The Revolt of the Convicts


THE sensational prison riots of last year have had one quite unexpected, but desirable, reaction. They have aroused a belated feeling of public obligation for what is beyond question the most neglected of our great public institutions, the least touched by progress, the most subject to those counter-currents of opinion, prejudice, and passion which make enlightened policies difficult and sometimes impossible of attainment.

The Legislature of New York to-day is considering an expenditure of $38,000,000 on its prisons. The riot in the Federal prison at Leavenworth hardly was over before President Hoover was announcing that he would recommend the appropriation of $10,000,000 for Federal prisons. These are more than appropriations — they are confessions. And confession is good for the soul.

The extent of that neglect which characterizes our treatment of prisons and prisoners, and the reasons for it, need to be understood clearly. New York may serve as a fairly concrete example.

Three of these great riots of prisoners have occurred in New York prisons — one at Dannemora and two at Auburn. The prison at Auburn was built in 1816. At that time, 114 years ago, James Madison was President, and during all these years it has been in continuous operation. Its grim cell block was built to reflect the purposes and philosophy of a penology of the stagecoach days and as a means of expressing that era’s conception of what prison punishment should mean.

Sing Sing, New York’s most widely known prison, was built in 1825 when James Monroe was President, and its fearful cell block was abandoned only within the past year. Now a large part of its old, damp, dismal cells once more are filled with the overflow population from other prisons for whom not even cells elsewhere are available.

The Clinton Prison at Dannemora was built somewhat later, in 1840; built, however, on the model of the old prisons at Auburn and Sing Sing, and its cell block is substantially the same.

The cell blocks in these prisons are made of the solidest masonry. They can last for centuries. Most well-built buildings disappear with us not because they become insecure or dangerous with age, but because the ideas which they represent become obsolete; because they stand in the path of progress and have to give place to forces representing new and better ideas, changed conditions, and plans for better futures. These prison cell blocks represent the triumph of the obsolete over time and change.

Before considering the cell blocks themselves, in another connection, let us remember this: the world of 1816, when Auburn was built, was a harder world; it had fewer of what we now call the common necessities; the common run of mankind daily experienced hardships unfamiliar to poor vagrants of to-day. The convict of 1930 is put in the same slit in the masonry wall which was designed to punish the convict of 1816.

What, then, are these cell blocks? Imagine a very large room, in the middle of which is a huge oblong box of masonry not connected with the sides of the room. As you walk along the floor, you pass a succession of little doorways in this box with grilled iron doors. These are the ground-floor cells. What little light may stray into them from the high windows of the great room itself, in which the box is placed, is largely cut off by the shadow of the iron platform which is fastened in the wall just above the door tops; such platforms provide entrance ways, each for the next higher tier of cells, reached, in turn, by a stairway at the end of the block.

The largest of the old cells at any of these prisons is at Dannemora. It is only four feet wide, with a cot which occupies most of the space: a fairly neat fit, like a coffin in a grave. This bricklined room is little over seven feet deep and less than seven feet high. It is unventilated; it is without toilet facilities of any kind. Each convict carries a tin bucket with him when he marches to his cell at night.

This cell, moreover, is the only place of privacy which the prison affords to the individual convict. Outside of it his associations are indiscriminate herd associations — with felons. Here alone he can reflect and revise, if he will, his distorted outlook on life, in an atmosphere surcharged with the fetid stench of his own excrement.

However much these prisons may or may not have changed in other details in the process of time, this aspect of the cells has never changed. They are the same sequence of horrible holes to-day in Auburn as in 1816, in Sing Sing as in 1825, and in Clinton as in 1840.

It may be urged that cell blocks are deplorable, of course, but not supremely important. ‘A modern prison,’ someone observed, ‘can be maintained even in an old building. The daily life of the prisoner, his discipline, is or may be quite a different matter and is far more important than the cell where he sleeps. He should rise above his unfavorable environment.’

What are his incentives to rise?


