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 30

Whitewashed Again


My Dear Carl:

I have been despairing of reaching you sub rosa, but the holidays brought the usual transfers, and at last friend Schraube is with me. Dear Carolus, I am worn out with the misery of the months since you left, and the many disappointments. Your official letters were not convincing. I fail to understand why the plan is not practicable. Of course, you can't write openly, but you have means of giving a hint as to the "impossibilities" you speak of. You say that I have become too estranged from the outside, and so forth -- which may be true. Yet I think the matter chiefly concerns the inside, and of that I am the best judge. I do not see the force of your argument when you dwell upon the application at the next session of the Pardon Board. You mean that the other plan would jeopardize the success of the legal attempt. But there is not much hope of favorable action by the Board. We have talked all this over before, but you seem to have a different view now. Why?

Only in a very small measure do your letters replace in my life the heart-to-heart talks we used to have here, though they were only on paper. But I am much interested in your activities. It seems strange that you, so long the companion of my silence, should now be in the very Niagara of life, of our movement. It gives me satisfaction to know that your experience here has matured you, and helped to strengthen and deepen your convictions. It has had a similar effect upon me. You know what a voluminous reader I am. I have read -- in fact, studied -- every volume in the library here, and now the Chaplain supplies me with books from his. But whether it be philosophy, travel, or contemporary life that falls into my hands, it invariably distills into my mind the falsity of dominant ideas, and the beauty, the inevitability of Anarchism. But I do not want to enlarge upon this subject now; we can discuss it through official channels.

You know that Tony and his nephew are here. We are just getting acquainted. He works in the shop; but as he is also coffee-boy, we have an opportunity to exchange notes. It is fortunate that his identity is not known; otherwise he would fall under special surveillance. I have my eyes on Tony, -- he may prove valuable.

I am still in solitary, with no prospect of relief. You know the policy of the Warden to use me as a scapegoat for everything that happens here. It has become a mania with him. Think of it, he blames me for Johnny Davis' cutting "Dutch." He laid everything at my door when the legislative investigation took place. It was a worse sham than the previous whitewash. Several members called to see me at the cell, -- unofficially, they said. They got a hint of the evidence I was prepared to give, and one of them suggested to me that it is not advisable for one in my position to antagonize the Warden. I replied that I was no toady. He hinted that the authorities of the prison might help me to procure freedom, if I would act "discreetly." I insisted that I wanted to be heard by the committee. They departed, promising to call me as a witness. One Senator remarked, as he left: "You are too intelligent a man to be at large."

When the hearing opened, several officers were the first to take the stand. The testimony was not entirely favorable to the Warden. Then Mr. Sawhill was called. You know him; he is an independent sort of man, with an eye upon the wardenship. His evidence came like a bomb: he charged the management with corruption and fraud, and so forth. The investigators took fright. They closed the sessions and departed for Harrisburg, announcing through the press that they would visit Moyamensing1 and then return to Riverside. But they did not return. The report they submitted to the Governor exonerated the Warden.

The men were gloomy over the state of affairs. A hundred prisoners were prepared to testify, and much was expected from the committee. I had all my facts on hand: Bob had fished out for me the bundle of material from its hiding place. It was in good condition, in spite of the long soaking. (I am enclosing some new data in this letter, for use in our book.)

Now that he is "cleared," the Warden has grown even more arrogant and despotic. Yet some good the agitation in the press has accomplished: clubbings are less frequent, and the bull ring is temporarily abolished. But his hatred of me has grown venomous. He holds us responsible (together with Dempsey and Beatty) for organizing the opposition to convict labor, which has culminated in the Muehlbronner law. It is to take effect on the first of the year. The prison administration is very bitter, because the statute, which permits only thirty-five per cent of the inmates to be employed in productive labor, will considerably minimize opportunities for graft. But the men are rejoicing: the terrible slavery in the shops has driven many to insanity and death. The law is one of the rare instances of rational legislation. Its benefit to labor in general is nullified, however, by limiting convict competition only within the State. The Inspectors are already seeking a market for the prison products in other States, while the convict manufactures of New York, Ohio, Illinois, etc., are disposed of in Pennsylvania. The irony of beneficent legislation! On the other hand, the inmates need not suffer for lack of employment. The new law allows the unlimited manufacture, within the prison, of products for local consumption. If the whine of the management regarding the "detrimental effect of idleness on the convict" is sincere, they could employ five times the population of the prison in the production of articles for our own needs.

