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Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.




THE COMPARATIVE FREEDOM of the range familiar izes me with the workings of the institution, and brings me in close contact with the authorities. The personnel of the guards is of very inferior character. I find their average intelligence considerably lower than that of the inmates. Especially does the element recruited from the police and the detective service lack sympathy with the unfortunates in their charge. They are mostly men discharged from city employment because of ha bitual drunkenness, or flagrant brutality and corruption. Their attitude toward the prisoners is summed up in coercion and suppression. They look upon the men as will-less objects of iron handed discipline, exact unquestioning obedience and absolute submissiveness to peremptory whims, and harbor personal an imosity toward the less pliant. The more intelligent among the officers scorn inferior duties, and crave advancement. The au thority and remuneration of a Deputy Wardenship is alluring to them, and every keeper considers himself the fittest for the vacancy. But the coveted prize is awarded to the guard most feared by the inmates, and most subservient to the Warden,-a direct incitement to brutality, on the one hand, to sycophancy, on the other.
      A number of the officers are veterans of the Civil War; several among them had suffered incarceration in Libby Prison. These often manifest a more sympathetic spirit. The great majority of the keepers, however, have been employed in the penitentiary from fifteen to twenty-five years; some even for a longer period, like Officer Stewart, who has been a guard for forty years. This element is unspeakably callous and cruel. The prisoners discuss among themselves the ages of the old guards, and speculate on the days allotted them. The death of one of them is hailed with joy: seldom they are discharged; still more seldom do they resign.
      The appearance of a new officer sheds hope into the dismal lives. New guards-unless drafted from the police bureau-are almost without exception lenient and forbearing, often exceedingly humane. The inmates vie with each other in showing complaisance to the "candidate." it is a point of honor in their unwritten ethics to "treat him white." They frown upon the fellow-convict who seeks to take advantage of the "green screw," by misusing his kindness or exploiting his ignorance of the prison rules. But the older officers secretly resent the infusion of new blood. They strive to discourage the applicant by exaggerating the dangers of the position, and depreciating its financial desirability for an ambitious young man; they impress upon him the Warden's unfairness to the guards, and the lack of opportunity for advancement. Often they dissuade the new man, and he disappears from the prison horizon. But if he persists in remaining, the old keepers expostulate with him, in pretended friendliness, upon his leniency, chide him for a "softhearted tenderfoot," and improve every opportunity to initiate him into the practices of brutality. The system is known in the prison as "breaking in": the new man is constantly drafted in the "clubbing squad," the older officers setting the example of cruelty. Refusal to participate signifies insubordination to his superiors and the shirking of routine duty, and results in immediate discharge. But such instances are extremely rare. Within the memory of the oldest officer, Mr. Stewart, it happened only once, and the man was sickly.
      Slowly the poison is instilled into the new guard. Within a short time the prisoners notice the first signs of change: he grows less tolerant and chummy, more irritated and distant. Presently he feels himself the object of espionage by the favorite trusties of his fellow-officers. In some mysterious manner, the Warden is aware of his every step, berating him for speaking unduly long to this prisoner, or for giving another half a banana,-the remnant of his lunch. In a moment of commiseration and pity, the officer is moved by the tearful pleadings of misery to carry a message to the sick wife or child of a prisoner. The latter confides the secret to some friend, or carelessly brags of his intimacy with the guard, and soon the keeper faces the Warden "on charges," and is deprived of a month's pay. Repeated misplacement of confidence, occasional betrayal by a prisoner seeking the good graces of the Warden, and the new officer grows embittered against the species "convict." The instinct of self-preservation, harassed and menaced on every side, becomes more assertive, and the guard is soon drawn into the vortex of the "system."


