Document 18C: Excerpts from "The Prison," chap. 4 in Kate Richards O'Hare, In Prison, by Kate Richards O'Hare, Sometime Federal prisoner number 21669 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923), pp. 62-66, 67-72, 73.
The state penitentiary at Jefferson City, Missouri, has enjoyed the distinction of being the largest prison in the United States, if not in the world. The females' wing, which, at the time I was there was about fifteen years old, was much better than some of the older buildings used for the male convicts, but far less satisfactory than the one more modern building in the male department. It was constructed of stone and concrete with tile and cement floors, heavily barred but plentiful windows, and a fairly modern but woefully dilapidated heating system.
The cellhouse, which is the living quarters of the women prisoners, is a long building with a cage of cells in the center, four cells high and two deep, facing in opposite directions. The cells are seven feet wide, eight deep, and seven high. The ceiling, back, and side walls of each cell are of solid steel, the floor of cement, and the front of steel bars. Each cell is supplied with a toilet and a lavatory with running cold water. At the time I was there each woman had a cell, and considerable latitude was given the women in furnishing and decorating their cells, at their own expense. Each cell was supplied with a steel bunk fastened to the wall; two bags of straw, one for a matters and the other for a pillow; a crude kitchen table; a stool or chair, usually in the last stages of decrepitude; and a broom and dust-pan. Each woman is given, when
she is "dressed in," three coarse brown muslin sheets, two pillow cases, two brown crash towels, and two coarse and very dirty blankets of most questionable antecedents. The women were required, under severe penalty, to keep their cells as clean and tidy as was possible in their dilapidated condition. Thursday evening after work hours was cleaning time, and each woman was required to remove everything from her cell and clean and scrub it.
At the time I entered, the wing was very dirty and, in most essentials, shabby and unsanitary. Every crack and crevice of the cellhouse was full of vermin of every known sort, which no amount of scrubbing on the part of the women could permanently dislodge.
The dining room was light and airy, and at the present time it is fairly satisfactory. At the time I entered it was very different. The walls were streaked with grime and the ceiling covered with an unbelievably heavy coat of fly-specks. The dining room was not screened, and fifteen years' accumulation of well preserved fly-specks was an astounding thing to behold. My first prison meal is, of course, a vivid memory. I found the dining room filled with long wooden benches like the old-fashioned school desks, each seating eight women. The white women occupied one side of the room and the coloured women the other. The dishes were of rusty, battered tinware, the knives and forks of cast iron, and, for some incomprehensible reason, the spoons were non-existent. If a woman wished to use a spoon she was compelled to buy it with her own money and carry it about in the one pocket she possessed, along with her pocket handkerchief and other movable property. I was able neither to fathom this aversion to spoons nor to induce the management to supply them or permit me to do so, and so far I know the Missouri State Penitentiary is still spoonless.
The first thing that struck me was the dead, rancid odour, the typical institution smell, much intensified. It was the concentrated odour of dead air, venerable hash, ancient stews, senile "wienies," and cabbage soup, mingled with the musty odour of decaying wood saturated with rancid grease and home-made soap.
The benches and tables were very old, having done service for more than half a century. Many generations of prisoners had scrubbed them; they creaked and groaned with the infirmities of age, and every crack and crevice was inhabited with old and well established cockroach families. They were very hungry roaches, who insisted on sharing our meals with us; so we ate with one hand and picked roaches out of our food with the other. I was not adept at one-handed eating and could not develop a taste for roaches to garnish my food. I made enough fuss about the matter to induce the management to have the dining room cleaned and painted, and to provide tables, chairs, white table cloths, and real dishes. The dining room is now quite civilized, except for the missing spoons.
Few of the older prison buildings are so well supplied with windows as the females' wing of the Missouri State Penitentiary, but for the most part the windows are quite useless. Fifteen years' accumulation of dirt was fairly efficient in shutting out light and sunshine, and where it was not entirely satisfactory the windows had been painted over with grey paint--to prevent the women flirting with the men on the other side of the wall, the matron said. Many of the windows were nailed shut, and the dread of fresh air so common to all ignorant people kept the others tightly closed except in the very hot weather. The absolute control of the ventilation of the cellhouse was in the hands of a negro stool pigeon whose fanatical fear
of night air kept us in a state of semi-suffocation both winter and summer.
Rats, flies, and cockroaches, not to mention other vermin unmentionable in polite society, were plagues of our prison life. The rats were perhaps worst of all. They overran the place in swarms, scampered over the dining tables, nibbled our bread, played in our dishes, crept into bed with us, chewed up our shoes, and carried off everything not nailed down or hung far about their reach. I have not the instinctive fear of rats and mice that many women have, but for weeks I spent sleepless nights routing them out of my bed and chasing them out of my cell. Not until my young son visited the prison and had the ingenuity to think of covering the front bars with screen wire did I ever know a night's rest.
