THE last year of my stay in the prison, thanks to the advent of a new matron, I was allowed to start a ‘school,’ as it was rather ambitiously called. If one thinks of a school in terms of equipment— an imposing building, library, modern textbooks — that was not our school. Our equipment consisted of two square yards of blackboard space and a few old readers. We approached the standard of the log with a teacher on one end and a pupil on the other! My experiment is of interest because it was the first attempt of the kind in this women’s prison, and because the impulse for its organization came from the women themselves. When I first entered the institution, two of the girls came to me and asked if I could teach them to read English; a girl who had been to high school asked if it would be possible that we should read together, study Italian, do something interesting and worth while. As the only time we were permitted to talk was during the two-hour period on Saturday, her idea was impractical. At this time one fourth of the girls were unable to write their own letters; some could write in German, Polish, or Italian, but not in English. I asked the head matron if I might have the opportunity to teach. The refusal was peremptory; I was to have no ‘highflown’ ideas; the State expected me to work, not to teach; besides, ‘you can’t learn them con’s nothin’.'
I was sent into the matrons’ household to act as housekeeper and general factotum, and I stayed there for years, until I was too ill to do physical labor. The head matron who had vetoed the school project resigned and a new one reigned in her stead. Happily, at this time a very charming and intelligent woman came in as assistant-matron. She was interested in the girls and felt that her position offered opportunity for social service — an official point of view so unique in this prison that it should be recorded in gold.
One morning, a month or so after she came, I saw Number 20003, an illiterate, bring the new matron a slate upon which she had been copying some printed words from a book. I said, ‘If I could only teach her!'
The new matron: ‘Would you really be willing to teach her?’
Number 20003; ‘Would you learn me — honest, would you?'
And I: ‘It is the very chance for which I have waited all these years.'
So Number 20003 was my first pupil.
The warden gave a cordial assent to the plan and, as we progressed, was enthusiastic and interested.
Number 20003 was anxious to be able to write her own letters. She was a Polish woman, twenty-five years of age — the mother of two children. Her husband had promptly divorced her when she went to prison, but her devotion to him was unfaltering. The baby died in a charitable institution shortly after the mother entered prison; her grief was vociferous and heart-rending for a day and then she seemed to forget the incident . In spite of these fundamental experiences, her mentality was that of an eight-year-old child. We struggled through a primer, but the first reader was almost too much for her, not alone because she found it difficult to remember the word-symbols, but because she had so few associations with the content of the stories in the first reading-books. We read a story of a little rich girl who looked longingly at a group of children playing at games in a street below. Number 20003 had never heard of blindman’s buff or hideand-seek; the only game she had ever seen was drop-the-handkerchief, played one Saturday afternoon in the prison yard. She told of her childhood on a Northern timber-claim where the children began to work at the age when other little ones would begin to play. She had never attended school, except a Polish parochial one, where only the Polish language was taught. Life held nothing but working, eating, sleeping; an early marriage, then prison at twenty-five.
One evening I read to the beginners’ class Walter de la Mare’s ‘Silver’:—
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her gleams beneath the silvery thatch . . .
This was a picture that she knew; and Number 20003 said, ‘I want to learn that, ‘cause it’s kinda nice, when you can’t see them things, to read about them.’
When Number 20015 heard that Number 20003 was going to learn to read English and to write her own letters, she asked for permission to be in ‘the school.’ In a few weeks more than sixty per cent of the girls were enrolled, and we had classes five nights a week in the big sewing-room.
I hope my pupils gained something from the work. To me it was a most illuminating experience; I was selfishly happy to be doing work that demanded mental preparation and alertness. I had often spent two hours darning a stocking so worn that, even after all the work put on it, it would not stand another day’s wear — a typical example of the futile labor on which the women were put. The matron whose hosiery I mended would not have thought it worth the time or effort to do this herself, but when she had twenty slaves at her service why should they not do anything she asked? The State said they should! No one considered how incongruous or inefficient it was to put a woman capable of doing skilled work upon such a menial task. And no one thought how unspeakably dreary that sort of labor would be to a person accustomed to responsibility and to the joy of doing expert work.