Daily I behold the machinery at work, grinding and pulverizing, brutalizing the officers, dehumanizing the inmates. Far removed from the strife and struggle of the larger world, I yet witness its miniature replica, more agonizing and merciless within the walls. A perfected model it is, this prison life, with its apparent uniformity and dull passivity. But beneath the torpid surface smolder the fires of being, now crackling faintly under a dun smothering smoke, now blazing forth with the ruthlessness of despair. Hidden by the veil of discipline rages the struggle of fiercely contending wills, and intricate meshes are woven in the quagmire of darkness and suppression.
      Intrigue and counter plot, violence and corruption, are rampant in cell-house and shop. The prisoners spy upon each other, and in turn upon the officers. The latter encourage the trusties in unearthing the secret doings of the inmates, and the stools enviously compete with each other in supplying information to the keepers. Often they deliberately inveigle the trustful prisoner into a fake plot to escape, help and encourage him in the preparations, and at the critical moment denounce him to the authorities. The luckless man is severely punished, usually remaining in utter ignorance of the intrigue. The provocateur is rewarded with greater liberty and special privileges. Frequently his treachery proves the stepping-stone to freedom, aided by the Warden's official recommendation of the "model prisoner" to the State Board of Pardons.
      The stools and the trusties are an essential element in the government of the prison. With rare exception, every officer has one or more on his staff. They assist him in his duties, perform most of his work, and make out the reports for the illiterate guards. Occasionally they are even called upon to help the "clubbing squad." The more intelligent stools enjoy the confidence of the Deputy and his assistants, and thence advance to the favor of the Warden. The latter places more reliance upon his favorite trusties than upon the guards. "I have about a hundred paid officers to keep watch over the prisoners," the Warden informs new applicants, "and two hundred volunteers to watch both." The "volunteers" are vested with unofficial authority, often exceeding that of the inferior officers. They invariably secure the sinecures of the prison, involving little work and affording opportunity for espionage. They are "runners, " "messengers," yard and office men.
      Other desirable positions, clerkships and the like, are awarded to influential prisoners, such as bankers, embezzlers, and boodlers. These are known in the institution as holding "political jobs." Together with the stools they are scorned by the initiated prisoners as "the pets."

The professional craftiness of the "con man" stands him in good stead in the prison. A shrewd judge of human nature, quick- witted and self-confident, he applies the practiced cunning of his vocation to secure whatever privileges and perquisites the institution affords. His evident intelligence and aplomb powerfully impress the guards; his well-affected deference to authority flatters them. They are awed by his wonderful facility of expression, and great attainments in the mysterious world of baccarat and confidence games. At heart they envy the high priest of "easy money," and are proud to befriend him in his need. The officers exert themselves to please him, secure light work for him, and surreptitiously favor him with delicacies and even money. His game is won. The "con" has now secured the friendship and confidence of his keepers, and will continue to exploit them by pretended warm interest in their physical complaints, their family troubles, and their whispered ambition of promotion and fear of the Warden's discrimination.
      The more intelligent officers are the easiest victims of his wiles. But even the higher officials, more difficult to approach, do not escape the confidence man. His "business" has perfected his sense of orientation; he quickly rends the veil of appearance, and scans the undercurrents. He frets at his imprisonment, and hints at high social connections. His real identity is a great secret: he wishes to save his wealthy relatives from public disgrace. A careless slip of the tongue betrays his college education. With a deprecating nod he confesses that his father is a State Senator; he is the only black sheep in his family; yet they are "good" to him, and will not disown him. But he must not bring notoriety upon them.
      Eager for special privileges and the liberty of the trusties, or fearful of punishment, the "con man" matures his campaign. He writes a note to a fellow-prisoner. With much detail and thorough knowledge of prison conditions, he exposes all the "ins and outs" of the institution. In elegant English he criticizes the management, dwells upon the ignorance and brutality of the guards, and charges the Warden and the Board of Prison Inspectors with graft, individually and collectively. He denounces the Warden as a stomach-robber of poor unfortunates: the counties pay from twenty-five to thirty cents per day for each inmate; the Federal Government, for its quota of men, fifty cents per person. Why are the prisoners given qualitatively and quantitatively inadequate food? he demands. Does not the State appropriate thousands of dollars for the support of the penitentiary, besides the money received from the counties?-With keen scalpel the "con man" dissects the anatomy of the institution. One by one he analyzes the industries, showing the most intimate knowledge. The hosiery department produces so and so many dozen of stockings per day. They are not stamped "convict-made," as the law requires. The labels attached are misleading, and calculated to decoy the innocent buyer. The character of the product in the several mat shops is similarly an infraction of the statutes of the great State of Pennsylvania for the protection of free labor. The broom shop is leased by contract to a firm of manufacturers known as Lang Brothers: the law expressly forbids contract labor in prisons. The stamp "convict-made" on the brooms is pasted over with a label, concealing the source of manufacture.
      Thus the "con man" runs on in his note. With much show of secrecy he entrusts it to a notorious stool, for delivery to a friend. Soon the writer is called before the Warden. In the latter's hands is the note. The offender smiles complacently. He is aware the authorities are terrorized by the disclosure of such intimate familiarity with the secrets of the prison house, in the possession of an intelligent, possibly well-connected man. He must be propitiated at all cost. The "con man" joins the "politicians."