Before James Monroe was made President, New York enacted a law providing for wages for prisoners as a reward for industry, as a means of reformation, as well as a means of reducing to a minimum the taxpayers’ burden.

‘Whereas,’ said the quaint preamble to the law of 1816, ‘it is believed that a habit of industry is the best preventive of vice, to encourage which habit of industry in the criminals of the state, whom the state is desirous of reforming, it may be useful to allow them a reasonable portion of the fruits of their labor, to be set apart for them or their families. . . .’ This was, no doubt, a radical idea in the penology of 1816. Can anyone, even the most resolute member of the vindictive school, question its soundness as a wise principle?

In time for Christmas 1929, Emil Totterman, who had served twentylive years in the state prisons of New York, was pardoned. He was fifty-two years old. Handed to him, as he left Sing Sing to face the outside world, none too easy at best for the exconvict, were the accumulated wages which had been earned by him in those twenty-five years of prison life. He had been an able-bodied man, had worked at such prison industries as the prison afforded, and he received the full wage allowed by law. His accumulated wages were $45.26. His wage scale had been at the rate of one and one-half cents a day. Even the most optimistic believer in progress can hardly be cheered by the development of this ‘sound’ idea of wages for prisoners in the 114 years since its first inception in 1816.

Let us retrace our steps to the cell block. I remember asking a question about these cell blocks, a few years ago, of the secretary of the Prison Association. This is a very old organization which, by its charter, is required to make a report and recommendations to the Legislature each year. I asked him if he could tell me how long ago this organization first began to recommend abolition of these cell blocks to the State Legislature. He told me that he was quite sure that such recommendations had been made for fifty years.

The convict is the stepchild of the State. He is not a voter and forms no part of any statesman’s clamoring constituents. On the appropriation bill he comes last. The convict can always be made to wait. It has always been so.

I also remember asking the head of Elmira Reformatory three years ago what special recommendation he needed for the improvement of the reformatory. ‘The brick shop and foundry,’ he replied. ‘This building is used by from one hundred to three hundred boys learning the masonry trade; it is not only very old, it is unsafe. It has been condemned by the State Architect and by the Prison Commission over and over again. It cannot be heated and work has to stop in winter. A new building has been needed for many years. Nothing has been done about it.’

I could give a dozen other New York illustrations of the same kind. It would be entirely wrong, however, even to suggest that the policy of prison parsimony is confined to that state. It is the usual thing and not the exception. If, a few years ago, Auburn Prison, for example, wastefully operated fourteen separate boiler plants, other states could duplicate this folly. Patching old prison plants instead of building needed new ones is not a localized New York policy.

One more illustration and I shall have passed from what is bad to what is no better. We have heard much about the increased cost of living and the reduced purchasing power of the dollar in meeting the food requirements of the family larder. One; family in New York, at least, and, alas, a very large family, tells a quite different story. The food in New York State prisons now costs, on the average, seven cents per meal for each person. It cost seven and onequarter cents per meal in 1868! A still further triumph of economy could be accomplished, we are told by experts, if a cafeteria were installed and those prisoners who fail to find their poor and monotonous meals appetizing did not have set before them, as now, the food they will not eat.

None of the conditions to which I thus far have alluded are particularly new. Prisoners living under such conditions perhaps are not without good reasons for bad actions. The general atmosphere of old prisons is far from cheering at best, but there are new circumstances to make things worse. These new circumstances helped to cause the explosions of resentment which at last have aroused public interest in the condition of their prisons.


The first cause is overcrowding. For a decade, we have been disturbed and perplexed by the strange growth in our criminality. It is particularly an American problem. England has been closing prisons for which she had no need. Her criminal statistics show a distinct falling off in crime. European conditions generally are not unlike those in England. The contrast with us is sometimes rather startling. A few weeks ago, for example, the S. S. Bremen brought $6,000,000 in gold to the port of New York. The boat was met at its pier by armored cars, a cordon of armed policemen, and two machine guns. The gold left the boat in New York under this most rigid police protection. It had been carried to the boat at Bremen in an ordinary truck, with one driver and a helper and no police whatsoever!

