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




SUFFERING AND EVER-PRESENT danger are quick teachers. In the three months of penitentiary life I have learned many things. I doubt whether the vague terrors pictured by my inexperience were more dreadful than the actuality of prison existence.
      In one respect, especially, the reality is a source of bitterness and constant irritation. Notwithstanding all its terrors, perhaps because of them, I had always thought of prison as a place where, in a measure, nature comes into its own: social distinctions are abolished, artificial barriers destroyed; no need of hiding one's thoughts and emotions; one could be his real self, shedding all hypocrisy and artifice at the prison gates. But how different is this life! It is full of deceit, sham, and pharisaism-an aggravated counterpart of the outside world. The flatterer, the backbiter, the spy,-these find here a rich soil. The ill-will of a guard portends disaster, to be averted only by truckling and flattery, and servility fawns for the reward of an easier job. The dissembling soul in stripes whines his conversion into the pleased ears of the Christian ladies, taking care he be not surprised without tract Or Bible,-and presently simulated piety secures a pardon, for the angels rejoice at the sinner's return to the fold. It sickens me to witness these scenes.
      The officers make the alternative quickly apparent to the new inmate: to protest against injustice is unavailing and dangerous. Yesterday I witnessed in the shop a characteristic incident-a fight between Johnny Davis and Jack Bradford, both recent arrivals and mere boys. Johnny, a manly-looking fellow, works on a knitting machine, a few feet from my table. Opposite him is Jack, whose previous experience in a reformatory has "put him wise," as he expresses it. My three months' stay has taught me the art of conversing by an almost imperceptible motion of the lips. In this manner I learned from Johnny that Bradford is stealing his product, causing him repeated punishment for shortage in the task. Hoping to terminate the thefts, Johnny complained to the overseer, though without accusing Jack. But the guard ignored the complaint, and continued to report the youth. Finally Johnny was sent to the dungeon. Yesterday morning he returned to work. The change in the rosy-cheeked boy was startling: pale and hollow-eyed, he walked with a weak, halting step. As he took his place at the machine, I heard him say to the officer:
      "Mr. Cosson, please put me somewhere else."
      "Why so?" the guard asked.
      "I can't make the task here. I'll make it on another machine, please, Mr. Cosson."
      "Why can't you make it here?"
      "I'm missing socks."
      "Ho, ho, playing the old game, are you? Want to go to th, hole again, eh?"
      "I couldn't stand the hole again, Mr. Cosson, swear to God, I couldn't. But my socks's missing here."
      "Missing hell! Who's stealing your socks, eh? Don't come with no such bluff. Nobody can't steal your socks while I'm around. You go to work now, and you'd better make the task, understand? "
      Late in the afternoon, when the count was taken, Johnny proved eighteen pairs short. Bradford was "over."
      I saw Mr. Cosson approach Johnny.
      "Eh, thirty, machine thirty," he shouted. "You won't make the task, eh? Put your coat and cap on."
      Fatal words! They meant immediate report to the Deputy, and the inevitable sentence to the dungeon.
      " Oh, Mr. Cosson," the youth pleaded, "it ain't my fault, so help me God, it isn't."
      "It ain't, eh? Whose fault is it; mine?"
      Johnny hesitated. His eyes sought the ground, then wandered toward Bradford, who studiously avoided the look.
      "I can't squeal," he said, quietly.
      "Oh, hell! You ain't got nothin' to squeal. Get your coat and cap."
      Johnny passed the night in the dungeon. This morning he came up, his cheeks more sunken, his eyes more hollow. With desperate energy he worked. He toiled steadily, furiously, his gaze fastened upon the growing pile of hosiery. Occasionally he shot a glance at Bradford, who, confident of the officer's favor, met the look of hatred with a sly winking of the left eye.
      Once Johnny, without pausing in the work, slightly turned his head in my direction. I smiled encouragingly, and at that same instant I saw Jack's hand slip across the table and quickly snatch a handful of Johnny's stockings. The next moment a piercing shriek threw the shop into commotion. With difficulty they tore away the infuriated boy from the prostrate Bradford. Both prisoners were taken to the Deputy for trial, with Senior Officer Cosson as the sole witness.
      Impatiently I awaited the result. Through the open window I saw the overseer return. He entered the shop, a smile about the corners of his mouth. I resolved to speak to him when he passed by.
      "Mr. Cosson," I said, with simulated respectfulness, "may I ask you a question?"
      "Why, certainly, Burk, I won't eat you. Fire away!"
      "What have they done with the boys?"
      "Johnny got ten days in the hole. Pretty stiff, eh? You see, he started the fight, so he won't have to make the task. Oh, I'm next to him all right. They can't fool me so easy, can they, Burk?"
      "Well, I should say not, Mr. Cosson. Did you see how the fight started?"
      "No. But Johnny admitted he struck Bradford first. That's enough, you know. 'Brad' will be back in the shop to-morrow. I got 'im off easy, see; he's a good worker, always makes more than th' task. He'll jest lose his supper. Guess he can stand it. Ain't much to lose, is there, Burk?"
      "No, not much," I assented. "But, Mr. Cosson, it was all Bradford's fault."
      "How so? " the guard demanded.
      "He has been stealing Johnny's socks."
      "You didn't see him do 't. "
      "Yes, Mr. Cosson. I saw him this-"
      "Look here, Burk. it's all right. Johnny is no good anyway; he's too fresh. You'd better say nothing about it, see? My word goes with the Deputy."

