anarchy archives

An Online Research Center on the History and Theory of Anarchism



About Us

Contact Us

Other Links

Critics Corner


The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War
Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.

Chapter 25

How Shall the Depths Cry?


THE CHANGE OF seasons varies the tone of the prison. A cheerier atmosphere pervades the shops and the cell-house in the summer. The block is airier and lighter; the guards relax their stern look, in anticipation of their vacations; the men hopefully count the hours till their approaching freedom, and the gates open daily to release some one going back to the world.

But heavy gloom broods over the prison in winter. The windows are closed and nailed; the vitiated air, artificially heated, is suffocating with dryness. Smoke darkens the shops, and the cells are in constant dusk. Tasks grow heavier, the punishments more severe. The officers look sullen; the men are morose and discontented. The ravings of the insane become wilder, suicides more frequent; despair and hopelessness oppress every heart.

The undercurrent of rebellion, swelling with mute suffering and repression, turbulently sweeps the barriers. The severity of the authorities increases, methods of penalizing are more drastic; the prisoners fret, wax more querulous, and turn desperate with blind, spasmodic defiance.

But among the more intelligent inmates, dissatisfaction manifests more coherent expression. The Lexow investigation in New York has awakened an echo in the prison. A movement is quietly initiated among the solitaries, looking toward an investigation of Riverside.

I keep busy helping the men exchange notes maturing the project. Great care must be exercised to guard against treachery; only men of proved reliability may be entrusted with the secret, and precautions taken that no officer or stool scent our design. The details of the campaign are planned on "K" range, with Billy Ryan, Butch, Sloane, and Jimmie Grant, as the most trustworthy, in command. It is decided that the attack upon the management of the penitentiary is to be initiated from the 'outside." A released prisoner is to inform the press of the abuses, graft, and immorality rampant in Riverside. The public will demand an investigation. The "cabal" on the range will supply the investigators with data and facts that will rouse the conscience of the community, and cause the dismissal of the Warden and the introduction of reforms.

A prisoner, about to be discharged, is selected for the important mission of enlightening the press. In great anxiety and expectation we await the newspapers, the day following his liberation; we scan the pages closely. Not a word of the penitentiary! Probably the released man has not yet had an opportunity to visit the editors. In the joy of freedom, he may have looked too deeply into the cup that cheers. He will surely interview the papers the next day.

But the days pass into weeks, without any reference in the press to the prison. The trusted man has failed us! The revelation of the life at Riverside is of a nature not to be ignored by the press. The discharged inmate has proved false to his promise. Bitterly the solitaries denounce him, and resolve to select a more reliable man among the first candidates for liberty. One after another, a score of men are entrusted with the mission to the press. But the papers remain silent. Anxiously, though every day less hopefully, we search their columns. Ryan cynically derides the faithlessness of convict promises; Butch rages and swears at the traitors. But Sloane is sternly confident in his own probity, and cheers me as I pause at his cell: "Never min' them rats, Aleck. You jest wait till I go out. Here's the boy that'll keep his promise all right. What I won't do to old Sandy ain't worth mentionin'."

"Why, you still have two years, Ed," I remind him.

"Not on your tintype, Aleck. Only one and a stump."

"How big is the stump?"

"Wa-a-ll," he chuckles, looking somewhat diffident, "it's one year, elev'n months, an' twenty-sev'n days. It ain't no two years, though, see?"

Jimmy Grant grows peculiarly reserved, evidently disinclined to talk. He seeks to avoid me. The treachery of the released men fills him with resentment and suspicion of every one. He is impatient of my suggestion that the fault may lie with a servile press. At the mention of our plans, he bursts out savagely: "Forget it! You're no good, none of you. Let me be!" He turns his back to me, and angrily paces the cell.

His actions fill me with concern. The youth seems strangely changed. Fortunately, his time is almost served.


Like wildfire the news circles the prison. "The papers are giving Sandy hell!" The air in the block trembles with suppressed excitement. Jimmy Grant, recently released, had sent a communication to the State Board of Charities, bringing serious charges against the management of Riverside. The press publishes startlingly significant excerpts from Grant's letter. Editorially, however, the indictment is ignored by the majority of the Pittsburgh papers. One writer comments ambiguously, in guarded language, suggesting the improbability of the horrible practices alleged by Grant. Another eulogizes Warden Wright as an intelligent and humane man, who has the interest of the prisoners at heart. The detailed accusations are briefly dismissed as unworthy of notice, because coming from a disgruntled criminal who had not found prison life to his liking. Only the Leader and the Dispatch consider the matter seriously, refer to the numerous complaints from discharged prisoners, and suggest the advisability of an investigation; they urge upon the Warden the necessity of disproving, once for all, the derogatory statements regarding his management.

Within a few days the President of the Board of Charities announces his decision to "look over" the penitentiary. December is on the wane, and the Board is expected to visit Riverside after the holidays.


