Facing the Issue: Two Prison Chaplains

[Two letters, among the multitude which have come to us giving voice to insistent and increasing interest in prison reform, present contrasted aspects of the situation. Each is written by an expert whose life is a testimonial to his sincerity of purpose, and each sets forth the writer’s point of view in such lucid detail that we print them together. Together they will leave unprejudiced readers divided on questions of theory, but with a new belief that a solution of the present intolerable situation can be compassed by men of good will.THE EDITORS.]

March 9, 1922.
I have read with increasing interest Mr. Frank Tannenbaum’s articles on ‘Prison Problems’ appearing in the Atlantic during the past year. Because of the complimentary statements about San Quentin and an ever-growing interest in matters of prisons and prisoners, I am constrained to ‘speak right out in meet in’,’ and add something to the alleged facts previously published.
First of all, let me deal with the warden. Whatever may be truthfully stated about the wardens of other prisons, the allegations in Mr. Tannenbaum’s articles do not apply to the warden of San Quentin.
Warden James A. Johnston is, without question, the outstanding example in American prisons of what a warden should be. He is at once a firm disciplinarian and humane in his judgments. He is a careful student of human nature. He is a member of the California Bar Association, and a profound student of economics.
Warden Johnston looks upon the prison as a place wherein men may find themselves, build up their weakened moral natures, overcome their physical handicaps, and have their intellectual powers developed.
It is his purpose to offer an education to the ignorant, teach a trade to the man who has none and, so far as possible, round out the life of the unfortunate inmate, so that, he may be returned to society an asset, rather than a liability.
There is nothing in the article on ‘Facing the Prison Problem’ (Atlantic, February, 1922) to indicate that the writer visited San Quentin about a year ago. Since the time of Mr. Tannenbaum’s visit, many improvements have been made.
Theeducational work has been extended, and some of the industries, particularly the furniture factory, have been greatly enlarged. Eventually the jute mill will be discontinued, and industries at which men may work upon leaving the institution substituted in its place.
A glance at the following summary of courses, and the number of students enrolled in each course, will clearly indicate that there are many men devoting time to the study of advanced subjects, not purely academic, but which also fit into their vocational ambitions.
There are also sixty-eight students enrolled in agricultural subjects, most, of whom are also taking other courses. Academic and agricultural courses are taken by correspondence, through the courtesy of the University of California.
There are also classes in electricity and gasoline machinery. These have a total enrollment of seventy-five students, and are conducted each Saturday afternoon by Professor S. P. Reed, a representative of Heald’s Automotive School in San Francisco.
In addition to the advanced work which I have mentioned, there were on February 1, 1922, men enrolled in the following subjects:
With a number of the students in these subjects taking more than one subject, t his total of 2745 represents the activities of 1093 men. And of these, 174 men are enrolled in academic courses. The lessons for the above are prepared by the educational director, assisted by the inmate teachers; they are printed in the prison printing-rooms and are sent to the student one lesson at a time, new lessons following as the work previously done is reviewed and corrected.
In addition to the correspondence work, there are twenty classes of illiterates and those who cannot study without the aid of a teacher, numbering in all — 187. These classes meet on regular school-days after ‘lock up.’ They are taught by inmate teachers, and are divided into one group of twelve classes under a superintendent, and another group of eight classes also under a superintendent.
It would be fallacy to insist that all persons enrolled are ‘making good,’ but creditable returns are being made by more than half of those whose names appear upon our records. Every effort is made to induce those who are delinquent to begin or resume their work. Circular letters, personal letters, and personal interviews are resorted to in order to interest the man who fails fully to grasp the value of education.
The educational department of San Quentin is taking an advanced step in the conduct of a mental survey of the entire prison popidation. This will prove invaluable in the adjustment of individuals to suitable lines of study and labor. Army Alpha, and Beta, and Terman group-tests will be used for testing men in groups of twenty-five. For additional research, the Stanford Revision of the Binet-Simon and the Army Performance scale will be used.
The educational work of a prison differs materially from such work among the young, for most persons coming to prison lost the habit of study long before their arrival. There also arises the difficult situation due to various nationalities. The following table shows the nativity of the 1170 prisoners received during the year 1921: —
While the Americans numbered 838, many of them had had very limited schooling. It. is most significant, that, during 1921, not a single college graduate was committed to San Quentin. In the following educational recapitulation for that year, everything over the sixth grade may be safely discounted 25 per cent. It is also noteworthy that only 103 persons, of the 1170 received, claimed an education equivalent to high school or better.
Education is not compulsory in this institution. This, I believe, is as it should be. In fixing sentence, due allowance is made by the Prison Directors for whatever of industry and educational advancement an inmate has made, the Chaplain-Director of Education being required to submit a résumé of the individual’s educational status and progress.
No better evidence of the value of Warden Johnston’s policies is to be had than the conduct record for the year just closed. On January 1, 1921, the inmate population numbered 1850. There were 1170 persons received during the year 1921. The total number of inmates offending against the rules was 338, or a fraction more than one offender to each ten persons; a most admirable record. The furniture factory, employing 250 men, is run without a guard, and no guard attends the chapel services. Nor is there a guard in any of the offices, or in the photograph gallery, Bertillon room, or hospital.
Restrictions on letter-writing are mild and visitors are permitted to come to the prison once a month; friends on Saturdays, and relatives on Sundays.
The physical plant is, much of it, old and obsolete. The new section contains 800 single cells, the dining-room, and the kitchen. This section is as good as any in the country. The old section is of the very obsolete type, housing from two to six men in each cell. Ventilation is forced and good, but sanitation is of the obsolete type. The hospital, though an old building, is up-to-date in equipment. No finer medical and surgical treatment is to be had anywhere. The chapel and library are old, and very inadequate.
I hand you these facts because I believe you will be interested in some first-hand information.
Yours very truly,
Chaplain-Director of Education.

