Part 6: Western Europe, Section 13

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Part 6: Western Europe, Section 13

This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.

Part Six

Section XIII

THE trial was over, but I remained for another couple of months in the Lyons prison. Most of my comrades had lodged an appeal against the decision of the police court, and we had to wait for its results. With four more comrades, I refused to take any part in that appeal to a higher court, and continued to work in my pistole. A great friend of mine-Martin, a clothier from Vienne-took another pistole by the side of the one which I occupied, and as we were already condemned, we were allowed to take our walks together; and when we had something to say to each other between the walks, we used to correspond by means of taps on the wall, just as in Russia.

During my sojourn at Lyons I began to realize the awfully demoralizing influence of the prisons upon the prisoners, which brought me later to condemn unconditionally the whole institution.

The Lyons prison is a "modern" structure, built in the shape of a star, on the cellular system. The spaces between the rays of the star are occupied by small asphalt paved yards, and, weather permitting, the inmates are taken to these yards to work outdoors. The chief occupation is the beating out of silk cocoons to obtain floss silk. Flocks of children are also taken at certain hours to these yards. Thin, enervated, underfed, -- the shadows of children, -- often watched them from my window. Anæmia was plainly written on all the little faces and manifest in their thin, shivering bodies; and all day long-not only in the dormitories, but even in the yards, in the full light of the sun-they pursued their debilitating practices. What will become of them after they have passed through that schooling and come out with their health ruined, their wills annihilated, their energy reduced? Anæmia, with its diminished energy, its unwillingness to work, its enfeebled will, weakened intellect, and perverted imagination, is responsible for crime to an infinitely greater extent than plethora, and it is precisely this enemy of the human race which is bred in prison. And then-the teachings which these children receive in their surroundings! Mere isolation, even if it were rigorously carried out-and it cannot be-would be of little avail; the whole atmosphere of every prison is an atmosphere of glorification of that sort of gambling in "clever strokes" which constitutes the very essence of theft, swindling, and all sorts of similar anti-social deeds. Whole generations of future criminals are bred in these nurseries, which the state supports and which society tolerates, simply because it does not want to hear its own diseases spoken of and dissected. "Imprisoned in childhood, jail bird for life," is what I heard afterwards from all those who were interested in criminal matters. And when I saw these children, and realized what they have to expect in the future, I could not but continually ask myself." Which of them is the worse criminal?-this child or the judge who condemns every year hundreds of children to this fate?" I gladly admit that the crime of the judge is unconscious. But are all the crimes for which people are sent to prison as conscious as they are supposed to be?

There was another point which I vividly realized from the very first weeks of my imprisonment, but which in some inconceivable way has escaped the attention of both the judges and the writers on criminal law; namely, that imprisonment is in an immense number of cases a punishment which bears far more severely upon quite innocent people than upon the condemned prisoner himself.

Nearly every one of my comrades, who represented a fair average of the working population, had either wife and children to support, or a sister or old mother who depended for her living upon his earnings. Now being left without support, all of these women did their best to get work, and some of them got it; but none of them succeeded in earning regularly even as much as thirty cents (1 fr. 5O c.) a day. Nine francs (less than two dollars) and often only a dollar and a half a week to support themselves and their children,-these were their earnings. And that meant, of course, underfeeding, privations of all sorts, and deterioration of health, weakened intellect, impaired energy and will power. I thus realized that what was going on in our law courts was in reality a condemnation of quite innocent people to all sorts of hardship; in most cases even worse than those to which the condemned man himself is subjected. The fiction is that the law punishes the man by inflicting upon him a variety of degrading physical and mental hardships. But man is so made that whatever hardships may be imposed upon him, he gradually grows accustomed to them. If he cannot modify them, he accepts them, and after a certain time he puts Up with them, just as he puts up with a chronic disease, and grows insensible to them. But during his imprisonment what becomes of his wife and children, or of the other innocent people who depended upon his support? They are punished even more cruelly than he himself is. And, in our routine habits of thought, no one ever thinks of the immense injustice which is thus committed. I realized it only from actual experience.

In the middle of March, 1883, twenty-two of us, who had been condemned to more than one year of imprisonment, were removed in great secrecy to the central prison of Clairvaux. It was formerly an abbey of St. Bernard, of which the great Revolution had made a house for the poor. Subsequently it became a house of detention and correction, which went among the prisoners and the officials themselves under the well-deserved nickname of "house of detention and corruption."

