My Year in a Reformatory
The story of life behind the bars by a man who has experienced it
WILLIAM ALLEN BURNS
TOWARD the end of a pleasant winter afternoon I had stepped from a train and was passing through the station toward a street-car, homeward-bound, when I was addressed by a gentleman who informed me that he held a warrant for my arrest. He was accompanied by an assistant whose business probably it was to ensure that I should make no trouble.
After a brief conversation, I was conducted to a waiting Ford car, which we entered and which shortly conducted us to the police station. Here I was required to turn out the contents of my pockets in order that no possible weapons of any sort might remain in my possession; there was read to me something from a small card in the hand of an officer as to what use might be made of any statements I might make; I was conducted to a near-by cell which I entered, and the clang of the iron door behind me removed very effectively any doubts remaining as to whether I was awake or dreaming. I was in the hands of the law.
To say the situation, even thus far, was a remarkable one in its demands for unheard-of mental adjustments, is to put it mildly indeed. How little one knows—or thinks—as he nods ‘Good-morning’ to the familiar traffic policeman at the corner, or reads in his paper the soliloquy of a police-magistrate over some case in hand, of the emotions aroused, the tremendous nature of the thing when the law, with whose representatives we have so casually and unconcernedly rubbed elbows, reaches out its hand and places it upon one’s own shoulder.
The cell faced some smoky windows beyond which one had a glimpse of nothing more inspiring than bare brick walls. Behind a small partition, was a washbasin and a lavatory-bowl. There was a wooden platform a foot or so from the floor—a bed, as I discovered, and a hard one—and that was all.
Sitting down upon the bed, I made an effort to bring into some semblance of order my scattered wits, and presently asked and was granted permission to telephone a lawyer, who visited me during the evening and arranged for me such of my affairs as demanded immediate attention.
I have already said that the bed was a hard one. I am still beholden to a friendly officer who procured for me a little supply of clean blankets, which, with the aid of my overcoat rolled up for a pillow, made a passable couch. On this I slept through a disturbed night. In the middle of it, there was brought into an adjoining cell a prisoner of whom certain dire things were suspected, and there followed him two officers who proceeded to apply what amounted to something approaching the common conception of ‘third-degree’ methods. Either the subject was too stupid or too clever for them, for I heard numerous disparaging remarks later from the end of the corridor where stood the desk of the officer on duty.
My passage through a preliminary hearing was without incident other than a humorous one. The prisoner whose case was called before mine was an Irishman, charged with having imbibed not wisely but too well. He was evidently an old offender, for a smile only half-suppressed went round the court when he rose to his feet. Before more than the bare charged against him could be read, he launched forth into an address to the Magistrate which, as an example of blarney and eloquent pleading, must have aroused feelings of envy in the breasts of counsel present. Inasmuch as it was close to Christmas he pleaded so forcefully and persistently, with pathos approaching tears, for release, that at last the Magistrate threw up the sponge and having exacted another promise that it would never happen again, ordered him released from custody. The next case was called, my own, and the Irishman had to be gently pushed from the room and the door closed
on his voluble gratitude. Bail having been arranged I was once more at liberty, temporarily, to prepare such defence as thought wise and to put my affairs in such order as might be, against whatever might come about.
Court Room and Jail
HAPPY the man whose acquaintance with court rooms is confined to their representation in the movies — where it costs but a few cents to enter, and nothing at all to come out. One sits in an unpleasantly prominent part of the room looking with assumed interest at the formidable coat-of-arms over the Judges’
seat, and at the dingy and dusty tables and other furniture about. The watery sun struggles in through grimy windows; there is a gloomy, detached, impersonal, hollow and bare atmosphere about the place, enough to daunt even the stoutest heart. A lawyer in a seedylooking gown shuffles his papers restlessly. Trifling issues are wont to run through the mind in periods of critical waiting. In such settings as these are the destinies of men fought out, pro and con. Mine was settled so, for the following year—I was to spend it in retirement. An officer from the near-by place of confinement appeared, and I walked over with him. It was a beautiful day—it seemed strange that people were going about their affairs quite as though nothing unusual had happened. I might have hailed a street-car and gone home. Instead, chatting with the guard about something—I have quite forgotten what—I presently found myself in the county jail, my home for some two weeks to follow.
