The Human Weeds In Prison by Arthur Brisbane

Story type: EssayHow shall we approach a prison to see it fairly and to study it intelligently?Let us imagine ourselves visitors from a world outside of this.Far off in i …

Story type: Essay

How shall we approach a prison to see it fairly and to study it intelligently?

Let us imagine ourselves visitors from a world outside of this.

Far off in infinite space there is a small whirling planet–our earth.

Little creatures move about this planet, chained to it by the force of gravity. But they MOVE as they choose, and they call themselves FREE.

There are millions of free square miles, and hundreds of millions of free human beings.

But there just below us is the prison at Auburn. There the human beings are not free. There suffer those who for any reason have violated the established rules of the little globe that supports them.

They have not even the freedom of the little patch of soil fenced in for them. They cannot walk, speak, sit down, lie down, or stand up as they please.

They have broken some of the rules established for the protection of all. They have misused their freedom, and in punishment their freedom is taken away from them.

They live in small cells, in a very big prison.

Gray stone, iron bars, striped suits, enforced silence, enforced work, enforced regularity of life–all these punish most keenly those whose first crime was lack of self-control and lack of regularity. —-

In every prison and in every prisoner there are lessons for each of us. You will not waste time to-day if you walk through this great Auburn prison and think of the men there think why they came there, think how they could have been saved, think what will gradually empty prisons and make them unnecessary.

A man with one arm opens the first iron gate–his mutilated body foreshadows the mutilated minds and souls within.

Before the door of the prison there are bright flowers–the name of the prison itself stands out in brightly colored blossoms to prove the gardener’s ability and strange sense of the appropriate. Many of the causes that bring men there are written out in just such bright colors–when first seen–and many a prisoner must have thought of that as he passed through the iron door.

A party of six or seven go through the prison with you.

There is a woman of middle age, stout and cheerful, in a bright purple dress. There are two children, a moon-faced man, a tall, thin man, and others whom you do not notice.

Carelessly they look at a nervous woman sitting in the reception room talking to a convict. They take no interest in her, no interest in the convict. To you the prison guide says:

“She comes here to see him as often as the rules allow. She’s his wife. She’s been coming for seven years. I tell you, women get the hard end of it in this world.”

Women do indeed get the hard end of it. There are twelve hundred men in that prison–and every one of them has caused some woman to suffer. And every one has broken the heart of one other woman–his mother.

Through a narrow door you travel with your fellow-visitors.

At every step you marvel at the curious indifference of average humanity to the one interesting thing–their fellow-man.

There are shown to you piles upon piles of loaves of bread–fresh and brown. The guide says: “We bake every day. Nine hundred loaves a day.”

The stout woman in purple sighs with amazement, the children gape, the man with the round face has an anxious look–he seems to be a taxpayer.

But not one looks at or thinks of the convict who turns quickly away to hide a thin, white face. To you the guide says: “He’s a forger. You can see he’s sensitive about being here. Some of them never seem to get used to it.” —-

The stout woman in purple is delighted with the enormous copper vats for making the convicts’ coffee. She is charmed with the great iron pots for boiling soup.

But you will be more interested in these facts:


There is a huge wash room–fitted with showers for the hardy, with porcelain tubs for the old and crippled–AND EVERY MAN IS COMPELLED TO TAKE HIS BATH.

How much of progress, how much that is hopeful for humanity, is told in those words!

Religious services are optional–no more compulsion of man’s soul or of his belief.

Bathing IS COMPULSORY. Truly, we progress, and the prison rules prove it.

There were showers in every prison and in every insane asylum one hundred years ago–but those showers were used only to torture the criminal or the lunatic. He was doused with cold water until senseless.

There were chapels in the old-time prisons, and all were forced to accept and profess such views as the majority or the ruler chose to profess.

That prison at Auburn is a monument to humanity’s sorrows and weaknesses. But it tells in every department of human decency and of a constant striving by those who are fortunate to help others.