The division into classes that year was not wholly satisfactory, — experiments seldom are, — but we had a beginners’ class in reading that made commendable progress, another in third-year work, some tutoring in arithmetic, and a group that took ‘senior English’—they adored the term ‘senior English.’ Aside from the reading, we took up some work in the simpler forms of business and friendly letters, and we always had a short oral drill on correct forms of speech. I used to wonder if sometime, by mistake or miracle, someone would learn to use an irregular verb correctly. I realized that effort was being made when one day I heard Bessie saying to Bertha, ‘You must n’t say you saw somethin’. You saw wood. But when you seen it with your eyes — why, then you seen it.’
We read first Josephine Preston Peabody’s Old Greek Folk Stories, and it was pleasant when, later, with a portfolio of pictures of Greece, we saw the wooded shores of Ithaca, a fragment of a temple of the great Diana, and a long low mountain called Parnassus. One evening when we read, —
Like those Nicæan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea.
The weary, wayworn wanderer bore
To his own native shore . . .
each one Felt proud because Helen and the weary, wayworn wanderer were on her acquaintance list. Said Bessie, quite seriously: ‘It’s sorta nice being educated, is n’t it?’
After we finished the Greek stories, I put on the board a list, from which choice was to be made for study, telling briefly of the author or the book. I had intended to guide them tactfully to the Arabian Nights, of which I am extraordinarily fond. But every last sister voted for Edgar Allan Poe. They had liked what I said of his erratic life. We had a fine time reading some of his poems and short stories. We shuddered over the ‘Masque of the Red Death,’ and even Bessie’s mulatto cheeks were pale when the House of Usher fell. I told them something of the characteristics of poetry: rhythm, rhyming schemes, versification, the topics most frequently chosen. After we had discussed a new poem we would add it to our repertoire, and read and reread it with alternate solo and chorus effects, quite after the manner of the most approved community song festivals. Our pet poem was: —
For which my soul did pine —
A green isle in the sea, love,
A fountain and a shrine,
All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers,
And all the flowers were mine. . . .
It will be observed that we had a strong sense of rhythm. No meeting was ever complete unless we read ‘Annabel Lee.’ Number 20022 said she just loved
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee,
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee . . .
because it was written ‘in such lovely waltz-time’ — her translation of my dissertation on the anapæstic metre.
The spontaneous response to poetry was not surprising. The women liked it instantly and naturally as do children, for its rhythm and music. Before the beginners had completed their first reader they knew Joyce Kilmer’s ‘Trees,’ Tennyson’s ‘Sweet and Low,’ and a dozen more of that type.
Shortly before my release I was permitted to organize the second year’s work. The usual groups for elementary reading and so forth were formed, but I was most interested in the two more advanced classes in English. The senior group had bravely started out on a survey of English literature. (By the way, one of the rather nice things was that every girl wanted to buy and to own the excellent new texts that the State was furnishing for us. I always like people who want to own books.) We read Beowulf, excerpts from the Saxon Chronicle, Mandeville’s Travels, with ready appreciation. Each night we would turn to the back of the book ‘to some of the easy ones,’ and we would read a bit from Stevenson, or from Christina Rossetti; once it was Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses.’ I read them the description of Mabel in If Winter Comes, and Mark Sabre’s discovery of Byron. They liked that because it was akin to their own literary pioneering. At my last recitation with the junior group we read the Message to Garcia, and Kipling’s ‘If.’ ‘My! It’s like going to church to read them things, is n’t it? Only you can understand what they mean, and you don’t always know what the minister is talking about.’ This, which would be everyday work elsewhere, was not commonplace with us. None of the women had read much before. We sat in a room with heavily barred windows that overlooked the grim prison-wall; the rasp of a key turning in some door was always in our ears; our garb was hideous. But the assistant-matron we loved sat with us, interested in us, as we proved anew the magic that lies in books.
Perhaps my sweetest memory of the little school is this. We had read Rupert Brooke’s poem: —
And smelt the sea, and earth, and the warm clover,
And heard the waves, and the sea gull’s mocking cry.
I saw the pines against the white north sky,
Very beautiful, and still, and bending over
Their sharp black heads against a quiet sky.
And there was peace in them . . .
We had talked a little about the splendor and sadness of the sunset hour, and something of the young poet. A few days later one of the girls came to me and said: ‘Last night when we were cleaning in the sewing-room, I looked out of the west windows, and the winter sky was yellow and gold and pretty colors just like our poem read. And I said to myself, “ I’d watched the sorrow of the evening sky."'
She had looked through barred windows, over the great prison-wall, but had seen only the magic and beauty of a sunset. Sometimes I think the person was wrong who said, ‘You can’t learn them con’s nothin’.’