The county jail serves as such to those fortunate mortals whose indiscretions have been such as to find msrcy or lenience in the hearts of their judges, to the end that their confinement shall be of short duration, three Or four months or so—more at times. In addition, it serves as the temporary residence of such offenders as are on remand awaiting trial, and for sentenced men waiting the making-up of parties for conduct to Reformatory or Penitentiary. As a place of continued residence, the county jail leaves much to be desired. In the matter of food, for instance to such men as have lived long under conditions where the next meal as to quality or quantity, presence or total absence, has always been problematical, the county jail meals in their regularity at any rate will fill the bill. For more pampered individuals, accustomed to something of the luxuries of living, they present a horrible void. Even their very regularity, at times, becomes a reproach—one wishes they might be forgotten, just once, say. Porridge in a bowl, with milk but no sugar—and quite o’ften no salt; a certain number of ounces of white bread in one piece—knives in jail are taboo; corn-meal mush, with milk but no sugar; stew, a trifle of meat with ample potato and excess of water; rice, with milk but no sugar; peasoup, the best of the lot; and—that was all. These items are supposedly laid out as a diet—I never troubled to figure out the system. Perhaps my friends were especially kind, or it may be the jail officials were not too critical, or both. The arrival of a parcel of food fj-om the outside—I had already come to think of it as the ‘outside’—was looked upon as the great adventure. It led to the display of a characteristic which I was later to find in universal practice among my friends of the underworld—uncalculating, frank, kindly generosity.
There was a provision by which a prisoner who had at his command the necessary money, might purchase a bottle of milk daily—he who had not the money, had not the milk.
In spite of the effort which I understand is constantly made to prevent it, one was surprised quite often to find that the cell which was supposedly exclusively his own, was actually by no means so. The mattresses, thin, old, and dirty, offered convenient sanctuary to beings of a very unpleasant nature, which must he hunted down industriously and destroyed completely when found.
Upon my entry into the jail, I was ushered into a dormitory or as it was called, the long-room. This was a long,-narrow space with a row of heavily-barred windows on one side, and on the other the iron doors of a row of individual cells. It offered splendid opportunity for walking up and down, up and down, the chief occupation of its inhabitants. It was not over-furnished, one might say—its chief and only movable objects of furniture being two long benches. To one who could read names from initials, these benches furnished as much informa-
tion"as might be gathered from the registers in the Governor’s office, downstairs —this despite the removal of allTknives or cutting objects from the persons of incoming prisoners. At one end of this long corridor was a lavatory and wash-room, and at the other, a heavy iron grating and door, the only entrance or exit. In this room each cell was so narrow that when the bed which was folded up against the wall in the daytime, was let down for the night, there remained only sufficient space between the foot of the bed and the door for one to remove his outer clothing before retiring. Of the beds, the less said the better; hard, dirty, uncomfortable and worse, they made of the sleeping hours a veritable torture.
In this room, the food was thrust in through a small opening at the bottom of the door, on the floor, whence it was carried to bench or window-seat for consumption.
Seldom did a guard enter this dormitory, the sweeping and cleaning was done by inmates under direction from the neighborhood of the locked door.
r At the time of my arrival, a~ fight was in progress, to which the guard paid not the slightest attention. One husky fellow had another equally robust-looking chap by the hair with an undislodgable grip and was cheerfully and thoroughly pommelling away at him with the other hand, the second with his eyes shut tight striking out viciously and blindly—the whole to the tune of yells and whoops of encouragement from the others present.
Practically every man in this room, of whom there were twenty or more, was in suspense of the most acute kind as to his final disposal at the hands of the law. I am forbidden to mention any of the charges against them—this is the thing that is not done in the underworld. Perhaps in no other sphere in life is it so thoroughly the custom to take a man as you find him. Periods of disturbance and noise alternated with spells of quietness, in which a man would sit an hour at a time on a bench or hunched up in a corner on the floor, with gaze fixed and thoughts afar. Little cliques formed, personalities unconsciously seeking their own kind, and good wishes and well-meant chaffing followed each man as he was called out to find what fate held in store for him.
It was my good fortune to be shortly removed from this to a dormitory at the other side of the building where was more of quiet, larger sleeping quarters, and a smaller number of men, and in this second dormitory I remained until the arrival of the night upon which I was required to prepare myself for the journey to the Reformatory.
