Within the Prison Walls
October 13, 1915 — Auditorium, Hotel Oakland, Annual Congress of the American Prison Association, Oakland CA
I wish we had had all the men representatives of the Congress here this afternoon, as well as the ladies, for there are many questions, I am sure, that have already been spoken from the platform which would have had a vital interest to all in this association.
As I understand it , this meeting was convened not to speak only of woman’s work and prisons but to touch from our standpoint the great field in which we are all so vitally interested . It seems to me that all through our Prison Congress meetings there naturally is a tendency for all of us , whether wardens or chaplains or physicians or prison workers, to bring to the thought and mind of our associates the difficulties, the hard places , the perplexities in our work; and sometimes when I sit and listen it seems to me that the outside audience must imagine that we have a terribly hard and discouraging problem and that there are some very hopeless and desperate things in it. That is merely because we are threshing out that side of the question. But if we could have meetings in which we forget our problems and our difficulties and talk only of the bright and happy and successful side, you would have a mass of testimony that would send you away with your faith strengthened, your heart thrilled and with the realization that our work is most wonderfully worth while and that we are in a field where through God’ s mercy and blessing we have been placed to under take for Him a work which in days gone by was looked upon as al most hopeless, but which has been revealed to us as one of the greatest, most wonderful and most productive fields in the world.
As I said to the chaplains, there is many a pastor who when preaching in the pulpit realizes that half of his work is thrown away because he is preaching to people so righteous that they shift all his remarks on to their neighbors’ shoulders. They do not need them. But when we stretch out our hand to our “boys” and “girls” in prison, when we come in contact with those in the shadow, it is an audience that recognizes its need. When they go into the prison school and have the opportunity of learning, they go hungry and eager because they realize their disadvantages in the past. When they are being taught a trade they realize what they have lacked and what it is going to mean to them in the fu ture . When we go to them with the blessed message Divine, it falls upon ground that has so long lacked the touch of the blessed dew or rain from heaven that we find it gladly germinating and bring ing forth good fruit . We have learned to look upon it not as a desert place but as a great and wonderful corner of the vineyard which only awaits workers who have faith enough and belief enough to take the message and to sow the good seed.
I believe this meeting has been called not to speak only of the woman’s side of the question within prison walls but rather to bring the woman’s point of view, the woman’s touch to the field, as we have seen it. As I have studied this great prison field for the past twenty years, it has seemed to me that our difficulties on the inside are what they are today and especially what they were yester day, in the hard, pioneer days, because of society’s attitude toward any soul that has sinned or strayed, especially toward the soul who was caught and had to suffer for it, for the world draws a very strong line of demarcation. It allows many a sinner to pass in and out, unchallenged , as long as he is not caught or branded , but the world”s attitude in the past throughout our country, it has seemed to me, as I look over the broad expanse of experience, has been that the moment a man or woman was detected in crime and came under the shadow of the law , that moment they lost their place in the human family forever.
There was a little incident recorded in the papers on Long Island this summer which I should like to relate. From among a flock of beautiful white pigeons , one strayed away in a terrible gale and storm , and the foolish weak creature did not know where to find shelter. By and by, of all places to choose, it found shelter in a chimney . When the storm was over it came forth once more, its wings covered with soot , and flew home again . There was a great disturbance in the dove-cote, for the others seeing this black creature come among them fell upon it and killed it. There came in due time a shower of rain from heaven and the rain washed away the soot and showed the white features of the pigeon, and then it was noted that they gathered around it and mourned over what they had done, for they recognized it as one of their own family. That has been very much the attitude of society. When a man or woman, boy or girl, has strayed, they are looked upon immediately as something outside the human family. Perhaps just their own mother stands by them, but they know only too well that when they come out into the world it will be to take the place of an outcast . In the past all of our high vaunted sentiments about “ the father hood of God and the brotherhood of man ”were made to apply to our foreign missions and the great wide world of the free, even to our colored brethren of the South, but when it came down to the one who had sinned and been caught, oh, no, it did not apply there.
That is one of the reasons that has made the problem what it is today. Now, however, there is a change of sentiment, and I think we could truly say that today the world is gathering around its failure and lack of charity in the past and is mourning over what in its ignorance it has done . I believe that the world stands today aroused. I believe it realizes the cruelty and injustice that made almost impossible the path of the man and woman returning from prison. With our new laws — the indeterminate sentence, the parole law, suspended sentence, the juvenile court — hope is entering in to guard and protect these people, where as in the past every guard and protection was thrown away and they were cast out into the world branded to take a position among their fellows which was absolutely impossible. The wonder is that not so many went repeatedly back again and again to prison, but that any of them were strong enough and brave enough to stay out.