If, in the manner we all once deemed highly possible, a benevolent fairy should appear and grant me one, and only one, wish for the improvement of conditions in penal institutions, without hesitation I should ask for a higher type of prison official. To one accustomed to the dictum that a legitimate trade or profession demands a definite training and preparatory education, the prison official is an anomaly. The warden is appointed by the Governor and, as the position carries an excellent salary, it is given to a political partisan as a matter of course. The minor officials are chosen by the warden, subject to the approval of the Board of Control. There is a vague tradition that these appointments are made from a civilservice list, but anyone who can write his name or read a paragraph from a second reader could qualify. Aside from the institution’s physician and the stenographers in the office, I never knew an official who had any special training or qualification for his work. The upper officials who sponsored those things that are most deplorable — repressions, enforced by heart-sickening brutality — had risen from the ranks. The guard who was the sternest, most implacable disciplinarian became deputy warden and later a warden. The worst politician would have been preferable to a man of this type. The head matron who was in office when I entered had earned her livelihood as a house-to-house canvasser for flavoring-extracts; her successor was the unlettered widow of a saloon-keeper. We had one assistant-matron who had been a general house-servant, a substitute who had been a washerwoman. Both of these spoke broken English; they could barely read and write.
The regular staff of the women’s prison consisted of the head matron and one assistant, who had charge of the work during the day; a night matron; a substitute who came eight days a month when the regular employees had their free days. There were frequent changes in the personnel of the staff; perhaps twenty women served in these different capacities during my incarceration. Obviously, general statements regarding that number of individuals would carry little weight. But it was not possible to live in the constant wearisome proximity of confinement without becoming either deeply attached or fervently antagonistic to these women who held our lives — almost — in their hands. There were four whom I loved devotedly. They were kind to me, gave me a generous friendship when I knew only distress and despair; and there was nothing half-hearted about the affection which I, in turn, gave to them. As to the others, my antipathy is greatly modified by a realization of their limitations.
I can conceive of no work which is so peculiarly and elementally a test of human character as that of a prison official. Put power, autocratic and irresponsible power, into the hands of a woman untrained for authority, and one of two things happens: if she has the intelligence, courage, and strength of natural leadership, she becomes a tremendous factor for good; if she is of limited mentality, petty and narrow, the consequences are deplorable beyond the conception of the uninitiated.
With the present system, the outsider has no means of gauging the ability of a prison official. Recently I read of the appointment as police matron of a woman who had served as an official in our prison. The article stated that she was ‘ deeply interested in the welfare of wayward girls.’ For two years I had endured existence under her, and knew her to be harsh, stupid, utterly regardless of the health or happiness of the unfortunates under her. I can recall no act of hers to ameliorate the unsanitary conditions, the unhygienic mode of life, the depressing moral atmosphere. But she looked benevolent; her gray hair was always nicely waved — she could have earned a princely competence posing as a benign mother in the movies.
A prerequisite professional training for the prison official will not necessarily eliminate all those temperamentally unfitted for the exacting demands of this occupation, but it will mean the maximum rather than the present minimum number of desirable men and women for these positions.
I talked with a young woman who had taken her Master’s degree under a great sociologist, with a research fellowship later, and two years of practical work in Eastern penal and corrective institutions. ‘ Why don’t you take that job as head matron in our prison and do something — blaze a trail? Surely that is what your training is for,’ I expostulated. Her reply is interesting. ‘There are two reasons why I could not afford to take it. In the first place, the salary is too small; and secondly, I could not stand the ungodly hours and the confinement. Recently I was offered a position as head of a large reformatory for women, which was being built in a Western state. The work would have been interesting, the salary was excellent, and I said that I would accept the position if I might live away from the prison grounds, so that part of my life would be away from that abnormal atmosphere. I could not give the State acceptable work if I were subject to the constant strain of the oppressive environment. But they would not consider such a course.’
I did not blame her. With conditions as they are, work in a prison is not entirely attractive. It is time, for the sake both of the official and of the inmate, that a change was made.
Prison discipline is the most stupid assertion of autocratic power conceivable. To misquote Hannah More: —
And those who know it know all words are faint.
Without exception, every writer on prison life has but one story: endless punishment that is casual and purposeless; unnecessary brutality; cruelty that is petty, personal, and vindictive. The one aim of the voluminous code of rules is to reduce a group of human beings to automatons. Naturally the human beings resent this stultifying process, and the resultant interminable enmity between prison officials and inmates breeds fear and brutality on one side, fear and servility on the other.