Fairness compels me to pay tribute to guards and officers. Those at the county jail were very ready to grant agreeably such requests as I made of them—chiefly for permission to write letters, and for the receipt of odds and ends from home. Had the institution been as comfortable as the guards were considerate, little would have remained to be desired.
One of a Chain-Gang
T^O BE awakened from a sound sleep is of itself an unpleasant experience for many of us at any time. To be aroused from first slumber by a rattling at my cell door and an order to get up and prepare to leave the jail, was additionally unpleasant. The embarrassments and humiliations so far endured, together with long-continued speculation colored by numerous alleged experiences of
other prisoners as to what lay beyond, left those of us— there were four from my dormitory—who got up and dressed nervously that night, in a highly apprehensive and unsettled mental state.
We were conducted downstairs to the general office where we joined a group of men already being prepared for the journey—there were now eighteen of us in all. This preparation consisted entirely in fastening us together in what we came to know as the ‘Chain gang’. For this purpose there was used a long steel chain, on which were placed at intervals pairs of handcuffs. To this each man was fastened by a wrist, so that the entire group was welded together as a unit.
This sounds very simple—perhaps a lot more so than the picture suggested by the term ‘Chain-gang’ would warrant. Yet in its possibilities for degradation of any finer feelings yet remaining in the minds of any of the men making up the party that night, it left little to the imagination. This party, in charge of one officer—an elderly man—was to be transported from the present situation by train to the Reformatory where were to be served out the various sentences of the men composing it.
The short walk from the jail to the station was soon over. It was a clear, frosty night—the first fresh air I had had in two weeks—and even the few minutes spent before entering the railway station were very precious. At the station we were left standing in the main lobby for some considerable time. Fortunately for us, it was a late hour, and except for the people one always finds in railroad stations at or near train times, we were unobserved. Yet there was a sufficiently large number of thoughtless ones attracted by our unpleasant plight who could not resist the temptation for a close inspection. Whether this wait in the station was the result of thoughtlessness on
the part of the officers with us, or just cold-blooded disregard of our feelings or situation, I do not know. It suggested something of the type of punishment we have supposedly done away with, the pillory, or stocks. There would have been neither cost nor trouble in moving the group outside the gates onto the train platforms, where the curious ones would not have been allowed to follow.
We were finally conducted into a second-class car, where we were placed with such comfort as the. chain permitted, in double seats facing each other. Here we remained from half-past-eleven at night until eleven next morning.
The chain was, of course, maintained in service throughout, though disconnected in such a way as to leave eight or fewer men attached together. There was no opportunity to stretch the legs or change from the sitting position, except when one member of the chain* group desired to go to the lavatory or the wash-room for a drink. Then the whole party on the chain went along. When the restrictions in the matter of room or space in railway wash-rooms or lavatories are borne in mind, one can form some estimate at to the inconvenience of the arrangement I have just described.
The train was dreadfully overheated, as trains so often are, and there .was no opportunity to wash the hands or face or to refresh oneself in any way. The handcuffs pressed uncomfortable and disagreeably into the wrist, the car, not being a private one, was constantly patrolled by curious passengers, adding materially to the misery of the company. One member, a boy of sixteen or so, was violently sick at the stomach, and there was no relief obtainable. Even so, there were some of us capable of a joke or two, and before the heat and the general disheartening qualities of the situation became too much and we sank into the irritable stupor in which the latter part of the night was spent, we had a song or so. I can remember the songs—strangely, they contain nothing of pleasure since that singing of them.
In the early morning, we breakfasted on huge Spanish onions, head-cheese and bread, produced by our guard from a large bag he carried with him. Toward the middle of the forenoon we detrained at the city of—-—where our party was increased by the addition of some six more men, and we were marched through the streets that lie between the station and the city jail, objects of the curiosity of all passersby, of whom there were legion. It had been arranged that we should wait here until evening for a train that would convey us the few remaining miles to the Reformatory at--
A Modern Canadian Jail
TF YOU will recall to memory the picture you probably
formed in youth when you had described for you in history class the nature and characteristics of the Black Hole of Calcutta, you will have before your mind’s eye an
excellent conception of the jail at--and of the plight
of those of us lodged there. Of the actual dimensions of the room I speak of I shall say nothing—to do so were to invite disbelief. I have already described the strength of our party. I shall content myself with picturing the situation as it appeared to me and as it is remembered by others of the party with whom I have since discussed it.
