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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

March 1922

Prison Progress

by Brice P. Disque

The first time I entered a penitentiary,--or state prison, --I faced some twelve hundred men in gray uniforms, and addressed them as their new warden. The inmates had been assembled in the chapel, in order that they might see and hear the man under whose command they were to live.

As I had been a regular army officer all my life since leaving school; as I had no political friends, and only one or two others of any kind, in the state, the announcement of my appointment as warden--one of the attractive, if not the best, appointive jobs in the state--caused much comment in the press.

I did not even then know why the Board of Control, not a single member of which had been among my acquaintances, had selected me. The offer of appointment was cabled to me at Manila, where I was on duty with my troops. The Governor had not been consulted and, when advised of the appointment, frankly said he did not approve; but the members of his Board of Control were not politicians and he bowed to their judgment and confirmed the appointment. That portion of the press which can think of such jobs only as rewards for the faithful had told their readers that my army record was that of a harsh, cruel disciplinarian; in fact, I was a cold-blooded martinet, who would soon require the output of an iron foundry to supply balls and chains. The inmates would again appear in striped uniforms, and the rawhide would be worked overtime.

No scene of my entire life has left such an impression upon me as that first meeting with those men who had come under my charge. Those twelve hundred upturned, pale faces showed so clearly that the souls back of them were again facing sentence, that I had difficulty in getting started.

My talk was along the same lines that I had so frequently employed in addressing the soldiers of my troop whenever any new work was to undertaken. Men always perform better when they understand what is to be done, and how, when, and why. They can act so much more intelligently, and since no manager can foresee all the details, it renders it so simple for the subordinates to use the human intelligence, which most of them possess, when anything slips a cog.

Well, it was an experience of a lifetime to watch the general and gradual change in expression--first confusion, then doubt, then hope, and finally contentment, as far as that expression can be registered upon the faces of convicts.

I made no promises and offered no threats. I aimed to establish a man-to-man recognition of a relationship through which future events could be interpreted and understood. The gratifying response of the men when I finished left no doubt in my mind that I was understood and would have the cooperation of the vast majority.

I have been referring to an event in the Michigan State Prison, at Jackson, in December 1916. My predecessor had rendered splendid services, and when I undertook to succeed him, the prison at Jackson had been improved far beyond the average American institution in almost every phase of its management and methods. This made my job doubly difficult; and I was one hundred per cent novice in penology.

The war came; the War Department offered me an assignment, and I returned to the army after directing the affairs at Jackson Prison for nine months. Those nine months do not qualify me to speak as an expert; but I can speak with at least that much more experience than the average man, who is wondering what is wrong.

I relinquished that job at Jackson with the greatest regret. I went there because I had confidence in the possibility of showing the way to another and better method, the beneficial effects of which I believed would be felt in every factory, office, school, and home in America. I left Jackson believing that great things could be accomplished and with some very definite ideas as to how it could be done.

Fundamentally, I believe it wrong to regard a prison as a place of punishment. It is absurd for a judge or jury, who probably never saw the accused before his trial, to fix the period of his incarceration. It is just as ridiculous to release a thief, pickpocket, forger, robber, burglar, or any other criminal, just because he has served a fixed number of years, as it would be to release a raving maniac because he has been in an asylum a certain period of time.

I believe that it is not possible to treat a man as a caged animal for months and years, and then expect him to conduct himself as a normal being after sudden release, permitting him to circulate freely in society.

**No convicted criminal should be set free, regardless of his offense or the time he has been held in restraint, until he has been prepared to earn a living, has acquired habits of industry, has the desire to become a useful member of society, and has proved to the satisfaction of the head of his institution that he has the will-power to realize that desire; and finally until suitable employment has been found for him, in a place where he has opportunities equal to other men.

The reputation, success, and worth of the head of a state prison should be measured by the number of men that he graduates out of his institution who prove they are qualified to remain outside.

The head of a penal institution is more important to the progress of society than the president of a university. His task is more difficult: he must be more resourceful; he must have a combination of culture, education, business ability, and personal character of the highest order; all backed up by a physique that will carry him through continuous experiences such as will break the health, vision, and optimism of most men.

The time has come to do away with the title of 'warden' and the designations of 'prison,' 'penitentiary,' and the rest, and to start a new and enlightened era with a 'President of State Industries.'**

In 1910 there were 2823 penal institutions in the United States, from which 476,468 persons were discharged. The records indicate that more than sixty per cent of those discharged soon find their way back into prison. Of course, many of the remainder repeat their crimes, and do not get caught.

Measure the cost if you can. Probably more than sixty per cent of the cost of our police forces, criminal courts, jails, prisons, losses due to theft, murder, and so forth, is avoidable.