The rule of rules is, ‘Thou shalt not talk.’ Imagine any man mad enough to think he could enforce that commandment in a group of women, saints or sinners! For three and a half years I saw punishment — varying from admonition to solitary confinement — dealt out daily to stop the talkinghabit, but I am thankful to say the women’s tongues ran with the same alacrity the day I left. What was developed was a superhuman slyness.
Soon after my entrance, I came to a definite decision in regard to the discipline. One could not have the slightest respect for rules and regulations which promoted the petty tyranny of the officers and stifled every instinct of selfrespect and initiative on the part of the inmates. To obey them meant no exercise of ethical judgment; it was simply the canny thing to do. Some day an application for my pardon would be entered, and I should need the good record which the officers could make or mar. Most of them had the inordinate self-esteem and vanity that is the result of autocratic power in individuals of impoverished intelligence; they were opinionated to a ludicrous degree. I could not avoid realizing that I was regarded as a variation from the usual type of woman inmate. It was very sweet for these people to have me under their control; nothing would feed their vanity more than to have me subservient and obsequious; nothing would make them feel their power and importance more than a chance to punish me.
I talked over the situation with my friend, the little assistant-matron. ‘ I fully intend to comply with all their rules,’ I said; ‘it’s the sensible thing to do under the circumstances. I can easily refrain from talking, because I have n’t anything in particular to say to the others. But some day I ‘ll break some rule — no human being could help doing it, there are so many of them. What then? Could one appeal to the warden or the deputy and obtain any clemency, any redress?’
She hesitated; she was an officer, but she was also a gentlewoman. ‘Technically, they are supposed to be impartial. As a matter of fact, I have never known any report by an officer against an inmate to be questioned. And I have never known of any appeal to either of these men being considered. Stand everything you can, for the sake of the end in view. If the worst comes, appeal to the Board of Control.’
My later observation confirmed her statement. No matter how trivial, spiteful, or untruthful the charge entered against a prisoner, the matron’s word was accepted. The higher official made no investigation as to circumstances, would listen to no explanation or defense. To enter a complaint against an unjust official to the Board of Control was, for obvious reasons, a very hazardous undertaking; an inmate had a fearful path before her if she incurred the personal enmity of a matron.
One day, while scrubbing, Nellie asked a neighbor for a bar of soap. She was reported by the head matron, and in a short time the deputy appeared, apoplectic with rage. His bellow could have been heard a block away.
‘Talking again, are you? Well, I’ll learn you to stop that. God damn you — I ‘ll break your heart — I’ll break your spirit — I’II put you where you won’t talk!’
That was more than I could stand. I stopped Nellie on the stairway next day and told her I had overheard the deputy’s blasphemous admonition. The Board of Control was to meet at the prison next week. I asked her to enter a request to see the president of the Board; to tell him quietly and truthfully this incident, and to request that the women inmates in the future be spared the humiliation of profanity. She did this. She was asked who else had heard the conversation. ‘The head matron,’ she replied. He turned to the head matron. ‘Is this correct?’ ‘Well, I guess Nellie was a little excited at the time,’ was the evasive reply. However, there was less swearing thereafter.
Later, the head matron told me of this incident, as there was an enmity between the deputy and herself. ‘I knew Nellie was right,’ she said, ' but what could I say? You know we officers are supposed to stand up for one another.’
There was never the slightest disgrace felt when punishment befell one; it was a joke, an inconvenience, or an affliction, demanding sympathy according to the degree of severity. We knew the most intimate details of the officials’ lives; there were several who, if justice were always enforced, would have been on our side of the bars. We saw them break the rules which had been made to protect us; they held the whip hand, and we had no redress.
I remained a ' model prisoner’ until a month before my release, when, to use the vernacular, ‘they got me.’ I had several times been disciplined, but only once was official record made of my misdemeanors. I relate my experiences not with any sense of personal grievance, but to show what is regarded as a serious offense, the logical treatment that follows, and the highly beneficial effect of the punishment.
As I have stated before, my physical strength was very limited. The absurdity of my sentence, ‘nineteen years of hard labor,’ was felt by no one, least of all the robust, stolid German judge. All my punishments in prison came because of my illness and my physical inability to carry heavy burdens.