So long as we were kept at Lyons we were treated as the prisoners under preliminary arrest are treated in France; that is, we had our own clothes, we could get our own food from a restaurant, and one could hire for a few francs per month a larger cell, a pistole. I took advantage of this for working hard upon my articles for the "Encyclopædia Britannica" and the "Nineteenth Century." Now, the treatment we should have at Clairvaux was an open question. However, in France it is generally understood that, for political prisoners, the loss of liberty and the forced inactivity are in themselves so hard that there is no need to inflict additional hardships. Consequently, we were told that we should remain under the same régime that we had had at Lyons. We should have separate quarters, retain our own clothes, be free of compulsory work, and be allowed to smoke. "Those of you," the governor said,"who wish to earn something by manual work will be enabled to do so by sewing stays or engraving small things in mother of pearl. This work is poorly paid; but you could not be employed in the prison workshops for the fabrication of iron beds, picture frames, and so on, because that would require your lodging with the common-law prisoners." Like the other prisoners, we were allowed to buy from the prison canteen some additional food and a pint of claret every day, both being supplied at a very low price and of good quality.

The first impression which Clairvaux produced upon me was most favorable. We had been locked up and had been traveling all the day, from two or three o'clock in the morning, in those tiny cupboards into which the railway carriages used for the transportation of prisoners are usually divided. When we reached the central prison, we were taken temporarily to the penal quarters, and were introduced into extremely clean cells. Hot food, plain but excellent quality, had been served to us notwithstanding the late hour of the night, and we had been offered the opportunity of having a half-pint each of the very good vin du pays, which was sold at the prison canteen at the extremely modest price of twenty-four centimes (less than five cents) per quart. The governor and all the warders were most polite to us.

Next day the governor of the prison took me to see the rooms which he intended to give us, and when I remarked that they were all right, only a little too small for such a number,-we were twenty-two,-and that overcrowding might result in illness, he gave us another set of rooms in what had been in olden times the house of the superintendent of the abbey, and was now the hospital Our windows looked down upon a little garden and off upon beautiful views of the surrounding country. In another room, on the same landing, old Blanqui had been kept the last three or four years before his release. Before that he was confined in one of the cells in the cellular house.

We obtained thus three spacious rooms, and a smaller room was spared for Gautier and myself, so that we could pursue our literary work. We probably owed this last favor to the intervention of a considerable number of English men of science, who, as soon as I was condemned, had signed a petition asking for my release. Many contributors to the "Encyclopædia Britannica," Herbert Spencer, and Swinburne were among the signers, while Victor Hugo had added to his signature a few warm words. Altogether, public opinion in France received our condemnation very unfavorably; and when my wife had mentioned at Paris that I required books, the Academy of Sciences offered its library, and Ernest Renan, in a charming letter, put his private library at her service.

We had a small garden, where we could play ninepins or jeu de boules, and soon we managed to cultivate a narrow bed along the building's wall, in which, on a surface of some eighty square yards, we grew almost incredible quantities of lettuce and radishes, as well as some flowers. I need not say that at once we organized classes, and during the three years that we remained at Clairvaux I gave my comrades lessons in cosmography, geometry, or physics, also aiding them in the study of languages. Nearly every one learned at least one language,-English, German, Italian, or Spanish,-while a few learned two. We also managed to do some bookbinding, having learned how from one of those excellent Encyclopédie Roret booklets.

At the end of the first year, however, my health again gave way. Clairvaux is built on marshy ground, upon which malaria is endemic, and malaria, with scurvy, laid hold of me. Then my wife, who was studying at Paris, working in Würtz's laboratory and preparing to take an examination for the degree of Doctor of Science, abandoned everything, and came to the tiny hamlet of Clairvaux, which consists of less than a dozen houses grouped at the foot of an immense high wall which encircles the prison. Of course, her life in that hamlet, with the prison wall opposite, was anything but gay; yet she stayed there till I was released. During the first year she was allowed to see me only once in two months, and all interviews were held in the presence of a warder, who sat between us. But when she settled at Clairvaux, declaring her firm intention to remain there, she was soon permitted to see me every day, in one of the small houses within the prison walls where a post of warders was kept, and food was brought me from the inn where she stayed. Later, we were even allowed to take a walk in the governor's garden, closely watched all the time, and usually one of my comrades joined us in the walk.

