Politics

Democracy for Law Breakers

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WHILE the world is being made safe for democracy and the law-abiding, democracy itself is being made safe for the lawbreaker. One after another, our penal and correctional institutions are experimenting with inmate self-government; the criminal is being painlessly inoculated with group consciousness. Even before Thomas Mott Osborne startled the world a few years ago by launching the Mutual Welfare League among "hardened" and " desperate " offenders in Auburn Prison, New York, a successful experiment in self-government had been started among the more youthful miscreants and idlers at the lone state reformatory in California. Following these beginnings, the movement spread rapidly. The next institution to admit prisoners into the mysteries of self-rule, and probably the first county institution to do so, was the Westchester County Penitentiary, New York. A little later, when the New Jersey state prison at Trenton was ripped open by newspaper exposure and the evils of autocratic penology were laid bare, one of the first remedies suggested was a moderate degree of inmate control. Next, the women's reformatory at Clinton Farms, New Jersey, extended its own earlier acceptance of the plan, and quite recently the county penitentiary at Caldwell has undergone a revolution by dethroning despotism and erecting democracy in its stead. In this jail men who formerly were not permitted to eat with knives and forks, because such implements can be secreted and become dangerous in a fight, are now electing their own delegates and representatives to make rules for them and are sitting in judgment upon their own offending fellowinmates I Finally, even the school for feebleminded girls at Vineland, New Jersey, under Dr. Madeleine A. Hallowell, has adopted a modified form of selfgovernment, limited, of course, to the more intelligent grades of inmates.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all, however, is the appearance of inmate self-government in naval and military prisons. That a good soldier should be law-abiding is doubtless not repugnant to military discipline, but that he should have anything to do with making or administering laws, and much less with developing his own initiative and sense of fellowship with others, is blasphemy to the believers in blind obedience as a moral force. Possibly it is being discovered that even a soldier has need of the kind of manhood that comes from participating in what goes on around him, that freedom to think in terms of the common good is not a mollycoddling influence, and above all that a soldier for democracy fights better if he has a real familiarity with the ideals set before him. At any rate, the naval prison at Portsmouth, N. H., under Lieut.-Col. Thomas Mott Osborne, has successfully conducted a Mutual Welfare League for over a year, and the U. S. Disciplinary Barracks on Governor's Island, N. Y., under Col. John E. Hunt, commandant, has started an Honor Club which is in fact a self-governing organisation of inmates.

Calvin Derrick, who started the lone experiment, and Mr. Osborne are not the real founders of inmate self-government. Both have acknowledged their debt to William R. ("Daddy") George, founder of the George Junior Republic in 1895. Not even Mr. George, however, can claim the pioneer's crown. Nearly a century ago a very considerable experiment in self-government was tried in the Boston House of Refuge, the second reformatory for delinquent children established in this country. Short-lived as this experiment was, it possessed many of the features of modern self-government plans and was recognized at the time as a somewhat epochal achievement. Its founder was a young minister by the name of E. M. P. Wells. Alexis de Tocqueville visited the House of Refuge with his friend, Gustave de Beaumont, in 1831, and the two Frenchmen reported to their government on the precocious republic they found there. Not only were the young Boston incorrigibles given a voting participation in the election of monitors and other officers, but they had an inmate court for disciplinary purposes, as well. De Tocqueville and de Beaumont were much impressed. " There is more depth in these political plays," they wrote, " than we would suppose at first glance. The impressions of childhood and the early use of liberty contribute, perhaps, at a later period, to make the young delinquents more obedient to the laws. And without considering this possible political result, it is certain that such a system is powerful as a means of moral education." However, they, like many persons in this country at the time, regarded the experiment as incapable of being imitated, and attributed its success to the remarkable personality of the young idealist who started itan attitude that we have seen repeated in our own day.

What is self-government in penal institutions? It is simply an application of the educational principle that people learn by doing. It is based on no quixotic conception of the rights of prisoners their right to vote, their right to take part in the government over them, their right to say what orders shall be issued and who shall issue them. So long as prisons exist, they will doubtless be conducted on the theory that men and women who break society's laws forfeit many rights and privileges previously enjoyed; certainly it is no part of the theory of self-government that they do not forfeit them. Self-government is simply an embodiment of the idea that if prisoners are to improve in the ways of normal living, if they are to grow more self-reliant in dealing with other people, if they are to acquire the social habit of living in accordance with certain " rules of the game," and are to develop their own capacity to help make those rules, the time to begin is while they are undergoing punishment for their offenses.

