Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist/Part II/Chapter 21

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Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman
Part II, Chapter 21
First published in 1912

Chapter 21: The Deeds of the Good to the Evil[edit]

THE NEW ARRIVALS are forlorn and dejected, a look of fear and despair in their eyes. The long-timers among them seem dazed, as if with some terrible shock, and fall upon the bed in stupor-like sleep. The boys from the reformatories, some mere children in their teens, weep and moan, and tremble at the officer's footstep. Only the "repeaters" and old-timers preserve their composure, scoff at the "fresh fish," nod at old acquaintances, and exchange vulgar pleasantries with the guards. But all soon grow nervous and irritable, and stand at the door, leaning against the bars, an expression of bewildered hopelessness or anxious expectancy on their faces. They yearn for companionship, and are pathetically eager to talk, to hear the sound of a voice, to unbosom their heavy hearts.

I am minutely familiar with every detail of their "case," their life-history, their hopes and fears. Through the endless weeks and months on the range, their tragedies are the sole subject of conversation. A glance into the mournful faces, pressed close against the bars, and the panorama of misery rises before me,-the cell-house grows more desolate, bleaker, the air gloomier and more depressing,

There is Joe Zappe, his bright eyes lighting up with a faint smile as I pause at his door. "Hello, Alick," he greets me in his sweet, sad voice. He knows me from the jail. His father and elder brother have been executed, and he commuted to life because of youth. He is barely eighteen, but his hair has turned white. He has been acting queerly of late: at night I often hear him muttering and walking, walking incessantly and muttering. There is a peculiar look about his eyes, restless, roving.

"Alick," he says, suddenly, "me wanna tell you sometink. You no tell nobody, yes?"

Assured I'll keep his confidence, he begins to talk quickly, excitedly:

"Nobody dere, Alick? No scroo? S-sh! Lassa night me see ma broder. Yes, see Gianni. Jesu Cristo, me see ma poor broder in da cella 'ere, an' den me fader he come. Broder and fader day stay der, on da floor, an so quieta, lika dead, an' den dey come an lay downa in ma bed. Oh, Jesu Christo, me so fraida, me cry an' pray. You not know wat it mean? No-o-o? Me tell you. It mean me die, me die soon."

His eyes glow with a somber fire, a hectic flush on his face. He knits his brows, as I essay to calm him, and continues hurriedly:

"S-sh! Waita till me tell you all. You know watta for ma fader an' Gianni come outa da grave? Me tell you. Dey calla for ravange, 'cause dey innocente. Me tell you trut. See, we all worka in da mine, da coal mine, me an' my fader an' Gianni. All worka hard an' mek one dollar, maybe dollar quater da day. An' bigga American man, him come an' boder ma fader. Ma fader him no wanna trouble; him old man, no boder nobody. An' da American man him maka two dollars an mebbe two fifty da day an' him boder my fader, all da time, boder 'im. an' kick 'im. to da legs, an' steal ma broder's shovel, an' hide fader's hat, an' maka trouble for ma countrymen, an' call us 'dirty dagoes.' An' one day him an' two Arish dey all drunk, an' smash ma fader, an' American man an Arish holler, 'Dago s- b- fraida fight/ an' da American man him take a bigga pickax an' warma hit ma fader, an' ma fader him run, an' me an' ma broder an' friend we fight, an' American man him fall, an' we all go way home. Den p'lice come an' arresta me an' fader an' broder, an' say we killa American man. Me an' ma broder no use knife, mebbe ma friend do. Me no know; him no arresta; him go home in Italia. Ma fader an' broder dey save nineda-sev'n dollar, an' me save twenda-fife, an' gotta laiyer. Him no good, an' no talk much in court. We poor men, no can take case in oder court, an' fader him hang, an' Gianni hang, an' me get life. Ma fader an' broder dey come lassa night from da grave, cause dey innocente an' wanna ravange, an' me gotta mek ravange, me no rest, gotta-"

The sharp snapping of Johnny, the runner, warns me of danger, and I hastily leave.

The melancholy figures line the doors as I walk up and down the hall. The blanched faces peer wistfully through the bars, or lean dejectedly against the wall, a vacant stare in the dim eyes. Each calls to mind the stories of misery and distress, the scenes of brutality and torture I witness in the prison house. Like ghastly nightmares, the shadows pass before me. There is "Silent Nick," restlessly pacing his cage, never ceasing, his lips sealed in brutish muteness. For three years he has not left the cell, nor uttered a word. The stolid features are cut and bleeding. Last night he had attempted suicide, and the guards beat him, and left him unconscious on the floor.