Accounting 2
Algebra 18
Arithmetic, Shop 24
Arithmetic, Commercial 10
Art Appreciation 1
Astronomy 3
Automobile 69
Biology 1
Bookkeeping 25
Business Management 16
Civilization 3
Composition 42
Drawing 58
Economics 7
Electricity 82
English, Business 16
Essentials of Mechanics 10
French 21
Geometry 5
Government of the U.S. 1
Grammar, English 28
History of the World 4
Journalism 2
Latin 4
Law, Commercial 15
Literary Criticism 1
Literature, English 7
Logic 9
Mineralogy 1
Music 10
Philosophy 2
Shop-sketching 3
Spanish 129
Stenography 58
Surveying 1
Theory of Investment 1
Trigonometry 3
Typewriting 15
Writing 9
Total 722
Elementary Arithmetic 862
Orthography 509
Advanced Orthography 17
English Grammar 398
Advanced English Grammar 5
Penmanship 945
Civil Government 3
United States History 6
Total 2745
Afghan 1 Indian 0
American 838 Irish 9
Armenian 1 Italian 17
Australian 2 Japanese 3
Austrian 9 Mexican 142
Bohemian 2 Montenegrin 1
Brazilian 1 Norwegian 3
Bulgarian 1 Polish 6
Canadian 19 Porto Rican 2
Chinese 11 Portuguese 5
Cuban 1 Rumanian 1
Danish 2 Russian 8
Dutch 4 Scotch 8
English 10 Serbian 3
Filipino 7 Siamese 1
Finnish 2 Spanish 6
French 2 Swedish 3
German 15 Swiss 3
Greek 5 Turkish 2
Hawaiian 2 Uruguayan 1
Hindu 3 West Indian 2
Not one year 23 Ten years 86
One year 33 Eleven years 40
Two years 38 Twelve years 59
Three years 04 Thirteen years 13
Four years 79 Fourteen years 13
Five years 87 Fifteen years 9
Six years 117 Sixteen years 5
Seven years 120 Eighteen years 2
Eight years 225 Nineteen years 1
Nine years 83 Twenty years 1
No education 72


Offenders Offenses
9 times 2 18
7 “ 2 14
6 “ 4 24
5 “ 3 15
4 “ 7 28
3 “ 17 51
2 “ 53 106
More than once, in all 88
Once only 250 250
Totals 338 506

