Document 18F: "Task and Punishment," Kate Richards O'Hare, In Prison, by Kate Richards O'Hare, Sometime Federal prisoner number 21669 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923), pp. 99-116.
TASK AND PUNISHMENT
In the studies which I was able to make of the small portion of our criminal population which lands in prison, I found the prison officials and their methods quite as interesting as the prisoners, and perhaps more dangerous to society.
The Missouri State Penitentiary, at the time I was there, was under the management of the State Board of Control, composed of William R. Painter, J. Kelly Poole, and Henry Andrae. This prison was not only a great penal institution, but it was also a great industrial plant which, during the year I was there, employed 2600 inmates. The business men of Jefferson City advertised $7,000,000 annual sales of manufactured products, substantially all of which were wholly or partly manufactured in the prison. The state received, during 1919, $1,087,663 for this labour.
It is one of the tragi-comedies of our political system that this great industrial plant, transacting such an enormous business, and this penal institution, having the power of life and death over thousands of human beings, should be placed in the hands and under the unsupervised control of laymen; a country editor, a mule buyer, and a livery stable keeper. The mule buyer and the livery stable keeper were somewhat below the general average of their vocations in education, business ability, and general culture. The small-town politician editor was
just the ordinary man of his environment and trade, but much hardened by long connection with one of the most sordid and corrupt political machines to be found anywhere in the United States.
It is but natural that an institution managed by a mule buyer and a livery stable keeper, with its main objective to make the largest possible profit for a politician contractor, should give its inmates about the same care as mules in a livery stable. All these men were blissfully ignorant of penology, criminology, and psychology. I remarked to one of them one day that, if the young brute overseer who had charge of the women were replaced by an older man who knew something of production efficiency methods and human psychology, things would go more smoothly. He stared at me blankly and said: "I don't reckin we need any of them new-fangled things here. A good hickory club and the hole will fix 'em." I am quite sure that that fairly typical prison official had not a glimmer of understanding of the words used or of their application to his duties. He did not know whether I was suggesting a new brand of religion, a breakfast food, or a corn cure.
I found that, under the guise of punishment for crime and in the name of reformation of criminals, a tremendously profitable form of chattel slavery has grown up in this country. When I reached prison I found that for all practical purposes, I had been converted by the United States Department of Justice into a chattel slave. The process whereby the Department of Justice supplies chattel slaves is very simple. Our government maintains prisons to care for none of its female prisoners and for only a fraction of its male prisoners. At stated times the Superintendent of Federal Prisons sends out letters to the wardens and prison boards of state penitentiaries
asking for bids for the care of male and female prisoners. A prison, like the Women's Reformatory of Massachusetts, which cares for its prisoners in something approaching a civilized manner, and which does not indulge in the convict leasing system or the task system, bids twenty-five dollars a month. The Missouri State Penitentiary bids eighteen dollars a month.
Federal law absolutely forbids the working of federal prisoners under contract or under the task system. This means nothing to the State of Missouri -- and I was sold to its prison board.
The Missouri Prison Board in turn sold me for nine hours each day to the Oberman Manufacturing Company, who manufacture overalls. The state of Missouri is forbidden by law to sell its convicts to contractors of convict labour, and I do not know the details of the evasion or violation of this law. I know only that it is evaded or violated, or both. I also know that the Oberman Manufacturing Company made garments that bore the label of reputable firms located in states which have laws forbidding the sale of convict-made goods.
The government pays for the maintenance of the prisoners, so the profit on the labour of the federal convict is what thieves call "velvet."
Possibly this "velvet" softens the shock of prison brutalities for politicians and muffles the cries of prisoners for decency and justice.