The ingenuity of imprisoned intelligence treads devious paths, all leading to the highway of enlarged liberty and privilege. The "old-timer," veteran of oft-repeated experience, easily avoids hard labor. He has many friends in the prison, is familiar with the keepers, and is welcomed by them like a prodigal coming home. The officers are glad to renew the old acquaintance and talk over old times. It brings interest into their tedious existence, often as gray and monotonous as the prisoner's.
      The seasoned "yeggman," constitutionally and on principle opposed to toil, rarely works. Generally suffering a comparatively short sentence, he looks upon his imprisonment as, in a measure, a rest-cure from the wear and tear of tramp life. Above average intelligence, he scorns work in general, prison labor in particular. He avoids it with unstinted expense of energy and effort. As a last resort, he plays the "jigger" card, producing an artificial wound on leg or arm, having every appearance of syphilitic excrescence. He pretends to be frightened by the infection, and prevails upon the physician to examine him. The doctor wonders at the wound, closely resembling the dreaded disease. "Ever had syphilis? " he demands. The prisoner protests indignantly. "Perhaps in the family?" the medicus suggests. The patient looks diffident, blushes, cries, "No, never!" and assumes a guilty look. The doctor is now convinced the prisoner is a victim of syphilis. The man is "excused" from work, indefinitely.
      The wily yegg, now a patient, secures a "snap" in the yard, and adapts prison conditions to his habits of life. He sedulously courts the friendship of some young inmate, and wins his admiration by "ghost stories" of great daring and cunning. He puts the boy "next to de ropes," and constitutes himself his protector against the abuse of the guards and the advances of other prisoners. He guides the youth's steps through the maze of conflicting rules, and finally initiates him into the "higher wisdom" of "de road."

The path of the "gun" is smoothed by his colleagues in the prison. Even before his arrival, the esprit de corps of the "profession" is at work, securing a soft berth for the expected friend. If noted for success and skill, he enjoys the respect of the officers, and the admiration of a retinue of aspiring young crooks, of lesser experience and reputation. With conscious superiority he instructs them in the finesse of his trade, practices them in nimble-fingered "touches," and imbues them with the philosophy of the plenitude of "suckers," whom the good God has put upon the earth to afford the thief an "honest living." His sentence nearing completion, the "gun" grows thoughtful, carefully scans the papers, forms plans for his first "job," arranges dates with his "partners," and gathers messages for their "moll buzzers." He is gravely concerned with the somewhat roughened condition of his hands, and the possible dulling of his sensitive fingers. He maneuvers, generally successfully, for lighter work, to "limber up a bit," "jollies" the officers and cajoles the Warden for new shoes, made to measure in the local shops, and insists on the ten-dollar allowance to prisoners received from counties outside of Allegheny. He argues the need of money "to leave the State." Often he does leave. More frequently a number of charges against the man are held in reserve by the police, and he is arrested at the gate by detectives who have been previously notified by the prison authorities.

The great bulk of the inmates, accidental and occasional offenders direct from the field, factory, and mine, plod along in the shops, in sullen misery and dread. Day in, day out, year after year, they drudge at the monotonous work, dully wondering at the numerous trusties idling about, while their own heavy tasks are constantly increased. From cell to shop and back again, always under the stern eyes of the guards, their days drag in deadening toil. In mute bewilderment they receive contradictory orders, unaware of the secret antagonisms between the officials. They are surprised at the new rule making attendance at religious service obligatory; and again at the succeeding order (the desired appropriation for a new chapel having been secured) making church-going optional. They are astonished at the sudden disappearance of the considerate and gentle guard, Byers, and anxiously hope for his return, not knowing that the officer who discouraged the underhand methods of the trusties fell a victim to their cabal.


