Document 18B: Excerpt from "The Function of the Prison," chap. 3 in Kate Richards O'Hare, In Prison, by Kate Richards O'Hare, Sometime Federal prisoner number 21669 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923), pp. 49-55, 57-61.
THE FUNCTION OF THE PRISON
As a rule we have very hazy ideas indeed as to the proper function and the requisite efficiency of the prison as a social institution. So general is the impression that prisons are a necessary part of our social machinery that for the time being we will accept that impression as true, and consider only the questions of function and efficiency. In a general way we agree that prisons should serve a threefold purpose: they should be places of social vengeance where we punish persons who break the law; they should be safe places to segregate unpleasant and dangerous persons; and they should be places where some indefinite thing called "reformation" is achieved by some unknown and mysterious process.
No one denies, I think, that our whole prison system as it exists to-day is based on the idea of social vengeance. So far as I have been able to determine, the problem seems to resolve into certain questions for which we must find intelligent answers.
Is social vengeance the proper purpose of our penal institutions?
Who shall determine the nature of this social vengeance?
Is the loss of liberty sufficient punishment for misdeeds, or shall there be added the deliberate violation of every normal human impulse?
Should social vengeance include undernourishment,
bad housing, degrading raiment, enforced unpaid labour, contamination from loathsome diseases, mental stagnation, moral degeneracy, and spiritual disintegration?
Must social vengeance include physical violence and excessive brutality, and if it must, should we have a body of public servants trained for that purpose?
If we must have public servants trained for prison brutality, where, and how, shall they be secured?
Shall we breed and train administrators of brutality and torture, or shall we leave to chance the problem of securing prison keepers sufficiently brutal to carry out the requirements of social vengeance?
What standards shall be used to measure their ability to administer punishment?
Who shall determine the natural fitness and degree of training in prison brutality which is proper to these public servants?
Is it possible for one human being to inflict mental and physical torture on another human being without himself being injured?
If the infliction of torture on prisoners injures the public servants who act as prison keepers, how shall society compensate the servants so injured?
Have we any reliable information as to whether or not the methods of prison cruelty as now applied have a tendency to graduate from our prisons ex-convicts less disturbing to the public peace, and safer persons with whom to live, than the criminals whom we sent to prison?
If it is true that social vengeance is just and efficient, and that society has the right to punish by prison brutalities any member who violates its laws, must we not determine the share of responsibility which society bears, in order that the delinquent may be punished with an approximately exact justice?
If we admit that punishment, in order to be effective, must be just, and if we admit that in many instances individuals are punished for the sins of society as a whole, is not crime added to crime, and no good end served?
When we have found rational, scientific, common-sense answers to these questions we shall have reached the heart of the prison problem. As yet we are much befogged on all of them.
To the unthinking the grim grey walls with their shrouding cloak of mystery, and the steel-barred windows, sinister in their silence, give a comforting sense of social security against the depredations of criminals. We feel, somehow, that walls and bars make us safe, and that massive locks and armed guards give us protection. "The wish is father to the thought," so we have come to consider our prisons safe places for the segregation of the criminals that prey upon society. We know that in the field of physical hygiene the segregation of the infected from the uninfected is recognized as necessary to the control and cure of physical diseases, and somehow we feel that prisons protect us from moral contamination.
This myth is no doubt comforting to the unthinking--but it is a myth. If criminality is an infectious moral disease, jails and prisons have not provided, and under present methods of management never will provide, the security of real segregation.
I have often watched the police patrol wagon go clanging down the street carrying some malefactor to jail, and in some unexplained way it seemed to bring a soothing sense of security. I felt that the sleepless eye of the law was ever alert for my protection, and that criminals who might endanger my property or life would be quickly and safely shut behind prison bars. I am wiser now. I have seen the inside workings of prisons, and I know that
all the clanging patrol wagons, all the stolid policemen, all the mysteries of the courtroom, all the evil-smelling jails and frowning prison walls can not make me safe from the depredations of the criminally bent.
I have seen the federal court and the prison in operation, and after my release I sat in other courts and watched the workings of the law there. The first man brought in was a noted automobile bandit who drove the arresting officer to the station in a car noted for its speed and high price. Any cub reporter in the city could tell thrilling stories of the skill and daring and amazing depredations committed by this ultra-modern thief. The policeman who arrested him, the judge before whom he was arraigned, and all the courtroom loungers knew his record. But he was represented by a high-priced attorney, a notorious political ward heeler, and a multi-millionaire professional bondsman provided bond for his appearance in court, and he drove away to indulge in his profession of banditry, gaily undisturbed by his experience with the law.