One Thursday — it was the twentieth of February, 1919 — I had one of the severe headaches to which I am subject. Although so ill that I could scarcely stand, I had worked ten hours, as usual. The next morning I was too ill to arise. The head matron brought the deputy to my room.
‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.
‘I am sick,’ I replied.
‘Sick! Well, we ‘ve had enough of that damned nonsense and we’re going to put a stop to it. I’ll send for the doctor, and we’ll see how sick you are!’
The physician came and pronounced my illness genuine. I might explain that there were no hospital facilities in the women’s prison; if a woman was sick, she remained locked in her cell. The doctor would visit her in the morning, some food would be brought at mealtimes; there was no kindness, no care. Shortly before this incident we had passed through the ‘flu’ epidemic; one woman had died in her cell a few doors from mine, practically uncared for, and scattered along the unventilated corridor had been half a dozen others sick with the dread disease. We were not allowed to mention, in our letters home, the invasion of the epidemic; the papers commented on the fact that there was no flu in the prison. As segregation of the sick had never been practised, I was quite unprepared for what followed.
‘Take her downstairs,’ the deputy bellowed, — he never spoke to an inmate, — ' and keep her there three days. Give her nothing but bread and water. We’ll get this “being sick” business out of her head.’ I supposed I was being taken to the solitary-confinement cell, — punishment for illness was not unusual, — but instead found my destination to be a dirty, unused cell, furnished only with an old iron bed and an incredibly filthy mattress.
Saturday morning I asked to go back to work, as I was able to stand, but I was told that I could not do so. I asked to see the warden, but was told that he was out of town. Sunday morning I asked to see the prison physician; he sent word by the matron that he could do nothing for me, as this was a matter of discipline, not illness. Sunday afternoon, as a last resort, I asked for permission to write to the Board of Control. Half an hour later I was released and allowed to go to my own room!
The words ‘Board of Control’ had had a magical effect. Instantly the matron began to explain that I was not being punished, —Oh dear, no! — ‘but sometimes you have complained that the work was hard, and this, my dear, is a lovely chance to rest.’ Imagine resting in an unfurnished, dirty room, with nothing to eat; for I refused the bread and water, protesting that that was the diet of those being punished, and that sickness was no cause for punishment. ‘And then, my dear, it was not me who put you here.’
The deputy came posthaste, and was exceedingly solicitous for my welfare. He had decided to let me return to my own cell that night instead of Monday morning and — ‘ By the way, that letter to the Board of Control you were going to write — well, I always say to the men I’ll treat ‘em fifty-fifty. You’ll be coming up for pardon soon,’ he waxed very indignant over the injustice of my sentence, ‘and you’ll need all of our help.’ I saw his point. The letter was not written. Monday I went back to work, weak from a four-day fast, but I had a new courage. I knew I had as enemies cowards and bullies, and that in an extremity the Board of Control would protect an inmate.
In June 1920 I was ill again and was kept on bread and water for a week; then I appealed to the Board for lighter work and a chance to buy nourishing food. However, I was never officially reported until October 6, 1922. The scene of my misdemeanor was the laundry, with a substitute matron in charge. She asked me to fill the tubs with soft water, which had to be carried across the room in big buckets. I explained to her courteously that I was unable to carry the heavy pails; that, because of my illness, I had been excused by the regular officials from that work. ‘You are no better than anyone else, and you do as I say,’ was the reply.
Without answering, I left the room and went to the head matron, told her the incident, and asked her to explain to the newcomer the fact that I had official sanction for my refusal to do the work. ‘Sure I’ll explain,’nobly. ‘We don’t ask nobody to do work that is too hard for ‘em, and the former warden and a member of the B. of C. and the doctor has all said you was too sick to do work like that. Sure I’ll tell her.’
That afternoon the substitute matron came to me, beaming with pleasure, to tell me I was wanted by the deputy. When I stood before that august personage, he read a series of charges against me: I had disobeyed an officer;
I had made faces at an officer. In defense I explained that the head matron had sanctioned my refusal to carry water, because she knew I was not able to do that type of work; that it was untrue that I had ‘made faces’ — I had not been guilty of that offense since I was a child. The substitute matron reiterated her statements, with the further embellishment that she had frequently seen me carrying pails of water — which was quite untrue.
