Beating Back

AN EX-CONVICT May 15 1933

Beating Back

AN EX-CONVICT May 15 1933

Beating Back



A GONG clanged sharply somewhere in the distance, and I found myself lying upon something hard. Dark grey blankets covered me. My body ached, my right arm was cramped. My head was cold, and an exploring hand discovered that I had become suddenly and unexpectedly bald. The gong, registering subconsciously, brought visions of an ambulance. This, I felt sure, must be an automobile accident. Then sound began to register—a long, low sighing unlike any other noise. Memory came flooding back. I turned my face toward the dim light of dawn, and there, not a foot away, was a crisscross of cold and forbidding steel. Now, at last, I knew. I was a convict in Kingston Penitentiary.

Classified, docketed, measured, photographed, questioned, shorn of hair, subdued and bewildered, I found myself here, a ward of the Government. In the eyes of the law, theoretically, I was a juvenile. For a definite period I was to undergo discipline and punishment. Inhibitions were read and posted for daily view. The paddle and the lash were there for instant use.

Today I have been released. I have served my time. I have changed back from a number to a name, from a label to an entity in the social order—yet with that ever present prefix "Ex.” I am beating back, buoyed with dogged hope. Now, in an earnest, groping way I am endeavoring, from a confusing jumble of thoughts, to record the trials of this adult "juvenile.”

There is no need to discuss what sent me to Kingston. Sufficient to say that it was a business defection. I have no complaint, no quarrel with this. I do have most serious complaint concerning the system employed in governing those in our Federal institutions. I know nothing of the conduct of such institutions in Great Britain, in the United States, in any country save this, my native land. I know little of the science of penology. My sole knowledge is of Kingston Penitentiary. Any statements I record shall be factual; any conclusions, humbly my own.

Introduction to Prison Life

CONDUCTED by a sheriff, a kindly man, I was transported by public railway train, surrounded by the ebb and flow of public travel, to my destination. My handcuffs, removed in public, were replaced by the steel hoops and heavy chain of leg shackles. Now, secured by "regulations,” I endured the public gaze. I should, I told myself, be much happier chained to iron stanchions in the baggage car. Hiding as best I could behind a newspaper, my least movement "clanking” my predicament, I sat still for six hours, aching for the seclusion of cold stone walls.

In these hours of humiliation. those approaching gates seemed like a sanctuary.

When finally the gate clanged shut behind me, the sheriff removed the manacles, and with a firm, warm handclasp, wished me well. It was the last handgrip I was to have for many long dreary

months. Guards now had me in charge. I was gruffly ordered into a near-by box of stone and steel. Here, alone, recovering from a mental haze, I resolved to make the best of it; to do my best to conform to regulations without complaint or whimper. That resolution never left me. I came through without the loss of a single day of "good time;” never asked a favor and never got one.

Summoned from the entry Nix, I was escorted in silence to the chief keeper's hall. It is a combination delousing station and record office. Stripped, cropjied and printed, I was then immersed in a carbolic solution and my naked head was rubbed with acetic acid. All this, since I had come from local and county jails, was necessary. My clothes, tailor-made, were burned. They were to be substituted on release by a prison-made suit, and if I lost through the substitution it did not matter.

Here, the guards in charge inspired a degree of confidence. They seemed to be a superior type. I was, I said in reply to a question, a qualified accountant and could operate a typewriter. They had a job of that kind waiting to be filled. I should be put to work at it the following day.

Finally, dressed in brown denim and crowned with a wide-brimmed straw hat, I was marched to the central "Dome,” a great, circular, covered space from whence radiate the four cell wings. The guard, who now' had me, snapped out:

“Where you from, what's your sentence, what’s your crime?”

I replied. His next command, "Stand over by the wall,” was obeyed. I stood.

Came supper-time. I fell in line. With a left turn, quick march, wre proceeded in silent file to the kitchen, got our plate, marched back up the stairs and into the cell, our new home. It w-as a semi-detached, semi-private apartment of stone and steel. Thus commenced the endless tramp of feet and clank of steel that still ring in my head like a dirge.

After supper, on the evening of my induction, I took stock of my new aN>de, disposed of my meagre possessions. Standing, I found I could, with arms stretched, place both palms upon the side walls. Walking, I could take three

full strides to the back of the cell and. turning, three steps forward. This limitation, considering that I must spend about seventeen hours of the twenty-four locked in, forced the determination that I should devise a scheme of settingup exercises. My ironbound cot folded against the wall, my table hinged likewise. In position, the cot formed a table seat. A folding camp chair was the only movable piece of furniture. Toilet and washbasin were fixed to the rear wall. One tap provided cold water, but I was cautioned not to drink it because of impurities. Well water was provided in a cup filled during the afternoon, which must last until the next day. For some reason the well failed; then we were obliged to drink what had been condemned.