The most robust and buxom cockroaches I have ever known were ever present and fought with the rats for the food which we were permitted to buy. There were no screens, and the flies swarmed about the cellhouse in clouds. One of the most terrible things which I had to endure was that an Indian woman in the last stages of syphilis, her body covered with open lesions and dripping pus, occupied the cell directly below me. Her open sores were never properly dressed, the stench was frightful, and the flies swarmed over her and then awakened us in the morning by crawling over our faces. The effect of these unnecessary pests upon human nerves can readily be imagined. The sleepless nights caused by them were a very large factor in the punishments administered for "bad work" and failure to make the "task."
The bathing facilities gave me my first real introduction to prison horrors. At the time I entered there were two old, cracked, rusty bathtubs in the bathroom and one in the unfurnished hospital room. Naturally, among
women so largely recruited from the underworld, venereal disease was very common. There was no effort to segregate the clean women from the infected, and on bathing night, which came once a week, we all used the same tubs.
On my first bathing night, as I awaited my turn to bathe, an Indian woman by the name of Alice Cox stepped out of the bathroom, and I was ordered to use the tub which she had just vacated.
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As Alice stepped out of the bathroom she was one of the most terrible creatures I have ever seen. From her throat to her feet she was one mass of open sores dripping pus. I have seen her with her clothes so stiff with dried puss that they rattled when she walked, and I have seen live maggots working out of the filthy bandages about her neck.
Alice had used the bathtub, and I was ordered to use it also. I asked the matron if it were [sic] necessary that I use the same tub that Alice had used, and she said it was. I then asked who cleaned the tub, and she replied that Alice was too ill and that I was to do it. I then asked what disinfectants were used. "Disinfectants!" she snarled; "whatdaya mean?"
"I mean what prophylactic measures do you use to keep the clean women from becoming infected with venereal disease?" I replied.
She screeched: "Hell, we ain't got none of them high-falutin' things here. This ain't no swell hotel--this is the pen!"
I protested: "But Miss Smith, you know what disease Alice has, you know how communicable it is, you know that if I use that tub I may become infected. You know I am a married woman with a husband and four children. You know I travel a great deal and sleep in Pullman cars and use public facilities. Does the United States Department of Justice expect me to become infected with syphilis and go back to civilized life and infect others who are certainly innocent of wrong-doing?"
Sputtering and snarling with rage, the matron cried:
"I don't know a thing about that, and care a damn sight less. You are a convict; this is what there is here for you to use. Now get ter hell outa here and take yer bath."
"But I refuse. To do so would be a social crime!" I replied.
Shrieking and cursing, the matron told me that I would bathe in the infected tub or she would send me to the "black hole" and "break" me. I knew she had the power and the temperament to do it. She had broken Minnie Eddy in the black hole a few weeks previous--and Minnie had been carried out in a pine box. So I stepped into the bathroom and turned on the taps--but I did not bathe.
That night I got a letter out "underground" to my husband. He reproduced the letter and sent it to a thousand influential people. It was published in newspapers and magazines, and a storm of protest arose all over the country. In less than three weeks we had shower baths installed in the females' wing of the prison, and that horror was abated.
I was able to rout the common bathtub, but I was never able to prevent the diseased women from handling the food. The women who were too ill to work in the shop were used in the dining room. I think all of them were tubercular and syphilitic. I have seen the food which the women were forced to eat handled by women with pus oozing from open sores on their arms and dripping into the dishes, and it was a common sight to see our food sprayed with tuberculosis germs from the lips of coughing convicts.
There is nothing in my prison life I remember with so much loathing as the inexcusable methods used in dealing with communicable diseases.
The great majority of the women prisoners were in sore need of hospitalization; yet no hospital facilities were provided. Regardless of how serious or how contagious the illness that might develop, the women were kept locked in their cells when ill. When the females' wing was built, now about eighteen years ago, a fairly good hospital room was provided; but the years have come and gone, and no warden or prison board has ever though it worth while to equip this room, and it was used only for solitary confinement and punishment. Five hundred dollars intelligently expended would equip the room reasonably well and provide the facilities demanded by common decency. The women convicts have produced hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of wealth in the prison workshop, but not a penny of it has been expended in furnishing a hospital to give civilized care to the women when they have been physically wrecked by the driven labour of the contract shop. Having been seriously ill twice while in prison, I know by actual experience how bad these conditions are. On one occasion I suffered a heat prostration because of the unbearable heat and bad ventilation in the workshop. I was thrown into my cell at two o'clock in the afternoon; and the trusty was ordered by the matron to give all the women notice that no one was to come near my cell, and that if any one gave me a drink of water both she and I would go to the black hole. The matron later told the warden that she had given this order because she believed that I was stalling to avoid work, though I had never made the slightest protest against doing the work assigned me. In fever and torturing thirst I lay unattended from two in the afternoon until the women came in from the yard at six-thirty in the evening. The women told me later that I was quite
delirious and begged for water, but no attention was given me until the prisoners started a mutiny. This forced the matron to call the warden. He insisted that I receive medical attention, which no doubt saved my life; but the women were brutally punished for their part in the matter.