The terrible injustice preys on my mind. Poor Johnny is already the fourth day in the dreaded dungeon. His third time, too, and yet absolutely innocent. My blood boils at the thought of the damnable treatment and the officer's perfidy. It is my duty as a revolutionist to take the part of the persecuted. Yes, I will do so. But how proceed in the matter? Complaint against Mr. Cosson would in all likelihood prove futile. And the officer, informed of my action, will make life miserable for me: his authority in the shop is absolute.
      The several plans I revolve in my mind do not prove, upon closer examination, feasible. Considerations of personal interest struggle against my sense of duty. The vision of Johnny in the dungeon, his vacant machine, and Bradford's smile of triumph, keep the accusing conscience awake, till silence grows unbearable. I determine to speak to the Deputy Warden at the first opportunity.
      Several days pass. Often I am assailed by doubts: is it advisable to mention the matter to the Deputy? It cannot benefit Johnny; it will involve me in trouble. But the next moment I feel ashamed of my weakness. I call to mind the muchadmired hero of my youth, the celebrated Mishkin. With an overpowering sense of my own unworthiness, I review the brave deeds of Hippolyte Nikitich. What a man! Single-handed he essayed to liberate Chernishevsky from prison. Ah, the curse of poverty! But for that, Mishkin would have succeeded, and the great inspirer of the youth of Russia would have been given back to the world. I dwell on the details of the almost successful escape, Mishkin's fight with the pursuing Cossacks, his arrest, and his remarkable speech in court. Sentenced to ten years of hard labor in the Siberian mines, he defied the Russian tyrant by his funeral oration at the grave of Dmokhovsky, his boldness resulting in an additional fifteen years of katorga. Minutely I follow his repeated attempts to escape, the transfer of the redoubtable prisoner to the Petropavloskaia fortress, and thence to the terrible Schlusselburg prison, where Mishkin braved death by avenging the maltreatment of his comrades on a high government official- Ah! thus acts the revolutionist; and I-yes, I am decided. No danger shall seal my lips against outrage and injustice. -
      At last an opportunity is at hand. The Deputy enters the shop. Tall and gray, slightly stooping, with head carried forward, he resembles a wolf following the trail.
      "Mr. McPane, one moment, please."
      "I think Johnny Davis is being punished innocently."
      "You think, hm, hm. And who is this innocent Johnny, hm, Davis? "
      His fingers drum impatiently on the table; he measures me with mocking, suspicious eyes.
      "Machine thirty, Deputy."
      "Ah, yes; machine thirty; hm, hm, Reddy Davis. Hm, he had a fight."
      "The other man stole his stockings. I saw it, Mr. McPane."
      "So, so. And why, hm, hm, did you see it, my good man? You confess, then, hm, hm, you were not, hm, attending to your own work. That is bad, hm, very bad. Mr. Cosson!
      The guard hastens to him.
      "Mr. Cosson, this man has made a, hm, hm, a charge against you. Prisoner, don't interrupt me, Hm, what is your number? "
      "A 7."
      "Mr. Cosson, A 7 makes a, hm, complaint against the officer, hm, in charge of this shop. Please, hm, hm, note it down."
      Both draw aside, conversing in low tones. The words "kicker," "his kid," reach my ears. The Deputy nods at the overseer, his steely eyes fastened on me in hatred.


I feel helpless, friendless. The consolation of Wingie's cheerful spirit is missing. My poor friend is in trouble. From snatches of conversation in the shop I have pieced together the story. "Dutch" Adams, a third-timer and the Deputy's favorite stool pigeon, had lost his month's allowance of tobacco on a prizefight bet. He demanded that Wingie, who was stakeholder, share the spoils with him. Infuriated by refusal, "Dutch" reported my friend for gambling. The unexpected search of Wingie's cell discovered the tobacco, thus apparently substantiating the charge. Wingie was sent to the dungeon. But after the expiration of five days my friend failed to return to his old cell, and I soon learned that he had been ordered into solitary confinement for refusing to betray the men who had trusted him.
      The fate of Wingie preys on my mind. My poor kind friend is breaking down under the effects of the dreadful sentence. This morning, chancing to pass his cell, I hailed him, but he did not respond to my greeting. Perhaps he did not hear me, I thought. Impatiently I waited for the noon return to the block. "Hello, Wingie!" I called. He stood at the door, intently peering between the bars. He stared at me coldly, with blank, expressionless eyes. "Who are you?" he whimpered, brokenly. Then he began to babble. Suddenly the terrible truth dawned on me. My poor, poor friend, the first to speak a kind word to me,-he's gone mad!

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