The profits from these chattel slaves are enormous. The state provides the building, heat, light, power, and convict labour, and the contractor pays the state a pittance for the right to exploit the prisoners and the taxpayers. Every day I worked in the prison shop I earned, at non-union wages paid in the worst sweat-shops in country, from $4.80 to $5.20 a day. I was paid fifty
cents a month the first three months, seventy-five cents a month the next three months, and one dollar a month thereafter. I earned about $1800 at ordinary wages, making unionalls. I was paid $10.50 for this work, and all the difference between the wealth I created and the pittance paid me went, not into the treasury of the nation I was presumed to have injured, not into the treasury of the state of Missouri, but into the pockets of the prison contractor as profits. If the profit on the labour of each convict is only $1000 a year, the profits on many thousands of convicts explain why politicians are so universally in favour of our present prison system. There is a law on the statute books of Missouri that all convicts employed at gainful labour shall be paid in cash five per cent of the value of their labour. But this law, too, is evaded, and the prison management unlawfully robbed me of even the five per cent of my earnings which the law says shall be paid the convict.
I know from actual experience that the only differences between a woman federal prisoner and Cassie on the plantation of Simon Legree before the Civil War, were that Cassie was sold to the highest bidder, whereas we were sold to the lowest. Cassie also had a market value which made her master give her the sort of life that would not lower her selling price. I had no market value, and these politicians had but one incentive -- that of transforming into profits every particle of my life during the months or years that they held me as a chattel slave.
When I entered the shop on the second day of my imprisonment I found it a long, narrow room with windows on one side, high against the ceiling. A double row of power machines occupied most of the floor space, and here the so-called able bodied women were engaged in
making suspenders for overalls and finishing denim jumpers and jackets for unionalls. The shop is in one of the older buildings of the prison plant, and the ventilation at the time I entered was frightful. The windows were all half size, eight feet from the floor, and on one side of the room only, so that it was impossible to secure direct ventilation.
A door in one end of the shop opened into our walled courtyard, and the architect had placed a window in the other end overlooking the men's recreation yard. These were intended to provide direct ventilation through the shop, but there was a legend that once upon a time a female convict had smiled upon a male convict from that window, and rampant virtue had been so outraged that the window had been nailed down and painted over. Electric lights were necessary on the brightest days. The lighting system was old, inadequate, and badly placed; and naturally the eyestrain was terrible.
Four ancient electric fans were grouped about the matron's perch in the corner of the room, but the larger part of the room was frightfully hot and stifling with vitiated air. Because of the protest I made, a hole was cut in the useless window and an electric fan placed in the opening. This was a great improvement, but it left the ventilation far from satisfactory.
The power sewing machines were old and in bad repair, a constant source of trouble to the women and a fruitful cause for punishment at the hands of the young overseer, who found it easier to punish the women than to repair the machines.
This is one of the few prisons in the country where the task system is still used. Practically all modern penologists now agree that the task is an indefensible, antiquated, and brutal method of forcing convict labour
to produce profits for politicians. I found that just as soon as I came into contact with the task system I had been thrown back to the condition of a negro slave on a plantation in Dixie before the Civil War. The black woman on the plantation was given a cotton sack and told she must do her task of picking cotton each day. If she failed to do her task she was punished by a slave driver hired for that purpose. I was given a power sewing machine in an overall factory, and I faced the same conditions.
My first task was to hem both sides and the bottoms of fifty-five blue denim jumpers each day, and make and attach the collars. Later, I was transferred to more difficult work requiring a higher degree of skill -- it consisted of finishing eighty-eight unionall jackets -- and this task I continued to do the entire time of my imprisonment.
Each one of those eighty-eight jackets required fifteen different operations, four being expert stitching of collar edges, done on a machine making 3500 stitches a minute. The amount of energy required to do this task was beyond belief. Each new woman entering the shop was assumed to have sixty days to learn the work and to acquire the skill and speed to make the task; but the entire control of the women and of their work was in the hands of this young overseer, and the assumption was far from being true.