I was quite astonished to discover that the central prison of Clairvaux had all the aspects of a small manufacturing town, surrounded by orchards and cornfields, all encircled by an outer wall. The fact is, that if in a French central prison the inmates are perhaps more dependent upon the fancies and caprices of the governor and the warders than they seem to be in English prisons, the treatment of the prisoners is far more humane than it is in the corresponding institutions on the other side of the Channel. The medæval revengeful system which still prevails in English prisons has been given up long since in France. The imprisoned man is not compelled to sleep on planks, or to have a mattress on alternate days only; the day he comes to prison he gets a decent bed, and retains it. He is not compelled, either, to degrading work, such as to climb a wheel, or to pick oakum; he is employed, on the contrary, in useful work, and this is why the Clairvaux prison has the aspect of a manufacturing town, iron furniture, picture frames, looking-glasses, metric measures, velvet, linen, ladies' stays, small things in mother of pearl, wooden shoes, and so on, being made by the nearly sixteen hundred men who are kept there.

Moreover, if the punishment for insubordination is very cruel, there is, at least, none of the flogging which goes on still in English prisons. Such a punishment would be absolutely impossible in France. Altogether, the central prison at Clairvaux may be described as one of the best penal institutions in Europe. And, with all that, the results obtained at Clairvaux are as bad as in any of the prisons of the old type. "The watchword nowadays is that convicts are reformed in our prisons," one of the members of the prison administration once said to me. "This is all nonsense, and I shall never be induced to tell such a lie."

The pharmacy at Clairvaux was underneath the rooms which we occupied, and we occasionally had some contact with the prisoners who were employed in it. One of them was a gray-haired man in his, fifties, who ended his term while we were there. It was touching to learn how he parted with the prison. He knew that in a few months or weeks he would be back, and begged the doctor to keep the place at the pharmacy open for him. This was not his first visit to Clairvaux, and he knew it would not be the last. When he was set free he had not a soul in the world to whom he might go to spend his old age. "Who will care to employ me ?" he said. "And what trade have I? None! When I am out I must go to my old comrades; they, at least, will surely receive me as an old freind." Then would come a glass too much of drink in their company, excited talk about some capital fun,-some "new stroke" to be made in the way of theft,-and, partly from weakness of will, partly to oblige his only friends, he would join in it, and would be locked up once more. So it had been several times before in his life. Two months passed, however, after his release, and he had not yet returned to Clairvaux. Then the prisoners, and the warders too, began to feel uneasy about him. "Has he had time to move to another judicial district, that he is not yet back?" "One can only hope that he has not been involved in some bad affair," they would say, meaning something worse than theft. "That would be a pity: he was such a nice, quiet man." But it soon appeared that the first supposition was the right one. Word came from another prison that the old man was locked up there, and was now endeavoring to be transferred to Clairvaux.

The old men were the most pitiful sight. Many of them had begun their prison experience in childhood or early youth; others at a riper age. But "once in prison, always in prison;" such is the saying derived from experience. And now, having reached or passed beyond the age of sixty, they knew that they must end their lives in prison. To quicken their departure from life the prison administration tion used to send them to the workshops where felt were made out of all sorts of woolen refuse. The dust in the workshop soon induced the consumption which released them. Then, four fellow prisoners would carry the old man to the common grave, the graveyard warder and his black dog being thr only two beings to follow him; and while the prison priest marched in front of the procession mechanically reciting his prayer and looking at the chestnut or fir trees along the road, and the comrades carrying the coffin were enjoying the momentary freedom from confinement, the black dog would be the only being affected by the solemnity of the ceremony.

When the reformed central prisons were introduced it was believed that the principle of absolute silence could be maintained in them. But it is so contrary human nature that its strict enforcement had to be abandoned.

