Prison Labor and Prisoners Families, January 7, 1913

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The Governor of Arkansas upon his return from the conference of Governors last winter where there had been a spirited discussion on the iniquity of contract labor in prisons, <promptly> pardoned three hundred and sixty convicts from the State Penitentiary thereby <in order to> wipe out three convict labor camps. This action dramatically [focused] public attention upon the wrong of leasing convicts to private individuals to be exploited for profit.

Such a stirring challenge to an old wrong which has long been regarded as part of the existing order, is accepted by the community only if public sentiment has been prepared for it, and that this action was received with complacency -- even with admiration -- is a convincing proof of the widespread compunction in regard to convict labor.

The agitation against it has been carried on for many years, it is part of the effort to do away with penal servitude as a surviving vestige of the old slave systems. The same moral forces which fifty years ago overthrew slavery in America, and serfdom in Russia, are [today] tending to limit and to change this penal form of slavery until it, too, shall be considered of the past.

The right of a convict to wages for his labor, above that required for his maintenance, is slowly being recorded in legislation throughout the civilized world, [although] it wavers in an uncertain manner between the conception of the [page 2] wage as a privilege and the wage as a right.

The system has yielded slowly because its roots go deep into human motives. From the time that the galley ship was substituted for the death penalty because the condemned men could thus be made more useful, the economic value of the labor of the criminal has directly affected his method of [punishment].

Moreover a confusion has long existed between the vagrant -- the man who would not work -- and the criminal. The difference between the two has never been clearly established; on the one hand harsh discipline is still maintained in English workhouses where mere vagrants are confined, and on the other hand criminals have traditionally been employed in arduous and hazardous occupations. Some of the blackest chapters in American history, certainly since the abolition of slavery, could be written from the experiences of prisoners on remote farms and swamps, where the private employer furnishes the guards and has full power of punishment. The present use of prisoners in industrial processes which bear no relation to their reformation or earning power, is in the line of direct discent from such history.

Although all but twenty-three States in the Union have nominally abolished the old contract system of prison labor, the average prison is still a great industrial establishment, run for the profit of private citizens. The cost of feeding a man in prison is less than fifteen cents a day and of [page 3] clothing him less than fifteen dollars a year. The salaries are low; the keepers and guards average from eight to nine hundred a year, the wardens from two to four thousand a year. The prison manufacturer has many advantages which are unfair. He gets his factory -- that is, the prison -- rent free; he gets his light and power free; in some prisons where the warden is a political appointee he is controlled by the prison manufacturer who dictates the wage he is willing to pay which is sometimes as low as twenty-five cents a day.

Yet in spite of these advantages these huge establishments not only do not declare dividends but show an actual deficit each year to the State, some of them as high as three hundred thousand dollars.

One line of agitation against the contract system of prison labor and by far the most vigorous one, has been carried on by economists and trade unionists who have continually pointed out the disturbing conditions which result when prison made goods are sold in the open market. This effort has resulted in a mass of legislation, some of it confusing and most of it futile; the prison output has been limited by laws which provide that only a certain number of convicts may be engaged in any one line of manufacture, and by restrictions on the use of machinery; it has been made illegal to sell prison made goods in the State <in> which they are produced; in other States, such as California, convicts may be employed only on public works and highways; still other States provide that convict made goods shall be sold only to a preferred market. [page 4]

Simultaneously with this agitation another mass of public opinion is being formed against convict labor. The State <has> begun to regard the convicts as wards who should be protected from exploitation quite as children are protected by legislation because they are helpless and unable to make satisfactory contracts for themselves. Furthermore in the very midst of the contract system it has been found expedient to give the convicts the incentive of reward, thus some States allow their convicts, if good, a penny a day; some States allow them, if good, a plug of tobacco or a drink of whiskey; in still other States the convicts, if good, are allowed pay for overwork. At the present moment help is also coming from the people who are urging the care of the prisoners' families and the claims they have upon the prisoners' earnings. This at least has the advantage of considering the prisoner in his domestic relations. Nothing is more striking than the difference between the estimate of a convict given by his court record and the estimate held by the members of his family. Only yesterday I talked to the <a> poor old mother about her son [who] is in the State Prison on a grave charge involving traffic in white slaves. She remembered only his <unfailing> kindness to her and the fact that he had been her support, and she desired to live only that she might aid in his release.

I easily recall a dozen splendid women whom I [page 5] have known to toil early and late in the forlorn hope that they might "keep the children together until he comes out."

A woman whose husband was in the penitentiary for seven years because he forged a check to make the last delayed payment on their little house, scrubbed in a [downtown] building with hours from half-past six to nine in the morning, and from four to eight o'clock in the evening, so that she was always away at the very time that the children were home from school. She did not realize until her oldest child, a boy of thirteen, was arrested for petty larceny that in striving to take a father's place she had also deprived her children of a mother's care. She worked on, trying to support three people on five dollars a week until her little girl was brutally assaulted on the street, when she gave up the struggle and sent the children to institutions only one year before their father's return. She was able to make the effort for six years but not for seven.