Many aspects of prison life were hard to bear, but the most galling was this shop overseer. He was an ignorant, illiterate, uncouth stripling about twenty years of age. He had entered the prison shop at fourteen as an errand boy for the contractor, and he had spent the formative period of his life amid the abnormalities and
ever-present brutalities of the contract system of convict labour. Unlimited and despotic power always breeds abuses; and this callow adolescent officer was given the power of life and death over all the women convicts in the shop. He was coarse, vulgar, egotistical, bigoted, intolerant, and a sadist. In the prison shop his word was law, and any woman could be made the victim of his vicious temper and uncurbed brutality. His vocabulary was rich in unspeakably vile epithets and lurid profanity, and his favorite pastime was subjecting the women to his degenerate vulgarity, which they of course dared not resent. Day after day I sat in suppressed and impotent rage and heard this degenerate stripling use, to helpless women, language that the average normal person cannot imagine.
But vile language, bad as it is, was one of the minor abuses of this overseer. He had the power of enforcing the task, and he counted the jackets; at any time he could simply say there were not enough, and the women were punished without an opportunity to prove that they had produced the required number. The number of jackets which we could make in a day depended on the size and weight of the goods. We had the privilege of being credited on the books with all we made over the task when we were making small sizes and using light material. We then used these credits to make out our task when we worked on large sizes and heavy material. At any time when this youth felt out of temper he would mark the women's credits off the book and punish them for "short work." He was also the sole judge of the quality of the work, and if for any reason his vicious temper was ruffled, he would go down the line of machines, ripping and destroying the work without reason or mercy.
The women would then be forced to remake the ripped-up work in addition to their tasks, and then be sent to the hole for bad work.
This overseer had received orders from the warden that I should not be physically punished for failure to make the task; but when I did fail he would punish me by sending to the hole some woman or girl in whom I was interested.
I had fourteen months in which to endure the task system myself and to study it in relation to other women. I found that the task had been placed at the extreme limit of the strongest and most expert woman's skill and endurance. That meant that the majority of the women never could make the task regularly and were always at the mercy of this overseer. His theory was that a woman, if driven hard enough and treated brutally enough, would "pull the task"; so he drove and bullied, cursed and blackguarded, harried and punished until the women made the task, or were utterly wrecked by the punishments inflicted. I could never decide whether it was chance or a well-thought-out plan that made the task consume a woman's life in the average length of a prison sentence. It was in reality the effect of the task system. The average length of time served is about two years, and the amount of labour demanded was just about enough to wear a woman out physically and send her back to society fit only for the human scrap-heap or the potter's field. The long-term women were put into the shop for about two years; then, when the physical break came, they were transferred to lighter work in the diningroom or some other maintenance labour, and the newly-received women took their places at the machines.
In theory the working day was nine hours, but very few of the women could make the task in that time, and
the majority of them were forced to take work to their cells to finish. Most of the women spent from one to two hours each day, after being locked into their cells, turning collars or snipping thread ends from suspenders.
Practically all the products of the prison shops go into the market, not only in competition with free labour and legitimate capital, but also under false and misleading labels; much of it is sold in violation of state laws. The first label which I ever stitched into a garment bore the name of the Sibley-Hess Company of Sioux City, Iowa, and there was nothing to indicate that it had been made in a prison workshop by convict labour. I understand that in a large portion of the trade territory covered by this company it is a violation of state laws to sell convict-made goods without a distinguishing label. Most of the labels which I sewed into my work read "Made by --" (the names of a firm hundreds or thousands of miles away). One of them always struck me as being a cynical joke. It was the label of the Lincoln Jobbing Company of Lincoln, Illinois. It read: "Lincoln was true to his country, we are true to our trade." Another label that was of particular interest to me was that of Smith, Follet, and Crowel of Fargo, North Dakota. Smith of this firm was the jury commissioner who so carefully handpicked the jury panel from which the jury in my case was chosen.
There is always a bitter war being waged upon convict-made goods, both by free labour, and by reputable manufacturers, because of its anti-social effects. The system used in Jefferson City was merely a very thinly disguised form of contract convict labour at its worst. It is a lawless, anti-social effort to defraud and debauch the citizens of the state, to enslave and exploit the convicts; and it is a vicious, dishonest makeshift in every
way. It corrupts elected officials, the prison staff, and the prisoners; and it produces among legislators, prison officials, and convicts a mental atmosphere of cynicism and a state of moral degeneration.