To the outward observer the prison seems to be quite mute; but in reality life goes on in it as busily as in. a small town. In suppressed voices, by means of whispers, hurriedly dropped words, and scraps of notes, all news of any interest spreads immediately throughout the prison. Nothing can happen either among the prisoners themselves, or in the "cour d'honneur," where the lodgings of the administration are situated, or in the village of Clairvaux , or in the wide world of Paris politics, that is not communicated at once throughout all the dormitories, workshops, and cells. Frenchmen are too communicative to admit of their underground telegraph ever being stopped. We had no intercourse with the common-law prisoners, and yet we knew all the news of the day. "John, the gardener, is back for two years." "Such an inspector's wife has had a fearful scrimmage with So and So's wife." "James in the cells, has been caught transmitting a note of friendship to John of the farmers' workshop." "That old beast So and So is no longer Minister of Justice; the ministry was upset;" and so on; and when the word goes out that "Jack has got two five-penny packets of tobacco in exchange for two flannel jackets," it makes the tour of the prison very quickly. On one occasion a petty lawyer, detained in the prison, wished to transmit to me a note, in order to ask my wife, who was staying in the village, to see from time to time his wife, who was also there,-and quite a number of men took the liveliest interest in the transmission of that message which had to pass through I don't know how many hands before it reached me. When there, was something that might especially interest us in a, paper, this paper, in some unaccountable way, would reach us, wrapped about a little stone and thrown over the high wall.

Confinement in a cell is no obstacle to communication. When we came to Clairvaux and were first lodged in the cellular quarter, it was bitterly cold in the cells; so cold, indeed, that I could hardly write, and when my wife, who was then at Paris, got my letter, she did not recognize my handwriting. The order came to heat the cells as much as possible; but do what they might, the cells remained as cold as sver. It appeared. afterwards that all the hot air tubes were choked with scraps of paper, bites of notes, penknives, and all sorts of small things which several generations of prisoners had concealed in the pipes.

Martin, the same friend, of mine whom I have already mentioned, obtained permission to serve part of his time in cellular confinement. He preferred isolation to life in a room with a dozen others, and so went to a cell. To his great astonishment he found that he was not at all alone. The walls and the keyholes spoke. In a short time all the inmates of the cells knew who he was, and lie had acquaintances all over the building. Quite a life goes on, as in a beehive, between the seemingly isolated cells; only that life often takes such a character as to make it belong entirely to the domain of psychopathy. Kraft-Ebbing himself had no idea of the aspects it assumes with certain prisoners in solitary confinement.

I will not repeat here what I have said in a book, "In Russian and French Prisons," which I published in England in 1886, soon after my release from Clairvaux,, upon the moral influence of prisoners upon prisoners. But there is one thing which must be said. The prison population consists of heterogeneous elements; but, taking only those who are usually described as "the criminals" proper, and of whom we have heard so much lately from Lombroso his followers, what struck me most as regards them that the prisons, which are considered as preventive of anti-social deeds, are exactly the institutions for breeding them. Every one knows that absence of education, dislike of regular work, physical incapability of sustained effort, misdirected love of adventure, gambling propensities, absence of energy, an untrained will, and carelessness about the happiness of others are the causes which bring this class of people before the courts. Now I was deeply impressed during my imprisonment by the fact that it is exactly these defects of human nature-each one of them-which the prison breeds in its inmates; and it is bound to breed them because it is a prison, and will breed them so long as it exists. Incarceration in a prison of necessity entirely destroys the energy of a man and annihilates his will. In prison life there is no room for exercising one's will; to possess one's own will in prison means surely to get into trouble. The will of the prisoner must be killed, and it is killed. Still less room is there for exercising one's natural sympathies, everything being done to prevent free contact with all those, outside and inside, with whom the prisoner may have feelings of sympathy. Physically and mentally he is rendered less and less capable of sustained effort, and if he has had already a dislike for regular work, a dislike is only the more increased during his prison years. If, before he first came to the prison, he was easily wearied by monotonous work which he could not do properly or had an antipathy to underpaid overwork, his dislike now becomes hatred. If he doubted about the social utility of current rules of morality, now after having cast a critical glance upon the official defenders of these rules, and learned his comrades opinions of them, he openly throws these rules overboard. And if he has got into trouble in consequence of a morbid development of the passionate, sensual side of his nature, now, after having spent a number of years in prison, this morbid character is still more developed, in many cases to an appalling extent. In this last direction-the most dangerous of all-prison education is most effective.