There is "Crazy Hunkie," the Austrian. Every morning, as the officer unlocks his door to hand in the loaf of bread, he makes a wild dash for the yard, shouting, "Me wife! Where's me wife?" He rushes toward the front, and desperately grabs the door handle. The double iron gate is securely locked. A look of blank amazement on his face, he slowly returns to the cell. The guards await him with malicious smile. Suddenly they rush upon him, blackjacks in hand. "Me wife, me seen her!" the Austrian cries. The blood gushing from his mouth and nose, they kick him into the cell. "Me wife waiting in de yard," he moans.

In the next cell is Tommy Wellman; adjoining him, Jim Grant. They are boys recently transferred from the reformatory. They cower in the corner, in terror of the scene. With tearful eyes, they relate their story. Orphans in the slums of Allegheny, they had been sent to the reform school at Morganza, for snatching fruit off a corner stand. Maltreated and beaten, they sought to escape. Childishly they set fire to the dormitory, almost in sight of the keepers. "I says to me chum, says I," Tommy narrates with boyish glee, "'Kid/ says I, 'let's fire de louzy joint; dere'll be lots of fun, and we'll make our get-away in de' 'citement. "' They were taken to court, and the good judge sentenced them to five years to the penitentiary. "Glad to get out of dat dump," Tommy comments; "it was jest fierce. Dey paddled an' starved us someting' turrible. "

In the basket cell, a young colored man grovels on the floor. It is Lancaster, Number 8523. He was serving seven years, and working every day in the mat shop. Slowly the days passed, and at last the longed-for hour of release arrived. But Lancaster was not discharged. He was kept at his task, the Warden informing him that he had lost six months of his "good time" for defective work. The light-hearted negro grew sullen and morose. Often the silence of the cell-house was pierced by his anguished cry in the night, "My time's up, time's up. I want to go home." The guards would take him from the cell, and place him in the dungeon. One morning, in a fit of frenzy, he attacked Captain McVey, the officer of the shop. The Captain received a slight scratch on the neck, and Lancaster was kept chained to the wall of the dungeon for ten days. He returned to the cell, a driveling imbecile. The next day they dressed him in his citizen clothes, Lancaster mumbling, "Going home, going home." The Warden and several officers accompanied him to court, on the way coaching the poor idiot to answer "yes" to the question, "Do you plead guilty?" He received seven years, the extreme penalty of the law, for the "attempted murder of a keeper." They brought him back to the prison, and locked him up in a basket cell, the barred door covered with a wire screen that almost entirely excludes light and air. He receives no medical attention, and is fed on a bread-and-water diet.

The witless negro crawls on the floor, unwashed and unkempt, scratching with his nails fantastic shapes on the stone, and babbling stupidly, "Going, Jesus going to Jerusalem. See, he rides the holy ass; he's going to his father's home. Going home, going home." As I pass he looks up, perplexed wonder on his face; his brows meet in a painful attempt to collect his wandering thoughts, and he drawls with pathetic sing-song, "Going home, going home; Jesus going to father's home." The guards raise their hands to their nostrils as they approach the cell: the poor imbecile evacuates on the table, the chair, and the floor. Twice a month he is taken to the bathroom, his clothes are stripped, and the hose is turned on the crazy negro.

The cell of "Little Sammy" is vacant. He was Number 9521, a young man from Altoona. I knew him quite well. He was a kind boy and a diligent worker; but now and then he would fall into a fit of melancholy. He would then sit motionless on the chair, a blank stare on his face, neglecting food and work. These spells generally lasted two or three days, Sammy refusing to leave the cell. Old Jimmy McPane, the dead Deputy, on such occasions commanded the prisoner to the shop, while Sammy sat and stared in a daze. McPane would order the "stubborn kid" to the dungeon, and every time Sammy got his "head workin'," he was dragged, silent and motionless, to the cellar. The new Deputy has followed the established practice, and last evening, at "music hour," while the men were scraping their instruments, "Little Sammy" was found on the floor of the cell, his throat hacked from car to ear.

At the Coroner's inquest the Warden testified that the boy was considered mentally defective; that he was therefore excused from work, and never punished.

Returning to my cell in the evening, my gaze meets the printed rules on the wall:

"The prison authorities desire to treat every prisoner in their charge with humanity and kindness. * * * The aim of all prison discipline is, by enforcing the law, to restrain the evil and to protect the innocent from further harm; to so apply the law upon the criminal as to produce a cure from his moral infirmities, by calling out the better principles of his nature."