Starr Daily—Love Can Open Prison Doors
Love Versus Prison Door of Ignorance
A boy is better unborn than untaught.
There is one curse to which nearly all prisoners are subject, incomplete education or no education at all.
It seems almost inconceivable that only a few years ago a great institution such as the one in which I was incarcerated could have been without educational facilities for its wards. But such was the condition. Not only was it a condition, but it was a condition enforced by prison law. You were allowed to read such books as the library afforded; but to be discovered with a pencil or writing paper in your possession was equivalent to many days in solitary on bread and water.
One of the reasons institutional education was discouraged in this prison was because of an inferiority complex on the part of its officials. Under the prevailing wage scale for officials at that time, only a brutal and ignorant type of man could be induced to take these jobs; and these men found a mutual interest in ignorant prisoners; but in prisoners superior to them in education, they found a deep and abiding resentment. They were bitterly opposed to all forms of learning for prisoners that, by contrast, would tend to emphasize their own lack of learning. If a prisoner had been fortunate enough to have had the advantages of an education, he soon discovered after entering this prison that he was in for hell, unless he was shrewd enough at the outset to conceal his educational assets by assuming a pose of ignorance. This was very often resorted to by educated prisoners.
Today this same prison has one of the finest educational systems in operation that has ever been established in any prison. Or it did have when I left there a few years ago.
This school was functioning in conjunction with many big correspondence schools throughout the country. After the grades had been passed, the prison scholar could then avail himself of correspondence school training, which embraced everything in the way of vocation, and profession, from the arts and languages to business and the trades. Training was made compulsory up to the fourth grade; beyond that it was optional with the prisoner. It was a sight for earnest eyes to go into the big school room and see old men sitting side by side with youngsters mastering their A B C’s. And in another section of the room, to see eager hands trying to gain speed and efficiency on the typewriter; and in still other sections, to see competent inmate teachers patiently but effectively instructing their classes in all manner of specialties.
I do not say that this school is the finished result of any of my own efforts; but I can and do say proudly that because I had learned about the power of love to contact creative principle I was privileged to furnish the incentive or the nucleus around which the idea speedily grew.
Imagine if you can, an institution that for almost a hundred years had been managed on a system that exalted ignorance and low-rated knowledge. You would say that such a habit of management, ingrained by a century of unrelieved custom, could hardly be uprooted in the course of a few months. That, nevertheless, is exactly what occurred.
Moreover, a college professor, a man of tremendous ability, was appointed to organize and superintend the difficult undertaking. He not only established the school, but he convinced those in power that a new school library was a necessary adjunct to a school of this kind, and thus for the first time in the prison’s history the inmates could secure books of real educational value.
Of course, the idea first met with strong opposition both political and nonpolitical. It required considerable money to promote and realize an educational institution so broad in scope as this one. There were those who argued that education, instead of tending to correct criminals, would tend only to make of them a greater menace to society. A slow-witted criminal had little chance against the well organized forces of the law; but a criminal whose brain had been stimulated and developed through the process of education would be vastly more competent in the commission of crime. His imaginative faculties would become broader and more original; where he had once been dull, he would become clever; his ability to look ahead would be greatly enhanced, and thus he would be able to plan his crimes more efficaciously, eliminating the weak spots in his program of attack; where he had once blundered into his crimes blindly, without considering the most important feature in crime commission, the get-away, he would now be able to reason backward from a well-planned get-away to the crime’s commission, a process of thought beyond the capacity of an ignorant criminal, but wholly within the powers of one whose mind had been trained in the difficult art of coherent, analytical thinking.
Students of penology watched the prison school system with much interest and speculation. Most of them were in accord with the movement. Most of them believed that the surest way to convince a man that crime was a losing game in the long run was to educate him to the point where he could see and understand this maxim for himself; and that the best way to create a potential good citizen out of a potential bad one, was to first arouse within him an intelligent self-interest, and then place before him the means to cultivate that interest along constructive lines that entailed a knowledge of good citizenship and a desire to become a good citizen if for no other reason than the one based upon self-preservation, that it paid to conform to existing social standards, even though to do so might often prove tedious and unprofitable.