In the prison yard a squad of convicts are marching. The lock-step is there no longer. Prison reform has ended that. The convict is no longer forced into a gait which stamps him ever after.

There are electric lights in the hundreds of cells–and there is absolute cleanliness throughout the vast structure. No hotel is cleaner, if any be as clean.

The convicts get their letters twice a week. They have pictures in their cells–and they may have musical instruments if they wish; and many a man, beside his narrow plank bed, has a strip of rag carpet made at home. Their lives are horrible–for confinement kills men’s souls; and one has said who knew prison life:

“It is only what is GOOD in man
That wastes and withers there;
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair.” —-

While you go through the prison you see the things mentioned–electric lights, clean halls, bathing apparatus, and the rest. But you STUDY the human beings working at their fixed tasks, or moving about in their dismal, heavy suits of stripes.

Just as many kinds of faces as you see in a city street you see in that prison–but there you see more than elsewhere the failures, the human weeds.

But at least there is a striving to make things better. Society no longer willingly tortures its failures. It controls, punishes, but does not hate them. There are no beatings, no tortures, no close-cropped heads, even, for the convict may grow his hair as he chooses.

Every man who knows no trade is taught one. There is a feeling of moral responsibility to the criminal, and a desire at least to make him NO WORSE.

The prisoners are divided into two classes: those whose faces and skulls tell of evil birth and predestined failure, and those who are simply like others–average men, victims of chance, of temptation, of ability ill-balanced, of ignorance, of drink, or even of accident.

In one great room the convicts are weaving–working at hand looms. The work is desperately hard. Both hands and both feet are going constantly. Human power is used, that the greatest amount of labor and least competition with the outside working world may be simultaneously achieved.

At one loom sits a poor creature, a dismal human failure. His forehead is half an inch high and a bony ridge-telling of unfortunate prenatal influence–runs high along the top of his head. His small eyes are close together. His exaggerated chin protrudes; only a cunning look directed now and then toward the watchful warden tells that any thinking goes on in that miserable being. His best place, perhaps, is there. He is protected against himself, and society has no other way of taking care of him.

Near him sits a young boy in his teens. His face is intelligent; he is not a born criminal. He is above the average in intelligence, and in him there are all possibilities of success and usefulness.

A boyish piece of criminal foolishness brought him there–and he must now spend years degenerating into real criminality under the influences around him.

There are the two extreme samples of humanity in that cage which we build to protect ourselves against ourselves.

It is a dismal garden set apart for human weeds and in it many a good plant is hopelessly driven into the weed class.

Of the men in that prison may truly be said what a great student of plant life–Luther Burbank– says of the poor weeds that we despise among plants:

There is not one weed or flower, wild or domesticated, which will not, sooner or later, respond liberally to good cultivation and persistent selection. * * * Weeds are weeds because they are jostled, crowded, cropped and trampled upon, scorched by fierce heat, starved, or, perhaps, suffering with cold, wet feet, tormented by insect pests or lack of nourishing food and sunshine.

Most of them have no opportunity for blossoming out in luxurious beauty and abundance. * * * When a plant once wakes up to the new influences brought to bear upon it the road is opened for endless improvement in all directions.

More pitiable than any weeds in a garden and more worthy of sympathy are those poor human weeds in the great prison.

Crowded and kept ignorant in youth, tempted, ill-fed, cold and worried in after years, their lot was hard–and their fall almost inevitable. They must be confined, they must be protected against themselves, they must suffer for the poor start given to them.

But the duty of those who are FREE and fortunate is to treat kindly those who fall, and especially to deal in such fashion with the young as shall minimize the crop of weeds later.

Fortunately, it may truly be said that humanity begins to realize its responsibilities in both lines of effort.

Kindness reaches the convict in his prison.

And Education, the thrice blessed AMERICAN PUBLIC SCHOOL, does steadily the work that makes useful plants of growing youth, diminishing year by year the crop of weeds.

Kindness and EDUCATION–go to Auburn prison and you will realize how much work they have still to do in our country.

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