If I Had Gone to Prison
I READ Kenneth Chappell’s letter1 in the ‘Under Thirty’ section of the October Atlantic with pain and anger, and at the same time with humility: pain and anger at his plight; humility because, but for the grace of God, there go I.
At thirty-four I am an ordinarily successful man. I have a secure job at fair wages, and the future looks safe. Yet a twist of fate a few years ago might have left me to-day in Chappell’s position, a convict.
When I was nineteen years old, a university student, I and my two roommates committed a crime. It was a prank, as many youthful crimes are, but it had serious consequences. We might have served many years in prison; the best we logically could hope for was a five-year term. But, unlike Chappell, two of us had families, — the third was an orphan, — and our families, while not influential, had friends. They created sympathy for us, and when our case came into court we had many people in our favor. That helped some, but we were saved from a prison term because we happened to come before a judge possessed of enough understanding to see us as we were — three boys, ordinarily decent, intelligent youngsters, who had committed a serious mistake and who realized it. On our plea of guilty he sentenced us to eight months in jail.
The jail term was far from being our most severe punishment. After it was over we had to face the public — scorn, loss of friends on the one hand, and on the other the embarrassing efforts of friends to prove their loyalty. Our task wasn’t anywhere near so hard as Chappell knows his will be, for we escaped the penitentiary stigma, and our crime — or our connection with it — was quickly forgotten by the public generally. But it was far from easy.
We faced the public and overcame the shame we felt. One of my two friends returned to the university, graduated with the highest honors ever given, to that date, in his department, and gained the respect and affection of all who knew him, student, faculty member, and townsman. Three months after his graduation he died.
The second of my companions took a job a friend found for him in California. He married, and the last time I heard from him was the father of one child. After several years of working and saving he decided his work held little promise, so he returned to school, completed a pre-medical course, and entered medical school. I am confident he is fighting ahead toward the goal he has set for himself.
I was unable to return to the university. I was denied readmittance because those in charge were afraid that two of us on the campus together might be a bad influence on each other, and my friend, with no idea such an attitude would be taken, happened to apply first. But in my case it made little difference, for my father had died and I had to support my mother and younger brother. I got a job, and until my mother died and my brother finished school and found work for himself I was the breadwinner. I couldn’t have taken care of my family had I been in prison. Now, at thirty-four, I hold a job of considerable responsibility on the newspaper for which I have worked nearly twelve years, and am in line for promotion. While I’m single and have no family to occupy me, I have quite a few friends in whose welfare I am deeply interested and who, I know, respect and like me. I believe my life is a reasonably full and happy one.
I have always believed the records of the three of us were a great argument for lenity in the treatment of young men who had committed crimes. None of us was a criminal type — if there is such a thing; we came from honest, religious homes and had no inclination to steal. We were led into crime by the desire for adventure.
Nothing in the world could make me steal now. I have a horror of dishonesty. I have no desire to lose my self-respect again. But what if, instead of having my tendency to honesty strengthened during these past years, I had been exposed to the influence of criminals in a prison? And even if I had left prison without an inclination to get what I wanted in the easiest way, how well could I have overcome the handicap of a long prison sentence and of the brand, ‘ex-convict’? Certainly I could not be in the position in which I am now. No one can deny that I am a good citizen, in spite of a crime fifteen years ago. What kind of citizen should I be to-day had I been sent to a penitentiary? What I say about myself applies equally to my two companions. Certainly they could not have accomplished what they did if they had been sent to prison.
Why do we punish criminals? Tearing away the veil of catchwords — ‘justice,’ ‘majesty of law,’ and the like — that we throw about our actions, we have to admit that many times a man is punished simply for vengeance, through hatred.
The proper handling of youthful criminals I believe to be one of our major problems. A boy steals a car, gets hold of a gun and holds up someone, or commits some other crime. Instead of finding out why he has acted as he has, society tosses him into the hopper of our law machinery and he is shuffled into prison or a ‘reformatory’ — and if he doesn’t come out a confirmed criminal he is likely to be as handicapped as Chappell. But if we stopped to find out why he committed that crime, what there was in his life and character that made him turn to dishonesty, we should be able to adopt treatment that would strengthen him rather than lay an additional burden upon him.
I know from experience that the loss of one’s self-respect is about the most severe punishment that can be inflicted. No man can live and hate himself. He must believe in his own worth. It may become a twisted belief; he may be proud of his self-abasement, his vileness, his ability as a crook. But he must respect himself. If a boy commits a crime, and is suffering from the loss of his self-respect, why not place him in such surroundings and train him in such a way that he can regain his self-respect and be proud of having corrected his mistake and become an honest man? It can be done, and at much less than the cost of the crimes committed by ‘repeaters’ who were first sent to prison as youths.
At eighteen Kenneth Chappell committed a crime. But the judge who sent him to prison committed a greater, an immeasurably greater, crime; for he took a life that might well have been fine and rendered it, probably, useless. Oh, I suppose the judge was not to blame; we must lay the responsibility on society. But why did not society put on that bench as judge a man possessed of enough human understanding, love of his neighbor, to deal with Chappell as another judge dealt with me and my companions?
Read Chappell’s letter again. That man isn’t evil. He made a mistake — and made it as a boy of eighteen. No human being ever avoided making mistakes. The measure of a man’s worth is the way he corrects his mistakes. If Chappell had been given a helping hand, as I was given a helping hand, instead of being condemned to blind, impersonal punishment that does nothing but lay a handicap upon him, who knows how fine a life he might have led, how much he might have accomplished? Certainly his life could not have been more useless to society than it has been for the past nine years. I wonder if it is too late to appeal for him now?
My plea for lenient treatment for young men involved in crime is a message I have longed to shout for years. There have been few opportunities. However, I am proud that twice I was able to speak it in quarters that led, I believe, to lenient treatment for the boys concerned.
It is so easy, when we read of a boy committing a crime, to say, ‘Another no-good bum. He ought to be sent up for a long sentence.’ But compare Chappell with me — and there’s no boastfulness in this. One man’s understanding saved me from Chappell’s fate. I am just an ordinary man, with no unusual strength of character or fineness of principle, but I am leading an honest, good life. Yet to-day I might be in Chappell’s position, or in the position in which he will find himself after he is released. Which would be better for society? I’m not unusual. What is true of me would be true of any normal man.
Shouldn’t we do something about it?
- Kenneth Chappell was sent to San Quentin when he was eighteen. In his letter he discussed the problems of adjustment to the social and economic world that await him when he finishes his seventeen-year sentence. — EDITOR↩