little more callous, a little more hardened, a little more set. He has felt his first tinge of bitterness, of hatred, of fear. He has resented brutality, and become brutal in the process, because resentment, when it breaks itself on a stone wall, hardens. Too often he comes back without a trade, without interests, with a bad name, with lurking distrust in all about him, with the police, the parole officer, and all the ‘good’ people just a little different in their behavior toward him; and he feels different, and feeling different, he is different. He finds that he has few friends, and these few are, like himself, isolated, suspected, and persecuted. A sense of grievance binds them together. They become friends in all things. They build a loyalty that resists the encroachments of a suspicious world, and their loyalty is based both on common danger and on a sense of common grievance. There is no social consciousness, because there are no broad social connections. There is no social interest because there is no broad sense of responsibility. They are ‘ bad,’ but they are bad in the sense that their good instincts have been distorted to bad motive, and not in the sense that they have no good instincts.
This then is a general background of the professional criminal, and to this background we must always remember to add the sense of constant danger and fear with which the life of the criminal is darkened.
Let us see this criminal as he is when he comes to prison under the democratic organization. He has been in prison before, generally, and he knows what to expect. He finds just the opposite situation from what he has known. Instead of discipline, hard and brutal, he finds discipline based on coöperation and democratic participation. He does not understand what it means. He does not believe it, and he often, upon arrival, tries to take advantage of it.
With his background of suspicion, of hatred, of distrust, he brings with himself into prison a peculiarly aggravated sensitiveness. As a rat trapped and confined, before confinement has become a habit, gnaws at the cage and exhibits elements of desperate exasperation, so the criminal, suddenly cut off from a thousand associations, a world full of possibilities of joys and pleasures, which now seem more vivid, more keen, more essential, just because they have become impossible, feels unstrung, broken, and, one might almost say, crucified. He is in no mood for the understanding of democratic organization, with its demands upon personal interest and good will. Relief, which he must have, comes slowly, and generally it comes through building a fantasy of revenge, of retaliation, of self-expression and fulfillment. It is this man who comes into prison and becomes the subject of a democratic organization. This man is the criminal problem, and prison administration must stand or fall by its effect on him.
Prison democracy is a peculiar institution. It is made up of criminals who are the citizens of this community, and yet it is not a criminal community. The men are organized on a free democratic basis, and their organization centres around problems which are peculiarly vital to the whole group. The man who originally came from a criminal community, and who under the old system was thrown into a community of criminals, now finds himself face to face, in an intensely personal way, with the grouping of men who do not operate as criminals at all; and yet their operations are of immediate consequence upon his well-being. They operate in terms of social need. Theirs are the problems of government, administration, and discipline, of education, of sanitation, nourishment, amusement — and these are not criminal problems. Like every community, this one contains its full measure of human strength and human weakness. Politics plays its part here as well as in the outside world. There are to be found intrigue, passion, jealousy, ambition, desire for leadership, for being in the limelight; there, too, is to be found the craving to serve, to be a busybody, to carry on reforms, to agitate for new things, to preach, to play, to build. It is a whole world, involving love and hatred, containing within itself some of the major problems of the outside world. There is, however, one basic difference. It must be remembered that this is an isolated community, a secluded community; that men cannot leave it at will, that what is done has an immediate influence upon the rest of the men. Government is a very personal experience in prison for every man there, because each man suffers or benefits immediately from the results of the activities of the group.
The prison community is thus essentially social. From such contact as the writer has had with prison organization he feels that it would be hard to duplicate anywhere outside of prison the social intensity and civic interest contained within a prison democracy. This paradoxical situation can probably be explained by two outstanding facts, true of the prison, but not, in their full significance, true of any other community.
The first is that life in prison is not so keenly competitive as it is in the world at large. Men are more social because the struggle for existence in the economic sense has no place in the lives of the men behind the bars. They live a life where the danger of hunger and want, where the possibilities of lack of shelter and clothing, are unknown and undreamed of. There is no struggle for existence among the prisoners against each other. This means that the bitterness and disappointment, the hatred and antagonism, the selfish, competitive character of the individual, is not so much in evidence. There is a kind of equality in the prison world which is almost unique. The prisoners live under the same conditions: they eat the same food, wear similar clothing. There is more unity of interest, more similarity of occupation, more consistency of habitual procedure, than is to be found in the outside world. What holds true of the physical appearance of the men tends to be true also of the social aspect of their existence. The men’s problems, as prisoners, are fairly similar, their interests as prisoners are more or less the same, they benefit and suffer from the common evils of prison life. They are thus bound together as men in the free outside world are not. This leads to the other aspect of the prison situation which makes for socialization of the individual.
