Document 18D: "The Prisoners," chap. 5 in Kate Richards O'Hare, In Prison, by Kate Richards O'Hare, Sometime Federal prisoner number 21669 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923), pp. 74-78.

p. 74

V

THE PRISONERS

       I lived for fourteen months the life of a Federal prisoner in the State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, Missouri. I had, perhaps, a better opportunity to study female prisoners and the conditions existing in this, an average prison, than any other person has had who is really interested in female delinquency. I had the advantage of having some previous training and an intellectual background not common among women convicts. I had what the criminologist does not have--the actual experience of being a convict--and I also had sufficient time in prison to check theories and impressions with well tested facts.

       I managed to escape bitterness and rancour and to devote my time to studying, as honestly and fairly as I could, the prison system as I endured it; attempting to evaluate, as nearly as my training permitted, its efficiency as a place of social vengeance and of segregation, and the results of its methods of reforming socially undesirable persons committed to its care.

       The women themselves were, of course, the vividly interesting feature of my prison life. My first studies in criminology had been in the older schools of which Lombroso is the best known exponent. The theories of this school I had acquired at the most impressionable period of my life; and, in spite of later studies in the directions
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taken by the Freudian school, the earlier impressions were dominant. I held the convictions, quite common, I think, that there is such a thing as a "criminal type," a distinct "criminal class," and that certain symptoms called "criminal stigmata" might be found in all delinquents.

       My first view of my prison mates was disconcerting. They did not measure up to my preconceived idea of what a group of the "criminal class" should be. On that never-to-be-forgotten first day that looms so large in every prisoner's memory, after the ordeal of being "dressed in," I waited for my first meal with the women who have come to mean more to me than any other associates I have ever known. With the women who cleaned the halls and worked in the prison laundry, and with those too ill to work, I lined up in a narrow hall and watched these modern chattel slaves march from the workshop to the dining room to eat their coarse and scanty prison fare.

       It was a tragic tale which that line of weary, toil-stained women told as they shuffled by--a challenge to our civilization, an indictment of our social system. There were women there scarred by the marks of toil, marred by the curse of poverty, and broken by the sordid struggle for existence. There were young girls there marked by the stamp of vice before the childish roundness of cheek and chin had settled into the hard lines of degraded womanhood. There were old women, some burned out by vice, and some bent with honest labour and child-bearing. There were cripples and degenerates, consumptives and epileptics, dements and sex perverts, morons and high-grade imbeciles, and a very few who under ordinary conditions would be classed as normal. The few normal women in that tragic group, practically all political prisoners, were for the most part women and girls so fine and clean, so intelligent and womanly, that
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the horror of plunging them into that human cesspool gripped my heart and seemed to wring it dry.

       When my place in that long line of human tragedy came, some companion gave me a gentle push, and I fell into the prison lockstep with a few of the noblest women God ever made and many of the saddest wrecks life ever marred. Except for the hideously ugly prison dress they did not differ startlingly from the sort of women one might find crowding about a bargain table in a department store basement or dragging a cotton sack on a tenant farm.

       Naturally I studied these women with keen interest. But I was never able to discover the expected physical marks of the "criminal type," and none displayed, so far as I could determine, the stigmata of criminalism of which Lombroso writes, and of which I had been wont to speak so glibly. The only stigmata that I could discover were those of poverty, excessive child-bearing, undernourishment, and overwork. In every phase of most of the women's outside lives these things were commonplace, and I think I am justified in feeling that they were the great determining factors in their delinquency.

       In my very first attempt to study the women prisoners I came in contact with the most common and vicious results of women's economic dependency. The warden and the chaplain both assured me that it was useless to attempt to make any study of causative factors, or to arrive at worth-while conclusions, because "they all lied like troopers." And the women did lie. Certainly they did--and why not? From my own experiences and what they told me, I am quite sure that their experiences in life would have no tendency to induce them to be strictly truthful. Certainly their experiences with the law and its application would not. They had learned by bitter ex-
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perience that truth is an outcast from the courts, and that their prison life was a maze of lies.

       The very first thing I was compelled to do when I went to prison was to stitch a lying label on the overalls I made. This label stated that this prison-made garment was manufactured by a respectable firm hundreds of miles away in another state; and it bore no indication that it was one of the most hated things in modern commerce--prison-made goods. The warden lied to the women prisoners, the chaplain lied to them, and so did the matron and the guards and the "stool pigeons." Society lied to them also when the pretense was made that the purpose of their imprisonment was to "reform" them, whereas every woman knew that the real object was social vengeance and exploitation for the profit of the political party in power and the prison contractors.

       And I am not sure that women convicts are the only women who lie. I rather think all women do. We are forced to do it in order to live. I am afraid I shall have to confess that I am somewhat of an expert myself. I have evaded the truth for all the men I know--my father, brothers, schoolmates, sweethearts, husband, sons, employer, and employees; for my doctor, lawyer, minister, and co-workers in the labour movement. And I presume I shall keep right on prevaricating for men to the end of my days. All women do. It is the price we pay for even approximate peace. The effect on our social relations, should all women proceed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about all the men they come in contact with, would be appalling to contemplate.

       Judy O'Grady and the captain's lady are much akin. So the women convicts did lie to me, not always consciously; as a rule, I think, unconsciously. The first
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stories they told me of their tragedies and their crimes were never true. In fact, they almost never knew the real causes for their delinquencies, and they did not tell them if they did. Why should they? I found that getting the real story of a woman convict's life was not so easy as turning on a phonograph. It required cartons of chewing gum, pounds of candy, unlimited patience, and endless work to get the true stories of only a few of the women with whom I served in prison.

       I could only get the facts piecemeal, bit by bit, from time to time; and always I must get them when the tellers were off guard, when they did not realize that they were laying bare the inmost secrets of their sin-scarred souls. I found that my dearly beloved notebook was worse than useless. I had to cultivate a memory that would retain the fragment of a life history and fit those fragments into a mosaic of human frailty. To gather the facts it was necessary to hold their respect, command their faith, gain their love, and tough into life the mute, deadened strings of their hearts. It was not an easy task, but the rewards were great; for I found that in every woman convict's life there appeared to be economic, psychological, and sociological causes for her crime, and in almost every case, it seemed to me, social responsibility for her criminality was far greater than individual responsibility.


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