March 10, 1922.
You may well know that I have been deeply interested in the various articles that your magazine has been publishing in recent issues on prison reform. I see that, whatever the variety of opinion on various aspects of the subject, all agree that our present manner of dealing with the question of crime and criminals is a gigantic failure. With this conclusion I agree. But it is a rather serious conclusion, when we recall that more than a half-million of our fellow citizens are involved, yearly. If it were a private business, how long would it continue without at least an effort at some radical change? I suppose that the answer to the question is found in the slowness of man to break with traditional habits and passionate prejudices. It is not my intention, in this communication, to give my views; but I cannot resist a st rong desire to affirm a few opinions that have already been set forth in some of the articles referred to.
The present methods of dealing with criminals are about as stupid and senseless as those employed one hundred years ago, in treating many diseases — insanity, for instance. To begin with, we know almost nothing of the subjects we are working upon. Ignorance befogs the whole work. Until this is, at least in a measure, removed by accurate scientific study, we shall go on in our criminal blundering. In the first, place, the court should acquire the necessary information upon which to base its decisions. The inconsistencies, absurdities, and almost, if not quite, criminal blunders practised by the courts because of ignorance would fill volumes. The youth who are sent to us for ‘reformation’ are a curious mixture. It is supposed that, only first offenders shall be treated in this Reformatory; and yet, during the last four years, 48 per cent of these subjects have served time previously, and many of them three and four times, and a few as many as five times. Often the worst of these are recommended for special mercy.
It is a shocking experience to one who has been taught a patriotic reverence for our courts, to discover such weakness and inaccuracy in our criminal jurisprudence. This is not because the judges are dishonest, or perhaps always careless, but because they have not been furnished, in our state, with sufficient facility for knowing. The vital facts bearing on the cases are never within reach. The courts are weak enough, operating as they do under antiquated and traditional limitations even if all the facts were at hand.
But after the court has done its best, and we receive the youth for treatment, the system grows even worse. I know that the claim is often made that, from our prisons and reformatories, from 70 to 80 per cent are restored to an honorable life. This is not true according to our records. And these are quite incomplete. About 48 per cent become so law-abiding that they do not get into prisons after leaving. But I do not believe that this is because of the good work done in the institutions. It would be hard for any treatment to spoil more than 52 per cent, for many of these youths are rather fine fellows. We have here about five hundred who were among the bravest in the defense of ‘Democracy’ during the World War, and many are from respectable homes. Twenty per cent of these young men are from our Boys’ Industrial School. This tells the story of sad failure. If at an early age we do not succeed, what can we expect to accomplish with advanced age?
What we do for them after we get them — or, rather, what we do not do — is the saddest reflection on the system. This institution, of which I have been chaplain long enough to know what I am speaking about, was, at one time, the foremost of all institutions in up-to-date methods of reform. It was in the eye of the world, and foreign commissions came here to study. It is not that we have receded from this pinnacle of success, but that the world has moved up a peg or two, and things seem different from what they did a few years ago.
We have a large variety of occupations and trades in which we ‘occupy’ the boy while he is here.
The design is all right. The special need of these inmates is a trade or occupation by which they can make an honest living. But what we really do — for we do not give wages, except a mere pittance — is to teach the most slovenly habits of work imaginable. The boy has a fixed notion, soon wrought into him if he does not. possess it when he enters, that he is to pass his time as easily as possible. There is no incentive to do an honest day’s work for an honest wage. We actually corrupt him in his working methods. We unfit him, instead of fitting him. What we do, they all do, if they are honest enough to confess it. Take the farmer boy. We have a farm of 1200 acres. The boys work, or pretend to work, eight hours a day. Their one ambition is to quit on time and get back to rest. What farmer will tolerate such a habit when he hires one of these ‘trained’ men? The result will be that he will be discharged, wander about, and drop into the old ways.
The trouble with the whole system is that it desocializes; and, under the artificial restraints constantly present, the youth becomes unfit to settle back into normal conditions. It is almost a mercy to one who has been confined for a long time to be confined always.
This is not meant a a discouraging presentation, but quite the opposite. We never improve until we have it shown us clearly that we are failures. This vision is certainly appearing. Sensible men are beginning to probe the old system with questions, under which it can never stand up. Therefore, there is hope that something new will come. I see little hope of ‘improving,’ but more hope of ‘revolutionizing.’
Science will bring a better knowledge of our fellow man, and will afford us a new appreciation of responsibility in crime. It will work a greater hardship, if it may be called so, on the persistent criminal and lawbreaker. He will be put away, and possibly made comparatively comfortable and, largely, selfsupporting. The feeble-minded, who constitute such a large class in all our penal institutions, will be taken care of as they should be. The cruelty of submitting men and women of the mentality of children of six or ten years of age to the severities of prison discipline will some day be looked back upon as worthy to be classed with the ancient cruelties of the thumbscrew and the fagot. With the remainder, who are capable of being improved, a new order will be instituted, which will encourage freedom of action and self-reliance, and furnish incentives to success. This is not impossible when once we get rid of the heavy burden that prejudice, traditional customs, and bigotry still impose upon us. The task of building the new system will not be so difficult as to get rid of the old encumbrances.
And yet this very discussion makes us know that the future is bright with the promise of better work. But we shall not realize the success we desire until we secure a scientific diagnosis on which will be built a new segregation; until, also, we establish an adequate motive for honest labor, and so form industrial habits; and until scientifically trained men, and not policemen, shall be induced to manage the whole enterprise. Perhaps all this may come sooner than we now expect.