K. & G.:

Of course, neither of you has any more faith in alleged investigations than myself. The Lexow investigation, which shocked the whole country with its expose of police corruption, has resulted in practically nothing. One or two subordinates have been "scapegoated"; those "higher up" went unscathed, as usual; the "system" it-self remains in status quo. The one who has mostly profited by the spasm of morality is Goff, to whom the vice crusade afforded an opportunity to rise from obscurity into the national limelight. Parkhurst also has subsided, probably content with the enlarged size of his flock -- and salary. To give the devil his due, however, I admired his perseverance and courage in face of the storm of ridicule and scorn that met his initial accusations against the glorious police department of the metropolis. But though every charge has been proved in the most absolute manner, the situation, as a whole, remains unchanged.

It is the history of all investigations. As the Germans say, you can't convict the devil in the court of his mother-in-law. It has again been demonstrated by the Congressional "inquiry" into the Carnegie blow-hole armor plate; in the terrible revelations regarding Superintendent Brockway, of the Elmira Reformatory -- a veritable den for maiming and killing; and in numerous other instances. Warden Wright also was investigated, about ten years ago; a double set of books was then found, disclosing peculation of appropriations and theft of the prison product; brutality and murder were uncovered -- yet Sandy has remained in his position.

We can, therefore, expect nothing from the proposed investigation by the Board of Charities. I have no doubt it will be a whitewash. But I think that we -- the Anarchist trio -- should show our solidarity, and aid the inmates with our best efforts; we must prevent the investigation resulting in a farce, so far as evidence against the management is concerned. We should leave the Board no loophole, no excuse of a lack of witness or proofs to support Grant's charges. I am confident you will agree with me in this. I am collecting data for presentation to the investigators; I am also preparing a list of volunteer witnesses. I have seventeen numbers on my range, and others from various parts of this block and from the shops. They all seem anxious to testify, though I am sure some will weaken when the critical moment arrives. Several have already notified me to erase their names. But we shall have a sufficient number of witnesses; we want preferably such men as have personally suffered a clubbing, the bull ring, hanging by the wrists, or other punishment forbidden by the law.

I have already notified the Warden that I wish to testify before the Investigation Committee. My purpose was to anticipate his objection that there are already enough witnesses. I am the first on the list now. The completeness of the case against the authorities will surprise you. Fortunately, my position as rangeman has enabled me to gather whatever information I needed. I send you to-morrow duplicates of the evidence (to insure greater safety for our material). For the present I append a partial list of our "exhibits":

(1) Cigarettes and outside tobacco; bottle of whiskey and "dope"; dice, playing cards, cash money, several knives, two razors, postage stamps, outside mail, and other contraband. (These are for the purpose of proving the Warden a liar in denying to the press the existence of gambling in the prison, the selling of bakery and kitchen provisions for cash, the possession of weapons, and the possibility of underground communication.)

(2) Prison-made beer. A demonstration of the staleness of our bread and the absence of potatoes in the soup. (The beer is made from fermented yeast stolen by the trusties from the bakery; also from potatoes.)

(3) Favoritism; special privileges of trusties; political jobs; the system of stool espionage.

(4)Pennsylvania diet; basket; dungeon; cuffing and chaining up; neglect of the sick; punishment of the insane.

(5) Names and numbers of men maltreated and clubbed.

(6) Data of assaults and cutting affrays in connection with "kid-business," the existence of which the Warden absolutely denies.

(7) Special case of A 444, who attacked the Warden in church, because of jealousy of "Lady Goldie."

(8) Graft:

(a) Hosiery department: fake labels, fictitious names of manufacture, false book entries.

(b) Broom shop: convict labor hired out, to law, to Lang Bros., broom manufacturers, of Allegheny, Pa. Goods sold to the United States Government, through sham middleman. Labels bear legend, "Union Broom." Sample enclosed. (c) Mats, mattings, mops -- product not stamped.

(d) Shoe and tailor shops: prison materials used for the private needs of the Warden, the officers, and their families.

(e) $75,000, appropriated by the State (1893) for a new chapel. The bricks of the old building used for the new except one outside layer. All the work done by prisoners. Architect, Mr. A. Wright, the Warden's son. Actual cost of chapel, $7,000. The inmates forced to attend services to overcrowd the old church; after the desired appropriation was secured, attendance became optional.

(f) Library: the 25c. tax, exacted from every unofficial visitor, is supposed to go to the book fund. About 50 visitors per day, the year round. No new books added to the library in 10 years. Old duplicates donated by the public libraries of Pittsburgh are catalogued as purchased new books.

(g) Robbing the prisoners of remuneration for their labor. See copy of Act of 1883, P.L. 112.

(Act of 1883, June 13, P.L. 112)

Section l- At the expiration of existing contracts, Wardens are directed to employ the convicts under their control for and in behalf of the State.

Section 2- No labor shall be hired out by contract.

Section 4- All convicts under the control of the State and county officers, and all inmates of reformatory institutions engaged in the manufacture of articles for general consumption, shall receive quarterly wages equal to the amount of their earnings, to be fixed from time to time by the authorities of the institution, from which board, lodging, clothing, and costs of trial shall be deducted, and the balance paid to their families or dependents; in case none such appear, the amount shall be paid to the convict at the expiration of his term of imprisonment.

The prisoners receive no payment whatever, even for overtime work, except occasionally a slice of pork for supper.

K. G., plant this and other material I'll send you, in a safe place.


This page has been accessed times since October 31, 2006.


[Home]               [Search]               [About Us]               [Contact Us]               [Other Links]               [Critics Corner]