Occasionally a bolder spirit grumbles at the exasperating partiality. Released from punishment, he patiently awaits an opportunity to complain to the Warden of his unjust treatment. Weeks pass. At last the Captain visits the shop. A propitious moment! The carefully trimmed beard frames the stern face in benevolent white, mellowing the hard features and lending dignity to his appearance. His eyes brighten with peculiar brilliancy as he slowly begins to stroke his chin, and then, almost imperceptibly, presses his fingers to his lips. As he passes through the shop, the prisoner raises his hand. "What is it?" the Warden inquires, a pleasant smile on his face. The man relates his grievance with nervous eagerness. "Oh, well," the Captain claps him on the shoulder, "perhaps a mistake; an unfortunate mistake. But , then, you might have done something at another time, and not been punished." He laughs merrily at his witticism. "It's so long ago, anyhow; we'll forget it," and he passes on.
      But if the Captain is in a different mood, his features harden, the stern eyes scowl, and he says in his clear, sharp tones: "State your grievance in writing, on the printed slip which the officer will give you." The written complaint, deposited in the mail-box, finally reaches the Chaplain, and is forwarded by him to the Warden's office. There the Deputy and the Assistant Deputy read and classify the slips, placing some on the Captain's file and throwing others into the waste basket, according as the accusation is directed against a friendly or an unfriendly brother officer. Months pass before the prisoner is called for "a hearing." By that time he very likely has a more serious charge against the guard, who now persecutes the "kicker." But the new complaint has not yet been "filed," and therefore the hearing is postponed. Not infrequently men are called for a hearing, who have been discharged, or died since making the complaint.
      The persevering prisoner, however, unable to receive satisfaction from the Warden, sends a written complaint to some member of the highest authority in the penitentiary-the Board of Inspectors. These are supposed to meet monthly to consider the affairs of the institution, visit the inmates, and minister to their moral needs. The complainant waits, mails several more slips, and wonders why he receives no audience with the Inspectors. But the latter remain invisible, some not visiting the penitentiary within a year. Only the Secretary of the Board, Mr. Reed, a wealthy jeweler of Pittsburgh, occasionally puts in an appearance. Tall and lean, immaculate and trim, he exhales an atmosphere of sanctimoniousness. He walks leisurely through the block, passes a cell with a lithograph of Christ on the wall, and pauses. His hands folded, eyes turned upwards, lips slightly parted in silent prayer, he inquires of the rangeman:
      "Whose cell is this?"
      "A 1108, Mr. Reed," the prisoner informs him.
      It is the cell of jasper, the colored trusty, chief stool of the prison.
      "He is a good man, a good man, God bless him," the Inspector says, a quaver in his voice.
      He steps into the cell, puts on his gloves, and carefully adjusts the little looking-glass and the rules, hanging awry on the wall. "It offends my eye," he smiles at the attending rangeman, "they don't hang straight."
      Young Tommy, in the adjoining cell, calls out: "Mr. Officer, please."
      The Inspector steps forward. "This is Inspector Reed," he corrects the boy. "What is it you wish?"
      "Oh, Mr. Inspector, I've been askin' t' see you a long time. I wanted-"
      "You should have sent me a slip. Have you a copy of the rules in the cell, my man?"
      "Yes, sir."
      "Can you read?"
      "No, sir."
      "Poor boy, did you never go to school?"
      "No, sir. Me moder died when I was a kid. Dey put me in de orphan an' den in de ref.
      "And your father?"
      "I had no fader. Moder always said he ran away before I was born'd. "
      "They have schools in the orphan asylum. Also in the reformatory, I believe."
      "Yep. But dey keeps me most o' de time in punishment. I didn' care fer de school, nohow."
      "You were a bad boy. How old are you now?"
      "What is your name?"
      "Tommy Wellman."
      "From Pittsburgh?"
      "Allegheny. Me moder use'ter live on de hill, near dis 'ere dump."
      "What did you wish to see me about?"
      "I can't stand de cell, Mr. Inspector. Please let me have some work."
      "Are you locked up 'for cause'?"
      "I smashed a guy in de jaw fer callin'me names."
      "Don't you know it's wrong to fight, my little man?"
      "He said me moder was a bitch, God damn his-"
      "Don't! Don't swear' Never take the holy name in vain. It's a great sin. You should have reported the man to your officer, instead of fighting."
      "I ain't no snitch. Will you get me out of de cell, Mr. Inspector? "
      "You are in the hands of the Warden. He is very kind, and he will do what is best for you."
      "Oh, hell! I'm locked up five months now. Dat's de best he's doin'fer me."
      "Don't talk like that to me," the Inspector upbraids him, severely. "You are a bad boy. You must pray; the good Lord will take care of you."
      "You get out o' here!" the boy bursts out in sudden fury cursing and swearing.
      Mr. Reed hurriedly steps back. His face, momentarily paling, turns red with shame and anger. He motions to the Captain of the Block.
      "Mr. Woods, report this man for impudence to an Inspector," he orders, stalking out into the yard.
      The boy is removed to the dungeon.

Oppressed and weary with the scenes of misery and torture, I welcome the relief of solitude, as I am locked in the cell for the night.


