Document 18E: Excerpts from "Prison Food, Clothing, Education, and Recreation," chapter 6 in Kate Richards O'Hare, In Prison, by Kate Richards O'Hare, Sometime Federal prisoner number 21669 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923), pp. 86-97.
PRISON FOOD, CLOTHING,
EDUCATION, AND RECREATION
Food was one of the chronic sources of bitterness and friction in prison, and, despite all protests and public scandals concerning it, no lasting improvements have resulted. Food is of vital importance to human beings forced to do hard, wearing labour. It is understood, of course, that a prison is not a high-class hotel and that meals de luxe are not to be expected; but a ration that will sustain life and keep a prisoner in good physical condition is certainly necessary if any marked success is to be achieved in making the criminal a law-abiding citizen.
The prison breakfast consisted of corn syrup, bread, hash, and a dark liquid by courtesy called coffee. The menu was very rarely varied, and monotony was one of its worst faults. The bread was usually very good, the syrup seemed wholesome, but the hash was uneatable. Judging from its appearance--for I could never muster the courage to taste it--all manner of garbage went into the hash kettle. It was always stale, often rancid, and I have often watched the women who were forced to eat it remove a nicely stewed maggot from its mysterious depths. Twice a week oatmeal was served for breakfast, and in the winter months it was a godsend, for it was the only eatable food served hot. But as warm weather approached, so did the oatmeal worms; and as they were very husky
specimens, large and hairy, they had a tendency to stick in our throats, and we found it necessary to abstain from this one warm breakfast dish. At Eastertime, hard-boiled eggs were served, and at rare intervals prunes made their appearance. This never happened, however, unless the purchasing agent for the prison picked up a lot of wormy fruit unsaleable except to the prison and, naturally, very cheap.
Lunch consisted of beef stew, a vegetable, bread, and water. Now and then "wienies" and mutton stew were served instead of beef stew, and on a few occasions we had liver and onions. The beef stew was usually fairly good, the "wienies" of very poor quality and always more or less tainted, and the mutton stew was rank beyond expression.
Supper consisted of bread and corn syrup, sometimes a stewed fruit, always well seasoned with worms, on rare occasions pea soup, and the so-called coffee. A very small portion of skimmed milk was also served each day, sometimes at breakfast and sometimes at supper.
The women's complaint against the food was that it was insufficient, deadly monotonous, of poor quality, and improperly prepared and served. In the fourteen months which I served in prison the diet never varied, and disgust at its monotony added to its unpalatableness. Our food was prepared by men convicts, who, of course, were harried, unpaid, sullen workers, possible all in as bad condition from venereal diseases as the women who worked in the dining-room.
The oatmeal and fruit were infested with worms, the macaroni filled with bugs, the beans inhabited by weevils, and the corn meal supported a thriving population of meal-worms. Such foods can be purchased cheaply, for they are unsaleable except to public institutions managed
by politicians; and naturally prison officials are not fussy about a few bugs and worms more or less when profits are to be considered. These conditions, I think, are common to most prisons and to other institutions politically controlled. So we were served with food containing all sorts of small life, possibly not dangerous, but certainly most revolting.
Another source of bitterness was the fact that a splendid herd of Jersey cows was on the prison farm, and fine, rich, creamy milk was sent in every day. The management will tell you that this milk is used by the hospital in the men's wing and by the women convicts. I do not know how much of the milk reaches the men's hospital, but I saw what happened to it when it came to the women's wing. The milk stopped downstairs in the matron's apartments. Every bit of cream was skimmed off, and churned into butter by women convicts who told me that the butter was sold by the matron for her private profit. The women received only the skimmed milk. No butter fat and not a grain of sugar was provided in the diet.
The food, apparently, was purchased and served with no knowledge or concern regarding its nutritive value. Seemingly the one thing considered was the cheapness with which it could be secured. Legislative appropriations do not always provide a sufficient sum for adequately feeding prisoners and it would seem that even these insufficient funds are reduced through the ever-present temptation to dishonest officials to add to their disgracefully small salaries by petty graft.