The group is so small, and their interests are so closely knit together, that the activities of any member have a direct influence on the well-being of all the others. There is not only greater proximity of physical contact, but greater dependence upon the social responsiveness of the individual. The interests of the group are so bound up with the behavior of the individual that he is under constant pressure to conform. The demand upon him to play the game honestly is almost irresistible. A man who stands out from the rest of the community by his unsocial behavior is in a more difficult situation than is the criminal in the outside world. In prison the man cannot escape the pressure of scornful, suspicious neighbors. He comes into disrepute in the community, and everyone knows all about him. He is shunned, disliked, avoided. He is scorned and sneered at, and lacks the sympathetic support of the little group which in the world outside makes the criminal’s life bearable. He who will not play the game ‘on the level’ in a prison democracy is thus an outcast who cannot avoid the most serious consequence of being an outcast — effective excommunication. The pressure for conformity in the interest of the group is thus intensified to a degree hardly imaginable. Men are caught in the vortex of a group that demands social conformity — conformity with the things and rules which are good and essential for this self-governing group. And woe to the man who will not accept the implications of social organization.
In the older prison system the honor went to the man who was the most disobedient and troublesome prisoner. Under the democratic organization he is a nuisance to the prison group and is treated as such. This fact tends to make the man who is the most insistent upon group approval — that is, the most sensitive and rebellious type under the old system — into the most social and serviceable type under democratic organization.
This does not mean that there is no competition, no difference, no deviation, no outlet for individual energy. But it is an outlet which must assume the form of emulation, of striving for greater service, rather than of anti-social behavior. The prison community has thus become one that literally compels men to take on the socialized character of the group. A prison democracy is the last place for criminals to practise crime. Conformity to the needs of the democratic group is the basis of existence, and conformity therefore becomes the rule, because the individual cannot stand up, even if he desires to do so, against the solid will of a closely knit organization.
There is another element involved, and that is the craving for play. It is an experience, new to most of them, which draws upon many potential characteristics. There is much fun, interest, and play in running for office, in administering things. There is an adventure in building a school system, as ‘Doc’ Meyers did in Sing Sing without himself having more than an elementary education. Men who have never done anything but break laws find a curious lot of self-expression in being sergeant or deputy, in making or enforcing laws. All these things have their influence. They react upon the men who are playing the game, and who, if they began doubtfully, cynically, half-humorously, soon find themselves absorbed in the real problems, because they are real problems. This is no longer a criminal community. It is a community of former criminals and present convicts, who are functioning as independent citizens within a certain prescribed sphere, limited by overshadowing walls, but within which there may be comparative freedom. It is this community that confronts the newcomer, and to him who is a stranger to it, it is a perplexing and paradoxical situation.
In Sing Sing, for instance, on his arrival the man was visited by a committee, who interviewed him and found out what service they could render him. Was there anything he wanted to learn — was there any particular job that he could do best, or would like to do? Was there anything that the prison organization could do to help his family? To the ordinary criminal this seemed like an attempt to ‘put something over’ on him. It was, probably, his first experience in being offered a service without being asked for a return. Generally the newcomer, with his older psychology and outlook, would take advantage of it, and the newcomer in the prison organization was, generally speaking, a troublesome person. However, the intensity of the situation is so great, the problems so varied, the means of outlet so numerous, the area so limited, the grouping so intense, that he finds himself drawn into the vortex, one might almost say against his will.
The process by which this happens is hard to describe. It differs with different men, and varies with the varying temperament. In some cases it is cataclysmic. In others it is gradual. It may happen in many ways. The man, for instance, is placed in a shop soon after he arrives in prison. He is still peevish, moody, discontented, upset, and morose. While there, somebody smiles at him genially, says a cheery word to him, or picks up something that he drops. He makes a friend. In due course he will find that there is an election coming. The whole shop is busy with interest for the competing delegates — political drumming is in the air, people are canvassing, soliciting votes, making promises; and he finds that his friend, or somebody whom his friend is interested in, is running for office, and ipso facto he finds himself interested. He becomes busy, anxious, excited; with a throbbing heart he stands on the edge of the group when the count is taking place; and as his friend is either defeated or successful, his heart responds with its proper beat. He is already a different man. This is the beginning of a new series of operations, of thoughts, of new interests, new ambitions.
Or perhaps his friend may have got into trouble, and he accompanies him to court; and in court he finds that he can play his due part, either as a credible witness, when his word is as good as that of any other man, or as counsel pleading the cause of his friend, or as an onlooker intensely interested in the proceedings. A vision of a new world dawns upon him. A world of social problems and responsibilities, of which he was but vaguely aware before.