Our entire penal system is based on the theory that punishment will have a tendency to make good people out of bad people; and at the Missouri State Penitentiary punishments were the very foundation stones of the whole system of management. And it was in the administration of punishments that the very soul of the prison system was manifest and the fundamental causes of prison abuses laid bare.
At the very heart of the whole problem of prison brutality is the ever-present and age-old problem of the exploitation of human labour and of the profits accruing from it. In the letter of the law the contract convict labour system may have been abolished in Missouri, but the practice of it still survives, and seventy-five per cent of the punishments administered were to the end of protecting the profits of the prison contractor, the other twenty-five per cent were for the protection and furtherance of the petty grafts of the under officials. In the fourteen months spent in prison I saw all manner of punishments and sickening brutalities; and in every instance except one the fact that profits were threatened was the cause of the punishment.
The task set for the women in the Missouri prison by a prison contractor in the old days when contract convict labour was permitted by both the letter and the spirit of the law, and that same task prevailed during my imprisonment. It was as rigid as the laws of the Medes and Persians, and in exacting it absolutely no consideration was given to the age, the mental or physical condition, the previous training, or the industrial
efficiency or aptitude of the individual woman. Women as old as fifty-five and girls who seemed mere children, cripples and mental defectives, consumptives and syphilitics, all were subject to the same task and suffered the same punishments if they failed to produce the required amount of profit for the contractors.
A shop matron nominally in charge of women should have acted as a means of protection; but quite an extraordinary condition really prevailed. This matron was an elderly spinster who had lived a drab and sadly starved life; and, as is not unusual for love-starved and elderly spinsters, she was in the grip of an obsessing infatuation for the young foreman. Naturally, under those conditions she was putty in his hands, and no matter how stupid or unjust, how cruel and inhuman the punishment he assessed, she was quite sure that he could do no wrong. His merest whim was law. And from this law there was no appeal. No woman ever dared oppose in the slightest degree any act of the youthful foreman, or suggest that he might be in the wrong. I tried it just once, and called down upon my head such a wild tirade of abuse as could only come from a madly infatuated woman in defense of the man she loved. This matter of an elderly spinster's frost-bitten and belated romance may savour a trifle of comedy; but to these women it was a tragedy of far-reaching social consequences.
The lightest punishment for failure to make the task was to be sent to the cell after work hours, being deprived of letters, recreation, and all communication with other inmates. If this did not bring the required amount of product, the convict was sent to the cell on Saturday at noon, sometimes without dinner, fed on two very tiny slices of bread and water, and denied all privileges until
Monday morning. If the task were still not forthcoming, the woman was put in the hole.
While in the hole the women were given two very thin slices of bread, about two by four inches in size, each day, and about half a teacup full of water. This was the only food and drink permitted, and if any of the other convicts were detected giving additional food or water to a woman in the hole, they were severely punished. The women were kept in the hole from two to fifteen days. That is, fifteen days was the limit of punishment administered while I was in prison, but before my advent there had been no limit, so the older inmates told me. . . .
The first cell which I occupied was directly across the narrow corridor from the hole, and I was an eye witness to certain instances of brutality. A young coloured girl, quite plainly demented, threw a pail of hot water on another woman who she thought was tormenting her. One of the male guards, whom the woman called "The Gorilla" -- and this name was most apt -- beat the cowering, pleading dement with his maul-like fists as she staggered down the corridor; then the handcuffs were placed on her wrist, passed through the bars in the blind cell doors, and snapped on the other wrist. The bridle, a sort of gag which I never had opportunity to examine closely, was placed in her mouth to prevent her scream-
ing, and she stayed there ringed and bridled from early in the afternoon until about nine at night. She was taken down just before the lights were out for the night, and so far as I know was not hung up again. She, however, spent fifteen days in the hole; then she was kept locked in her cell, absolutely without outdoor exercise or any privileges except during the hours spent in the shop, for three months. In other instances I heard the blows and the cries and pleadings of inmates while they were being beaten by guards and matrons; but I did not see these brutalities, because they were out of my range of vision.