The food situation was made bearable by permitting the women to receive packages of food from friends outside and by permitting the women to purchase groceries through the matron; we could purchase any food that did not require cooking, and could carry boiling water
to our cells, so we soon became experts in heating canned foods and could make tea, cocoa and coffee, beside many toothsome salads. I received from friends all over the country far more food than I could use and I used the surplus feeding the women who were ill.
My husband had arranged with a local grocer to send the food I ordered weekly on charge account, and I found that the groceries purchased through the matron cost the women forty per cent more than mine. On the men's side there was a commissary run by a "lifer," where the men convicts got their supplies at moderate prices, but the women were compelled to buy through the matron. This discrimination naturally created great resentment against her.
The privilege of buying food outside the prison, while it adds to the comfort of the favoured ones who have money, is responsible for many abuses. When the women are permitted to purchase food, the temptation for the officials to cut down the rations both in quantity and quality is great. Thus the maintenance of the prisoner is shifted from the prison officials to the prisoner's family, who can ill afford it. The women who were better nourished because they had outside sources of food supply had a great advantage over the undernourished women in physical stamina and emotional control, and this fact was not taken into account in demanding the task. The fact that women with outside means were well fed, whereas the women, no more guilty, who were without funds were enduring a process of slow starvation, created a dangerous bitterness and a social grudge.
The kitchen was in the men's wing, something like three blocks from our dining room. Our food was cooked early in the day and sent over as soon as prepared, and usually our dinners arrived about nine-thirty or ten o'clock in the
morning and stood uncovered in the shop until stone cold and covered with shop dust, lint, and ravellings. I made many protests against this practice, and several times it was remedied for a short time, but always the old condition returned.
The natural result of these conditions was that our prison feeding became a process of slow starvation, in which the women prisoners--and I presume the same was true of the men--suffered all the pangs of death by hunger, but never knew the blessed relief of death.
The most galling bitterness, the most corroding and socially dangerous sense of injustice, is bred in the soul of a hungry convict by the fact that he knows he is performing forced labour whose value is far beyond the cost of his maintenance, and that even the insufficient sum appropriated for his food is misused, or stolen, and he is robbed of his hard earned and lawful ration.
I really do not believe that prisons will ever be able to reform hungry convicts. In fact, I think it is impossible to find decent, socially-minded people anywhere whose stomachs are clamouring for food. In my long career as a daughter, wife and mother, I have learned that no male--or female, for that matter--is really civilized when hungry. The only way to live in approximate comfort with the human being is to feed the brute.
The average person who has lived a fairly normal life has no conception of what it means to be always hungry, hungry for days and weeks and years, and never to know the well-being that comes from being well fed. It was not until I went to prison that I knew what constant and long-continued hunger meant. It was not until I experienced it that I realized its mental, physical, and spiritual effects. And I was far more fortunate than most prisoners. I had money to buy what I wanted, and
friends and comrades all over the country sent me luxuries of every sort. But I was never able to achieve a balanced ration; my civilized stomach was always affronted by cold food; and the sights and sounds and smells of prison never lost their disastrous effect on appetite and digestion.
* * *
The prison dress in our prisons reflects the old idea that in order to make bad people good it is necessary to make them as uncomfortable and ugly as possible. Knit underwear is so common, and has been for so many years, that it seems incredible that any institution should be so benighted as not to use it; but its use had not penetrated the prison walls. When I was "dressed in," all of my own clothing was taken from me, and I was supplied with two each of drawers, chemises, and night gowns, made of the stiffest, coarsest, most raspy sort of brown muslin. I had never seen this "opossum skin" muslin (as it is called
in the South) used for garments--only for awnings or tent flys. It was unbearably hot in summer and just as unbearably cold in winter, and it was so stiff and heavy that with only two garments, one laundered each week, a decent degree of bodily cleanliness was impossible. Our work dresses were made of what down South is called "nigger hickory shirting," a material now used for rough work blouses. It was "logwood" blue when new, but soon faded to a nondescript grey and shrank from washing until it was thick and stiff as a board.