A Typical Prison Day

AN ELECTRIC LIGHT was fixed in the ceiling, a ^ feeble light. My sight, in time, Nxame so impaired that I had to curtail my reading hours. Talking was prohibited. This. I reflected, for those who could not read, must be a great hardship. The new rules now permit controlled conversation during prescribed hours. AN>ve the table, head-high, was a wooden shelf where books and writing materials could N* disposed. High over the cot were four wooden pegs ujjon which were hung the four grey blankets, neatly folded during the day. A peep-hole was slotted into the rear wall. The steel gate was locked and controlled by a bar and lever arrangement. It could be opened only by lifting an outside handle after the controlling bar had been brought into position. To release inmates at meal times and for work a "tapper” ran along the range and lifted the handles. This arrangement controlled the number of men absent from cells at any given time. Within a few days routine had become familiar to me.

Each morning when the gong rang the lights flashed on and, according to rules, each man made up his bed and stood by, awaiting the signal for the "tapper” on his range. Guards stood on the galleries, in the Dome, along the passages. Breakfast—of toast, porridge, syrup and w'eak coffeewas procured and taken back to the cell. Guards

then passed along the ranges with tapers giving lights to those who smoked. At eight o’clock the men were again “tapped out” and gangs were marched in file to work to the stone shed, shoe shop, tailor shop, mail bags, garage, farm or whatever assignment was designated.

At noon the gangs filed to the kitchen for dinner meat, vegetables, bread and weak tea thence to the cells to eat in silence. Afternoons were but a repetition of the routine. Supper was varied. Menus generally were well arranged, and the quality and quantity of food were adequate for all needs. From five o’clock until nine reading and study, varied only by four lights offered for smokes, formed the peaceful portion of the day.

Thus, I became familiar with a typical prison day. Exercise, formerly so curtailed, has now become extended and varied. Instead of a brief walk in file and silence, it is now permitted to talk, play ball and generally “limber up.” Sundays and holidays are included in this arrangement. Formerly they were dreary days, indeed. Exception may be taken to this freedom of mingling during exercise in that it might offer opportunity for the younger element to associate freely with the hardened type. In time, I thought, some' plan might be devised to separate entirely the “reclaimables” from those who, to me, seemed utterly hardened. Here, I observed as I had often observed elsewhere, the tendency of youngsters to follow the actions and conversations of those who had “reputations.”

Next morning I was handed a mop and broom and put to work cleaning cells and corridors. My nearest co-workers were a negro and a drug addict. They told me it was a temporary job; that I would be assigned to my regular work in a day or two.

No Element of Reformation

IT WAS NOT for some weeks that a I feeling of poignant bewilderment began to wear off. Then gradually, in a sort of philosophic detachment. I began, through an earnest endeavor to think clearly, to bring into juxtaposition those relationships existing between the people of Canada on the one hand and the convict colony on the other. What, I asked myself, did the public, who now had me in charge, really know about the actual conditions of physical and mental misery inflicted upon their wards?

The public, I argued with myself, ought to be concerned. Its responsibility did not end with the sentence of the court. The Government’s ward, in time, would return to them. Was the system they had set up adequate to restore to society a human entity set securely upon the road to straight thinking? Were they conscious of the fact that their hands rested upon every key, every bolt shot home, every lash inflicted? Were they conscious of those refinements of torture inflicted by many of their servants in uniform? Physical correction is not hard to endure. Gradually I came to know that it is wholly within the mental sphere wherein the system fails the effect upon the mind. It weighs upon every numbered man, college-bred or illiterate.

It was a relief to do any kind of work.

Gradually I came to know that the only real privileges in a penal institution are work and study. Scores there may scoff at the idea, yet it is in truth the simple fact. And yet there is no pride of work, no kindly instruction toward intelligent effort.

Work there resolves itself into a bald, bare, worthless routine. Here is infinite opportunity for amending conditions that degrade rather than uplift.

Study, that other priceless privilege, shares similar neglect. Over the whole period of my sentence, neither the warden, the chaplain nor any officer ever suggested that I could or might improve my time by study. It was a long time before I even learned that courses of study were available. The machinery is there one of the best libraries it has been my privilege to draw from. There are textbooks by the hundred on all subjects covering our present syllabus in public and high schools; books, running into thousands, of fiction, technology, philosophy, sociology, economics, history, biography, literature and art. When at last I found this out, I thought “What a gold mine!”

