The Ex. Question
Words sometimes become tainted and fall into bad repute, and are
discarded. Until the day of Elizabeth Fry, on the official records in
England appeared the word "mad-house." Then it was wiped out and the
word "asylum" substituted. Within twenty years' time in several states
in America we have discarded the word "asylum" and have substituted the
In Jeffersonville, Indiana, there is located
a "Reformatory" which some
years ago was known as a penitentiary. The word "prison" had a
depressing effect, and "penitentiary" throws a theological shadow, and
so the words will have to go. As our ideas of the criminal change, we
change our vocabulary.
A few years ago we talked about asylums for the deaf and dumb--the word
"dumb" has now been stricken from every official document in every state
in the Union, because we have discovered, with the assistance of Gardner
G. Hubbard, that deaf people are not dumb, and not being defectives,
they certainly do not need an asylum. They need schools, however, and so
everywhere we have established schools for the deaf.
Deaf people are just as capable, are just as competent, just as well
able to earn an honest living as is the average man who can hear.
The "indeterminate sentence" is one of the wisest expedients ever
brought to bear in penology. And it is to this generation alone that the
honor of first using it must be given. The offender is sentenced for,
say from one to eight years. This means that if the prisoner behaves
himself, obeying the rules, showing a desire to be useful, he will be
paroled and given his freedom at the end of one year.
If he misbehaves and does not prove his fitness for freedom he will be
kept two or three years, and he may possibly have to serve the whole
eight years. "How long are you in for?" I asked a convict at
Jeffersonville, who was caring for the flowers in front of the walls.
"Me? Oh, I'm in for two years, with the privilege of fourteen," was the
man's answer, given with a grin.
The old plan of "short time," allowing two or three months off from
every year for good behavior was a move in the right direction, but the
indeterminate sentence will soon be the rule everywhere for first
The indeterminate sentence throws upon the man himself the
responsibility for the length of his confinement and tends to relieve
prison life of its horror, by holding out hope. The man has the short
time constantly in mind, and usually is very careful not to do anything
to imperil it. Insurrection and an attempt to escape may mean that every
day of the whole long sentence will have to be served.
So even the dullest of minds and the most calloused realize that it pays
to do what is right--the lesson being pressed home upon them in a way it
has never been before.
The old-time prejudice of business men against the man who had "done
time" was chiefly on account of his incompetence, and not his record.
The prison methods that turned out a hateful, depressed and frightened
man who had been suppressed by the silent system and deformed by the
lock-step, calloused by brutal treatment and the constant thought held
over him that he was a criminal, was a bad thing for the prisoner, for
the keeper and for society. Even an upright man would be undone by such
treatment, and in a year be transformed into a sly, secretive and
morally sick man. The men just out of prison were unable to do
anything--they needed constant supervision and attention, and so of
course we did not care to hire them.
The Ex. now is a totally different man from the Ex. just out of his
striped suit in the seventies, thanks to that much defamed man,
Brockway, and a few others.
We may have to restrain men for the good of themselves and the good of
society, but we do not punish. The restraint is punishment enough; we
believe men are punished by their sins, not for them.
When men are sent to reform schools now, the endeavor and the hope is to
give back to society a better man than we took.
Judge Lindsey sends boys to the reform school without officer or guard.
The boys go of their own accord, carrying their own commitment papers.
They pound on the gate demanding admittance in the name of the law. The
boy believes that Judge Lindsey is his friend, and that the reason he
is sent to the reform school is that he may reap a betterment which his
full freedom cannot possibly offer. When he takes his commitment papers
he is no longer at war with society and the keepers of the law. He
believes that what is being done for him is done for the best, and so he
goes to prison, which is really not a prison at the last, for it is a
school where the lad is taught to economize both time and money and to
make himself useful.
Other people work for us, and we must work for them. This is the supreme
lesson that the boy learns. You can only help yourself by
Now here is a proposition: If a boy or a man takes his commitment
papers, goes to prison alone and unattended, is it necessary that he
should be there locked up, enclosed in a corral and be looked after by
guards armed with death-dealing implements?
Superintendent Whittaker, of the institution at Jeffersonville, Indiana,
says, "No." He believes that within ten years' time we will do away with
the high wall, and will keep our loaded guns out of sight; to a great
degree also we will take the bars from the windows of the prisons, just
as we have taken them away from the windows of the hospitals for
At the reform school it may be necessary to have a guard-house for some
years to come, but the high wall must go, just as we have sent the
lock-step and the silent system and the striped suit of disgrace into
the ragbag of time--lost in the memory of things that were.
Four men out of five in the reformatory at Jeffersonville need no
coercion, they would not run away if the walls were razed and the doors
left unlocked. One young man I saw there refused the offered parole--he
wanted to stay until he learned his trade. He was not the only one with
a like mental attitude.
The quality of men in the average prison is about the same as that of
the men who are in the United States Army. The man who enlists is a
prisoner; for him to run away is a very serious offense, and yet he is
not locked up at night, nor is he surrounded by a high wall.
The George Junior Republic is simply a farm, unfenced and unpatroled,
excepting by the boys who are in the Republic, and yet it is a penal
institution. The prison of the future will not be unlike a young ladies'
boarding school, where even yet the practice prevails of taking the
inmates out all together, with a guard, and allowing no one to leave
without a written permit.
As society changes, so changes the so-called criminal. In any event, I
know this--that Max Nordau did not make out his case.
There is no criminal class.
Or for that matter we are all criminals. "I have in me the capacity for
every crime," said Emerson.
The man or woman who goes wrong is a victim of unkind environment.
Booker Washington says that when the negro has something that we want,
or can perform a task that we want done, we waive the color line, and
the race problem then ceases to be a problem. So it is with the Ex.
Question. When the ex-convict is able to show that he is useful to the
world, the world will cease to shun him. When Superintendent Whittaker
graduates a man it is pretty good evidence that the man is able and
willing to render a service to society.
The only places where the ex-convicts get the icy mitt are pink teas
and prayer meetings. An ex-convict should work all day and then spend
his evenings at the library, feeding his mind--then he is safe.
If I were an ex-convict I would fight shy of all "Refuges," "Sheltering
Arms," "Saint Andrew's Societies" and the philanthropic "College
Settlements." I would never go to those good professional people, or
professional good people, who patronize the poor and spit upon the
alleged wrongdoer, and who draw sharp lines of demarcation in
distinguishing between the "good" and the "bad." If you can work and are
willing to work, business men will not draw the line on you. Get a job,
and then hold it down hard by making yourself necessary. Employers of
labor and the ex-convicts themselves are fast settling this Ex.
Question, with the help of the advanced type of the Reform School where
the inmates are being taught to be useful and are not punished nor
patronized, but are simply given a chance. My heart goes out in sympathy
to the man who gives a poor devil a chance. I myself am a poor devil!