No defense could be made in the face of the woman’s dishonesty, nor would any defense be believed. I was taken back to my cell, the woman chanting a pæan of spite; ‘Well, you could n’t get by with your fine-lady airs. Sick, are you? Well, you’ll be a damn sight sicker before you get through. This will spoil your good record — queer any chance you ever had for getting out of here.’ At the time of this occurrence, the Governor was deliberating on my application for release — he had the testimony of five physicians, three of whom were hired by the State, to the effect that I was seriously ill. Yet these petty officials quite deliberately undertook to spoil this opportunity of a sick woman’s chance for freedom. I was too ill, excited, and nervous to see things in their proper proportions, and I believed their threats; I thought my one chance of leaving the prison had been lost through this unjust report.
They found me unconscious on the floor of my cell several hours later, and for two days I was wildly delirious. To punish me for my frightful offense, I was locked up for eleven days. On the fifth day the prison physician went to the warden and asked to have the punishment stopped, as I was too sick to undergo the ordeal. Twice afterward he made the appeal to deaf ears, although punishment is supposed to cease when the physician so recommends. I cannot speak of the suffering that was crowded into those eleven days and nights. They had found the one thing that could frighten me; they attained the ultimate desire of the true prisonofficial — they had broken my spirit.
As I sit propped up in my hospital bed, writing this, I find it difficult to realize that but a few months ago I was being punished because I was ill. It must have been an acute disappointment to those prison officials, but my one black mark did not bar my release. I try to tell my story dispassionately, but I cannot. Because I had friends to intercede for me, and the requisite money to pay for professional services, I am now surrounded by care and attention. Had I been friendless and penniless, there would be no skillful physicians or pleasant, deft nurses, no intimate visits with beloved friends — none of the things that help sick folk to get well. There are those whom I left behind in that place of wrath and tears who are not so fortunate; it is for them that I plead. They need the sort of discipline that will ensure a degree of justice and kindness when they are well, of care and kindness when they are sick. Until prison discipline can fulfill these needs, it must be branded as inadequate to meet the standards of twentieth-century civilization.
The different States have various systems of providing work for their prison inmates. Thirty-three per cent use the contract system, twenty-two per cent have the State-use system, sixteen per cent the public-account system, twelve per cent public-worksand-ways, the remainder the lease or piece-price system. Some penitentiaries are self-sustaining, some are even sources of revenue; a few are listed as liabilities on the State ledger.
The convict-labor problem at present is largely concerned with this financial aspect. The suggestion of modern penologists, that in the future the convict be considered the vital factor in the case, opens new horizons.
‘The important thing is not so much to give people freedom as to make them fit for freedom.”This might apply to penal as well as to economic questions. The State is giving the highest service when it assists the prisoner to lead an orderly life.
There are several charges against the present system of convict labor: the work has no interest — it is purely punitive; it bears no relation to what the convict has done before or after he leaves prison; it has no educational, vocational, or reformatory value; there is no incentive for good work; the convict is not paid for his labor.
As an initial step to better workingconditions: the sick should be suitably cared for; the mentally abnormal should be under the care of psychiatrists; those whose condition cannot be improved should be segregated. Those who are mentally and physically fit are well worth salvaging.
The convict, man or woman, at the outset should be made to understand that he is in prison because he has failed in some definite way to respect the rights of his fellow men. He is to be helped, if he will coöperate, so that when he returns to society he may be an asset. He is to earn freedom, not by passive ‘good conduct,”but by showing a growth in self-reliance, mental ability, or manual dexterity.
The best physician cannot help a patient who fails to coöperate with him. It is therefore important that the mental attitude of the convicted person be considered: self-respect, ambition, initiative, regard for the rights of others — these basic qualities must be fostered, not utterly quenched. As I write these facts I try to remember one thing in my prison experience that tended to foster ambition or initiative or any superior quality. I can recall only endless humiliations, abasements, and degradations.
In the prison I knew, the hard labor to which the thirty women inmates had been sentenced fell into four divisions: (a) service for the officials as house servants, seamstresses, laundresses, and so forth; (b) sewing for the men’s department; (c) maintenance for the women’s prison; (d) employment in an annex to the prison shoefactory. This last group, comprising five or six women, was considered most fortunate; the work and environment were preferable, the pay ran from six to ten dollars a month, according to the amount of work accomplished. They were the only ones who were interested in the slightest degree in their work, because they alone had an incentive.
The two servants at the deputy warden’s house and the one in the matrons’ residence received ten cents a day. All others drew three cents daily the first year, one cent a day afterward. Everyone agrees that the present system of payment or nonpayment is unsatisfactory, but no effort is made at any readjustment.
