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



The Deviousness of Reform Law Applied

FEBRUARY 14, 1899.

Dear Carlous:

The Greeks thought the gods spiteful creatures. When things began to look brighter for man, they grow envious. You’ll be surprised,—Mr. Schraube has turned into an enemy. Mostly my own fault; that's the sting of it. It will explain to you the failure of the former sub rosa route. The present one is safe, but very temporary.

            It happened last fall. From assistance I was advanced to hallman, having charge of the “crank row,” on Range A. A new order curtailed the rations of the insane,—no cornbread, cheese, or hash; only bread and coffee. As rangeman, I help to “feed,” and generally have “extras” left on the wagon—some one sick, or refusing food, etc. I used to distribute the extras, “on the q.t.,” among the men deprived of them. One day, just before Christmas, an officer happened to notice Patsy chewing a piece of cheese. The poor fellow is quite imbecile; he did not know enough to hid what I gave him. Well, you are aware that “Cornbread Tom” does not love me. He reported me. I admitted the charge to the Warden, and tried to tell him how hungry the men were. He wouldn’t hear of it, saying that the insane should not “overload” their stomachs. I was ordered locked up. Within a month I was out again, but imagine my surprise when Schraube refused to even talk to me. At first I could not fathom the mystery; later I learned he was reprimanded, losing ten days’ pay for “allowing” me to feed the demented. He knew nothing about it, of course, but he was at the time in special charge of “crank row.” The Schraube has been telling my friends that I got him in trouble willfully. He seems to nurse his grievance with much bitterness; he apparently hates me now with the hatred we often feel toward those who know our secrets. But he realizes he has nothing to fear from me.

Many changes have taken place since you left. You would hardly recognize the block if you returned [better stay out, though]. No more talking through the waste pipes; the new privies have standing water. Electricity is gradually taking the place of candles. The garish light is almost driving me blind, and the innovation has created a new problem: how to light our pipes. We are given the same monthly allowance of matches, each packages supposed to contain 30, but usually having 27; and last month I received only 25. I made a kick, but it was in vain. The worst of it is, fully a third the matches are damp and don’t light. While we used candles we managed somehow, borrowing a few matches occasionally from non-smokers. But now that candles are abolished, the difficulty is very serious. I split each match into four; sometimes I succeed in making six. There is a man on the range who is an artist at it: he can make eight cuts out of a match; all serviceable, too. Even at that, there is a famine, and I have been forced to return to the stone age: with flint and tinder I draw the fire of Prometheus.

The mess-room is in full blast. The sight of a thousand men, bent over their food in complete silence, officers flanking each table, is by no means appetizing. But during the Spanish War, the place resembled the cell-house on New Year’s Eve. The patriotic Warden daily read to the diners the latest news, and such cheering and wild yelling you have never heard. Especially did the Hobson exploit fire the spirit of jingoism. But the enthusiasm suddenly cooled when the men realized that they we wasting precious minutes hurrahing, and then leaving the table hungry when the bell terminated the meal. Some tried to pocked the uneaten beans and rice but the guards detected them, and after that the Warden's war reports were accompanied only with loud munching and champing

            Another innovation is exercise. Your interviews with the reporters, and those of other released prisoners, have at last forced the Warden to allow the idle men an hour’s recreation. In inclement weather, they walk in the cell house; on fine days, in the yard. The reform was instituted last autumn, and the improvement in health is remarkable. The doctor is enthusiastically in favor of the privilege; the sick-line has been so considerably reduced that he estimates his time-saving at two hours daily. Some of the boys tell me they have almost entirely ceased masturbating. The shop employees envy the “idlers” now; many have purposely precipitated trouble in order to be put in solitary, and thus enjoy an hour in the open. But Sandy "got next,'' and now those locked up "for cause" are excluded from exercise.  

Here are some data for our book. The population at the end of last year was 956—the lowest point in over a decade. The Warden admits that the war has decreased crime; the inspectors' report refers to the improved economic conditions, as compared with the panicky times of the opening years in the 90's. But the authorities do not appear very happy over the reduction in the Riverside population. You understand the reason: the smaller the total, the less men may be exploited in the industries. I am not prepared to say whether there is collusion between the judges and the administration of the prison, but it is very significant that the class of offenders formerly sent to the workhouse are being increasingly sentenced to the penitentiary, and an unusual number are transferred here from the Reformatory at Huntington and the Reform School of Morganza. The old-timers joke about the Warden telephoning to the Criminal Court, to notify the judges how many men are "wanted" for the stocking shop.

The unions might be interested in the methods of nullifying the convict labor law. In every shop twice as many are employed as the statute allows; the "illegal" are carried on the books as men working on "State account"; that is, as cleaners and clerks, not as producers. Thus it happens that in the mat shop, for instance, more men are booked as clerks and sweepers than are employed on the looms! In the broom shop there are 30 supposed clerks and 15 cleaners, to a total of 53 producers legally permitted. This is the way the legislation works on which the labor bodies have expended such tremendous efforts. The broom shop is still contracted to Lang Bros., with their own foreman in charge, and his son a guard in the prison.

Enough for to-day. When I hear of the safe arrival of this letter, I may have more intimate things to discuss.


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