Yet one can accept the privilege of study or leave it alone. No effort is made to lead you to it, but if you do take hold, the librarian, a qualified teacher, gives you his best in helping you along. Many a night, sacrificing his own hours of leisure, I have seen him on the ranges, helping, teaching, advising -a rare, manly, competent officer. Last year he prepared for Entrance examinations between twenty

and thirty candidates. All passed, several with honors. One convict he has coached until today he is in his second year university studies. The sole class instruction of these men. outside of cramming, is effected by gulping down their dinner, sacrificing their noon-hour rest period, and hurrying up to chapel for a brief period of instruction.

Here, I thought, is an opportunity for effecting the greatest change in the whole system. Of the thousands who come and go, serving two years and upward, what an opportunity, without compulsion, simply by leading, to set hundreds if not thousands upon the road to straight thinking. Taxpayers, you have bought the books. Can you not instruct those of your qualified servants to make some real effort to lead your unfortunate wards? Thus ran my thoughts.

When I discovered this study privilege I procured a scribbler, then another and another. Each evening for more than a year I read, reviewed and studied Spanish; and I was as content as conditions would permit. I filled six scribblers, hoping to review and brief them later on. Then, suddenly, I was changed from one job to another. My notes were taken from me. I was assured they would be returned in a few days, but for five months I never saw them or my textbooks. Repeatedly, respectfully, I begged for them. Nothing came of it.

Those were the dark days. My whole effort was frustrated. It was here I had some bad thoughts. Actually,

many nights, I pondered suicide. That and sudden insanity are not infrequent there. It seems strange that I record this, yet it is the truth. I often wondered if other people get that strange, hopeless feeling. One day, later, I met an inmate who worked in the record office. He said. “Your scribblers are over at our place.” I was amazed. They had for five months been reposing just where they had been placed when taken from me. I got them back, only to find that I had become indifferent. There was only time to review them briefly before release, but it helped some.

The incident is recorded merely to show the state of general apathy and indifference affecting a matter of high importance to one individual serving time. Multiply that and it is something for you. the public, to ponder. Is it punishment or reformation or both? Time and again I tried to think it out. Time and again I was told. “You are simply here to do time; there is no element of reformation in this institution, no statute admits it.” Even today I do not know.

A few days on my mop-and-broom job brought me to n; permanent work assignment. It was far removed fro? office work. I was placed at semiheavy manual lab between two illiterate Italians. They were friendly fellow anxious to show me how. A drug addict was near by. It wj the first time to my knowledge that I had ever come int association with drug users. Observing them over mar months. I wondered if confinement here would cure then They showed no trace of suffering, had good appetites, wer generally cheerful.

From week to week I began to observe both inmates anofficers, to see if I could place them in general classification; It became a fascinating preoccupation. Beginning as : mental experiment, I achieved in time, through contact ary observation, a kind of formula that I could put down o: paper. My conclusions finally persuaded me that humanature runs about the same, no matter how circumstance«: My formula, if it be of interest, worked out on a twenty sixty-twenty ratio. It applied respectively to both officer and inmates —three almost distinct lines of demarcation In respect of the officers, my chart read thus:

(1) High type, twenty per cent. Men of education understanding and broad sympathy, firm yet kindly. They command respect and obedience at all times.

(2) Indifferent type, sixty per cent. Mediocrity. Tc them it is merely a job of work.

(3) Brutal type, twenty per cent. Here adjectives fail me

Harsh Treatment

ROM this class come the harsh words the threats, the report sheets, even surreptitious physical violence which makes life sometimes a horror. It is this bearing down, this sense of oppression, I suppose, which inspired the term “screws.” It is this type that sends sons back, hardened and disillusioned, to anxious mothers. Several times I felt the weight of it. Twice, in particular, it took ttie form of outrage and violence, all without cause. The onlyreason I can ascribe is that unconsciously I incurred the enmity of two “screws." Had I been guilty of any infraction 1 should assuredly have lost “good time.” Briefly, on one occasion I was cut down by an inmate with a sharp-edged instrument. This, I was sure at the time, and proved to my satisfaction later, was connived at by a “screw.” By his charge. 1 was then immediately thrown into the “hole.” I lay there a long time, bleeding, before I was finally taken out and stitched up by the doctor. This was my first experience in the “hole.” My cell there was one of a dozen or more, beneath ground level, dark, smelly, dirty and cold. There, mice pervade the place. A heavy, musty rodent smell is ever present. These still remain punishment cells. Here, under a warden who was retired last year, men were shackled to the bars. One man whom I came to know very well was confined there, under the warden’s orders, for six straight months. Under new rules, lately read, “chained to the bars” has been altered to “handcuffed to body-belt.” I cannot say just what that is.