Whether or not this controversy was ever settled I do not know. But this I do know, in my experience I observed more than a hundred confirmed criminals who, because of this prison educational system, left prison to fill honest occupations that had before been beyond their reach. Nor did I observe one among them who returned to prison for committing another crime.
It is my honest belief that if it is possible to reform a person of anti-social tendencies, there is no surer method to that end in existence than to constructively turn such a person, through education, away from the old tendencies by giving him new and more appealing ones to follow. There is a sense of ought in the most hardened criminal. Ought I pull this job, or oughtn’t I? These are the preliminary questions to every crime committed. And constructive education gives the constructive answer to them more influence over the individual by making that answer more reasonable and consequently more appealing. I believe penology’s strongest weapon is education.
In this prison I was the first man ever to be permitted the unheard-of privilege of taking a correspondence course of study. At the time I had no idea how far-reaching the results of this privilege would be. And the warden, who granted me the privilege, of course established a precedent in doing so, and thus unwittingly let the bars down for an avalanche of similar requests, which he could not refuse, and which absolutely snowed him under.
He was bewildered when he called me into his office. “I’ve made a mistake in letting you have that course,” he said. And then he pointed to a ten-inch stack of requests. “They’re all the same. Fellows wanting to order courses. We have no mailing facilities here for handling so much of this type of stuff. I’m afraid I’ve got my foot in it. I didn’t know there was such a craze in the world for education. God only knows how I’ll ever get out of it.”
I knew, of course, that one of his ideas for getting out was to backtrack on the original privilege granted me. I had to think fast in order to forestall this action. So I said:
“Warden, here’s your chance to contribute a real service to society. It’ll never pass your way again. If you seize the opportunity now, your name will go down as one of the outstanding prison executives of the world; but if you let the opportunity slip, you’ll pass out with the next change of administration, just another prison warden who served his time and drew his pay as wardens have done before him. Why don t you put in a school? Get a good man in charge of it and let him handle it in his own way. In that manner the problem will solve itself so far as you’re concerned.”
“By Jove!” he exclaimed. “That’s an idea. I anticipate a fight. But I’m ready to go to the bat.” And with that vigorous statement a hastily formulated dream of mine had its first push forward toward fruition.
When I first thought of asking the warden for the privilege of taking a course of study, I was fully aware that such a request, under ordinary circumstances, would be briefly received and flatly rejected. Dad Trueblood and I talked the matter over, and as always, Dad had only one method for attacking all problems—the method of contacting creative principle through the intermediary of love.
But how am I going to reach the warden? How am I going to make my love known to him?”
“Love,” he said, “needs no advance agent. When it’s purely conceived and powerfully felt, it will find its objective. It does not follow you: you follow it. First you love, and then you act.”
“You mean I can prepare the warden in advance so that he will receive my request with favor?”
“Not you. But love expressing through you will prepare him.”
“Without any effort on my part?”
“None but love. In fact, you need not go about him at all. Say, that’s an inspiration. Instead of you making the request of the warden, let your friend on the outside do it, by mail.”
Contrary to general opinion, it isn’t so difficult to evoke a feeling of love even for one’s jailer. You can reason yourself into this emotion. That is what I did in this case. And it worked out perfectly.
After all, I said to myself, prisons were a necessary evil in a civilization that harbored the type of preying animal I had been. And if prisons were necessary, so were wardens to manage them. This warden was merely filling an inevitable duty, and if it wasn’t him then it would be some one else. Despite the disagreeable position he held, he was a man for all of that, with the same God-given spark that I possessed, the same potentialities for good and evil. We were brothers under the skin. We were both headed in the same direction, although our paths had not always run parallel. He had his troubles the same as I. His faults were no worse than mine. In a word, he, as every mortal born to struggle up through trial and error, was more entitled to love and understanding than to censure. Who was I to sit in judgment? Had not the Master of men said, “Woman, where art thine accusers?” And refused to judge her Himself when He noted all had slunk away.
