A fantastic article from Ben Legere, I.W.W. activist spending a year in New York’s Auburn Prison for assault during the Little Falls strike, on revolutionary work in prisons; illicit communications, contraband radical press, political fights with ‘reformers’, staying sane in prison, and more.
‘The Red Flag in the Auburn Prison’ by Benjamin J. Legere from International Socialist Review. Vol. 15 No. 6. December, 1914.
“SAY, here’s a ‘kite’ for you. Don’t let the ‘screw’ catch you reading it.” The stolid gray-clad convict, who worked on the machine next to me whispered as he brushed by me with an armful of brooms, dropping a bit of paper, tied ’round with string, among the broom corn on the bench beside me. I had been in the Auburn Prison broom shop but a week, yet the caution which comes from the crushing discipline of the place, caused me to glance furtively about the room and up at the “screw” sitting on his platform at the other side of the shop, before I picked up the bit of paper.
As I held it in my hand awaiting an opportunity to open it I wondered who among the fourteen hundred inmates of that purgatory could possibly be sending a note to me. When I did get a chance to spread the bit of paper out behind the pile of broom corn I was working on, I read the following message:
“Dear Comrade, we have been trying ever since you came in to locate you. We heard that you had been assigned to work in the kitchen, but have found that you were transferred from there. That shop you are in is the hardest one in the prison for us to get a note into, but if the fellow who brings you this is ‘square,’ this channel is O.K. Send your answer to this hack by him and tell me if he is all right and then I will tell you who we are and how we got here. Yours for the revolution, B.”
This was the first intimation I received that there were any within the prison walls beside Bocchini and I that talked in the terminology of the revolution. It is impossible to describe the thrill that it gave me. Even then, so subtilely has the system of stool-pigeonry, by which the prison is run, developed an atmosphere of suspicion that I wondered long whether it was not a “plant” laid to give them an excuse to introduce me to the punishment cells.
Talking, circulating a note, or communicating with another prisoner in any way was a serious breach of discipline and was usually punished by a few days in the dungeon on bread and water and a fine and loss of “good time,” that is, time allowed for good behavior.
I took the chance, of course, and answered the “kite” and in reply received an introduction to three other labor prisoners, Steel Trust victims, sent from the ranks of the Lake Seamen in the strike of 1910. When I read their story of the case I remembered then having read the facts before in THE INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST REVIEW at the time of their trial.
I found in these seamen, prisoners of the class war like myself, comrades of the revolutionary working class movement. They had all become Socialists during their long wait in the Buffalo County Jail before the Steel Trust’s judicial hirelings aided by their Burn’s detectives, sent them to their long exile in Auburn.
One of them has been released by death, the victim of an explosion in the boiler room where he was working, two are out on parole, but “Bob” Cochrane, strong, brave soul and true-hearted rebel. Remains behind in Auburn bearing manfully the burden of nine and one-half years thrust upon him by the venom of the capitalist court.
No one, who has not experienced prison, can quite realize the difficulties that stand in the way of the propaganda of radical ideas within the walls. The prison system is designed for repression. Not only of radical ideas, but of every normal healthy human instinct. A system of rigid discipline is fastened about the prisoner like a weight constantly crushing him down. It is enforced with inhuman punishments and maintained by an extensive system of espionage through stool-pigeons who sell themselves for petty favors.
Gradually these conditions are wearing away before the steady pouring of the waters of progress upon the rocks of the prison system, but when I went into Auburn it was undoubtedly still one of the very worst bastiles in the country. The “silence system” was rigidly enforced and the “jail” or dungeon was always full of those who, unable to repress that strongest of human inclinations to talk, were so unlucky as to be caught by the “screw.”
Literature, of course, was about the only medium by which Socialist philosophy could be disseminated in the prison and “Bob” Cochrane and his comrades had kept the half dozen books of Socialism and science that they were permitted to have in circulation among those they were able to reach who could appreciate the worth of them. The prison chaplain who is a censor of books sent in to the convicts had suppressed several Socialist books sent to my seamen comrades before I came to Auburn. During the year I was there the only book I know of that was kept out was Berkman’s “Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.” Since the release of Bocchini and myself, the prison authorities have instituted an absolute suppression of ALL Socialist and industrial union literature.
When I was placed as a teacher in the prison school, two months after my term began, the propaganda of Socialism began in real earnest in Auburn. This position lifted me out of the narrow ruts of the discipline, giving me such exceptional freedom to talk and spread literature among the prisoners that in six months it not only became necessary to put me back in the broom shop but the Socialists in the prison had become such a thorn in the side of Thomas Mott Osborne, the prison reformer, who was pretending to want a spirit of democracy developed amongst the men that he went to the governor of New York for a pardon for me in an effort to get me out of the prison.
In six months we had made the prison school a center of revolutionary Socialist and industrial union propaganda. I found it easy to interest the prisoners in Socialism. In fact, most of the prisoners there for crimes against property are men who, driven to rebel against the rigors of capitalist exploitation in industry, having a capitalist psychology and philosophy of life, naturally turn to burglary. A little study reveals quite clearly that the burglar who operates against the working class from an office in Wall street with shares of stock for tools and weapons has the same psychology as the hold-up man, the porch climber or the pickpocket except that he uses a more effective, intelligent and safer method. He first takes the precaution of getting the LAW on his side then burgles with impunity.