The most demoralizing effects of punishment in the "black hole" are those of which it is almost impossible to write printably. Nine-tenths of all the punishments for short work and bad work (and the latter is a mythical term which covers everything from faulty material and bad cutting to the foreman's dyspepsia and diabolical temper) were meted out to the women during the periods when their physical and mental strength was at its lowest ebb because of the physical handicaps peculiar to women. During these periods of physical and mental depression -- and in prison these conditions are morbidly exaggerated -- the women are naturally inefficient, nervous, and irritable. The task at such times is utterly impossible; and, though I am unusually strong and have remarkable endurance, I was never able to accomplish it during these periods. The time when the women should have received rational, intelligent care and decent treatment, freed from the nerve-wracking grind of a slavish task, was the very time when they were stupidly and inhumanely thrown into the black hole to lie for days on an ice-cold cement floor where congestion, pneumonia, and consumption always lay in wait for their helpless victims.
In the maddening solitude of the fetid darkness and the
dragging monotony there was only one emotional outlet for many of these women, and that was solitary vice. As a result, when the women came out of the hole they were almost always polluted, pallid, disheveled creatures with the appearance of having escaped from the foulest pit of the most orthodox hell.
It is a stark, ugly fact that homosexuality exists in every prison and must ever be one of the sinister facts of our penal system. In the Missouri State Penitentiary it is, next to the task, the dominating feature of prison life and a regular source of revenue to favoured stool pigeons. There seems to be considerable ground for the commonly accepted belief of the prison inmates that much of its graft and profits may percolate upward to the under officials. The negress trusty or stool pigeon, who had absolute control of the women's cell building and all its inmates from six in the evening until six in the morning, handled the details of pandering to the homosexual vices so rampant in the prison, and there was a regular scale of charges for permitting the inmates to indulge. The charge for the use of a pervert was usually fifty cents, and the charge for having the cell door left open at night by the stool pigeon was one dollar. In fact, homosexuality was not only permitted by this trusty, but indulgence was actively fostered by this coloured murderess, and, in the cases of young, helpless, and unprotected women actually demanded and enforced. In two or three instances at least I managed to have young and unperverted girls moved into cells near mine, where I could protect them from the demands made by the trusty that they submit to vicious practices.
Because this stool pigeon had sole charge of the cell house and of the lives of the women at night; because her word was always and unquestionably accepted without
investigation by the matrons; because she, in fact, held the power of life and death over us, by being able to secure endless punishments in the blind cell, she could and did compel indulgence in this vice in order that its profits might be secured.
Another concession held by this negress was that of the sale of tobacco. Among the women of the underworld as well as among those of the upper crust, cigarette smoking is almost universal. The prison rules forbid cigarettes, but their use is general. It was an open secret that this rule was not to be enforced as long as the women secured their cigarettes from the proper source, which, of course, was the stool pigeon. No one in constant contact with the women, as the matrons were, could possibly be ignorant of the fact that ninety per cent of the woman [sic] smoked; the yellow-stained fingers and the smoke-laden air of the cell house loudly proclaimed it, and no punishments were ever administered during my time for smoking. But the most terrible punishments were administered for securing tobacco on which the stool pigeon not secure her profits. For instance, Dora Campbell, a federal prisoner from Mississippi, convicted of harbouring a deserter from the U. S. Army, was sent to the hole while ill, stayed there for a number of days -- in fact, until some of the women secretly complained to the prison physician -- and was taken out with a well-advanced case of pneumonia from which she never entirely recovered while in prison. Dora Campbell had secured a sack of tobacco without purchasing it from the trusty. And the trusty's profits would have turned the most patriotic war profiteer green with envy. The stool pigeon received for a ten-cent sack of Bull Durham two dollars, for a book of cigarette papers fifty cents, and matches she retailed at three for a dime. There never seemed to be the slightest limit
to the supply of tobacco, which the stool pigeon was able to secure, and as long as the women secured their supply from her they were safe; but if there was the slightest suspicion that they were securing contraband goods, the punishment which this vicious negress could and did secure for the offenders were soul-sickening.