In this manner of reasoning one unavoidably comes to the place where censorship ends, and where censorship ends true love begins.
It took me only a very short while to arouse within me a deep responsive feeling of love for the warden, and it grew and grew as I continued to search his inner being for the Christ-like traits that were the heritage of every human being.
Finally I began to visualize him in all manner of constructive, humanitarian activities. I saw him courageously doing the right thing, although he well knew that the right thing was not the popular thing for him to do. I saw him with my request in his hand; I sympathized with him when he passed through a wavering period of indecision; I bowed in inward gratitude when his eyes took on the light of victory over self and indecision fell away from him as he determined to do the constructive thing and allow me to have my course of study.
In the meantime I had written to my friend explaining my desire and asking her to inform me of the exact hour and date her letter to the warden was to go forward. In this manner I was able to arrive at the date and hour the letter would reach the warden’s desk. Through another source I found out the exact time the warden sat down to examine his mail. And thus at this time I visualized him with my friend’s letter in his hand. As I watched him leading it, I let my love close in around him until he seemed to be completely enveloped in it to the exclusion of every other vibratory influence.
I would not say this was scientific procedure. Some of you may even laugh it off as being the antics of a simpleton. I wouldn’t presume to state that such an effort on my part had anything to do with the warden’s decision. But I do say that his decision was made precisely as I wanted him to make it.
Through this course of study I was able to prepare myself for an honest, constructive future. I left prison at a time when the depression had just reached its peak, when competition in the labor market was as great as it ever has become. It might be that without this preparatory work I could have gone out in the world and competed successfully with skilled and unskilled millions. It might be that my prison and criminal record, all that I possessed in the way of reference, would have offered no handicap to me in my effort to secure a place in the world of honest endeavor.
But in the event the situation had not panned out in this manner, which would have been at least quite possible—what then?
Maud Ballington Booth once wrote a book under the title “After Prison, What?” A man may go out of prison with the very best of intentions, but if he is unprepared, if he is worse off than when he entered prison, his intentions are likely to meet with opposition too strong to be endured. Nothing will so take the starch from an ex-prisoner’s stiff resolutions like rebuff and indifference. As soon as he becomes thoroughly convinced that he is not wanted, the step between that point and his old life becomes a mighty easy one to take.
I remember a resolution I once made of the kind as I was leaving prison after serving my first term. I had been given a parole. The town I went to on parole had a shoe factory in it, and by telling a few skillful lies I managed to get a job in this factory. It was a good job, too. It paid excellent wages on a piece work basis. And the novelty of earning an honest living had a certain appeal about it, which I responded to with considerable satisfaction.
In the evening after a good bath and hearty supper I would stretch out on my bed and declare to myself, “By golly, this is not so bad.” There was a definite lift to this business of achieving a laudable day’s work; a decided sense of security about it that was wholly new and tremendously gratifying. If the thing hadn’t happened that did happen shortly afterwards, I might have, then and there, reconditioned myself to honest habits of a lasting nature.
But one noon-day, as I hurried up the street from the factory on my way to a restaurant, some one hailed me from across the street, using a name of mine that sent a tremor of fear through me. No one in this town knew me by that name, or so I thought. Turning I saw a detective coming across the street to greet me. It had been he who had arrested me for the crime I had just finished a prison term to expiate. His face was aglow with a broad smile. His hand was extended in friendship.
“Glad to see you out,” he exclaimed. “When did it happen ? What are you doing?”
I explained I had been out several weeks; that I was on probation; that I was working down at the shoe factory.
Fine, he said. “I for one am with you one hundred per cent. I want to see you make good. Lissen, just lay off the pool halls and other joints around here, and you’ll pull the grade. I’m here now. I’m with the railroad. Dammit, if the sledding gets tough, come out to my house. We’ll make you acquainted with the right sort of people. There’s no need for you to get lonesome.”
