IT is a great blessing to the convict that he can have the privilege of working. When prisons were first started in this country it was thought best to keep the prisoner in solitary confinement; have him visited daily by a spiritual teacher, place the Bible and other good books in his hands, and in this manner reform him, and send him out into the world a better man than he was on entering the prison. The great penal institution of Auburn, New York, was for a time conducted in this manner. The plan, at first thought to be a good one, had to be abandoned. The criminal could not endure solitary confinement. He must have work. Many of them became insane, while still others died for want of the open air, out-door exercise, and some diversion for the mind.
In all the penitentiaries of the country, at the present time, convicts are required to perform some kind of useful labor. That is one point of the prison question that is, doubtless, forever settled. All prison men agree thatTHE WORK OF THE CONVICT.
the convict must perform some kind of work. Labor to the prisoners means health of body and mind. Solitary confinement means the reverse. But what kind of labor the prisoner should perform, and what should be done with the results of his labor, is one of the most difficult questions to decide.
All the prisoners of the Missouri penitentiary are let out to contractors, with the exception of those needed to do the work about the prison. The work consists chiefly of making saddle-trees and shoes. Several large three-story buildings are used in furnishing room for the convicts while at labor. Those contractors who have been at the prison for some time have grown rich. They get their men for forty-five cents a day, on an average. They have their choice of prisoners as they come in. Those convicts designated scrubs, do the work for the State. The contractors are charged with controlling the prison. If one of the officials, in the discharge of his duty, happens to do anything displeasing to the contractors, they combined against him and have him removed. They are charged with using their combine political influence, and even money, to carry their points. WeTHE TWIN HELLS.
have been told by some of the leading men of the State that it was a notorious fact that the penitentiary was controlled by a political ring, a set of jobbers, and this ring was largely influenced by the contractors. The contract system is wrong, and should not have a place in any of the penal institutions of the country.
The contractor assigns the task. The prisoner must perform that task or be punished. If an avaricious contractor, in his desire to make money, places too great a task upon the prisoner, who is there to take the prisoner's part and shield him from abuse? Fully nine-tenths of the punishments inflicted is the result of the reports and complaints of the contractors. See how unjust and how hard this contract system is upon many of the prisoners! Two convicts enter the same day. In outward appearance they are strong, healthy men. The same task is assigned them. One of them being adapted to that line of work, and skilled, performs his task with ease; while the other, equally industrious, cannot get through with his. He is reported for shirking. He states his inability to do the amount of work assigned him. The contractor or his foreman makes a different report. The assertions of the convictTHE WORK OF THE CONVICT.
amount to but little, as against the statements of the rich and influential contractor. He is punished and returned to his work. A second time he tries, again fails, and is reported as before. This being the second offense the prisoner is subjected to a more severe punishment. This brutal treatment is continued until the officer, growing weary with inflicting punishment upon the poor wretch, concludes he is unable to perform the task assigned him. If this contract system is to continue in Missouri, there should be some one whose duty it is to see that the prisoner is humanely treated, and not let a brutal officer decide, who is in league with the contractors. I have it from the lips of a prison official who has been connected with the prison for thirty-six years, that the treatment some of the prisoners receive because of the avariciousness of the contractors, is simply heartrending.
After all, is not this contract system a regular jobbing business? If these men can employ the prisoners and pay forty-five cents a day for them, and make money and grow rich, why cannot the State work the convicts and save all these profits? Competent men can be secured as superintendents to carry onTHE TWIN HELLS.
this work. Some will say, that it will open up too many avenues to jobbery; that the superintendents will get to stealing from the State, and in the end the State will not get as much benefit as under the present system. This seems like begging the question. If these superintendents, after a time, become thieves, treat them as thieves, and give them a term in the penitentiary. This kind of medicine will soon cure all cases of jobbery. Again, prisoners should be assigned tasks according to their ability. All men are not alike equally skilled in the same kind of labor. All these things should be taken into account. No prisoner should be forced to carry a burden that is oppressive, in order to fill the coffers of avaricious contractors. Again, I ask that there be some humane person, whose duty it is to see that these helpless men, whose lips are sealed, are not oppressed by this damnable contract system. Let us treat these unfortunate men humanely, and never forget that, if stern justice was meted out to those who had the control of convicts, as officers, guards, or contractors, many of them would be doing service for the State, clad in a suit of stripes.