Of furnishings in the room there were none. Apart Continued on page 91
Continued from page 7
from the floor—which was of cement and dirty to start with, and whose condition gained nothing through the day as tobacco scraps, burned matches and saliva were added to its uncleanness—there was only one place to sit, the coverless lavatory-bowl. The ventilation possibilities hinged upon two or three small windows placed high up, near the ceiling —we were in the basement of the building —all of which were securely fastened shut, and save for a small current of air that came in where one broken pane had not yet been replaced, there was no ventilation whatever.
This room was heated by steam radiators to an almost unbelievable temperature, and the controlling valves were beyond our reach.
Into this setting were marched men sufficient in number that when the wall had been entirely lined by those seeking such measure of rest or repose as might be attained by sitting on the floor with backs against the wall, there yet remained several for whom there was literally no rest whatever. From eleven o’clock in the morning until after ten at night this uncomfortable, restless, dejected body of men prowled—that is the word applicable—prowled, like beasts shut in, back, and forth about this room, stumbling or tripping over the feet and bodies of their only less-miserable brethren on the floor. Later, it added to the interest of the thing to learn that four of these men were sufferers from syphilis in one or other stage, and that several more were victims of other venereal disease. What volumes it speaks for the forbearance and tolerance, for the good-humor and patience of rnen that such an outrageous situation continued all those hours without a fight or any unpleasantness of note. Forbearance, desire to make the best of a bad job, are not the least admirable of characteristics. Such were present there, in marked degree. I believe we even tried a song or two. I quite remember something approaching a cheer when bread and soup were given us late in the afternoon.
As night drew in, by common consent most of the noise was cut out and when the guards came to introduce us to the last stage of our via dolorosa they found ready for them a very sleepy and completely done-out party.
The return to the station was a tremendously cheering walk after the overpowering warmth and foul air of the jail It had been snowing heavily and th • clear freshness of the air was a thing to be remembered. We were soon entrained again and had our first glimpse of the winter uniforms worn by the guards at the institution to which we were going.
The attitude of these guards toward the men of our party, so different from that of officers of the law with whom we had met thus far—though we had little to complain of—was very marked. One of them, a short, sandy man with closecropped moustache, very agreeably helped us to get into bearable positions in the car, assuring us pleasantly enough that the chain would soon be taken off. We thought him a pretty decent fellow—and later acquaintance confirmed it. Had we known then that his record included the shooting in the head of a prisoner who was swimming a lake in an effort at escape we should • have probably looked with less of complaisance upon his conducting of us on our way. Fortunately rtfcthing so grim came within our ken, and soon we had left the train and, driven on flat sleighs a mile or so through the country, found ourselves gazing with interest and wonder at the buildings and lights, the
piled snow and midnight quiet, at-
wherea paternal government calls halt in the heedless career of such of its children as prove intractable otherwise.
We were first taken to the laundry,
where each man was required to strip, place every last item of personal belongings in a bundle in his overcoat, take a shower-bath" and don the institutional clothing laid out for him. The personal belongings were gathered up and listed by attendants present for the purpose. One of our party timidly asked if he might retain some trifling object of his own and was met with such an outburst of profanity from the sergeant in charge as to effectively nip in the bud and blast for-* ever similar requests that had been forming in our minds.
We were then paraded across the road in the small hours of the morning, each holding up unbelted trousers and carrying a bundle of blankets and a pillow.
This brought us to the dormitories, where we were shown to vacant beds. It was with an indescribable feeling of relief that I passed down the long dormitory, between rows of blanketed feet, and made up a bed where a guard directed me to do so. The dimmed lights, the hushed quiet, together with the relaxation induced by the warm bath and the comfortable temperature of the dormitory, combined to make sleep and rest very easy of accomplishment. Wearied beyond words in body from the two-night train journey
and the experience in the jail at--and
bruised in spirit from the humiliation and indignity of the chain gang, I fell quickly to sleep, only to be awakened, almost immediately it seemed, by the ringing of a number of loud bells.
The First Day
THE inmate in the bed adjoining mine explained that this was the first breakfast bell—the time was half-past five—and that on week-day mornings it rang at five—this was a Sunday. In half-an-hour, I joined the line-up for the dining-room, where I presently made acquaintance with porridge, toast, corn-syrup and tea.