So I found that an explanation of their experiences and failure to outdo the capitalist at the burglary game always appealed to the more intelligent among the prisoners and many of them came to have the new understanding of life, which the philosophy of Socialism gives.
And some proved to be enthusiastic propagandists with rare characteristics of spirit and devotion to the cause.
There is now in Auburn a group of perhaps a dozen class-conscious Socialists with a circle of sympathizers that will number perhaps two hundred. During most of the year I was there the little library of Socialist and industrial union literature, nearly one hundred volumes, sent me by thoughtful comrades throughout the country, was kept in constant circulation. The International Socialist Review, Solidarity, The New Review, The Masses, Traubel’s Conservator, and several Socialist weeklies came regularly into the prison bringing their message of hope to the dead who will rise some day and rejoin the ranks of the working class outside the walls.
Since my release all this has been stopped. It seemed as though the prison authorities were only waiting until I was safely outside the walls to crush completely the movement they had tried in a hundred insidious ways to circumvent while I was inside. And this suppression of all Socialist literature and of every effort of the prisoners to learn something of the Socialist philosophy is especially interesting in view of the fact that it comes under a prison reform administration and in a prison where Thomas Mott Osborne, millionaire reformer, single taxer and professed humanitarian is personally conducting an experiment in prison reform.
Osborne is Auburn’s big capitalist and Auburn Prison is his plaything. The warden is a figurehead whom he had appointed and for nearly a year Osborne has been personally conducting affairs at the prison. He began his campaign by having himself committed for a week and living the same routine of life as the other prisoners. This was to popularize himself with the men and ever since he has consistently played to have them look upon him as a sort of Messiah come to deliver them from bondage. He founded an organization within the prison called the Mutual Welfare League, which announced for its purpose the establishment of self-government among the prisoners as a substitute for the barbarous prison discipline. The Socialists among the men took the reformers at their word and insisted upon democracy and self-government within the M.W.L. with the result that Mr. Osborne began a retreat from his radical position, revealed himself as a faker, and developed a Tammany machine within the prisoners’ league to prevent the Socialists from realizing its professed aim of mutual welfare through self-government.
The open fight between the Socialists in the prison and the prison reformers began at the first general meeting of the fourteen hundred prisoners in the prison chapel in February when for the first time in the history of Auburn the men were allowed to talk to each other. Osborne officiated as chairman and free speech was the order of the day. I sounded the keynote of the Socialist attitude toward the reformers with a revolutionary speech against the prison system in which I demanded that if the reformers were sincere they should begin by abolishing the absurd and inhuman prison regulations which punished the men for every expression of a natural and normal impulse. It was shortly after that that I was removed from the prison school and that Osborne went to the governor, in an effort to have me pardoned out. His attitude toward me has always been one of friendly sympathy but from the day of that speech until my release a number of acts of petty persecution which he had knowledge of and, in some instances, instigated, revealed his hypocrisy.
So popular had become the propaganda of the Socialists and our efforts for democracy in the prisoners league that in April at a general meeting of the league in the chapel, Osborne’s machine had to resort to steam-roller tactics to prevent my being elected chairman when nominated against him for the office.
But the climax came when Osborne had the executive committee of the league which he quite controlled, draw up resolutions condemning the “so-called socialistic propaganda” in the Mutual Welfare League and providing for the expulsion from the league of anyone found wearing red ribbon in the prison. A few of us had found some bits of red ribbon and pinned them on our shirts while one comrade had tried to buy a couple of yards of it through the office, where such things may be purchased. This campaign against the red ribbon and a campaign to inspire patriotism in the prisoners we succeeded in turning into added propaganda for the cause by heaping ridicule upon it. A plot to transfer me to another prison was frustrated by a threat to arouse a protest from our friends outside.
Apparently the only reason there was no interference with the literature sent to me was also a fear of such a protest. However, in March the Warden had stopped the Masses from coming into the prison and at the same time had put the Appeal to Reason and The Menace on the index.
A comrade who tried to order $15 worth of Socialist books from the Charles H. Kerr Co. was refused that privilege although no attempt was ever made to prevent me from buying and receiving any books I wanted. Needless to say the comrade received the books he wanted though the authorities did not know it. Other comrades were refused permission to subscribe to “Solidarity” but it was allowed to come to me every week.
Soon after my release, however, the edict went forth that all Socialist and radical literature be suppressed and since then the little band of comrades within have been denied the consolation of reading the literature of our movement. And the conditions within the prison are becoming worse. After nearly a year in which the discipline in the prison has largely been enforced through the M.W.L., controlled and conducted by Mr. Osborne there is little change in the general conditions. The “silence system” has been broken down, recreation in the yard for about an hour each day has been enjoyed, the severity of punishments in the “jail” has been lightened and a few other small advantages gained; but the “jail” is still used although the prison reformers announced in the public press a year ago that it had been abolished and the supposedly “democratic” M.W.L. of the prisoners themselves has devised new methods of punishment more vicious in many instances than those of the old system.
But the sentiment for Socialism grows among the prisoners and the old red flag of labor is kept aloft in Auburn by the little band who are undaunted in the face of all the petty persecution and repression that the advocacy of the Socialist message of hope -to the workers meets within prison walls.
There is a wealth of fine material for the revolution passing through our jails and prisons. It is imperative that we on the outside should find an effective means to reach it and more important still to protect our comrades within against the discrimination and persecution that their devotion entails.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v15n06-dec-1914-ISR-riaz-ocr.pdf