Then there was a shambling moron, vacant-eyed, listless, and degenerate. He had been arrested for making lewd remarks to a group of school girls. His mother worked as a cook for a well-known saloon keeper who provided the fine, and the pervert went on his way.
Then came a street walker arrested for soliciting, but her cadet was on hand, a whispered conversation took place between the panderer and the judge, money was deposited, and the girl went back to her profession.
The next was a "hop head" arrested for peddling "dope." But the charge was changed to vagrancy, and he got thirty days in the work-house.
Then came a wild-eyed woman sobbing and muttering that some one had insulted her. She was charged with
assault, but a worried looking husband and a fat, sleek lawyer conferred with the judge, a Liberty bond was deposited for bail, and the woman muttered her way to freedom. And so the monotonous grind went on and on, and at the end of the day a score of really dangerous persons had been freed, and five merely annoying ones were in jail.
The judges had administered the letter of the law; they had done all that can be expected of the type of men we elect to the duties of police judge; but they had not segregated the dangerous criminals, nor had they safeguarded the lives and property of the people of the city.
Had these courts had, instead of merely ignorant politicians, the services of a trained physician and psychologist, fitted to detect dangerous traits of human character and abnormalities, the story would have been different. The scientifically trained man would have known that the bandit would immediately return to his criminal activities, and that to release him on bail would merely make the law-enforcing machinery of the city a partner in his crime.
In the degenerate moron the psychologist would have recognized the potential rapist and possible murderer, and he would have been committed to an institution for the feeble-minded.
The physician would have known that the street walker was almost sure to be infected with venereal diseases which she would transmit to her customers, and she would have been placed in a segregation hospital for treatment.
Trained men would have known that thirty days in the work-house for the drug addict would merely mean a period of hellish torture while in prison and continued degeneracy when released, and he too would have been committed to a hospital for treatment.
The psychologist would have recognized in the woman arrested for assault, not a criminal, but a dangerous dement, who must be sent to a psychopathic hospital.
I know, of course, that laws permitting persons charged with crime to give bond for appearance in court are necessary to protect the innocent from unjust punishment while waiting trial, but surely no person should be released on bond until he has been carefully observed and painstakingly examined by a competent physician and psychologist, who alone can determine whether or not a delinquent is really dangerous to society.
We reassure ourselves that, while it may be true that dangerous criminals are sometimes released on bonds, we are actually quite safe once they are in the penitentiary. We feel that after a criminal has had his day in court, after he has been found guilty and shut behind prison walls, we are safeguarded. This too is a comforting myth, but a myth only.
Prisons do not segregate, and they do not permanently and adequately protect us from the criminal by shutting him behind prison walls. And neither does the prison segregate the various grades and types of convicts who go to prison. We know that not all persons who go to prison are equally criminalistic and dangerous. We know that some are young and new to the ways of crime, and some are old and hardened. We know that some are shrewd and highly trained in criminal practices, and many are merely the stupid victims of circumstances. We know that some are habitual criminals, some are accidental, and some are being punished for the crimes of others. We know that some are approximately normal and many are abnormal; some free from physical disease, and many contaminated. Yet within the prison where I
served, for whose conditions the federal government, by sending prisoners, accepts responsibility, there was no attempt at intelligent segregation, no recognition of mental or physical abnormalities, no attempt to prevent the spread of diseases, physical, mental, or moral.
* * *
No prison is administered, or can be under our present system of brutality and repression, without the services of "snitches" and stool-pigeons. Prison jobs are a part of the spoils of our political state, and usually an entirely new set of officials and employees comes in with each election and goes out with the defeated political party. It is the unwritten law of prison management that the outgoing officials shall secure if possible the pardon or parole of their "snitches" and stool-pigeons. As only the lowest and most degenerate convicts are vicious enough to earn release in this way, we are fairly sure to get our very worst back from prison.
Political machines in the large cities need thugs and prostitutes and criminals to serve them; prison officials receive their fat appointments from political machines, and naturally political pull dominates very largely the granting of paroles and pardons.
It was generally understood in Jefferson City that if one lacked the necessary political pull to secure a parole, five hundred dollars in cash was just as effective. There was one lawyer in Jefferson City who was amazingly successful in opening prison doors, and his fee was always just five hundred dollars. I was never able to secure absolute proof of the sale of paroles, but I know that one
woman after another was paroled as soon as the lawyer's fee was forthcoming. Two of the prisoners borrowed substantial sums of money from me to make up the required fee; both were released; and both repaid the loan.
