Address to the Chicago Ethical Society, January 31, 1913 (excerpt)



Exploitation of Prisoners Called State Crime by Jane Addams.

Jane Addams of Hull House in an address before the Chicago Ethical society called attention to the iniquity of prison labor contracts that exploit the prisoner and leave his family to starve. She called the practice a state crime.

"One man," said Miss Addams, "was in prison seven years. He had forged a check with which to make the final payment on a little home. All the seven years he worked long hours daily. The profit of his labor went to a prison contractor. The state received only 50 cents a day for his work, not enough to pay for his maintenance.

"The wife -- I saw her almost every day when she brought three little children to the Hull House nursery to be kept while she was at work -- used to say, 'I must keep the children together till he comes.' For six years she did so, working as a scrubwoman in a downtown office building.

"But she did not see that in providing for the fatherless children she had also made them motherless. Her work kept her away from home at just the hours when the children were out of school and needed her. Result -- the son was sent to the bridewell for larceny; the daughter, being where she should not have been, became the victim of brutality; the mother broke down and gave the third child over to an institution. At the end of the sixth year the family was ruined. All were county or state charges. And this because the earnings of the convict father went to a prison contractor and not to those dependent on him for food and shelter."

Miss Addams gave other examples of the prison labor contract as an evil. She said prisoners often were required to do dangerous work with little protection. A negro boy sentenced for stealing a coat suffered the loss of a foot three days before he would have been paroled. A youth who broke into a grocery to get something to eat was sentenced for burglary. At the time of his capture he was shot through the shoulder. His arm was affected, and in trying to work a machine later his fingers were cut off. At liberty now, but maimed, he is the victim of prison tuberculosis.

"In the days of Plato," said Miss Addams, "men could not conceive a state that was not founded on chattel slavery. Today such a thing does not exist in civilization. I hope the time will come soon when we also will cease to have penal slavery. Twenty-one states recently have enacted laws that mean the beginning of justice for the convict's family. The governors of South Carolina and of Arkansas recently pardoned 750 convicts as the only means of liberating them from labor camps, and there was scarcely an adverse comment. This means surely that we have made considerable advance and that there is a striking change in public sentiment."

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