Document 8H: Excerpts from letter from Kate Richards O'Hare to "Sweethearts," 21 August 1919, printed in Kate Richards O'Hare, Kate O'Hare's Prison Letters (Girard, Kansas: The New Appeal Publishing Company, 1919), pp. 83-85 (History of Women Microfilm, reel 914, no. 7648).
August 21, 1919.
I am feeling better than when I wrote before. We may have some very hot days but the summer is practically over and September must bring refreshing coolness. We were out to the park yesterday and I was amazed to see how the brown and gold of autumn is replacing the green of summer. In a few weeks the most beautiful part of the year will be here and I am wondering how it will seem to pass it behind stone walls.
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I also had a lovely box of fine bath soap from Fort Dodge, Iowa, but the wrapper was so torn that I could not decipher the name. I divided it with the women that I knew had no money for toilet necessities and their joy in the gift would well repay the sender if he could only witness it. I gave a colored girl some toilet soap some time ago who has been here more than four years and who said in all that time she had never had anything but the coarse, home-made lye soap that is furnished by the state. I have never seen any one so delighted with what seems to us a common necessity. The folks at Decatur, Ill., sent me a big bundle of paper and stamped envelopes and I have been dividing with the girls all morning. Poor Dosia came by my cell just now and I gave her several sheets of the paper and an envelope and she was as delighted with that gift of a postage stamp as if it were something of great value.
I have learned to fully appreciate what have always seemed commonplaces. I doubt if any words can ever make anyone understand the mighty shock, the deadening, paralyzing effect of being hurled back a thousand years and being deprived of the most common, simple things of civilized life. I can never forget the feeling of sick horror that swept over me when I was reprimanded for saying "Good morning" to a woman who nodded to me as we were forming in line, or the shock of that first meal on the bare board with metal dishes and neither spoon nor knife. The nightmare of those silent meals where one may not speak to a neighbor and must make signs like dumb things for the salt shaker or the pepper box, will always remain with me.
However, we are to take a long jump forward and approach civilization in the dining room. It has been beautifully decorated, painted a soft, cool shade of green and the fly-specked ceiling is clean and white. The old brown cupboard which offended me so much is painted spotless white and now shows itself a really dignified, beautiful old piece of furniture that it is a pleasure to look at. Best of all the hideous barrack board tables are to be removed tomorrow and we are to have real civilized tables and chairs and table cloths and some new dishes and spoons and none but the boys who have been in the army can realize how much this means to us. The psychic and spiritual effect of eating like civilized human beings will, I am sure, be something wonderful.
This is another proof that the management here really wishes to make life here as bearable as possible. I know now by actual experience that so far as Mr. Painter is concerned at least, there is but one valid criticism that can be made of him and that is that he does not give enough attention to matters on the female side. If he would give one hour each month to knowing what is being done and not being done for the women here the institution would soon be as good as a prison can be made. I know now that the things that have harrowed me so terribly can largely be traced to old-time routine. Great strides are being made to bring the institution up to modern standards and I feel that those responsible for the changes should have all the credit possible. My friends have been, I think, often unfair to Mr. Painter in their criticisms.
The prison system is the most hideous part of the present system of society. It has become the very scapegoat for all of our social crimes. Each and every one of us is individually responsible for its horrors and its barbarities. Our prisons are but a reflection of us, of our ethics, our morals, our ideals, our sense of social justice, and there are none of us who can draw our skirts aside and say that we are guiltless of the crimes of our judicial and penal system. Buried down deep in the subconscious soul of us is the old instinct to hate, to wish to destroy what is unpleasing to us and makes us ashamed and uncomfortable. And our prison population is so very unpleasing, so ugly, they shame us and make us feel so uncomfortable. I sat in the office of the oculist for three hours this morning and watched the male prisoners come and go. A tragic stream of wrecked and ruined lives, marred and scarred, warped and distorted, they were not pleasant to look upon and I could well understand how properly nice, respectable, moral people would be glad to hide them away from the sight of men behind prison walls and forget them as quickly as possible. Oh! there was menace and condemnation, shame and danger in them for smug respectability! What wonder then that respectability would hide them and forget them as quickly as possible?
Our prisons are filled with two groups--the men and women marred in the making by society, the bitter dregs of our social system who shame us by their ugliness, and the men and women who rise superior to the common mass, who by their intelligence and idealism, their love and service shame us for the pettiness of our lives. One group shames us by their sordid, brutal ugliness, the other by the nobility and beauty of their lives, and so we hide them both away in prison. Gene Debs[A] and Red McClain--Flora Foreman[B] and Ray McHugh, the man who protested against legalized murder and the man who murdered illegally--the woman who asked the right for all women to own their own bodies and the harlot who sold her body for the profit of a politician. But savior and slayer, prophetess and prostitute, they are flesh of our flesh, spirit of our spirit, soul of our soul, and for their nobility or their depravity we are all responsible and prison walls cannot break the ties that make us one in human brotherhood.
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A. Eugene V. Debs, five-time socialist candidate for President, was serving a ten-year sentence in Atlanta at this time for speaking out against World War I.
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B. Flora Foreman was a schoolteacher from Texas who was convicted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts for saying that soldiers should shoot their officers. See Philip S. Foner and Sally M. Miller, eds., Kate Richards O'Hare: Selected Writings and Speeches (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), p. 249 n. 32.
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