I was amazed at the man’s attitude. I wondered if I had previously misjudged him. I returned to the factory feeling a little relieved but shaky in the region of my solar plexus. I had been at work about an hour when I was notified the superintendent wished to see me in his office. I felt the old sardonic sneer welling up in me. I remember saying to the floor boss who conveyed the message to me, “Well, I guess this is the end of a perfect day.” A minute later, I was asked if I had ever served time in prison. Of course, I well knew who had informed on me. The detective had gone straight from his Judas kiss to the superintendent and advised him that an ex-convict was in his employ.
I admitted the fact with a sarcastic barb at the whole world. The superintendent was sorry that the rules of the company forbade, and so forth.
“You needn’t be,” I told him. “I’m out of place here anyway. I’m glad I got by long enough to buy a good gun. That’s my racket. It’s all I know. Give me my check and I’ll be out on my way in a jiffy.”
I walked away from that job with a poisoned heart and a bitter resolution eating into my brain like a cancer. It took some time to dull the edge of that mood. In the meantime I did some reckless things against the social order before I finally stopped with another prison sentence.
I have said elsewhere that reformation to be effective and permanent must be accomplished by transcending old habits; by reconditioning one’s self to new habits of thought and behavior.
To this end the average prisoner will neither respond to reason nor persuasion, harsh treatment nor kind. But, quite to the contrary, he will readily respond to an educational program with an inspirational tone to it, the quality that arouses self-interest, and offers a positive means to a broader mode of living for him. When such a program fails, the man is hopeless so far as human influence is concerned. Nothing save an act of Providence can swerve him from his downward path.
As an illustration of what education can accomplish where all other methods have failed, I wish to recount, briefly, the cases of two men, not because I was privileged to play a minor part in their salvation, but more to show that even the worst of human timber can be salvaged from the gulf of destruction and rendered useful to society when the educational method has been made available to them.
Spider Ross was young in years, but old in experience. He was one of those borderline cases the criminologists like to study. That he was criminally insane the doctors had no doubt. But always convictions for crime and sentences in Spider’s many mishaps sent him to prison instead of the criminal insane asylum.
Spider was one of those shifty-eyed, loose-lipped, pasty-faced crooks of the petty variety. A kleptomaniac, I believe they call them in professional terminology. He could neither read nor write his own name. He walked with the swaggering defiance of ignorance, and so far as any one could judge from mere observation, he possessed nothing but a surface, and a shallow surface at that. Apparently his only ambition was to live his own life and be allowed to brag about it as he liked.
When the prison school was established, Spider of course became what they called a “list man,” that is, his name was on the list of those to whom training was made compulsory. I worked beside Spider, and when he heard they were going to force him to attend school, he promptly revolted. “I’ll go,” he told me, “but they can’t make me learn anything.”
It didn’t take me long to realize that the school could be of little service to Spider so long as he held this attitude. I took his problem to the school superintendent and asked him to allow me to handle Spider’s case. He agreed to my request, and I thereupon removed Spider’s name from the list. When the list bearers made the round to notify the others of the day school was to start, Spider was passed up. Though he said nothing, it was plain he had taken the event as a slight and was very much disappointed. He wanted to tell the list bearer a mouthful, as he put it.
Of course, the school was a roaring success from the start. In the shop there was no other topic of conversation. Enthusiasm ran riot. Spelling matches were begun; arithmetic problems were pondered over and solved. Every one had a stack of school books he carried back and forth. The more literate prisoners turned from topics of crime to topics of history, government, economics, and so on. World’s Almanacs were borrowed from the new library with which to settle disputes. Spider found himself completely disassociated from his fellows. Everywhere he went the conversation had to do with school subjects. After the tasks were all in, the prisoners would form groups, each on its own intellectual level, and get off in a private place to discuss their next day’s assignments. If Spider approached one of these groups he would remain only a moment, because he had no mutual interest there. It was practically a case of unintentional ostracism.