Modesty was a painful disease with the matrons, and our chemises and dresses were made long and wide, the chemises in the mode of 1850 and the dressed in that of 1890. They were made long and wide to allow for shrinkage, and they fitted us like a circus tent draped about the center pole. Our Sunday dresses were made of a fair quality of blue gingham of the vintage of 1910, and they were really not obnoxious. We were supplied with one pair of cheap convict-made shoes that no ordinary human foot could endure, and one pair of cheap cotton stockings a year. Stockings were a source of a great deal of friction and caused many punishments to be inflicted. When a woman was "dressed in" she was given six pairs of stockings. She put on one and went to the shop to work; and the stool pigeon who carried the key to the cells stole the other five, which were again issued. An eternal squabble went on over this practice.
When it came to the problem of having my clothing laundered I found another revolting feature of prison life. The laundry in the female wing of the Missouri State Penitentiary has just the same equipment that our grandmothers used, and no more. There was neither washing machine, wringer, nor steam chest for disinfecting. The
convicts who worked in the laundry used wood tubs and washboards and wrung our circus tent chemises and dresses by hand. Only half enough soap was supplied to wash our clothing properly, and the garments soon assumed the appearance of badly-cared-for scrub cloths. No effort was made to separate the clothing of the clean women from those of the women infected with tuberculosis and venereal diseases. They were all washed together without sufficient soap and hot water and with no disinfectants, and naturally they came back to us reeking with disease germs.
There were no provisions in our prison for educational or vocational training. The women, at the expiration of their sentences, go out not only worn to physical depletion, but as illiterate and untrained as they entered. I found that about twenty per cent could neither read nor write, and with few exceptions the others had not finished the grade schools. Only three of the women, aside from the politicals, had entered high school, and only one had finished.
At the time I entered, no library facilities were provided for the women. They were entirely without reading matter except what they could purchase, and where the food problem was so pressing it was natural that what little money they could secure should go to feed their stomachs and not their minds. I made a row about the lack of reading matter and finally secured permission for the women to have one book a week from the library on the men's side. This library is old and almost worthless for educational purposes. The non-fiction includes little of value except a few fairly good but very old histories of the United States. The fiction was of the lightest and least educational sort, but in spite of its limitations the
library privileges were a great comfort to the women and relieved the monotony of the long hours spent locked in the cells.
A few weeks after I entered I sent a formal request to Mr. W. R. Painter, chairman of the prison board, asking permission to open a night school. One of the girls who had finished the grade school offered to teach the beginners, and I tendered my services to teach the more advanced. The women were pathetically eager for the opportunity to attend school, but the prison board ignored the request, and the prison still has no school for the women prisoners. The work which the women do has no educational value and will not in the least help them to adjust themselves and their lives to accepted social standards.
One of the things which made adjustments almost impossible for the convict released after serving a prison sentence of any length is the complete suppression of initiative on the part of the prisoner. He is not permitted to think, or plan, or act for himself in even the most trivial matters. We employed in our home as a housemaid a woman who had served five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. We found that, while she was eager and willing to work, her initiative had been so completely destroyed that the simplest tasks were beyond her unless some one followed her about continually to give endless directions. For five years this woman had moved like an automaton, always under rasping orders and never permitted to have the slightest control over her actions. Naturally, when she faced the world she was unable to think or act on her own initiative--incapable of doing the common, ordinary work of life.
The women were as ruthlessly dominated in their mental and spiritual lives as in their physical. Many of them had lost relatives in the World War, and when Me-
morial Day came it was a day of deep meaning to them. Several weeks before Memorial Day, 1919, a letter signed by all the inmates of the female wing was sent to the prison board asking permission to arrange and conduct a Memorial service for their loved ones who had died in the war. They wanted to arrange their programme and hold the service after work hours, but they wanted to conduct it themselves. This perfectly courteous and modest request was ignored, not even a reply being made.