Certainly, this is a subject worthy of the time and effort of our best minds.


I approached my problem at Jackson with a wide-open mind. I knew that I had been in contact with men all my life, here and there, who had committed crimes, probably as many and as serious as the men under my charge at Jackson; but they had not been caught. My first decision, therefore, was to treat the inmates just as I would any ordinary individuals who had work to do inside the prison, except that, since it was my sworn duty to keep them inside, I had to enforce such regulations as would accomplish that result.

I knew that a sound and healthy body is essential to mental health and development, and, naturally, I gave this subject my first attention. I was shocked by the pale complexions of those faces that I saw the first day. By the very simple expedients of ventilating the cell blocks, exercising the men out of doors, and giving them a forty-minute period of complete relaxation in the open air after the noon meal each day, the great majority, in the course of two weeks, were so much improved in appearance and cheerfulness, that members of the Board were surprised on their next visit, and commented upon it.

The next effort toward better health, mental and physical, was to give the men the freedom of the yard on Sundays and holidays, instead of keeping them in their cells. Then they were encouraged to read all newspapers and magazines, and restrictions on correspondence were removed, as to volume. Later on, a scientific diet was provided in the mess hall.

As soon as possible, the bathing facilities were increased, so that each man could have his daily shower bath; and it was so close to his bunk that he could get there without dressing, put on his night clothing, and get to bed.

Later on, a tuberculosis colony was started on a farm about four miles form the prison, and every man who had that disease was sent to live there. These men were not guarded, but were on their honor not to run away. Suitable fresh-air dormitories were provided, and the medical officer visited the colony daily. The least disabled cared for the farm, live stock, cooking and other necessary work about the place.

The sick report of the inmate population fell to an average of 1.3 per cent of the whole.

When I went to Jackson, the institution was on a self-supporting basis, having been brought up to that condition by the admirable work of my predecessor. All inmates who were able to work were paid for their services, the pay ranging from ten cents to $1.50 per day. Considering that this was in addition to shelter, bed, heat, light, clothing, food, use of library, entertainment, schooling, religious services, and medical attention, it was not a poor rate of payment. But any rate of payment was opposed, and relentlessly fought by powerful interests from several directions.

Approximately half of the inmates attended school regularly five evenings each week, and I need only say that 363 of the students--more than one fourth of the entire population of the prison--were enrolled in the first, second, and third grades, to indicate one cause of crime: ignorance.

It was my purpose to continue and perfect the system which I found in operation, and of which I thoroughly approved.

The prison owned approximately 3000 acres of farm land, and I purchased 2000 more. There were some nine colonies of farmers (convicts) living permanently on the farms and operating them--an average of 350 men were so employed. The farms were equipped with modern machinery, and afforded all phases of agricultural training for the men.

We had hundreds of cattle, hogs, chickens, horses, and sheep, and 200 colonies of honeybees. We operated three dairy barns, of fifty cows each, and bred excellent strains of horses, cattle, hogs, and chickens.

Our farms provided for our mess-hall requirements in the way of eggs, milk, butter, meat, fruit, and vegetables; and a very fine cannery packed thousands of cases of peas, beans, beets, corn, kraut, and fruit, all of which was either used in the prison kitchen or sold to the public at attractive prices.

Other industries under the entire ownership of the prison and constituting a part of the warden's business responsibility were:--

A monument works, in which some fifty or sixty men were profitably employed carving granite monuments, made to order.

A brick-and-tile works, where common building-brick and farm-drain tile were made in large quantities.

A tannery, in which the hides from steers butchered for the kitchens were made into belting and leather, for use in the making of inmates' shoes.

Then there was the twine factory, making 14,000,000 lbs. of binder twine each year, and profitably employing over 300 men.

In service departments, necessary to the maintenance of all the above, we had the laundry, tailor-shop, shoe-shop, machine-shop, creamery, power-house, planing-mill, and carpenter-shop. The engineer, with his drafting rooms, gave excellent opportunities to a considerable number of men. The inmates' store, the factory offices, the general storehouse, and the business offices, were all largely manned by inmates, and the labor turnover was low.

It must be a poor business man who cannot pay expenses under such labor conditions; and our statement for the fiscal year, ending June 30, 1917, showed a net profit of $156,000. This after paying ALL the expenses of the institution, making proper allowances for depreciation of buildings and machinery, paying wages to all inmates, providing them with food, clothing, schooling, shelter, medical service, entertainment, and religion, and also after paying the salaries of all officers employed.

