The Ex. Question by Elbert Hubbard

Story type: Essay

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 word “hospital.”

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.

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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 offenders.

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.

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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 helping others.

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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 the insane.

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.

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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!

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