‘Behind Prison Bars’ by Grace V. Silver from International Socialist Review. Vol. 13 No. 2. August, 1912.

When in 1910 the California legislature outlawed flogging as punishment in its prisons, new tortures were quickly devised. They will be familiar to anyone with a memory of Abu Grhaib. Widely, and justly, read at the time, including in the press of German Social Democracy, Socialist and I.W.W. activist Grace V. Silver exposes the brutal practices then underway in the notorious San Quentin prison and juvenile reformatory. With names like the ‘water cure,’ and the ‘hummingbird,’ comrade Silver, and the illustrator, show that the history of horrors that is the U.S. prison system began long ago.

‘Behind Prison Bars’ by Grace V. Silver from International Socialist Review. Vol. 13 No. 2. August, 1912.

SAN QUENTIN, present abode of McNamaras and prospective residence of Clarence Darrow, is no better and no worse than ninety-five per cent of our prisons. It is just a fair sample of society’s brutality toward the underdog. It boasts, however, one peculiar instrument of torture invented years ago by Martin Аquierre, then warden. Every “good” warden invents a new instrument for “disciplining” prisoners. That is the way he proves his fitness for the office. Flogging had been forbidden by the legislature. The straight jacket invented by Warden Aquierre took its place at San Quentin, the “derrick” at Folsom. Donald Lowrie estimates that at least fifteen hundred men have been tortured by these two instruments in California.

The case of Edward Morrell is typical. He served nearly seventeen years in San Quentin for his connection with the Sontag-Evans band of outlaws. Sontag and Evans, it may be remarked in passing, were originally peaceable homesteaders. Their lands were “legally” stolen from them and in revenge they turned against society and became bandits. Twenty years ago they were the terror of all California. Some time after Morrell was imprisoned an attempted mutiny occurred. Responsibility for it was thrown by the guilty persons upon him and although asleep at the time of the outbreak, he was dragged forth, accused of having firearms concealed in the prison, and ordered to produce them. Being innocent, he could not do so, and since he could not—or would not—he was ordered into solitary confinement until he did. He remained there for five years—in a cell about four feet wide by eight feet long. No light entered. Bathing was out of the question. Bread and water—especially water—was his only food. The five years of solitary confinement were enlivened however by the occasional use of the straight jacket, derrick, and other instruments of torture. He is now touring California, lecturing to crowded houses everywhere, telling the people what goes on behind the walls of San Quentin—a place where a reporter is still looked upon askance and a camera is considered more dangerous than dynamite.

Jack Oppenheimer was the first man to experience the straight jacket. Morrell heard his groans and shrieks for a day and a night, in his solitary cell. Then he deliberately brought the torture upon himself as a relief from hopeless seclusion and monotony.

The jacket as known to prison officials is not the mild instrument of the same name used in asylums. It is a kind of half-coat of heavy canvas, reaching from the collar-bone nearly to the knees. San Quentin has jackets of eight sizes to “fit” any victim. There are two pockets into which the prisoner places his hands. His arms are pressed against his body, shoulders are pressed forward and the jacket slipped over them from the front. Then the victim is laid on the floor, face down, and the jacket is laced up the back. But that is only the beginning. The edges of the jacket, when it is laced as tight as a man can breathe in—as tight as he thinks he can stand—are nearly a foot apart. But it has merely been “fitted on.” Torture has not commenced. In a few minutes the guard will tighten the ropes. Every few hours he will come in and tighten them again. He will use a stake to aid in twisting the rope tighter, much as a man tightens a fence wire. Three days and nights of this torture leaves the victim unable to move. His flesh is parboiled and dead.  Ribs are often broken, internal organs permanently displaced. Morrell was given 105 hours as his first dose—the first of many. He has spent six weeks in the straight jacket. He says the first pain is about the heart; there is a rush of blood to the head, followed by suffocation. He felt like one being drowned. Mercifully delirium sets in early.

The State Senate was investigating San Quentin once upon a time. Morrell was one of the witnesses examined. He told the truth. Result! That very night the straight jacket was put on him in the usual way. He laid in it for days. It was tightened till the canvas seemed about to break. Then the officials got another jacket, put it on from behind and laced it up in front. They intended to kill him. He heard a guard ask another if it was desirable to let him die in the jacket? But that seldom happens. The victims are taken out, put in bed, and left to die “naturally,” so the prison physician can report it as a case of heart failure.

The writer once saw the use of the jacket demonstrated by Mr. Morrell. A workingman from the audience had volunteered his services and the jacket was “fitted” on as I have described. About ninety seconds of even that “fitting” sufficed to make that strong and husky worker beg to be released. He thought he was already in for the real thing.