The operating profit for July, August, September, and October, 1917, was over $300,000; and there is no reason whatever why the institution should not make a good big net profit each year, and give a reasonable part to the inmates, to add to their stake when they are discharged, or to distribute to their dependent relatives while they are in prison.


From the above it might seem that the problem of prisoners and prisons had found its solution.

There were no idle men; all were employed at a useful occupation, all participated in the profits, and had a fair incentive to give an honest effort; their health was improving; over twenty-five per cent of them were almost free men, working on farms several miles from the main prison; some 200 men lived in a dormitory, in large rooms of three or four beds each, had their toilet facilities in each room, and could talk and play games, as any normal men might care to do. The spirit of the men was good, and everywhere there was as good a feeling as we ordinarily find among large numbers living in restraint.

But we were a long way from a solution of the prison, or crime, problem.

The officers were not very useful in setting examples to the inmates, and it was extremely difficult to interest the right class of men,--intelligent, courageous, and strong natural leaders,--to take employment as officers.

Every now and then some fellow would get into trouble, just as they do in churches, colleges, or business houses. He was already in prison; sometimes his sentence was for life. What are you going to do with a man facing ten years or more in prison, who sticks his knife in the side of a fellow convict? Or suppose he only strikes another man with his fist, and he is given a good talking to, and shown how he can get along better if he attends to his own business and keeps out of trouble; and within twenty-four hours he is caught breaking another convict's skull with a brick--what are you going to do? The only criticism I have to make of Mr. Tannenbaum's article is that he parades all the punishments before his readers, but he doesn't give any answer to that question.

In my opinion there are but three possible methods of dealing with such cases:--

If the man is sane, healthy, and merely a trouble-maker, he should be paddled until the impression left upon his memory will be sufficient to deter him when he is again tempted to take advantage of his superior strength, to injure another. Sometimes a dark cell, or bread and water, get better results than the paddle. But that is the only language such fellows understand; and if you want peace in a prison-yard, and to protect the decent fellows, you have got to talk the language that the bully understands until he learns a more polite one.

Possibly the man is mentally weak and unbalanced. If so, he belongs in a sanitarium, and should be sent there and not punished.

Then we have the hardened, confirmed, deliberate criminal, who has a good mind, appreciates the gravity of his acts, and, doing so, would kill a man for twenty-five cents. That sort of a chap, when found out, belongs in a separate place, from which there is no chance of escape, and in which he cannot interfere with the great majority of convicts, whose regeneration seems hopeful.

This brings me to one of the big steps which I believe must be taken in the solution of the crime and prison problem:--

Under existing laws and customs, our courts convict and sentence with very little knowledge of the character or mentality of the man. Very little, if anything, is known of the environment, opportunities, or underlying reasons for the criminal tendencies of the man. I have seen men convicted of the same crime, in the same state, by different courts, and sentenced to six months in one case and two years in another. If there was any difference in the degree of the offense, the man who got six months was the worse offender.

One judge made a specialty of 'soaking them' for that particular crime, and the other one had no particular feeling about it.

One of those convicts might have been a deliberate and hardened criminal, and the other might very easily have been an accidental offender, who would never again become involved. The two are thrown into the common hopper, to serve as many months or years as they might draw from the lottery.

It would be difficult to devise a less scientific or more harmful method of dealing with a vital human problem. Men commit crime from various motives, and accidentally. All who do so immediately become dangerous to society, and upon proof of guilt they should be rendered harmless by setting them apart, for the protection of society. As soon as they are no longer dangerous they should be returned to society. With crime always increasing, it is not sound reasoning to discuss the deterrent effect of long sentences. They do not deter, to any great extent. As stated above, sixty per cent of those who have served sentences go back to serve other sentences.


I believe that men convicted of crime should be COMMITTED to a state institution, just as the insane are committed to an asylum--to remain until cured.

The management of the state institution, charged with the custody and safe-keeping of criminals, should be of such character as to enjoy the respect and confidence of the community, and should be capable of developing and testing the convict, and determining when he may be released without danger to society. The entire responsibility for the length of time a man should remain confined should rest with the management, and it should be held responsible for the conduct of men after release. And, as stated above, the reputation and success of the management should be made to have a direct relation to the percentage of men released who become useful members of society.

In order to protect against possible unfairness and incompetency on the part of the management, any man, after serving one year, who believes that he is being held longer than is proper, and who can convince any state court that there are good grounds for such belief, should have access to a jury selected for the purpose, before whom he can present his case and to whom the management must give its reasons for detaining him. If the jury agree with the applicant, it should have the power to release him, and by so doing become responsible for his future behavior.

The average pardon board is not fit to perform the functions assigned to it; and my experience leads me to the belief that it is one of the worst and most dangerous instrumentalities connected with our present penal system.