At Christmas time the women again requested, this time of the matron, permission to arrange an entertainment. This request was also denied, with a vivid eruption of profanity. Later I asked the matron for permission to coach the women in the production of a little play which I had written. This was also denied. The matron gave as her reason for refusing these requests that the women were too tired after work hours to rehearse. There was logic in this position, for when the task had taken its share of human energy, there was little left for life and mental growth.
I thought a series of simple lectures on psychology would be interesting and possibly helpful to the prisoners. On Christmas Day, 1919, Governor Gardner and all the prison officials visited us, and I personally requested permission to do this work. This request was denied also. In the minds of all the prison officials with whom I came in contact, there was a marked antipathy to any sort of educational work among the prisoners, and seemingly a firm and deep-rooted conviction that ignorance in the prisoners is to be desired and maintained.
But, while all education that might be helpful and possibly curative was relentlessly shut out, education in the ways of vice and crime and degeneracy flourished. I found learning the prison argot more interesting than
any high school teacher ever made Latin. My vocabulary of profanity is rich and varied, and I am sure that I know a greater variety of cuss words, and more dynamic combinations of them, than any student of philology in the country. I also know the best methods of "raising a bill," "fixing a check," "passing the queer," and "frisking the molls." I have all the latest ideas in shop lifting; I know what to use in the way of knockout drops, and how to use it. A thorough education in sex perversions is part of the educational system of most prisoners, and for the most part the underkeeprs and the stool pigeons are very efficient teachers.
Our prison used the silence system, which has been discarded by most prison wardens as being antiquated, stupid, brutal, and a constant provocation for convicts to break rules and thereby cause the infliction of useless punishment. The rule forbidding conversation or communication between the convicts at any time except during the recreation hour, was very strictly and harshly enforced in the shop and dining-room, and the most terrible punishments were inflicted for its violation. The matron sat on a high platform in the shop, from which point of vantage she could see every woman in the room. This continuous espionage must have been very monotonous; so the matron kept herself awake and gratified her lust for punishment by pouncing on any woman whose lips she thought might be moving. Quite frequently the whirr of the machines, the monotony, and the fetid air of the shop would cause the matron to fall asleep; and when she woke up she always punished some one, just to prove that she could not be caught napping. In order to protect themselves as much as possible from this petty persecution the women soon formed the habit of sitting with their lips tightly drawn. The nerve strain
of this unnatural and strained position and of the continuous dread of punishment was tragic.
Some friend sent me a carton of chewing gum which I divided among the women. It proved to be a blessing, and nothing that came into the prison was more treasured. We found that while we chewed gum the matron could not decide whether we were talking or not; so we all chewed like a flock of sheep.
In the cellhouse the silence rule was the letter of the law, but it was enforced only spasmodically and at the whim and discretion of the negro stool pigeon who ruled the cellhouse twelve hours each day. The fact that the violation of the silence rule was winked at by the matrons but could be enforced by the stool pigeon gave rise to the most wretched abuses. The prisoners who, by tips and gifts and sycophancy and willingness to submit to sex perversions, had a "stand in," could talk as much as they liked; but if for any reason a prisoner got in bad with the stool pigeon, she would be brutally punished for the violation of a rule ignored for the majority. And in this, as in all other matters, the word of the ignorant, degenerate, vicious negro convict was law, and on her unsupported word the women were sent to the hole or put on bread and water in solitary confinement, for the purely mythical crime of "disturbing the cellhouse."
Our recreation there was in some instances managed with a glimmer of real intelligence, and in others with dense ignorance. Immediately after supper on Monday and Tuesday we had an hour in a moderately large courtyard surrounded by an eighteen-foot wall. Here we could move about freely under the eyes of guards, converse, sing, dance, and play games. No equipment for games was provided, but the women could have anything which they purchased or which was sent in by friends....
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