The attitude of society has coinplicated the work attempted within the institutions. That is one reason why the American Prison Association has been formed , that we may bring to the world the realization that this responsibility lies at their door as surely as at ours; it is just as much the problem of the American church today as is the problem of the heathen , and if we send to heathen lands our missionaries , if we do what we can to bring the christianizing influence to them, then we must send within the prison walls the realization that we have not forgotten them, and we must try in our home and business circles in the world outside to open the door of escape ; of honest labor to these coming out to face life again. We do not fail to recognize the next phase, which is important, and that is the fact that those who are within prison walls are responsible for bringing the touch of inspiration , the new vision, the turning from the old ways to the right ways of those under their charge . In the days gone by our prisons were places that blighted and cursed and brutalized those that went to them. Today so many changes have come in the institutions that our prisons are becoming places that will be blessings. I believe the day may come when every man and woman stepping out of our institutions will turn back on the threshold and say, “I thank God I ever entered there. ”Not because their stay was made so pleasant , not because it was made an easy place, for the prisons where the best discipline is maintained are generally the happiest, but because within, everything that could be done morally and educationally and spiritually was done , to lift them from the plane to which they had slipped onto a higher plane, where they could develop into better manhood and womanhood . If a man goes into prison as a burglar or thief , or a woman goes in with some taint or stain of crime , when they step out again they should have been cleansed from that evil and should go out ready to begin life over again.
I have always felt in my work within the prison walls that here was the time to prepare for the future and that they would be on the outside just what they become within those prison walls . When people have come to me on the outside and said , “ How can we help the ex – prisoner? ”I have always felt like saying, “ Begin before he is an ex. “The great thing is the preparation within the walls of our institutions . So many people say that the first day of new life is going to be the day of liberty. I feel the first day of the new life should be the day they enter the prison , the day sentence is passed and the old life is left behind them. That should be the first day of new hope and new inspiration and they should be made to feel that every day within those walls is a glorious opportunity that counts for the future.
Unless we make new men and women of those who come under our charge, all our work is a failure — to take the broken and wrecked material with which the home and church and school and society has failed and make it over. Good discipline in our prisons is fine ; educational advantages splendid; trades to be taught to those who come to us almost essential; good food to those poorly nourished; good hospital care to those defective; all these things are splendid, but my friends it is too big a problem for human brains and hands to settle and handle alone, and I for one, would say if I believed that the little bit of work I have been trying to do through the Volunteer agency , was only my work and I was to rely upon my efforts and that was to be the test of the question, I would give it up tomorrow. But I believe we are instruments and messengers. Human souls have been entrusted to our care. Human bodies are in our hand . Human destinies are to be made straight and beautiful and every man and women of us has the right to look up and realize that the dear Hand that opened the blind eyes, that cured the sick one, that brought life to the dead, is waiting to be stretched out with its loving touch to those who need it so sorely, and somewhere deep down in their hearts, somewhere back in their poor, distorted consciences, somewhere beneath the surface in their human soul is that which will respond to the touch Divine.
There is, within, the possibility that God has given to every human individual, purity and sweetness and helpfulness and love. We are made in the image of God and God knows that some of us did not have much of the image; but if we can yield our hearts and lives to the Divine touch, if we come out into the sunshine of His presence each day, something better , something sweeter, some thing more noble can be brought out in our hearts and lives that will make the world better. So it is with those who have had so little chance. They have come from the dark places; they have not had the educational or spiritual or home or social or church privileges we have, and sometimes as we search their lives we find them so bare that they seem almost hopeless. It is for us to stretch out the loving, human hand that shall give the human touch, that paves the way for the touch Divine, and when that Divine touch has come to them we can step back and realize it is all worth while, for these we have helped to find God are not going out into the world poor creatures to whom we have given crutches , but they are going out made over, so that they will be sound and strong , true and good, and they themselves will stretch out a helping hand to others we might never reach, becoming in the world a blessing where they were once a curse.
Source: Proceedings of the Annual Congress of the American Prison Association, (Indianapolis: William B. Burford) 1915, pp. 241-245.