I shall not attempt to discuss here the general problem of crime which perplexes us all — the development of gangs, the hijackers, the racketeers, or the relation of the prohibition law to lawlessness. I shall not attempt to say whether, on the whole, we are or are not showing resourcefulness or intelligence in the ways and means of checking our very real crime wave. One aspect of this crime wave is quite obvious. An irritated public opinion, for the moment, has accepted quite heartily, as a remedy, increased severity in punishment for those criminals who are caught. We are filling old prisons with new prisoners in larger numbers, carrying longer terms.

I have spoken at some length concerning the ordinary prisoner’s life in prisons which are themselves relics of barbarism. In New York, the prison population in state prisons has increased over 1700 in the past four years. On July 1 of last year, the four state prisons had a population of 6631. There were almost 1000 more prisoners than cells. In the whole state prison system, there are only 2866 cells which can be described as modern in any sense, the remainder being those which I have pictured at Auburn, Dannemora, and Sing Sing.

The Federal penitentiaries at Atlanta and Leavenworth are adapted for only one half of their present population. If the New York prison system is bad, if its buildings are anachronisms, if its industrial plants for prison labor are inadequate, if its old cell blocks are atrocious, the Federal system, so far as overcrowding is concerned, is much worse.

A special committee of the House of Representatives found in January of last year that the penitentiary at Atlanta, with a normal capacity for 1712 prisoners, was actually housing 3107. Leavenworth Prison has no greater capacity than Atlanta, but has or had 3700 prisoners, or over double its cell accommodations. All of these prisoners were idle except for about 800, for Congress had not provided work for more than that number.

When eighteenth-century England had no law enforcement, when the dark city streets at night and the unprotected country highways were full of robbers, when the average innkeeper was more than likely to be an accomplice of highwaymen and the chance of capture was negligible, her criminal law made up for its feebleness by its barbarity in the punishment of the occasional miscreant who happened to be caught.

A much irritated American public is in a similar frame of mind, and seeks strenuously to apply, in the age of the automobile, a remedy which was found ineffective in the days of the stagecoach. Longer sentences by the removal of judicial discretion, made mandatory by recent statutes, life sentences to those guilty of a fourth offense, the removal of the substance of authority in parole officers to shorten sentences for good conduct — all are being tried as nostrums for the cure of crime.

The prisons in states which, like New York, are for the moment following this shortsighted policy are full of these long-term prisoners, bitter, vindictive, without hope. Outbreaks such as have occurred in these overcrowded prisons were practically inevitable. They were almost equally to be expected, but for somewhat different reasons, in the far more overcrowded Federal prisons at Leavenworth and Atlanta.

While these new harsh laws have been in operation less than four years, the facts concerning their operation are already adequate to show their ineffectiveness, injustice, and undesirability. Hard-and-fast statutes devoid of flexibility are particularly dangerous in criminal law. The savagery of old English criminal law led to extreme efforts of avoidance to mitigate the injustice in particular cases; especially the development of purely technical loopholes of escape, which, in operation, became precedents, and which have survived as stumblingblocks to the criminal law of this country for over a century, long after the reasons for their existence were swept away.

In like manner, ways of avoiding these new life sentences are being developed by courts and district attorneys. An analysis, moreover, of the careers of criminals who have received life sentences shows, in New York at least, that few of the criminals to whom they have been applied had been particularly conspicuous as leaders in the underworld.