Two days later I was ordered back to the shop by the matron, in violation of the doctor's orders, and I suffered a relapse. My husband became alarmed over the non-arrival of my weekly letter, came to investigate, and, when he found what the conditions were, protested to the warden. The doctor then demanded that his orders be obeyed, and I was kept locked in my cell until I had partially recovered.
During the influenza epidemic I and about forty or fifty of the women prisoners were critically ill. There were no hospital facilities and no efforts were made to isolate the cases. We were simply locked into our cells and left to the tender mercies of one of the most ignorant, brutal, degenerate black stool pigeons in captivity and those of a kindly but demented old white convict. There were no hot water bottles except mine, no ice bags, and no clinical thermometer, and until I had sufficiently recovered to raise a row no one paid the slightest attention to our temperatures.
When the thermometer was finally forthcoming, I was the only person in the females' wing who could read it. So the old white convict would trot about taking temperatures and bringing me the thermometer to me to read. The negro stool pigeon decided that this was too much trouble; and she simply put into the mouths of all the sick women in one row of cells, one after another, and then came to me to find out how much fever each one had. When I was able to notice what was being done I observed
her placing the thermometer in the mouth of a woman with open syphilitic lesions in her throat, and then, without even wiping it on her apron as she usually did, placing it in the mouth of a clean young girl. I decided that the possession of this sick-room necessity was not an unmixed blessing. The thermometer dropped on the floor one day and was broken--quite by accident, of course.
Our cells were so arranged that our heads were six inches from the steel-barred doors, and eight times each day these doors were clanged open and shut. The effect of this when one has a raging fever can not be expressed in words. The women who were not ill were compelled to take their recreation in the corridor just outside the cells, and the nerve-racking clamour was almost unbearable for those of us who were critically ill.
Unless the women were very near death the cell door was always kept locked, and sometimes we would be forgotten for a whole day at a time. During the trying period of convalescence the misery of being kept locked in a cell without care was almost unbearable.
No sick room diet was provided, and as soon as the women could eat anything they were served the coarse, grease-soaked prison fare. Favoured prisoners did at times receive extra food during illness, but not unless it was purchased from the stool pigeon, or unless the harassed, overworked prison doctor forced the issue.
A very large percentage of the women suffered from tuberculosis--just how large I can not say, for no survey has ever been made. The doctor ordered a special diet for the tuberculars, but it was never provided. Of the women convicts who served with me, every one whom I have been able to keep in touch with since release is now suffering from tuberculosis or has died from it. The
black hole, under-feeding, overwork, polluted air, fear, and punishment reduce the physical resistance of the women until they are easy prey for the ever-present germs, and I feel that very few indeed escape it.
So far as dealing with the mentally diseased is concerned, conditions are, if possible, worse. The average number of inmates of the women's wing was about one hundred, one-third Federal prisoners and two-thirds state. So far as I could determine, about seventy to eighty per cent were subnormal mentally and physically; they were practically all neurotic and emotionally unstable and hag-ridden by social grudges that made them markedly psychopathic. There are no facilities for separating the sane from the insane, the feeble-minded and the psychopathic. In fact no one seemed to have the slightest idea that it should be done. And not all the sins committed against the mentally diseased in this prison could be laid at the door of the officials. It seems to be the custom of many judges, when faced by the annoying problem of disposing of these disturbing products of our social system, to solve it by dumping them into the state penitentiary. The county must pay for the care of these derelicts in the county poorhouse, or the state insane asylum; but if they can be convicted and sent to the state penitentiary the burden is shifted to the tax-payers of the state.
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I was not permitted by the prison officials to keep the data gathered in a survey of the prisoners, but I think that seventy-five per cent were mentally and psychically abnormal, and an appalling number were obviously insane. No effort was made to segregate the mentally diseased; no intelligent consideration was given their mental condition in the amount of work demanded or the discipline exacted, and no helpful treatment was ever given. It is a tragic and soul-sickening thing that the most revolting instances of brutality and downright fiendish cruelty were directed toward the women utterly unable to make the "task" or conform to required discipline--women who should never have been sent to prison, but should rather have been committed to institutions for the feeble-minded or insane.
The methods and facilities for dealing with the psychopaths were, if possible, more benighted still, for the prison management seemed blissfully unconscious of everything related to modern psychology. They dealt with the psychically ill with the same degree of intelligence that the old witch doctors used in dealing with the physically ill. The witch doctors beat sick men with clubs to drive the devils out of them, and in our prison the officials punished the psychically sick to obtain the same results--and their methods were just as efficient as curing criminality as the witch doctors' in curing jungle fever.
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