In Siberia I had men what sinks of filth and what hotbeds of, physical and moral deterioration the dirty, overcrowded, "unreformed" Russian prisons were, and at the age of nineteen I imagined that if there were less overcrowding in the rooms and a certain classification of the prisoners, and if healthy occupations were provided for them, the institution might be substantially improved. Now I had to part with these illusions. I could convince myself that as regards their effects upon the prisoners and their results for society at large, the best "reformed" prisons-whether cellular or not-are as bad as, or even worse than the dirty prisons of old. They do not reform the prisoners. On the contrary, in the immense, overwhelming majority of cases they exercise upon them the most deteriorating effect. The thief, the swindler, the rough, who has spent some years in a prison, comes out of it more ready than over to resume his former career; he is better prepared for it; he has learned to do it better; he is more embittered against society, and he finds a solid justification for being in revolt against its laws and customs; necessarily, unavoidably, he is bound to sink deeper and deeper into the anti-social acts which first brought him before a law court. The offenses he will commit after his release will inevitably be graver than those which first got him into trouble; and he is doomed to finish his life in a prison or in a hard-labor colony. In the above-mentioned book I said that prisons are "universities of crime, maintained by the state." And now, thinking of it at fifteen years' distance, in the light of my subsequent experience, I can only confirm that statement of mine.

Personally, I have no reason whatever to complain of the years I spent in a French prison. For an active and independent man the restraint of liberty and activity is in itself so great a privation that all the remainder-all the petty miseries of prison life-are not worth speaking of. Of course, when we heard of the active political life which was going on in France, we resented very much our forced inactivity. The end of the first year, especially during a gloomy winter, is always hard for the prisoner. And when spring comes, one feels more strongly than ever the want of liberty. When I saw from our windows the meadows assuming their green garb, and the hills covered with a spring haze, or when I saw a train flying into a dale between the hills, I certainly felt a strong desire to follow it and to breathe the air of the woods, or to be carried along with the stream of human life in a busy town. But one who casts his lot with an advanced party must be prepared to spend a number of years in prison, and he need not grudge it. He feels that even during his imprisonment he remains not quite an inactive part of the movement which spreads and strengthens the ideas that are dear to him.

At Lyons, my comrades, my wife, and myself certainly found the warders a very rough set of men. But after a couple of encounters all was set right. Moreover the prison administration knew that we had the Paris press with us, and they did not want to draw upon themselves the thunders of Rochefort or, the cutting criticisms of Clémenceau. And at Clairvaux there was no need of such restraint. All the administration had been renewed a few months before we came thither. A prisoner had been killed by warders in his cell, and his corpse had been hanged to simulate suicide; but this time the affair leaked out through the doctor, the governor was dismissed, and altogether a better tone prevailed in the prison. I took away from Clairvaux the best recollection of its governor, and altogether, while I was there, I more than once thought that, after all, men are often better than the institutions they belong to. But, having no personal griefs, I can all the more freely and most unconditionally condemn the institution itself as a survival from the dark past, wrong in its principles, and a source of immeasurable evils to society.

One thing more I must mention, as it struck me perhaps even more forcibly than the demoralizing effects of prisons upon their inmates. What a nest of infection is every prison-and even every law court-for its neighborhood, for the people who live near it! Lombroso has made much of the "criminal type" which he believes he has discovered among the inmates of the prisons. If he had made the same efforts to observe the people who hang about the law courts,-detectives, spies, petty solicitors, informers, people preying upon the simpletons, and the like,-he would probably have concluded that his criminal type has a far greater geographical extension than the prison walls. I never saw such a collection of faces of the lowest human type as I saw around and within the Palais de Justice at Lyons,-certainly not within the prison walls of Clairvaux,. Dickens and Cruikshank have immortalized a few of these types; but they represent quite a world which revolves about the law courts and infuses its infection far and wide around them. And the same is true of each central prison, like Clairvaux. It is an atmosphere of petty thefts, petty swindlings, spying and corruption of all sorts, which spreads like a blot of oil round the prison.

I saw all this; and if before my condemnation I already knew that society is wrong in its present system of punishments, after I left Clairvaux I knew that it is not only wrong and unjust in this system, but that it is simply foolish when, in its partly unconscious and partly willful ignorance of realities, it maintains at its own expense these universities of corruption, under the illusion that they are necessary as a bridle to the criminal instincts of man.

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