No one knows, ever, the exact relation between severe punishment and prevention of crime. We all know, at least, this: that England, where punishment is far less severe, but far more prompt and certain, is registering a great reduction in crime; and that with us the barometer constantly is rising. England relies, apparently, upon continually improving her methods of detection, upon greater certainty of punishment, and not upon the severity of punishment. The results all are in favor of the English system. I have discussed this aspect of the matter in a previous paper and shall not refer to it again here.1

As I have said, I am not attempting to consider our crime problems other than those primarily connected with prisons. So long as we are satisfied with the friendly association of crime with politics, in a dozen different relationships; so long as political parties, in control of our cities, consider it more expedient to ally themselves with, to encourage and enlarge, the underworld of crime than to join with the forces of decency; and so long as we find it more expedient to make our socalled police court a disgrace to our civilization and our chiefs of police and district attorneys the pliant tools of politicians and political deals, we must expect conditions such as exist in so many of our large cities to continue. Merely giving harsher sentences to those who have failed to slip through the large meshes of political escape will afford to us no more relief than a mustard plaster on a cancer.


There are plenty of reforms needed in our prisons, reforms long delayed. The urgent question with us just now is how to get full value out of this momentary public interest in prisons which is due to these revolts of prisoners in Dannemora, Auburn, Leavenworth, and Canyon City. What are the main things needed?

Here is a partial list. There is nothing new on it, nothing which has not been recommended over and over again by prison experts for years.

We need more and better prisons, which also means smaller prisons or prisons in which segregation is made possible. The sheer stupidity of applying all sorts of psychiatric tests to the study of the individual prisoner, ascertaining his mental and emotional qualities, and then putting him back in a boarding house for crooks, with two or three thousand felons, is so apparent that it needs no comment. Potential classifications which are not followed by classes are a waste of time and money. Large boarding houses for felons may seem to be cheaper to operate, but they become post-graduate schools in crime and cost society far more in men and money in the long run. At the very basis of any real prison reform are a scientific study of the individual and the segregation of prisoners in appropriate groups in prisons adapted for their type.

Industries are needed for prison labor, intelligently selected, and a suitable prison wage as an incentive to habits of industry and an aid to the reëstablishment of the ex-convict in a none too friendly world. The problem of prison labor is not a simple one, to be sure, but the results obtained compared with what might reasonably be expected are almost incredibly bad. The popular notion that this is due to the opposition of organized labor is without foundation. With adequate machinery, wisely selected industries, and a halfway intelligent management, entirely different results could be obtained. Willingness to work is a fair test, of character and reformability. Moreover, even the most vindictive opponent of aid and comfort to criminals must admit that there is something lacking in the policy of giving to a convict at the end of his term only a ticket to some point in the state and ten dollars to reëstablish himself in a world where he has a bad name and no references whatsoever.

It is true, of course, that most of our criminal law is based upon the theory that punishment prevents crime. It may be a comfort to us to think, when we send a robber to prison, that various worthy citizens who were on the point of becoming robbers change their minds accordingly. It may be that they do. It possibly is true to some extent that the rigor of criminal law does protect society by preventing crime. That is a principle of optimism as old as the hills. It is bound to remain the basis upon which the police, the criminal courts, and the prisons, as places of punishment, operate. The human scarecrow protects the corn of society.

But the prisoner is something besides a scarecrow. He is also a human being. Unless we are prepared to keep him in prison for life at our expense, what the prison does to him — whether he comes out a confirmed criminal to resume his anti-social activities and again become a menace to society and a problem for the police and the criminal courts, or whether he becomes so rehabilitated as to develop into a halfway decent person — is a quite different matter.

These problems, moreover, grow more important as the years pass. They are pressing for new solution. We know more to-day about the human being, physically, mentally, and emotionally, than at any previous period. We babble in a new jargon of psychology and psychiatry and our shelves are full of new books on mental science; our lecture halls are crowded with listeners to the learned exponents of new theories which concern the previously uncharted soul of man.

The more light we receive from repeated studies of the character and make-up of the individuals who constitute our prison population, the more unsatisfactory and archaic become our prison systems except to those to whom the eighteenth-century scarecrow principle of prisons is all-sufficient. Our failure to make progress, where progress is possible, to make prison programmes advance, is due in the main to the steady resistance of those who still believe that the programme of modern penology is a mysterious formula for mollycoddling malefactors, and who insist on outworn remedies for crime. It is a transitional period in which warfare is on between the upholders of the old scarecrow theory and those who bring to the problems of crime wisdom, surrounded, alas, too often with a panoply of new and mysterious scientific words.