At present all the requirements of the penitentiary are supplied from the outside. The purchase of a farm, following the example set by the workhouse, would alone afford work for a considerable number of men. I have suggested, in a letter to the Inspectors, various methods by which every inmate of the institution be employed, -- among them the publication of a prison paper. Of course, they have ignored me. But what can you expect of a body of philanthropists who have the interest of the convict so much at heart that they delegated the President of the Board, George A. Kelly, to oppose the parole bill, a measure certainly along advanced lines of modern criminology. Owing to the influence of Inspector Kelly, the bill was shelved at the last session of the legislature, though the prisoners have been praying for it for years. It has robbed the moneyless life-timers of their last hope: a clause in the parole bill held out to them the promise of release after 20 years of good behavior.

Dark days are in store for the men. Apparently the campaign of the Inspectors consists in forcing the repeal of the Muehlbronner law, by raising the hue and cry of insanity and sickness. They are actually causing both by keeping half the population locked up. You know quickly the solitary drives certain classes of prisoners insane. Especially the more ignorant element, whose mental horizon is circumscribed by their personal troubles and pain, speedily fall victims. Think of men, who cannot even read, put incommunicado for months at a time, for years even! Most of the colored prisoners, and those accustomed to outdoor life, such as farmers and the like, quickly develop the germs of consumption in close confinement. Now, this willful murder -- for it is nothing else -- is absolutely unnecessary. The yard is big and well protected by the thirty-foot wall, with armed guards patrolling it. Why not give the unemployed men air and exercise, since the management is determined to keep them idle? I suggested the idea to the Warden, but he berated me for my "habitual interference" in matters that do not concern me. I often wonder at the enigma of human nature. There's the Captain, a man 72 years old. He should bethink himself of death, of "meeting his Maker," since he pretends to believe in religion. Instead, he is bending all his energies to increase insanity and disease among the convicts, in order to force the repeal of the law that has lessened the flow of blood money. It is almost beyond belief; but you have yourself witnessed the effect of a brutal atmosphere upon new officers. Wright has been Warden for thirty years: he has come to regard the prison as his undisputed dominion; and now he is furious at the legislative curtailment of his absolute control.

This letter will remind you of our bulky notes in the "good" old days when "KG" were here. I miss our correspondence. There are some intelligent men on the range, but they are not interested in the thoughts that seethe within me and call for expression. Just now the chief topic of local interest (after, of course, the usual discussion of the grub, women, kids, and their health and troubles) is the Spanish War and the new dining-room, in which the shop employees are to be fed en masse, out of chinaware, think of it! Some of the men are tremendously patriotic; others welcome the war as a sinecure affording easy money and plenty of excitement. You remember Young Butch and his partners, Murtha, Tommy, etc. They have recently been released, too wasted and broken in health to be fit for manual labor. All of them have signified their intention of joining the insurrection; some are enrolling in the regular army for the war. Butch is already in Cuba. I had a letter from him. There is a passage in it that is tragically characteristic. He refers to a skirmish he participated in. "We shot a lot of Spaniards, mostly from ambush," he writes; "it was great sport." It is the attitude of the military adventurer, to whom a sacred cause like the Cuban uprising unfortunately affords the opportunity to satisfy his lust for blood. Butch was a very gentle boy when he entered the prison. But he has witnessed much heartlessness and cruelty during his term of three years.

Letter growing rather long. Good night.


1 The Eastern Penitentiary at Philadelphia, Pa.

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


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