Page:Mexico as it was and as it is.djvu/348

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269
PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS.

quarrel, or unknown murder during the night; and all who miss a friend, a parent or a brother, resort to these iron bars to seek the lost one. It is painful to behold the scenes to which this melancholy assemblage frequently give rise, and hear the wails of sorrow that break from the homeless orphan, whose parent lies murdered on the stones of the dead-house.

Yet this is scarcely more shocking than the scenes presented by the living, within the walls of the loathsome prison. A strong guard of military is stationed at the gate, and you enter, after due permission from the commanding officer. A gloomy stair leads to the second story, the entrance to which is guarded by a portal massive enough to resist the assault of a powerful force. Within, a lofty apartment is filled with the officers of the prison and a crowd of subalterns, engaged in writing, talking, and walking—amid the hum of the crowd, the clank of chains, the shout of prisoners, and the eternal din of an ill-regulated establishment.

Passing through several iron and wood barred gates, you enter a lofty corridor, running around a quadrangular court-yard, in the centre of which, beneath, is a fountain of troubled water. The whole of this area is filled with human beings—the great congress of Mexican crime—mixed and mingling, like a hill of busy ants swarming from their sandy caverns. Some are stripped and bathing in the fountain; some are fighting in a corner; some making baskets in another. In one place a crowd is gathered around a witty story-teller, relating the adventures of his rascally life. In another, a group is engaged in weaving with a hand-loom. Robbers, murderers, thieves, ravishers, felons of eyery description, and vagabonds of every aspect, are crammed within this court-yard;— and, almost free from discipline or moral restraint, form, perhaps, the most splendid school of misdemeanor and villainy on the American Continent.

Below, within the corridor of the second story—from which I have described the view of this wretched mass of humanity—a rather better sort of criminals are kept; and yet, even here, many were pointed out to me as being under sentence of death, who still went about entirely without restraint.

In one corner of the quadrangle is the chapel, where convicts for capital offences are condemned to solitude and penance, during the three last days of their miserable life; and, at a certain hour, it is usual for all the prisoners to gather in front of the door, and chant a hymn for the victim of the laws. It b a solenm service of crime for crime.

I did not see the prison for the women, but I am told it is much the same as the one I have just described. About one hundred of the men, chained in pairs like galley slaves, are driven daily into the streets, under a strong guard, as scavengers; and it seems to be the chief idea of the utility of prisons in Mexico, to support this class of coerced laborers.

There can be no apology, at this period of general enlightenment in the world, for such disgraceful exhibitions of the congregated vice of a country. Punishment, or rather, incarceration, and labor on the streets, in the manner I have described, is, in fact, no sacrifice;—both because public