Reading and study occupy the hours of the evening. I spend considerable time corresponding with Nold and Bauer: our letters are bulky-ten, fifteen, and twenty pages long. There is much to say! We discuss events in the world at large, incidents of the local life, the maltreatment of the inmates, the frequent clubbings and suicides, the unwholesome food. I share with my comrades my experiences on the range; they, in turn, keep me informed of occurrences in the shops. Their paths run smoother, less eventful than mine, yet not without much heartache and bitterness of spirit. They, too, are objects of prejudice and persecution. The officer of the shop where Nold is employed has been severely reprimanded for "neglect of duty": the Warden had noticed Carl, in the company of several other prisoners, passing through the yard with a load of mattings. He ordered the guard never to allow Nold out of his sight. Bauer has also felt the hand of petty tyranny. He has been deprived of his dark clothes, and reduced to the stripes for "disrespectful behavior." Now he is removed to the North Wing, where my cell also is located, while Nold is in the South Wing, in a "double" cell, enjoying the luxury of a window. Fortunately, though, our friend, the "Horsethief," is still coffee-boy on Bauer's range, thus enabling me to reach the big German. The latter, after reading my notes, returns them to our trusted carrier, who works in the same shop with Carl. Our mail connections are therefore complete, each of us exercising utmost care not to be trapped during the frequent surprises of searching our cells and persons.
      Again the Prison Blossoms is revived. Most of the readers of the previous year, however, are missing. Dempsey and Beatty, the Knights of Labor men, have been pardoned, thanks to the multiplied and conflicting confessions of the informer, Gallagher, who still remains in prison. "D," our poet laureate, has also been released, his short term having expired. His identity remains a mystery, he having merely hinted that he was a "scientist of the old school, an alchemist," from which we inferred that he was a counterfeiter. Gradually we recruit our reading public from the more intelligent and trustworthy element: the Duquesne strikers renew their "subscriptions" by contributing paper material; with them join Frank Shay, the philosophic "second-story man"; George, the prison librarian; "Billy" Ryan, professional gambler and confidence man; "Yale," a specialist in the art of safe blowing, and former university student; the "Attorney-General," a sharp lawyer; "Magazine Alvin," writer and novelist; "Jim," from whose ingenuity no lock is secure, and others. "M" and "K" act as alternate editors; the rest as contributors. The several departments of the little magazinelet are ornamented with pen and ink drawings, one picturing Dante visiting the Inferno, another sketching a "pete man," with mask and dark lantern, in the act of boring a safe, while a third bears the inscription:

          I sometimes hold it half a sin
          To put in words the grief I feel,-
          For words, like nature, half reveal
          And half conceal the soul within.

The editorials are short, pithy comments on local events, interspersed with humorous sketches and caricatures of the officials; the balance of the Blossoms consists of articles and essays of a more serious character, embracing religion and philosophy, labor and politics, with now and then a personal reminiscence by the "second-story man," or some sex experience by "Magazine Alvin." One of the associate editors lampoons "Billy-goat Benny," the Deputy Warden; "K" sketches the "Shop Screw" and "The Trusted Prisoner"; and "G" relates the story of the recent strike in his shop, the men's demand for clear pump water instead of the liquid mud tapped from the river, and the breaking of the strike by the exile of a score of "rioters" to the dungeon. In the next issue the incident is paralleled with the Pullman Car Strike, and the punished prisoners eulogized for their courageous stand, some one dedicating an ultra-original poem to the "Noble Sons of Eugene Debs."
      But the vicissitudes of our existence, the change of location of several readers, the illness and death of two contributors, badly disarrange the route. During the winter, "K" produces a little booklet of German poems, while I elaborate the short "Story of Luba," written the previous year, into a novelette, dealing with life in New York and revolutionary circles. Presently "G" suggests that the manuscripts might prove of interest to a larger public, and should be preserved. We discuss the unique plan, wondering how the intellectual contraband could be smuggled into the light of day. In our perplexity we finally take counsel with Bob, the faithful commissary. He cuts the Gordian knot with astonishing levity: "Youse fellows jest go ahead an' write, an' don't bother about nothin'. Think I can walk off all right with a team of horses, but ain't got brains enough to get away with a bit of scribbling, eh? jest leave that to th' Horsethief, an' write till you bust th' paper works, see?" Thus encouraged, with entire confidence in our resourceful friend, we give the matter serious thought, and before long we form the ambitious project of publishing a book by "MKG"!
      In high elation, with new interest in life, we set to work. The little magazine is suspended, and we devote all our spare time, as well as every available scrap of writing material, to the larger purpose. We decide to honor the approaching day, so pregnant with revolutionary inspiration, and as the sun bursts in brilliant splendor on the eastern skies , the First of May, 1895, he steals a blushing beam upon the heading of the first chapter-"The Homestead Strike."

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