They tried the “derrick” on Morrell, borrowing the idea from the other state prison at Folsom. This is a simple arrangement of cords and pulleys. The victim’s hands are handcuffed behind his back. The handcuffs are then hooked on to the “derrick” and he is pulled up by the wrists till his toes barely touch the floor. A great many have died as the result of this torture. It inflicts permanent injuries and death may result months or even years later.

Morrell was once sentenced to fifty hours in the derrick. At the end of thirty hours they had to let him down to save life. When strung up again he hung limp like a dead beef or pig. They had to let him down frequently after that, as he suffered from bleeding at the kidneys. It required thirteen days to complete the fifty hour sentence. But he was only one victim out of fifteen hundred.

The California legislature has refused to forbid the use of these instruments of torture. They are not used in presence of visitors, of course. The present warden of San Quentin is reported to be, compared with his predecessors, a humane man. Thanks to a state-wide agitation the straight jacket is seldom used —at least the public believes so. But the lives of 1,700 men at San Quentin are absolutely at the mercy of the warden and board of directors and their good intentions, if they have any, are often frustrated by “trusties” and others under them.

San Quentin is still a field for graft. Within its walls, as outside in the business world, the successful crook has an easy time. Money smooths over the entrance examination and enables him to smuggle in certain forbidden luxuries. Money is just as essential toward securing a good cell as in hiring a good room at a hotel. Money insures him more liberties and enables him to shirk his share of toil.

For instance, the principal industry at San Quentin is the manufacture of jute. Every convict assigned to the jute mill is required to do a certain amount of work a day. Individual ability and skill are not considered. The skilled, experienced workers can do the required work in six hours. The green man cannot possibly complete his task in the given time. For his failure to do so he must be “disciplined.” For errors in his work, such as a green man cannot help making, he must also be “disciplined.” Repeated mistakes mean more severe discipline, ranging all the way from twenty-four hours on bread and water through a dozen forms of torture. Apparently, the officials think that starvation torture and solitary confinement tend to make a man a skilled jute worker. The green man, the slow and dull worker, gets plenty of “discipline.” And there are many, many workers who after years of labor in the mill are still unable to do their work sufficiently well to escape punishment. But the wealthy convict does not have to become skilled. Some of the fast workers, after completing their own tasks, will do the rich man’s share also. А small piece of tobacco will buy an hour’s labor.

But San Quentin is not the only barbarous institution in California. A few days ago a boy attempted to run away from the State Reformatory at Tone. Society would not have been seriously undermined if he had escaped. But a guard shot and killed him as he ran. Some newspapers gave the news an inch of space. Many ignored it. The instance is typical of California’s efforts at reforming her boys. Tone has one of the leading schools for crime in the country. Some years ago that Reformatory sent a boy down to San Quentin, branded as an incorrigible. A record of his offenses against discipline covered many pages. The Tone officials hoped that the more rigorous discipline of San Quentin would bring him to time. The boy’s shoulders were bent. He looked like a scared rabbit. But he did not look vicious or bad. Every sound, every footstep, caused him to turn. If any one approached him from behind he would duck his head, dodging as from an impending blow. When they stripped him in the office they found his back to be one mass of welts. He will carry those scars to his grave. His wrists and ankles were calloused from the chains he had worn. Luckily, he fell under the care of Morrell, then head trusty. He was put to work in the machine shop. He developed a talent for mechanical drawing and studied at night. From the first he was trusted. He was never “disciplined” at San Quentin. Today he is a successful inventor, worth $60,000 or $75,000, has a family and is a respected citizen of his city. It is not necessary to give his name. But the Tone Reformatory is still manufacturing criminals. And Society as a whole is busily engaged in making crime necessary. The average worker is about thirty days ahead of the bread line—or prison. If he is of the rabbit class of humans he goes to the bread-line. If he has brains, courage and skill he tries—though vainly—to beat Society at its own game and goes to prison. More than three thousand prosecuting attorneys earn their salaries by sending men to jail. As many judges divide their time between imposing sentences on one class of criminals and devising means for keeping the makers of criminals out of jail. Three hundred thousand men and women, guilty and innocent, but ALL victims of capitalism, are wearing away their lives behind prison walls. They have brains and energy. They are no better and no worse than ninety-five per cent of the men and women on the outside. Not as bad, perhaps, as those who uphold the system which makes criminals. They are merely more unfortunate. They might be useful, constructive members of society. Most of them want to be. But society in its wisdom has made them as useless and dangerous—but no more so—than the banker, soldier, preacher and detectives.

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/v13n02-aug-1912-ISR-gog-ocr.pdf

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