I do not oppose the parole system; on the other hand, I would broaden its scope and make the granting of paroles possible before the convicted person has been committed to prison, particularly in the case of young first offenders. But I would take the granting of pardons and paroles out of the hands of politically controlled prison boards and place it in the hands of physicians and psychologists capable of intelligently determining whether or not an offender should be released or committed to an institution for indicated treatment. Facilities for follow-up care should also be provided for both pardoned and paroled prisoners; for, unless they have fairly well-to-do and politically powerful friends outside to help them make the adjustment to normal life, it is an almost impossible task for a prisoner who has served any length of time.
My personal experiences lead me to believe that prisons, as they are conducted to-day, are not places in which to segregate safely men and women who are dangerous to society and to themselves. The modern prison with its heterogeneous mass of physically, mentally, and spiritually diseased inmates herded together in unsanitary surroundings, exploited by contract labour, subjected to the despotic domination of untrained, ignorant, brutal, and frequently sadistic keepers, pawns of corrupt politicians and preyed upon by human jackals, is neither safe nor socially sane.
The average convict stays in prison long enough to have grafted upon his abnormalities of body, brain, and soul the degenerating results of prison life. The
delinquent enters prison, stays a few months or years, then returns to society with all of his anti-social traits set and hardened by brutalities. He returns to civil life branded by the stigma of shame, the lawful prey of harpies, penniless, ill-clad, anaemic from under-feeding, broken by slave labour, and contaminated by loathsome diseases. The released convict brings back to society all the dangerous characteristics which he took to prison, as well as many more which he acquired there.
There is a generally accepted theory that in some way prisons reform criminals, and by some unexplained and mysterious process make good people out of bad people. Few to-day are willing to admit that punishment should be administered in a spirit of revenge, and most people have serious doubts of the efficiency of prisons as places of segregation; but they still cling to the belief that somehow a prison sentence will remake an evil-doer.
But if we ask proof of this theory and frankly face the hard, cold facts, it seems self-evident that prisons do not reform. The criminal population of this country is increasing much faster than our general ratio of increase. Criminal courts are everywhere so crowded that their overflowing dockets make speedy trials impossible. Innocent persons charged with crime must bear the stigma for months, even years, before trials are possible, and guilty ones escape because witnesses scatter or die of old age. The money cost of handling this increase in crime is so great that a commission was recently organized by prominent lawyers of the various states to undertake the task of simplifying and unifying criminal court procedure. A bill was recently passed by Congress adding a large number of new federal judges to handle the increased flow of crime. The prisons of the country are badly over-crowded, and in many states additional
facilities for caring for prisoners are in process of construction.
There is an appalling lack of reliable data on crime and criminals, but the few data available prove that an astounding percentage of men and women drift from one prison to another--repeaters who serve sentence after sentence. One of the things which I noted was that so many of my prison mates had graduated into the penitentiary from orphans' homes, charitable institutions, houses of correction, and reform schools. In fact, these institutions would seem to be incubators of crime rather than benevolent and corrective influences.
One woman had served in eleven prisons, one in seven, three in five; and second- and third-termers were in the majority.
It may be that the reason why prisons fail to reform their inmates is that good people are usually normal people, whereas bad people are very generally subnormal, and that our prisons, as I know them, ignore this fact completely. In fact, no one connected with the management of our prison seemed to realize that there was any relation between physical, mental, and psychic abnormalities and crime.
A few men like Dr. Gluck, Dr. Healey, and Dr. Fernald have done very valuable research work and written extremely helpful books in dealing with these problems; the American Social Hygiene Association and the American Mental Hygiene Association have done work of tremendous social value in this field; but the average prison official hates the investigator of causative factors in crime and sneers at his suggestions of more rational and scientific methods of handling delinquents.
The physical unfitness which leads to industrial inefficiency played a large part in the development of the
criminalistic careers which I had an opportunity to study. Of the more than two hundred women whom I observed in Jefferson City, I feel quite sure not ten per cent would have passed an ordinary life insurance examination. And all of the others were far below the physical standards necessary to win out in the work-a-day struggle for existance.
For example, because of the publicity aroused by the famous bathtub letter which I smuggled out and the public protest which it aroused against the uncivilized manner of handling venereal diseases, the management was forced to make certain improvements; eighty-six women were given the Wassermann test one day, and I was informed that fifty-eight gave positive reactions on the first test. No examinations for other venereal diseases were given, but I feel sure that they existed in the large majority of the women. A severe case of venereal infection unfits a woman to earn her living, even in the profession of prostitution. Naturally petty crime was the only means of livelihood for most of these women.
The mental subnormal is not only susceptible to criminal influences, but also unfitted to meet the problems of life and gainful labour. I feel sure that seventy-five per cent of the prisoners with whom I served were mentally subnormal, psychopaths and demented. Yet no recognition was given this fact by the prison management--and surely we are justified in grave misgivings as to the efficiency of such a prison in the presumed function of reformation.
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