Spider was in the position where “a feller needs a friend.” And his extremity proved my opportunity. When he could talk to no one else, I talked to him as we worked. I talked to him about the thrill one got from trying to learn things. Slowly but surely, his interest rose. Then one day he asked me why they had left his name off the school list. I replied by suggesting that he must have requested it. He was vigorous in his denial of this.
“Well, I guess they figured you weren’t interested in school,” I countered.
“I don’t see why,” he said, “I didn’t say so.”
“But maybe they figured you thought so. Actions speak louder than words sometimes, you know.”
He wondered if it was too late to get in. I thought I could arrange it for him. But he would have to study hard in order to catch up with the rest.
And so Spider Ross the next day found himself for the first time in his life on the inside of a class room. No doubt he was an exception, but once he was started and had mastered the first difficult steps, after he had learned to read a little, his thirst for more knowledge became an exaggerated mania, the talk of the prison. In two school terms he absorbed what was equivalent to an eighth grade education. Every one was amazed at his capacity to assimilate complicated subjects. He was never without a book within his reach. As he operated his machine the book stood propped open before him.
At the beginning of his third school term, he took up business, shorthand and typing in conjunction with a correspondence course in salesmanship. At the close of the term he was placed in one of the most difficult stenographical positions in the prison where question and answer dictation had to be taken with the speed of a court reporter. While holding down this job, he found time to continue his studies, to invent a dozen or so different kinds of gadgets, which he planned to copyright later, and to write two excellent books on salesmanship, one under title “The Psychology of Depression” and the other, “Depression Salesmanship.”
Spider left prison in the midst of the depression. His methods for making personal capital out of national hard-times were all set forth practically and convincingly in his books. That he demonstrated his theories, I haven’t the slightest doubt in the world, although I heard nothing more of him after he had taken his departure.
I reiterate, his was doubtless an exceptional case. When a man can start from the lowest level of ignorance and criminal insanity, and in three years’ time win a place of position of trust within his prison, and prepare himself as he did for a position of trust outside his prison, such an achievement is not only exceptional, it is phenomenal.
The important thing is, however, that he did it. The important thing to society. Institutional education had taken an obvious social menace in Spider Ross and transformed him into a social servant. Thus I have found it: education lifts the consciousness of the prisoner it touches, instead of contributing to the furtherance of his criminal tendencies.
And again we see in Spider’s case, how first there was developed an intense thirst or love for knowledge, which set the creative principle to building in an opposite direction. Before his love medium had been for destructive things and such things had been created through him. With the love medium reversed, the creative principle could do nothing else but create in the new direction. As the love medium tends the creative law inclines.
The case of Harry Simmons was quite different from that of Spider Ross in one way, but the result was similar in that through the prison school both had been able to find themselves and their particular niches in life.
Harry had attended college, was an excellent scholar and possessed a high standard of taste toward the cultural things. He could discuss academics with a glib and perfect accent. He was typically a young intellectual, a trifle egotistical, somewhat snobbish, and vastly intolerant toward those whose frontal bones failed to measure up to the lofty dimensions of his own.
At some point in his educational career he had come under the influence of a certain German philosopher. This philosopher propounded a super-man doctrine which, in the hands of a person more impressionable than stable, held a dangerous interpretation, an interpretation altogether ruthless and inhuman. Indeed, it was Harry Simmon’s misinterpretation of a brainy man’s philosophical doctrines that paved the way for his pride to prison.
“Live hard and dangerously,” was the credo this philosopher laid down for the guidance of the superman. Meaning, of course, that it was the duty of the super-man to dare the faggots of ignorance by living and teaching in advance of his time. Poor Harry thought the philosopher meant that the super-man, being so brilliant as to appreciate the shortness of mortal life, should crowd into it as much vice and merry-making as he possibly could.
So he became a hard and dangerous liver. He naturally found such living expensive. At first he gambled for the wherewithal; and later he took forgery. After his parents had bankrupted themselves trying to keep him out of prison over a period of several years, they were finally obliged to stand aside and see their prodigal take it on the chin for a five years’ stretch.