Here is an illustration of that warfare. A few years ago a convict named Alphonso Monjo finished his latest term in Sing Sing Prison. When his case came up before the Parole Board, Warden Lawes wrote to the Board: ‘In my judgment, this is a man who is unquestionably a mental defective and should be, for the safety of the community, restrained. We have communicated with the Commission on Mental Defectives and they cannot accept this man at Napanoch because of an overcrowded condition. It seems to me that this type of man, for the benefit of all concerned, should, if possible, be sent to an institution for mental defectives.’

Six months later, Monjo was back in Sing Sing again, this time with a life sentence for robbery as a fourth offender.

In this case the new penology said, in effect, through the views of the warden: ‘Here is a man who should not have been in prison in the first place. He should have been sent to an institution for the feeble-minded, for permanent custodial care.’ The old penology replied: ‘This man must be punished for the protection of society. He committed a crime. He was mentally able to qualify under the legal standard of criminal responsibility. He knew the nature and quality of his act (robbery) and knew that it was wrong.’

So this mentally defective convict will be kept, for life, in a prison for punishment, instead of in an institution for the mentally defective. There are plenty of other misfits like him in our prisons. They make new prison problems themselves and prevent other prison problems from being solved.

Our failure to distinguish between one convict and another as human problems, our failure to act on this obvious distinction, our insistence upon treating them all as one abandoned class, are something which, unless checked or changed, will cost our communities further wastage in human material and untold millions of unnecessary expense.

Here is an illustration: Since the prison riots, as we noted. New York is earnestly considering a new prison. Some of the prisoners who may be placed in it doubtless will be very vicious and dangerous characters, likely to try desperate means of escape. Attica, the new prison, is, for the moment, being planned as though each and every prisoner in it would be of this type. Heavy steel cells, enormously expensive, are being considered, with safety to the community further assured by an enormous curved wall around the prison which itself will cost considerably over $1,000,000. Nothing seems overlooked in the picture except a ball and chain for each prisoner and the leg irons still in vogue in the road gangs of the eighteenthcentury South. It is solemn nonsense, and very expensive nonsense at that.

Science in the study of the individual prisoner has been wholly wasted when its results are cast aside in this fashion. The crying needs of prison industries may be starved to make these absurd walls and steel cells possible.


All of which brings us to the last of our present prison problems — the problem of parole. The acid test of a prison is the kind of man that comes out of it. A school whose students always return, to learn again the same lesson, is a poor school. Parole, as an ideal, is old enough. As an effective ideal, it has remained almost untried. It is simple as a principle. It is difficult as practice. Its successes or failures are bound to depend, of course, upon the human material with which it deals. That something never can be made out of nothing obviously is as true of human beings as it is of algebraic formula;. But with all its past failures, parole is of greater importance to-day than ever before.

After all, no matter how scientifically a prison is built, no matter how well run, no matter how adequate the prison industries in it may be, the real test of its value is not the prisoner within the walls, but the prisoner who leaves them. History repeats itself until its lessons are understood.

It may seem to many of us quite a simple matter to save society by putting more and more men and women in prison and keeping them there for life. But it is bound to be very expensive. We are increasing by leaps and bounds the cost of incarceration for defective delinquents, for the feeble-minded, for the border-line felons now in our reformatories and prisons who should always remain in some form of permanent custody.

Sooner or later we shall be forced to take up the business of putting on a scientific and organized basis the process of selecting in our prisons those who, with safety to society, can be at least tested by extra-mural supervision as a probationary step toward ultimate release. No better means can be devised to make our prisons into failures, except as boarding houses for undesirable guests, than our present method of releasing prisoners.