Later in the morning I had opportunity to look about me in the dormitory where I had slept. This room was a very long one with beds on either side. When I say ‘beds’ it gives less than a proper picture —so I shall explain. On each side of the room were racks or supports made of heavy iron pipe, arranged lengthwise from end to end of the room. On these pipes were laid the beds“, close together, with feet toward the center of the room, and heads toward the walls. Each bed was a single-bed spring with staunch steel frame, and a pipe support at each side from end to end about a foot or so in height from the side of the spring frame. The first row of beds was a foot or more from the floor; at about six feet from the floor was another row, and a third lot— the ‘hurricane deck’ we came to call it— appeared about five feet higher still. This was utilizing space with a vengeance. The lighting and ventilation was accomplished by means of sky-lights far overhead. There were two other dormitories like this, and another similar one constituted the venereal ward. In addition there were ‘day-rooms’ or large recreation or reading and writing rooms, with long tables and benches, and off each dormitory were .wash-rooms and lavatories with red-tiled floors and walls, where were shower-baths and abundance of hot and cold water at all times. There was ample provision for cleanliness.
The first impression of the dormitory was somewhat bewildering. Here were men lounging in their beds with blankets and pillows rolled up into bundles at the heads, smoking, chatting, reading papers or books, or playing checkers. Others, whose beds were on the second or upper decks, disdaining the stairway provided farther along in the dormitory leading to a narrow landing that ran along at the heads of beds in number two deck,
swarmed up the foot of a bed or two and down again in like manner, with an activity bespeaking long familiarity or remote simian ancestry, or both. There would commence a shouting and a chase, up the three decks, across beds, downstairs, headlong into groups of men and out again, to disappear somewhere beyond. The noise was astonishing. It took long to accustom oneself to the babel of tongues. Here were English, French, Italians, Germans, Poles, Czechs, Rumanians, Irish, Scotch, Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Negros, Finns, Russians—and I daresay others that I do not recollect. And all talking!—or so it seemed. The pláce, though shabby, worn and bare, was clean, and over and through all a thing that was a surprise for long to come, an air of the most complete good-humor; of thorough-going good-temper.
Toward the middle of the forenoon, those of us who had come in the preceding night were taken before the institution doctor, where each was examined from head to toe and a record made of particulars. The following day each man was paraded before the superintendent, where certain other facts concerning himself or his case were entered in a record book by an officer, and the super had something to say to him. I understand this interview is a routine practice with the super, in order that he may meet each man face to face and form an estimate of him, and that the man may be told something of the sort of conduct that is likely to get him through his serving of time in the institution without friction.
I was informed that it had been decided I should go into the hospital as an orderly, and that for the rest, my comfort or discomfort was largely up to myself. I was then turned over to the hospital guard and forthwith entered upon my duties as orderly.
These preliminary steps each served to confirm in my mind the first vague impression I received as I walked down the dormitory that first night between the rows of blanketed feet, that with arrival at—I had left behind the worst of my experiences. From somewhere, there came to me an impression as of a load lifted. The dormitory suggested rest and relief from weariness, and the feet loctked comfortable, somehow.
A Picture of a Reformatory
'~I~'HE institution at-is located at
about the center of a tract of country several thousand acres in extent, belonging to the province in which it is situated. The buildings are chiefly set upon rising ground, bordering upon a chain of small lakes, from which the water supply is drawn through a sand-filtration system, and which provides also for sewage disposal.
The plant consists of a central organization in the setting' referred to in the preceding paragraph, where stands the Dormitory Building, which houses the sleeping and general quarters of the inmates, the Hospital with its Dispensary and Clinic, the Library and Dental Room, the private rooms of two or three of the officers, the Sergeant’s office, and the kitchen and dining-room. In the basement of this building is the Auditorium, a large room with seating capacity for several hundred persons, with complete stage equipment for the presenting of quite pretentious theatricals, and with a moving-picture machine.
Nearby are the Administration Building, the Power Plant, the Stores and Laundry Building, Blacksmith Shop, Paint Shop, Electrical Shop, Garage, Tool House, and the various apartments and residences provided for the housing of officers and guards.
At a short distance away, are the large barns and stables where the livestock of the institution is housed and cared for.