This same stool pigeon had complete control of all the women who were ill; and, since many of them were federal prisoners convicted under the Harrison Drug Act, and of course drug addicts, the punishments which she was permitted to inflict makes one doubt our claim to being a civilized nation. When drug addicts enter Jefferson City, absolutely all drugs are taken from them and they are left to "kick off the habit," as they say, without treatment or assistance. Naturally, their sufferings are frightful, and quite as naturally they are noisy and troublesome. The stoool pigeon uses any method she sees fit to quiet and subdue these half-demented creatures undergoing the most frightful tortures because of the sudden cessation of their accustomed narcotics.
One instance stands out with glaring vividness in my memory. Pearl Hall, an elderly drug addict who had used narcotics for more than twenty years, was sent up from Little Rock, Arkansas. She was in very bad physical condition, and when all narcotics were taken from her she moaned and raved continually. The stool pigeon and another convict quite as brutal ducked the poor insane old creature in a bath tub filled with ice water until she was too weak to make further outcry. She was then thrown in her cell in her wet clothing, and lay there moaning and raving until, a few days later, pneumonia ended her tortures.
Of greater moment, no doubt, than the outrages of physical punishment upon physical bodies is the distress-
ing and degenerating punishments inflicted upon mind and soul. Any woman having self-respect, initiative, willpower, and intelligence was hated and feared as small, brutal, despotic minds always hate those with qualities which they know they cannot dominate, and no form of punishment, physical or mental, that might have a tendency to break these dangerous convicts was ever overlooked. Laughter, love, and kindness are the three most heinous crimes possible to a convict, and they were punished with the utmost severity. In all the fourteen months I spent in prison I never heard an inmate addressed courteously; never heard one single kind, encouraging, or helpful word from the petty officials with whom we were in constant contact. One of my most horrible memories is that of the voices of our keepers. They never spoke to us as normal human beings speak; they either snarled at us, cursed us, or screeched at us, and those snarling, rasping, hateful voices still haunt my dreams.
I feel absolutely positive that no perfectly normal person can endure the life of an under-prison official, and that a psychopathic survey of the Missouri prison will prove that practically all of the guards and petty officials, and possibly some of the higher ones as well, are sadistic to a marked degree. I know that it was always the timid, shrinking women who blushed scarlet at a sneer and gave outward evidence of mental torture, who were punished most often and most severely.
What is designated as the "merit system" is used in the Missouri State Penitentiary, and the federal prisoners receive the disadvantages of it, but none of the advantages. On entering one is placed in C class; this permits the usual privileges and permission to write one letter each week, and to receive fifty cents a month as pay. If an inmate is perfect in production and deportment for
three months, she is promoted to B class and allowed two letters each week and seventy-five cents a month. Three months more perfect record advances the inmate to A class, in which three letters each week are permitted and the salary is one dollar a month. Three months' perfect record is necessary for promotion to a higher class; but one punishment, either for an alleged infraction of the rules or for short work or bad work in the shop, is sufficient for demotion. The state prisoners are given what is called "good time" in addition. The C class prisoners get the usual one-fourth off for good time; B class prisoners get an additional five days' good time each month; and the A class prisoners ten days a month. This good time for higher classes is not given federals. The woman who cannot make the task or is punished for any cause is reduced in class. In D class, prisoners can write but one letter a month and have no Sunday recreation. In E class they write once a month, have no recreation, and lose all good time. A woman may hold her position in A or B class for a year or more, thereby earning considerable good time, but a single punishment can take it all away from her. No punishment is so dreaded by the women as losing their good time, and no abuses are so galling as the power of the shop foreman, the matrons, and the negro trusty to punish the women justly or unjustly, thereby reducing them in class and robbing them of the good time so hardly earned.
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