When I went into the matrons’ house to work, I was entitled to the regulation ten cents a day, but I never received the munificent salary. Half was given to the girl who came in to act as assistant. I worked seventy hours a week (at a minimum count) for thirtyfive cents; my assistant worked five or ten hours a week for thirty-five cents.
I had the temerity to protest to the matron against this arrangement. I said I thought that if the other person drew half the money she ought to do something that approximated half the work. ‘Well, if you don’t like it, you can quit. Anyway, you ought to be ashamed; she needs the money more than you do. The warden always does what I say, so if you complain to him you’11 see what you get.’ Naturally the small amount concerned did not warrant a formal protest, so the arrangement stood. The incident is worth recounting in that it illustrates the chance an inmate stands for fair play.
A few days after my entrance I was given the usual physical examination. It was perfunctory and superficial. The physician said, ‘You are able to do a hard day’s work.’ (I never knew of a case where the same judgment was not pronounced.)
‘She certainly is not able to do the usual work here,’ the little assistantmatron said decisively.
‘If I could only be out of doors and regain my strength, I would later do my best,’ I said. Thanks to the assistantmatron, I was allowed to go out of doors for an hour or two daily — a tremendous concession. She was charming and kind; our friendship flourished when the sharp-tongued head-matron was not near by. We had many discussions as to the work I was to do. I was frail physically, but I could teach and she felt the urgent need for some systematized instruction. But the head matron had settled that question summarily: ‘You can’t learn them con’s nothin’.’
I was later installed as the entire suite de ménage in the matrons’ residence. My knowledge of cooking was fragmentary. I could make mayonnaise dressing, grill lamb-chops nicely, make a delectable spice-cake, but there remained vast areas of the culinary kingdom for me to master. I thought that would be interesting — and it was. The head matron had never heard of olive oil, and wanted her meat fried hard, so my first two accomplishments went by the board; my heavenly spice-cake alone had to stand as my initial sponsor.
If the head matron had devoted one fraction of the energy she expended in ‘learnin’' me my place to teaching me the fundamentals of a new occupation, my progress would have been rapid. But her own knowledge was limited and the directions she did give were vague and contradictory. I had three sources of information: the housekeeping magazines that were sent to me by friends when they learned of my new work, the little assistant-matron, and Selma. Selma was the big Polish woman who occasionally came in to help with the cleaning. She was an excellent cook, and would sometimes come stealing into the kitchen to show me how to prepare a roast, or bake a pie, or dress a fish. If she was caught there was a tremendous row.
It seems as if it might be a very simple thing to furnish an incentive for hard labor. The work could easily be divided into definite units and credit given the prisoner for the time spent, for her attitude toward the work, her ability and progress, just as a trade-school pupil is given credit for mastery of the different units of the curriculum. Satisfactory progress should be rewarded in two ways: by the payment of perceptible wages or of a bonus, and by the assurance that recognition will be given to the units earned, when a prisoner becomes an applicant for release. Surely the woman who acquires a useful vocation is more fit to return to society than the lazy, unskilled worker.
The incoming prisoner whose education is below fifth-grade standards should receive at least an hour of daily instruction from a competent teacher, and should be given due credit for her progress and application. Those who wish advanced work should have definite, substantial encouragement. At present the correspondence school of the State University offers the only chance for anything beyond the most rudimentary instruction, but this opportunity for advancement is barred from those who have no money. University records show that the prisoners who have taken courses in this extension department show markings decidedly above the average.
Perhaps I dwell upon the possibility of education in the elementary and advanced academic branches because of the nature of my experience and interests, but the greatest opportunities would lie in a curriculum along the lines of vocational education.
The laundry, in which most of the women worked two and a half days a week, was operated solely for the use of a few of the officials. If a button was lost from the warden’s pajamas, or the deputy’s collars had too much starch, tremendous consternation ensued. If an officer had company, the guest thriftily brought a suitcase full of soiled clothes for free laundering. One Christmas the son of an official brought fifty pairs of socks to be washed and mended! He was immediately christened ‘the Centipede.’
When an inmate entered she was assigned to the linen tub or to the ‘rags,’ to the mangle or to the ironing of shirts, and she usually remained a fixture at this original assignment. She might learn to do one thing well, but she gained no knowledge of the interesting, useful, and lucrative occupation of laundering. It would be a sensible and practical thing to reorganize the laundry and make the training of expert laundresses the object of its existence; service could still be given the officials or any clientele who would pay for the work.