The great majority of people in prison have failed to adjust themselves to the social milieu. What better remedy, then, than to train them to adjust themselves to the prison milieu?

Self-government is, or should be, the setting up of a miniature world in which relationships become normal, acts spontaneous and the power of choice, within limits set by the necessity of keeping prisoners under confinement, free. Its aim, like that of all reformative discipline, is to fit the prisoner for a return to society. Its method is to establish on a small scale a society in which he can form the habits, accustom himself to the responsibilities and gradually acquire the wholesome mental attitude that make normal life attainable. Self-government is, therefore, more than a mere lesson in the machinery of citizenship. It is more than going through the form of electing one's own officers and sitting in judgment upon one's offending fellow-inmates. It is an effort to train persons in the art of living in concert. It means strengthening the ability to exercise one's own faculties an ability needed mightily in the world at large. It means freedom to choose one's own friends, to dispose of one's leisure time as one sees fit, to order one's own life in ways that do not interfere with the necessary routine and discipline of a prison's purpose. Under the autocratic system of prison government, the faculties of the inmate are kept in abeyance or killed outright. Under that system, he comes in time to accept the grinding routine that he cannot escape. His whole habit of mind is altered by it. He relies solely upon the officer's command and leaves the very ordering of his life to forces imposed from without.

Recently a prisoner released from a prison of the autocratic type stood in front of the prison door, and, though suffering from no infirmity and in the prime of life, was afraid to cross the street because a wagon drawn by a single horse was coming slowly down the road toward him. The vehicle contained a load of bricks and was still half a block away! Yet so dulled had become this man's power of independent action by the long conformity to prison routine that he could not make this simple adjustment, and permitted the wagon to pass first. Such is the effect of robbing human beings of all opportunity to exercise choice.

More than the break of this monotony is involved in inmate self-government, however, A self-government regime sets up a new fealty by which the prisoner may guide his life. The traditional fealty of the law-breaker is first to himself and then to his " pal." Often this fealty to his pal is the most inspiring thing in his life, his greatest spiritual achievement. The new fealty is loyalty to the whole body of prisoners. By its very operation, self-government identifies each inmate with all of his fellow-inmates. It involves him and them in the same gigantic communal enterprise. If a prisoner has a normal range of mental interests, he quickly comes to enjoy the more varied life that self-government brings, and thus the mixture of selfish desire and social appeal existing in all of us is enlisted on the side of the new allegiance. When a prisoner has been brought several times into the self-government court, has been prodded and quizzed by his fellow inmates in their effort to untangle the truth, and has been made to see that his refusal to tell what he knows is actually being frowned upon by his companions, his eyes not infrequently open to a new light. He sees that loyalty to a comrade may involve the greater body of all his comrades in injury, and thus the allegiance by which he has been guided heretofore gives place to a new allegiance that makes him more willing to accept the standards of the world at large.

Two objections to this view of inmate self-government will be made. One is that people who have been sentenced to prison have already demonstrated their lack of self-control and that to expect them to control themselves in prison is absurd. The answer is two-fold. First, instead of lacking self-control, some law-breakers have an extraordinary amount of it; they have simply used it for anti-social purposes. Self-government and all reformative treatment aims to substitute other and better purposes for these. With respect to lawbreakers who do lack self-control, the important question is: Which system of government is more likely to remedy this deficiency, the, autocratic or the self-government one?

The second objection is not unlike the first. Since prisdners have known no sufficient restraint in the past, it is argued that to continue the policy of no restraint in prison is to perpetuate the very condition that produced them. Those who make this argument forget that self-government is by no means the abolition of restraint. Prison walls do not crumble and iron bars do not fall away because of a change in the method of administration. Nor is confinement the only way in which restraint is exercised under self-government. It is exercised through the collective action of the prisoners themselves. This is a different kind of restraint, with a different procedure and different origin, but it is none the less restraint. And finally, if collective restraint falls down, the state may step in at any time and re-establish its own.

It is apparent that not all inmates of penal institutions can profit from self-government. Many mental defectives and some of the out-and-out insane are among these. Other prisoners, such as those segregated for contagious diseases, will be temporarily unable to participate; this, however, is no more than is experienced in the world outside. Still others may be excluded for disciplinary purposes. All this merely means that self-government is one of the therapeutic measures open to our prisons, and that although it cannot take the place of work, education, physical development, psychiatry and the other resources of a modern reformative system, it can supplement these and provide both an atmosphere and a medium through which prison discipline becomes a constructive and character-building force in the lives of social failures. 

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