Or he may like to play ball, and join the baseball team or a committee on baseball; or boxing, and join a committee on boxing; or he may have religious interests and join the Catholic committee for the proper care of the graves; or, if he is a Jew, he may find himself on a committee to arrange a Passover party for the boys in prison. Anything is sufficient to make a start, and opportunities are numerous. There were some two hundred men on committees in Sing Sing during Mr. Osborne’s time, about a fourth of the population serving on some committee or other, from sanitation to constitutional reform. Or he may be interested in education, going to lectures, classes, moving-pictures, or helping to teach. The particular process does not matter. What does matter is that the intensity of the social organization forces upon him social responsibility, and that the ordinary desire for conspicuousness and play, the ordinary human interest to do one’s share in the light of the approval of one’s fellows, is sufficient to draw him out of his hard shell, to throw back into the dimness of a receding consciousness previous thoughts, previous experiences, and previous outlook, and replace them with an altogether new set of emotions, interests, ideals.
Under the older system the prisoner had nothing to do, so he brooded upon the past and planned vengeance for the future. At present he is so busy, the interests are so various, the associations so intense, the esprit de corps and factional pride so constant, that he forgets, one might almost say, that he is in prison. His whole life tends to become vibrant with an altogether new set of values and a new set of experiences.
I remember sitting one night in Sing Sing with a large group of executives, board members, and other officials. It was late. The whole prison was asleep. The guards were gone, except for those outside the walls. We sat in a room smoking and talking — talking officially, because it was a meeting.
One of the boys got up and said, ‘Fellows, we have to look at the prison in this way. It does n’t make any difference why we are here. That is past and gone. We can’t leave here when we want to, either. That is not in our power. We are here to stay. Some of us are going to stay a long time. I have twenty years. Some of the boys have life. Some of them have less than that. But we are here, and it is our business to make Sing Sing just as useful a place for the men who are here as possible, and just as interesting a place as possible. Useful to the man who is going to leave. We have got to teach him a trade and develop him into a man. Interesting and useful — at least, useful in serving those who are going to leave — must be the life of the men who are going to stay here all the time. This is going to be a hard job, I know, but we have got to do it. There is no reason why we should just rot and rot and dry up and get worse and harder and more bitter. Let’s make this place into a real college for the men, so that the boys who leave here will leave better and bigger men than when they came, and remember those they left behind with a good heart.’
And the others approved.
This is no idle attitude of one man. The boys in Sing Sing spoke of the prison as the college for the remaking of men. The boys in Portsmouth speak of it to-day as the University of Portsmouth. The most interesting result of this whole business is the fact that the prisoners themselves have become prison reformers, and become so with a heart and a will, an idealism and emotional setting, which are characteristic of the true propagandist.
This newer experience, to be made permanent in the life of the criminal, must carry with it certain elements which are not directly within the power of the prison community. These men have arrived, as a result of the socializing pressure of a prison democracy, at a newer outlook, and at a newer view of life. At least for the professional criminal, the democratic experience and its consequence are a spiritual awakening that is not to be denied. But the professional criminal, under present conditions, does not possess, generally, the means of continuing this experience when he has returned to the world from which he came. He may be a different man spiritually, but the larger community, to which he has returned, has not materially changed. Suspicion of the man who has been in prison still exists, his possibilities for work and life away from crime are not basically different from what they were before he came to prison. It is this fact which makes imperative the introduction of certain additional factors, which will tend to carry over to the world beyond the prison walls the experience and habits acquired in prison under democratic organization.
The prison must actually become a self-governing, as well as a self-sustaining community in an economic sense. It must provide the means of learning a trade as well as that of earning sufficient money for self-maintenance and the care of dependents stranded in the world outside. This is not an impossible task. There is no visible reason why scientific organization of the working and economic aspect of the prison community should not be capable of carrying full support of the individual, as well as of the group beyond the prison dependent upon the inmate for an income. It would be the means of maintaining intact such family ties as the prisoner may have had. The work, to be fully successful, must be so organized as to make possible the entrance of the criminal into an economic grouping in which he can function, and which will at the same time contain the possibilities of continuing his newer democratic experience. This can apparently be done only by organizing the prison work in contact with, and under terms acceptable to, the labor unions, and thus providing for the entrance of the freed man into a labor group controlling his particular industry, and at the same time making possible the continuance of the method of democratic self-determination by participation in the problems and interests of the democratic labor organization.