That the State is beginning to realize its own stupidity in regard to the convict labor system is evidenced by the fact that twenty-one State Legislatures in session in 1911 made some provision for the State's assumption and operation of the industries in its own prisons, which is the necessary beginning of any arrangements for the support of dependents. At the present moment while in twenty-four States legal provision is made that a modicum of the convict's earnings may go to his dependent family, for one reason or another the laws are almost useless. In Illinois, for instance, the law provides that ten [percent] of the earnings of the prisoners may be thus expended, [page 6] but the use of the law is discretionary and has never been enforced; California allows one dollar and fifty cents a day for this purpose, but as the supervisors of the work upon highways agree that prisoners are not profitable at such a price very few of the families are thus benefited. Even when from five to ten [percent] of the day's earnings, or wage for overtime, are turned over to the prisoner's family, the convict's wage is so small this amounts to a pittance only. In the most liberal prisons the prisoner's earnings for overtime do not average more than three dollars a month and in most prisons he earns nothing. Minnesota and Michigan have good laws, but with the exception of the House of Correction in Detroit the result to the prisoner's family approximates only fifty dollars per year and so on throughout the entire list. <But surely better results must come in time now that the public conscience has been aroused.> It is estimated that one hundred and fifty thousand people -- mostly men -- are put behind prison bars each year. Assuming that one third of these are married men, each with a wife and three children -- a small estimate -- it means that two hundred thousand women and children each year become dependent upon their own exertions or charity, through no fault of their own.

The United States Bureau of Labor recently made an investigation of conditions in two hundred and ninety-six penal institutions of this country. They found 86,036 prisoners; of these ninety-three and seven tenths [percent] were men and six and three tenths [percent] were women. They found that 2774 of the prisoners were ill and unable to work, 21,403 were [page 7] employed in the cleaning, cooking etc. about the prisons, 51,172 were engaged in industrial occupations (the majority of their labor controlled by prison contractors), and 10,686 were totally idle, doing absolutely nothing. If these 10,686 men could have been employed at even a dollar a day, it would mean more than three million dollars a year for their families, and if the earnings of the 51,172 were available, over fifteen million dollars more could be employed for the support of the prisoners' families.

Doubtless the best solution is coming through the preferred market of State institutions. It is possible for every State having a population of two million or more to employ all its convicts in the manufacture of articles for the use of the State, and the prisoners in every State should be so classified and grouped that suitable labor could be provided for each class. A certain number of convicts could be employed in road building, farm work, erection of buildings and other outside work; another group could be employed at productive labor and the manufacture of merchandise. The products of such labor should be sold for the use of the State. The prisoners' maintenance should be deducted and the remainder of his earnings should go to the support of his family. An investigation of New York State prisons showed that twenty million dollars' worth of goods bought by the State for use in State institutions could, if necessary, be manufactured by the prisons which were then turning out less than one million dollars' worth of goods which were used by the other State institutions. The direct employment would also result in greater <safety> to the prisoners. [page 8]

The contractor who is interested only in exploiting the prisoner for his labor power, is inevitably careless of his safety so that not infrequently the prisoner is injured while in prison and leaves it incapacitated from earning his living. Two such cases have lately come under my observation. One, a colored boy of nineteen, was sent to prison on an indeterminate sentence of from one to fourteen years for stealing an overcoat. Two or three days after his parole was secured his foot was crushed in the stone quarry in which he had worked for four years, and he was obliged to remain in the prison five weeks longer because it was necessary to amputate the injured foot. Another young man had been sent to the penitentiary for twenty years for stealing some food one night when he was tramping the country, cold and hungry. He had been in the penitentiary for a year and a half and was put to work at the machine shop where he met with an accident; he left after his parole had been secured with the fingers of his right hand gone and so shattered in health that he now is in a hospital for consumptives. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for prisoners to contract consumption in prison. From [forty] to sixty [percent] of the deaths in prisons are due to this disease while the average rate outside is only fourteen [percent].

We all are apt to feel that the man confined in a penitentiary is a desperate character; we forget the weak men who have been sent there because they could not resist temptation <of our complicated society> and the large group who are actually feeble-minded. It is estimated that twenty-five [percent] of the adults in State prisons are feeble-minded, while in juvenile institutions the percentage [page 9] is as high as fifty [percent]. The essential wrong comes in separating them in our understanding and sympathy from the rest of the world and in forgetting the reaction of the treatment accorded them upon the rest of society.

An English philosopher has said that "dealings with the criminal mark the zero point in the scale of treatment which society conceives to be the due of its various members. If we raise this point we raise the standard all along the scale. The pauper may justly expect something better than the criminal; the self-supporting man and woman something better than the pauper." When treatment at the zero point is corrupt and unjust, the entire community suffers and all social standards are lowered. [page 10]

The Ladies Home Journal
Prisoners Labor & Prisoner Families.
sent Jany 7" 1913