Harry had what they called a political job in our shop. He wore a white shirt instead of the regulation hickory. He was a garment checker and shipping clerk. He was not liked because of highbrow attitude and he was difficult to reach because of the thick veneer of know-it-allness he had drawn about him.
At any rate, I decided that Harry had too good a start in life to let himself drift down the purple tide and wind up in his old age a doddering prison bum, sitting around in the idle house of his final prison home spinning yarns about his many exploits, and comparing the conditions in this prison to the conditions in that one. But while I made up my mind to attack him with the weapon of love, I decided at the same time to use argument, since he loved to argue above any other pastime.
I crossed verbal swords with him one day with an introductory remark that set his blood to boiling.
“Say,” I said, most unexpectedly to him, “what do they teach guys like you in college?”
“To mind their own business for one thing,” he shot back.
“Oh, I thought they taught them to write checks on the old folks’ bank account.”
“Is that so! Well, get an earful of this. They also teach them how to use their fists, if you happen to think you’re lucky.”
“I don’t resort to violence,” I said with a broad grin on my face. He promptly thawed out, and we were soon talking about his favorite topic, the philosophy of the super man. We argued off and on for several days before he was willing to accede to my constantly reiterated point that any philosophy was a failure, unless the person embracing it could show that it had done him good instead of harm.
After drawing this admission from him, I pointed out that the same thing could be said of a college education; that although college men had a great advantage over non-college men, the latter by making opportunity out of the little they had, often succeeded in life, while the college man who refused to see the opportunity in the much possessed, failed in the practical business of life, that of growing and getting ahead.
These discussions, carried on at odd times daily, created a mutual bond between us, a thing that I had been working for, because I wanted to touch upon a most delicate subject later on, one that only friendship could take without resentment. I wanted to show him and make him realize what he had done to his parents, especially his mother, by dragging down the many excellent opportunities they had made possible for him.
He told me later that I was the only person on earth who could have brought these things home to him without giving offense. He was glad I had done it. Also, for the first time, our discussions made him conscious of the fact that, instead of copying his favorite philosopher’s virtues, he had been twisting those virtues into vices and copying them.
As you probably have already divined, Harry Simmons had scoffed at the idea of a prison school for convicts. He had said that ninety per cent of the guys in this prison were too dumb to learn anything if they were kept in school a million years. He had evinced a great pity for the poor boobs who would have to act as teachers. He had, also, said, that that was one job he would not do under any inducement or pressure. He preferred the dungeon to such a job.
But Harry Simmons did become a teacher in the prison school. He sought the job, and he filled it in an exemplary manner. He had a Spanish and English class that positively worshipped him. He became the professor’s most valuable assistant and he, more than any one else, was responsible for some of the finest features that the school possessed. In a word, he became a prison school enthusiast, and served the cause early and late to make it an outstanding success, and in this way squelch the criticism that still rumbled ominously here and there.
On commencement days, held in the big auditorium, with many noted educators from various places present to study the effects of the system, it was Harry’s privilege to make the address which outlined the accomplishments of that semester and voiced the hopes of the one immediately to follow, for this school had only a very short holiday period.
How different was the philosophy this boy propounded in these addresses to that which he had brought with him to prison! He was like a new creature. As he would warm with enthusiasm, he was like a man who had caught a powerful vision, and was eager to convey the inspiration of it to those who were still floundering about in search of themselves, as he had been.
Harry was not a pupil in this prison school seeking an education; but he got about as much out of it as any pupil there. It was not education be obtained; but re-education.
Harry was still there when I pulled out. But he’s gone by this time, and I would be willing to wager a goodly fortune that he’ll never go back to that prison or any other.
One of the best debates the forum ever promoted was between Harry and an equally brilliant fellow-on the philosopher Nietzsche. As I sat and listened I glowed inwardly with gratitude when the youngster revealed to me he had at last gotten close to the real Nietzsche and had reasoned away the shadow he had been following of that greatest of all original thinkers.
1935 Edition Printed by DeVorss & Co., Publishers
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