A trained instructor should teach each step of the work: the chemical processes that underlie the cleaning process; how different fabrics should be washed; the use of the machines that are being installed in the average home; and some of the simpler processes of drycleaning. Further, the management of a small laundry-establishment could be taught — the marking and assorting of clothes; some of the principles of bookkeeping. When the inmate had attained a degree of proficiency in this branch of work, she should be rewarded by the payment of a perceptible wage and a recognition of ability that would count toward her release.
A similar systematized correlation of work and instruction could be planned in the sewing-room, where there is ample opportunity to teach proficiency in household needlework and the simpler forms of dressmaking. The inmates’ kitchen, and later the homes of the officers, could be practice fields for cooking and housewifery.
Stella R——was an exceptionally clever needlewoman. Under existing circumstances her ‘State time’ was appropriated by the more unscrupulous officers or officers’ wives for their personal use; she saved them the paying of dressmakers’ bills. No one considered Stella’s side of the transaction. She was desirous of taking a course in dressdesigning, but she did not have the money or the opportunity for such advanced work. ‘If I could only earn money enough to start myself in one of those little needlecraft shops, I am sure I could make it a success,’ she would say. How she hated the women who used her skill without paying her anything, without even a courteous acknowledgment of her work!
Expert waitresses, chambermaids, nursemaids, milliners, good cooks, dietitians — what craft could not be listed? The raising of poultry, the making of a garden — all these things could be taught and learned as systematized units, just as they are taught in an agricultural college or a trade school where practice and basic knowledge are interdependent.
At present the women inmates are regarded as household servants — perhaps slaves would be a more exact word — for the use of certain officials. The deputy warden, for instance, before his promotion to that eminence lived modestly in a rented house; his wife, like most of the housewives in the small community, did all of her housework and most of her sewing. When he became deputy warden, the family moved into the eight-room house furnished by the State; they were given the use of three women prisoners as servants; a cook and housemaid gave full time, while a third woman was frequently required as seamstress or for cleaning. Their laundry was done in the women’s prison. A man of all work was furnished from the men’s prison. In short, this family assumed a standard of living to which it was unaccustomed, one which was maintained by no other folk — even the most well-todo — in the community. Of course the warden’s ménage was more elaborate than the deputy’s. A hired chef did his cooking; two men from the prison gave full time for his housework; a chauffeur and a gardener were always on duty; the laundry was done by the women prisoners.
If the officers were to pay for this excessive personal service, or to become responsible for some part of the training in housewifery, this custom might have a logical excuse for its existence; but as it stands to-day, such unrestricted use of the women prisoners as personal servants is pernicious; there is nothing to be said in its behalf. The prisoners hate with special fervor these nonpaying employers, who are cruelly inconsiderate, often unkind. I know that no servant would stand the treatment I received in the matrons’ house.
I am writing this chapter several years after my release from prison. It took me months, years, to regain my health, and months and years in hospitals and sanitariums are expensive ones. Always ahead of me stalked the terror, ‘How am I going to earn my living when I do get well?’ I could not go back to my former profession. In any other I was but an unskilled worker, and I had the handicap of limited physical strength.
If my period of incarceration had held fewer days in punishment cells, and if I could have had some training for a trade or craft that would send me back to civic life as a skilled worker, my present problems would be easier to face and my memory of prison life less bitter. Surely civilization has advanced sufficiently to allow the present punitive system of convict labor to be replaced by work that is constructive — that sends forth men and women strengthened, cured, prepared to earn a decent livelihood.
The things asked for in prison reform are not unreasonable: a divorce of the penal system from politics; the indeterminate sentence; a disintegration of the prison population, permanently segregating the incorrigible and giving appropriate care and treatment to the subnormal; the substitution of certificated, professional officers for the present untrained type; an effective means by which the prisoner may obtain redress from the unreasoning brutality of irresponsible keepers; a change from the present purposeless labor to work that is useful and educative— in short, that penal servitude be changed from blind indiscriminate punishment to the fitting of the amenable delinquent for a successful rehabilitation in society.
Our hope for a change from the present mediæval penal system to one more in keeping with the modern standards of science, religion, and commonsense lies in the insistent discontent of the energetic minority. As soon as there is a general cognizance of the conditions prevalent in American prisons, it is not impossible to believe that radical changes will immediately follow.