With the matter of sentences arranged as outlined, I would then like to see all sane convicts sent to a central receiving station for observation and segregation.

The authorities of such an institution should be qualified experts, capable of prompt distribution of the men to one of the two following classes of institutions:

A.--Hospitals for detention of mental and physical defectives. This would take about fifteen per cent of all convicts. As cured in the hospital, the men would be transferred to the other class of institution.

B.--Industrial institutions, equipped with a variety of industries capable of producing goods and merchandise required by the country.

Of those sent to the latter, about twenty per cent will turn out to be hopeless, hardened, and deliberate criminals. Their presence in the place will greatly increase the difficulties of developing good results. Their example and influence will be bad on the other men, some of whom may be wavering between weakness and strength of will-power.

Additional restrictive and disciplinary measures will be necessary to guard them, and it will be desirable in every way to segregate them, just as our modern schools segregate the normally bright children from those who are dull and slow to progress.

I would, therefore, send the hopeless, hardened, and deliberate criminals to a third sort of institution, in which they would be forced to earn their own living, and from which there would not be the slightest possibility of escape, except after unquestionable evidence that they had qualified for the B institutions again. Not many of such fellows would qualify, but all should have a chance, and be encouraged to try. If they never take advantage of that opportunity they should remain in the third class for life, regardless of the sort of crime of which they were convicted.

The B institutions should be conducted along lines similar to those followed in the Service Corps of the army. The men should be housed in dormitories, and required to assemble for roll-call morning and night. The discipline should be about the same as that controlling our military organizations. There should be large farms, and a variety of other industries in which the men could be employed to learn a trade or other useful occupation, of their own selection. The employment should result in a profit to themselves and the institution.

The population of the B institutions would be composed, in the great majority of cases, of men who offered good prospects of development to the state where they could be returned to society with safety and with beneficial results to all concerned. A pickpocket might be kept there for twenty years, and a highway robber might be released after two years; the time-limit would depend upon their real progress toward a condition which would justify their release.

All men would be encouraged to do the normal things that men usually do. Opportunities to go wrong would be confronting them all the time, in ever-increasing degree. After a time, they would be sent out to the farms; and later on, they would be tried out where their duties brought them into contact with the city and all its temptations. Illiterates would have to acquire an education before release. All would be taught the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.

When there seemed no reasonable doubt as to the man's desire and capacity to go it alone, he would be paroled for a period of a year or so, after a suitable position had been secured for him. His conduct while on parole would be followed, and every encouragement and assistance given him to overcome those periods of mental depression which come to all men, and which are so often responsible for crime.

All institutions should and could be made entirely self-supporting; and not only that, but the profits that may result from their operation should go toward paying the entire criminal expense of the state, including criminal courts, special officers, and so forth.

It has been and will be said that the sale of convict-made products leads to unfair competition with free labor and private industry. My answer to that is that at Jackson we had every incentive to get all we could for our products, and in no case did we under-price the products of private producers; but, in some cases, we actually sold our goods on their merits, for higher prices than those of some of the best merchandise in the country.

So long as the institutions holding men in confinement are operated under a plan of self-support, with a profit to employer and employee, there will be little chance of unfair competition.

Contract prison-labor is an abomination, and labor leaders and non-political manufacturers have had just cause to complain of competition from such sources. But I never found a situation where, when the facts were known, anyone complained about competition of the products of the Jackson prison.

Of course, we shall never bring our prison system into such a position as I have outlined under a system of passing the jobs around as political rewards. Neither shall we ever secure competent men to manage such institutions until the pioneers in the effort prove to the public that the man in charge--and who deserves to be in charge--is the mental and social equal of any university president.

Then, if we are to secure men competent to direct great business enterprises,--and that is the only kind who can keep the average population of a modern prison busy at useful and profitable work,--we must be willing to pay the market price for such men.

If we are to judge by the present distribution of ability and brains, man to-day regards financial reward as the great objective, and a business career as the route to that sort of success. But behind that material reward, the real fellows will value far greater the self-satisfaction which comes from a knowledge of having influenced in a helpful way the progress, contentment, and happiness of others.

I have permitted these observations to take the form of a description of what has been done in one prison, because I believe that such method removes the discussion from the realm of theory, and that thereby we may eliminate many doubter and bring the consideration of the subject to the next stage.

Such ideas as I have expressed as to what that next step should be are my own; they have not been tried, but are they not worth a trial? We all know that the old system is a failure.

Copyright © 1922 by Brice P. Disque. All rights reserved.
"Prison Progress," from
The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1922, issue. Vol. 129, No. 3 (p.330-337).

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