Consider our current practice. We assume that punishment, particularly if severe and of long duration, will inculcate on the mind of the convict the undesirability of ever breaking the law again. We disregard the mental, emotional, and physical defects which may have been largely responsible for his offense. We give to him, as I have said, ten dollars, his pathetic wages, a ticket to some point in the state, a suit of badly made clothes, and a bad name, and expect a miracle. He has been out of touch, for years, with the life outside prison walls. This February, for instance, a man was released from Sing Sing Prison who had not worn a collar in twenty years and had to be helped to put it on. How far and how long can we expect his wages of $35.98 to carry him in a world where even the common clothes of freedom are confusing to him? He may have relatives who are too poor and uninfluential to do anything for him.

We tell him that he must make reports once a month to a parole custodian who from time to time may see him, and whose facilities for helping him are exceedingly meagre; and we indulge in the fanciful speculation that such a man, under these difficulties, ought to leave a life of crime and go to work before his meagre funds are spent. If he does not do this, we shall attribute his failure to his natural wickedness and put him back in prison again.

An inadequate conception of the function and possibilities of parole is the main reason why all our states, with the recent exception of Illinois, have failed to finance it sufficiently to make its success possible. For example, the average number of prisoners now on parole in New York from its prisons and reformatories is about 3800. They would cost, if kept in prison, $1,387,000 a year. What does the state spend per year to make the transition from prison to freedom less impossible? Roughly, $91,000. It should not take a great deal of imagination to realize that this is absurd. A staff of twentyeight poorly paid parole officers, four of whom are not doing parole work in any real sense, are expected to do all that is necessary to be done by the State in this terribly difficult transition period to help reëstablish these men in society; or at least to find out by some form of clairvoyance whether they are falling into evil ways, and, if so, to take them back as parole violators to the prisons from which they came.

New York might well stop a moment in its prison-building programme of some $38,000,000 to consider whether an enlightened and adequately financed parole system should not be a part of this programme, as a proper substitute for a fair part of the capital expenditures otherwise required for the prisons themselves, instead of resolutely closing its eyes to the fact that the problem of the prisoner released will still remain, no matter how many of these millions are spent on steel cells and thirty-six-foot walls and extra guards. A revision of the antiquated and absurd Federal parole system is now part of the programme of Congress for Federal offenders.

Consider an analogy: a few generations ago we had orphan asylums for dependent children. We herded them together in uniforms and homely gingham dresses and took them to one church or another on Sundays and gave them about the most cheerless substitutes for childhood then known to the philanthropic mind of man. Most of the children turned out to be poor dead souls, stamped with what we now call inferiority complexes. These interesting institutions mostly are gone.

We found it was better and a great deal cheaper to place the children in individual homes, to employ competent staffs of social workers to inspect these prospective homes, and to visit children in them after placement. The orphan asylum is an anachronism. Let us reflect, however, on how many millions we should be spending to-day, and with what inevitably poorer results, if this new way of thinking had not been tried and found successful and the old orphan asylums had not been given up.

It may seem almost sacrilegious to make a comparison between the dependency of innocent and unfortunate childhood and the lawbreakers in our prisons, and it is if one insists upon considering the average prisoner as quite normal and as simply wicked. If, however, one cares to be realistic about it and to study the facts now fairly well known as to the mental and physical equipment of our convicts, the analogy is not so far-fetched. They need guidance and help almost more than any other class if they are not to be permanent inmates of our institutions. They do not get this help.

Extra-mural supervision of ex-convicts for continuous periods on a large scale, not only to aid them in meeting their own handicaps but more especially to protect society against those who persist in criminal careers, is a programme yet to be tried. It will have to come as the burdens of prison cost mount higher and higher, since it is the only available substitute for the treadmill process of more prisoners in more prisons and for longer terms.

If the revolts of the convicts can hold public attention long enough, at least some of these long-needed reforms may be made, and the blot of anachronism may pass from our prisons and from the method by which they are operated.

  1. ‘The Irritating Efficacy of English Criminal Justice,’ in the Atlantic for August 1928.