Read A MISSOURI HELL: CHAPTER IV. THE MISSOURI PRISONERS (Continued) of The Twin Hells, free online book, by John N. Reynolds, on

During the years 1887 and 1888, 1,523 prisoners were received into the Missouri penitentiary. Of this number 1,082 were white males, 398 colored males, 17 white females, and 26 colored females. These figures show that the women of Missouri are a great deal better than the men, or they do not get their share of justice.

There is nothing that should interest the good people of Missouri more than the foregoing table. These appalling figures I copied from the prison records. Of the 1,523 criminals received during the past two years, more than one-fifth of them were mere children. Would it not be better to give these boys a term in the county jails, or in some reformatory, instead of sending them to a penitentiary? Coming in contact with hardened and vicious criminals, what hope is there for getting these boys into the paths of honesty and uprightness? Then there follows the large number of 441, representing the youthful age from twenty to twenty-five years. These are the years most prolific of criminals. Who can say these boys are vicious and hardened criminals? Then follow the young men of from twenty-five to thirty. Three hundred and fourty-four of this age find a home in felon cells. Are these boys and young men not worth saving? What can be done to snatch them from a career of crime, and to save them from becoming miserable wrecks? Father, if one of these boys was a son of yours, you would think seriously over this important question.

Something should be done to save this large army of youth who are annually finding their way into felon cells.

Is the penitentiary the proper place to send those youthful offenders? If so, then they should not come in contact with the older and hardened criminals. One of the most essential things to be done in a prison is the classification of the inmates. This is not done in the Missouri penitentiary. Here the mere youth often cells with a hardened old criminal of the worst description. I would rather a child of mine would be boxed up with a rattlesnake. In this institution there are nearly 2,000 criminals huddled up together an indiscriminate mass. The officials are not to blame for this. They realize the terrible condition of things at the prison. They have not sufficient room for the classification and proper arrangement of the inmates. They know, perhaps better than anyone else, that the prison is not what it should be. Warden Marmaduke says, in his last report to the prison directors, “This prison is now too much crowded and it becomes a serious question at once, as to what disposition will be made of them in the future. If this prison is to accommodate them, another cell building should be built at once. If another prison is to be the solution, it should be commenced. If a reconstruction of our criminal laws, looking to the reduction of crime, it should be done now. And in any event, and whatever may be done, certainly our management of prisons should be so modified or changed that the practical, not the sentimental system of reform, should be adopted. I believe that our present system is making criminals instead of reforming them, and I believe that it is practicable to so classify, treat, feed, work and uniform these people, as to make better men instead of worse men out of them. I have profound respect for the good purposes of the benevolently disposed men and women, and they are numerous, who are devoting themselves to the effort of reforming criminals. Yet their efforts must be supplemented by a practical building up and the development of the better instincts of the man, which cannot be done under our present system. The surroundings are against it. We are constantly developing and stimulating the very worst instincts. I believe it practicable to institute methods for this reform, at once creditable to the State.” Who can doubt our statements on this subject when we quote such high authority as the above. The last warden of this great institution comes out and officially announces that awful fact that our present system of prison treatment is constantly developing and stimulating the very worst instincts. Constantly making men worse, and when a young man enters the prison he is morally tainted, when he goes out he is completely saturated, with moral pollution. After such statements from so high an authority will the great State of Missouri, so well-known the world over for her numerous acts of benevolence, continue to have an institution within her borders for the complete demoralization and ruin of multitudes of her young men. Should a youth of Missouri, surrounded by influences and temptations which he could not resist, once fall from a position of honor and integrity, although it is his first violation of the law, he will be taken into custody of the State, hurled into a pit, where for a time he will inhale the fetid breath of wickedness, then, later on, to be released and sent out into the free world a moral leper.

The State should not provide this machine for the moral destruction of her unfortunate youth. If this be the real and true condition of affairs, what can be done to change them? I would suggest the erection, at once, of a reformatory. Classify the prisoners. Let those who are in for the first offense be separated from those who are professional and debased criminals. Give these youthful offenders the benefit of schools, connected with the reformatory. Let them have moral instruction, and many of these young men will be reclaimed, However well a criminal is treated, when behind prison walls, however good the advantages granted him, all this will avail but little, if some provision is not made to aid him when he leaves the prison. Many prisoners, at the time of their discharge, may be, in heart, as pure as angels, and resolve to lead good lives, yet they are convicts, and carry out with them the shame and disgrace of such a life. They must live even if they are disgraced. They must have work. Who will employ a convict? Should a man, just from the prison, come to you and frankly inform you that he was recently discharged from a felon’s cell, that he had been convicted of horse-stealing, for instance, and wanted employment with you on the farm, how many of you, my readers, would give him work? You would be afraid of him. You would decline his services, and who could blame you? But the convict must live, and it is easily seen, how, that after applying to several for work and being refused each time on account of his past trouble, he would, after a time, become discouraged and return to a life of a criminal. Hunger drives him to deeds of desperation, and more especially is this the case if he have a wife or helpless children depending upon him. On his discharge from the prison the State presents him, with a shoddy suit of clothes (very cheap), buys him a ticket for the town from which he came, and then lets him shift for himself. Disgraced, penniless, friendless, helpless, how is it possible for anyone of them ever to secure another foothold in life.

Something should be done, to help these men to secure work for a time after their discharge from prison. This would prevent a vast majority of criminals from returning to the prison after their first term. That my views on this subject may not be considered visionary, and that I may not be regarded as standing alone in my suggestions, I will give a portion of the report of Rev. J. Gierlow, ex-chaplain of the Missouri penitentiary.

“The increase of crime is necessarily attracting the attention of all thinking people, and there is abundant evidence that crime-causes are increasing, for which there seems to be no adequate prevention. It has been said, that nearly all crime originates in the saloon, but this statement requires discrimination. Very few professional thieves are inebriates. That class of criminals are sober men, they could not ply their trade without a clear head, nor do they go with those who drink, for they talk too much. No, intemperance to a considerable extent, is only a secondary cause of crime which must be reached by well-ordered, sanitary, hygienic and educational measures. Diseased bodies and unbalanced minds are largely characteristic of criminals; and these are two factors in producing crime.

“There is a numerous class in whom crime seems to be hereditary, a taint in the blood. In the same family there are generations of criminals. Prison life adds another large section to the criminal class. By the congregate system the prison becomes a school of crime, where the young offender is both demoralized by contact with hardened criminals, and initiated into the mysteries of professional villainy. It is a question whether detention in prison, without remedial influences, is not more of a loss than a gain. The critical time of a prisoner, desirous of building up a new life, is when he crosses the threshold of the prison and goes out into the world. He is met with distrust wherever his past is known. He is in constant terror of exposure if he tries to keep it secret. And what does the State do to put him on his feet or to give him a chance? It gives him a few dollars to carry him here or there, and bids him shift for himself. And finding every avenue of honest employment closed against him, he is driven in desperation, however well disposed he may be, to renew his criminal habits and associates. What, then, are the remedies, as far as the prison system is concerned? Chiefly, classification. Let not one who desires to reform be compelled to associate with those who are almost sure to degrade and debase him. The neglect of discriminating classification of offenders is a dark stain upon civilization. Then, again, I believe it to be the duty of the State to reinstate the penitentiary man in society. This may be secured by a conditional discharge, the finding of work for him, and the obligation to report himself at stated periods to the proper authority.

I have regarded it as within the province of my office to thus briefly set forth what I have gathered from experience in my intercourse with convicts, as well as from sober conviction, after mature deliberation. Let the State consider and act.