Inasmuch as the chief industry of the place consists in cutting and drawing wood and clearing and working land,
there are maintained in addition to the establishment just described, other outlying camps, in closer proximity to the work being carried on. The capacity of the whole is at present probably not over four hundred and fifty or five hundred men.
Practically all bush, with the exception of a small group of birch, has been cleared away from the neighborhood of the central institution, and when the party of men to which I belonged arrived, there appeared nothing but miles of unbroken snow. In spring, when the snow disappeared, there came to view a large athletic field, and a tennis court which had been the site of a skating rink in winter.
In summer, a certain measure of agriculture is carried on, and gardening on a somewhat pretentious scale occupies a considerable number of inmates. Delicious strawberries and several other fruits and vegetables are grown in large quantities.
Outside the main gate, the principal entrance to the dormitories, is the parade ground, where inmates line up twice a day in their various groups or gangs, for the taking of the count. Here the flag is raised at sunrise or soon after and flies bravely through the day until hauled down again by the Sergeant’s runner at sunset.
TJ EAD of the Institution, vested with authority whose bounds no inmate has to my knowledge had temerity enough to ascertain, is the superintendent, or as he is known by inmates and officials alike, the super. There are many grim tales told by old-time inmates as to the life in the institution in the regime preceding the present one. If one is to believe half one hears—which is perhaps a fair average, since in the matter of hearsay and gossip the institution displays constant and remarkable activity—the good old days must have presented very marked contrast to the present ones. Popular rumor has it that in those days the whipping machine did a land-office business, guards took to themselves, and got away with, authority whose exercise now would cost them their jobs forthwith, and the general atmosphere of the institution must have been one approaching a veritable reign of terror.
Nothing of that sort obtains to-day. The whipping machine is scarcely heard of. The most severe punishment on the premises consists in comparatively short periods of time in solitary confinement and on reduced food, the number of escapes has been reduced almost to the vanishing point, and to those men who make even a very ordinary effort to carry out the orders of those in authority, the institution becomes a very livable place indeed.
The super’s ideas, as they appear to those over whose comings and goings he presides, have endless things to commend them. For instance, he is approachable
and accessible, and that probably means a great deal more than appears on the surface. So generous has he been in this respect that the men have—unintentionally, perhaps, taken advantage of it, with the result that he has had to set up some small defence against them—one has now to seek an interview with him through the sergeant, which is no hardship to the inmate, as will later appear.
He is a patient man in general ; even the moderate personal restraint imposed upon the inmates in his institution sometimes produces irritability which brings about threats of insubordination. I have seen things passed over which, had any one of half-a-dozen inmates of my acquaintace been in the super’s place, would certainly have led to the furbishing up for service of that implement of chastisement to which I have referred, the ‘machine’. Perhaps a word or two here would be in keeping with reference to something resented, perhaps, because not understood by many of the inmates. I refer to the ‘standoffish’ attitude maintained by officers toward many inmates. After examining the thing I have concluded that this arises because of the constant and unreasonable requests that inmates make; I include myself with the others. The official feels that he is going to be ‘hit up’ for all manner of things—more than half of which he cannot possibly grant, even if he would—and to save himself from the continual and repeated refusals that must follow, he comes to adopt this forbidding exterior when requests for this, that and the other loom over the horizon.
‘Promising Jim’ the boys call the super, with much less intention of disrespect than one might imagine. This probably originated in the super’s very human desire to do all he can toward realizing for the inmates the things they ask. The super is above all things, human. His very approachableness, to which I have referred, takes from the name given him or the nature of sting. For after all, so long as one can get hold of a man—if he be a man—he has fair chance to realize such things as have been promised him.
Short of temper, abrupt of manner, at times approaching the domineering; yet hearing the opinion of those inmates whose duties carry them nearest to him, or listening to and appraising him as he addresses the assembly in the Auditorium —pointing out to the men the wisdom of certain courses, explaining to them the difficulties that are his in the establishing of even minor improvements in the conducting of the Institution—one can only conclude that here is a man with something of vision, with some appreciation as to the size of the job he is trying to fill. Student of men, well-wisher of every last fellow who comes before him; such is a briefly-stated, unbiased estimate of the super so far as he may be known through the relationships of superintendent to inmate.
To be Concluded