Upon another occasion I was thrown into the “hole,” kept there without knowing why, and for five days had not a drop of water to drink, although I asked for it many times. Finally I was released without explanation. For five nights a rattle and bang was kept up on my gate, every little while, by “screws” who seemed to take a fiendish delight in keeping me awake. I am quite sure the night warden knew nothing of this. This may sound unbelievable, yet it is solemn, inexorable truth. I should like to be challenged on this before some responsible investigating agency. This was before Warden Megloughlin came upon the scene, yet the officers who were responsible for the outrage still hold their jobs.

Classifying the convict colony by the foregoing formula, the chart would appear about as follows:

(1) The “hard” twenty per cent. Irreclaimable absolutely.

(2) The “happy-go-lucky” sixty per cent, flotsam alumni of divers provincial institutions. Here is opportunity for reclamation processes.

(3) The educated and the genuinely unfortunate twenty per cent.

It is idle to elaborate further. These, merely, are one man’s thoughtful opinions. I must refuse, through the dictates of modesty, to reveal where I placed myself.

Of the countless incidents which came under my observation, two in particular remain indelibly impressed upon my

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; mind. A year ago I came in contact with a mere boy who had been sentenced to four j years. He was, he told me, just turned ¡sixteen. He looked even younger. With I two others, he had broken into a summer ■ cottage in Northern Ontario. With the ¡ strange sense of the fitness of things some: times found in remote districts, the local i authority had imposed this sentence. The i little fellow was completely subdued. He couldn’t eat and his breath became bad—a fair indication of mental distress. I did my part, as best I could, to cheer him up. Months later I came across him again. Now he smoked, swaggered, swore; the “hardness” was beginning to appear, borrowed,

; childlike, from those who now surrounded him. I said to myself when I first saw him ; and I repeat it now: “The ends of justice i would have been well met by the application of a good old-fashioned slipper.”

The other incident arose out of the annual epidemic of influenza which swept the ranges. The hospital was crowded. The doctor liad ordered chickens so that broth might be prepared for those who were very ill. I saw the chickens prepared. They were stuffed and roasted—and several fine ; dinners were provided for the assistant j steward by the latter’s order. Let the ill j moan. The chief steward was, at that time, j absent for some weeks. Again I thought,

! what would the taxpayers think about this? This assistant steward still holds his job. No doubt a “reasonable explanation” has by now been thought out. I merely record the fact.

Many forms of waste, graft, chicanery and favoritism came under my notice. In one department alone, I assured myself after careful study that a saving of at least $20 a I day could be effected, yet I felt that if I revealed my thought I would only subject myself to some form of added punishment. The system, to one of any sensibility, did not commend itself to higher ideals.

The hospital, including the dental department, in spite of the criticism of many inmates, carries on in an able manner, adequate to average needs. There exists here, however, a strange anomaly. Any matter coming within the term “general health” is treated free by the medical officer. In regard to dental service, so far as I could understand, teeth have nothing to do with “general health.” With few exceptions, every inmate needing dental attention, if lie has any money at the office, must pay for work done. Those whose ¡ teeth deteriorate to the point where attenj tion is vital may. at Government expense, have them removed and false teeth provided. The dental officer 1 found to be genial and friendly, a “good scout.” What sort of Government contract here obtains I do not know.

1 am not competent to opinionate upon religious instruction as prescribed within the walls. Regulations permitted me to see the chaplain a few days after arrival. He gave me three books of the Anglican order, with little comment and no advice. I met him j again the day I left. He shook hands through the bars, said briefly, "There's a charitable organization where you are going. Good luck, good-by.” He is a friendly, wellmeaning man, yet, in my opinion, inadequate to fulfill the great need there. This thought obsessed me: "Could not the chap-

lain, in some practical way, join with the warden and the librarian and formulate a plan of encouragement for those newly arrived to make the new environment less ghastly and to encourage study?” It seems to me both practical and necessary.

Only once within these walls did I attend Service. My job required labor seven days each week. Only a self-evolved philosophy sustained me here.