The penitentiary of Missouri is self-support-THE WORK OF THE CONVICT.
ing, with the exception of the officer's pay-roll. At each session of the Legislature, an appropriation of $140,000 is made for this purpose. There are over one hundred officers on the pay-roll. The records show that its requires nearly a quarter o a million dollars annually to pay the expenses of this institution.
Crime is an expensive luxury!
During the past two years $347,000 have been paid into the treasury as the earnings of the prison. The goods manufactured are sold chiefly in the State of Missouri. This brings convict labor, which is very cheap, into competition with the labor of the poor, but honest man on the outside. The average labor value of the convict is forty-five cents a day. How is it possible for laboring men on the outside, who have families depending upon them, to support themselves and families on an amount, that will enable business men, for whom they work, to engage in business and compete with this cheap convict labor? This is the great argument against convict labor. The convict must be given work or he will become insane. To bring this cheap labor into conflict with the toil of honest but poor men on the outside, is unjust and cruel. What to do with convict
THE TWIN HELLS.
labor is one of the unsolved problems. It is a subject that will furnish ample scope for the thinking mind.
The prisoner is worked on an average of nine hours each day. He goes about his labor in silence. It is against the regulations for him to exchange a word or a knowing glance with a fellow-workman. When visitors pass through the workshops he is not permitted to lift his eyes from his work to look at them. An officer, perched upon a raised seat, who commands a view of the entire work-room, is constantly on the watch to see that no rule or regulation is violated. The convict cannot take a drink of water, or go from one part of the room to another in the discharge of his duties without permission from the officer. The prisoner is always conscious of being watched. This feeling is no small factor in making the life of a prisoner almost unbearable. Nearly all of the inmates work in shops, and all the exercise they receive in the open air is what they get in going to and from their meals and cells. It is this sameness of work, this daily and hourly going over the same routine, this monotonous labor, this being surrounded by hundreds of busy fellow-workmen,THE WORK OF THE CONVICT.
and not permitted to exchange a word with any of them, that makes the life of a prisoner to be so much dreaded. Young man, as you read these lines, it is impossible for you to conceive the misery that accompanies this kind of a monotonous life.
In order to know all that it means, you must pass through it, as I have done. Things are entirely different with you. While you are at work on the outside of prisons, you can carry on conversation with those about you and thus pass the time in a pleasant manner. After the day's work is over, if you so desire, you can spend an hour or so with friends. Not so with the criminal. After his day's work, done in silence, is past, he is locked up in his solitary cell to spend the evening as best he can.
There is no one to watch you constantly while at your daily toil, to see that you do not violate some insignificant rule or regulation. When you desire a holiday, and wish to take a stroll out into the woods, to look upon the beautiful flowers or admire nature in all her loveliness, to inhale the pure, fresh air --- which is a stranger to packed workshops --- to revel in the genial sunlight, there is no one to forbid you. You are a free man.THE TWIN HELLS.
Oh, what a wonderful difference between the laboring man who is free, and him who is forced to work, clad in the habiliments of disgrace! He who penned these lines has had to toil as a convict in the coal mines of the Kansas penitentiary, eight hundred feet below the surface, lying stretched out on his side, and he knows what he is talking about when he says, he would rather die and be laid away in his grave than to spend five years as a convict.
Young man, think of these things when you are tempted to do those things that will send you to a felon's cell. Of course, it is no intention of yours ever to become an inmate of a prison. Permit one who has had experience, to tell you that it is one of the easiest things in the world to get into a prison, and that when once in, it is difficult to secure your liberty, until Time turns the bolt and lets you out, or in other words, until you serve out your term. May you never yield to a temptation that will make you a prisoner.