Compensations of Prison Life

ONLY ONCE did I see the whipping machine. Its victims are bound, blindfolded, strapped in and stooped over so that the gluteus maximus may receive the full force of the brutal bastinado. The doctor is there, finger on pulse. Thus science lends its aid to assure that quivering flesh may remain conscious of each measured beat. I have seen with revulsion the great purple welts and bleeding cuts inflicted by lash and paddle. Observing and listening to the comments of the beaten, I formed strong doubt of this method of correction.

Watching, with thoughtful interest, the operation of the system of parole, I have seen convicts of influence released after serving but a few months. I have seen convicts, their equal in intelligence and refinement, held year after year, inspired with hope at each annual visit of the parole officer. I have seen that hope gradually die as the months wore on. Those released had committed crimes infinitely more predatory than those retained. Out of such incidents are riots conceived. That annual farce of hope inspired is a dreadful thing. Viewing it all I thought, “Is this right, is this Canada?”

I became intimate with one man who came in as a young war veteran for a series of minor thefts. He has been there more than ten years. Today he is accomplished, educated, safe, sane, manly. Give him the first line of any classic and he can give you the rest. He is, in fact, an authority on grammar. He does not smoke, has kept a splendid physical health, and yet this annual parole prostitution has nearly broken him. It’s the mind that suffers.

I have stood before three wardens—the first, brutal; the second, bewildered; the third, wise, sane and competent. The recent riot, arising out of several causes, owes its basic impulse to the régime of the first of the three. The hesitant, vacillating rule of the second brought its accomplishment. A brutal, thoughtless guard lit the fuse. The third is bringing order out of the chaos and wreckage.

One incident remains with me as a riot aftermath. It can truthfully be described as an attempt at cold, deliberate murder. During the afternoon of the riot a spot was marked, carefully indicating from the yard the exact location of a certain cell. In this cell was confined one of the leaders of the riot. All of the prisoners were securely locked in. When darkness fell, shot after shot of rifle fire was poured into the cell marked down. Only by a miracle was the intent defeated. I saw the bullet-pitted rear wall of the cell. I saw where two bullets had flattened against the gate abutment, where one had bored a neat round hole in the windowsill. The convict was a self-admitted leader, a perennial headline hunter, and yet, I thought, would Govern-

ment, the public, in anywise condone this?

It remains with me as one of my countless, thought-compelling impressions. The riot concessions—inexpensive, yet generally welcomed—are of minor import when thoughtfully viewed. It is in the “system” that change is needed.

What are the compensations of prison life? I weighed this carefully, too. Here, I proved that “booze,” patent medicines, a thousand things in fact, were non-essentials. By moderate eating of plain food. I began to feel a definite improvement in my physical well-being. I was thoughtful, methodical, in the process of using the food provided. I outlined and followed a system of setting-up exercises —without the radio— that proved surprisingly effective. Over the whole period I was never sick a moment, never lost a meal, never tasted medicine.

It seemed to me that this enforced simplicity, philosophically accepted, was, under the circumstances, a mighty fine thing. Now, released, for some days I have subsisted on eighteen cents a day for food. I feel fine—physically. Work I proved to be a necessity. I am looking for it now. There, daily employed, I made a record of which I am proud; never lost a mark. Guards who supervised my work, one of them definitely hating me, all will, even if grudgingly, certify that I did my job cleanly, competently, faithfully.

Necessity for Useful Labor

EARNESTLY struggling with the problem of what might be done to improve a system which seems to me distressfully wrong, I tried to picture to myself what such improvement might have meant to me. Could it not be possible, I thought, to employ a personnel director, a trained psychologist, who would take charge of the incoming ward and. through observation and contact, get to know his characteristics. He could at once advise him concerning his surroundings, cheer him, caution him, instill a desire for study and recommend his allocation for work and associations. Such a man could segregate the “hard” from the bewildered, continue as liaison officer between the warden and all departments. Dismissing two or three of the brutal type and making such a change would not add a dollar to public expense. Training of officers generally, the rank and file, is something that is bound to come. One remark by a former warden is worth recording. He said in a brief talk to the men: “I picked them off the streets and made officers of them.” Reflecting on this, I thought: “If he could only make men of them as well.”

Today there is no element of reformation, neither is there the slightest attempt at re-establishment. Useful, intelligent, productive labor ought to be so directed that a reasonable fund could he provided on release. Men doing two years or twenty get upon release one lone ten-dollar bill. Two cents a day in pay would mean all the difference between hope and despair. The ten-dollar gratuity now doled out is almost a promissory note guaranteeing your return—sad commentary upon a system that even semicivilized countries today outdo.

Loosed without benediction, with a tendollar gratuity, clad in a prison-made suit, I come back to a world made strange through long absence. I am beating back.