Prison Discipline.

Prison Discipline.


ANNUAL REPORT OF THE INSPETCORS OF THE MOUNT PLEASANT STATE PRISON to the Legislature of the State of New-York, January 19th, 1846.



  We know no printed pages that convey more encouragement as to the progress and aspirations of the human mind than those of these Reports.

  It is no longer only beings distinguished for shining attributes of unmistakable excellence that can inspire their brother men with faith in their possession of immortal souls. It is not only the eye of the poet, or that of private personal love, that can pierce through the thick crusts that have hid and dimmed the jewel, to see in him whom the world has cast off a fellow man, who may be helped, who may be saved,—who may even be aroused to help and save himself. There are symptoms that mankind at large begin to have some sympathy with the divine love of Jesus, who redoubled his encouragements to the prodigal son instead of punishing him for past transgressions, and was not afraid to preach that even at the eleventh hour men might come to work in the vineyard. Harsh bigots may sneer at this spirit of mercy as “sickly sentimentality,” but the spark has been struck, and, nothing daunted, the fire glows, rises, and begins to cast a light around.

  The Report of the Prison Association and that of the Inspectors of Mount Pleasant—(shade of Bunyan! what a strangely chosen name—or is it perhaps an omen of better times?)—breathe somewhat of that genuine philanthropy which cannot see in a MAN merely a social nuisance, because he has ignorantly, weakly or wickedly offended against society. Those who have understood and obeyed the laws are not afraid to look into the causes that have made their brothers outlaws. They are not afraid that sin will seem less hateful or less noxious, because it may be traced back to hereditary taint, bad education or corrupting influences of a half-civilized state. They are not afraid to do all they can to help a fallen brother man to rise, by putting his life under more healthful conditions both of body and mind. If they think themselves better and better situated than others, it is not in the blasphemous temper of “My God! I think thee that I am not as other men are,” but with a desire to make their privileges avail for the guardianship and instruction of those less favored. The God to whom they aspire is not a God of Wrath, “Master, Owner, rightful possessor of wrath—one who claims it as his rightful prerogative,” but a God of Love.

  Attention is paid to making the prison maintain itself and to maintaining the discipline there, not merely for the sake of the rest of the world, but of the prisoners themselves. Yes, sick, brutalized, contaminated though they be, they also shall be esteemed and cared for as men, and all possible chance of self-recovery allowed them, both in the prison and on leaving it.

  The suggestions as to supplying the prison with pure water, with instruction, with a library, are all harmonious to our eye, all expressive of that wiser sense of the claims of humanity which redeems our age despite its myriad vices and baseness.

  We regret that the report of the Matron of the Female Department at Sing-Sing is not in a form accessible to the general reader. This lady shows the powers of her large and clear mind no less in statement of her reasons than in the conduct they induce. The simple narrative of the state of things under her government is worth volumes or argument. May she never turn aside from this cause till she has made a mark that cannot be effaced upon its history!

  We give some extracts from her report:

  “It may be said that this mode of treatment will lessen the terror of punishment, and thereby diminish the restraint which it is intended to impose upon the tendencies to crime. But some experience and much reflection have convinced me that this apprehension is groundless. The character of criminals is for the most part strongly marked by the predominance of propensity over all the better powers. Of the females especially, a large majority have been reared and habituated to scenes of violence and depravity, that would themselves be the greatest terror to better constituted minds. Years of such excitement have prepared them to enjoy only scenes like those in which they have previously participated. Thus trained, aggression and resistance are the spontaneous and continued fruits of their minds. They come to the prison therefore, prepared to war against physical measures, and the supremacy of animal courage, and to derive their highest enjoyment from such contest.

  “While in this condition, no punishment could be more severe than the unseen, quiet restraints of a moral system, which furnish no excitement to their resisting faculties, offer no provocation to endurance, open no account of injuries to be revenged on some future occasion. The mental inanition of this period, the presence and supremacy of influences with which the mind has no sympathy, the monotonous character of the life, contrasted with the intense excitements which have preceded it, the absence of all stimulus to the physical as well as the mental energies, are circumstances, the combined severity of which seems sufficient to answer the strongest faith in the saving influences of punishment.

  “Yet this is the lot which inevitably awaits all whose lives have been thus spent, and the more perfect the moral government of the institution, the more severe is it to those who remain in this condition. An occasional burst of passion and resort to coercion; an occasional scene in which depravity makes itself heard in foul language or deeds of violence, are holidays to them. Some thing of the old life is again felt in their veins; something of the old spirit is rekindled. The countenance and entire manner indicate the vivifying influences which such scenes have exerted over them.

  “But one primary object of our system is to cause this state to be superseded by one of greater activity in the moral and intellectual powers; to kindle purer and more elevated desires in the mind, and thus re-create some capacity in the convict to derive pleasure from the influences with which she is surrounded. The progress to this condition is slow and tedious, and when reached, its newly awakened sensibilities are far from being sources of happiness, having nothing in the past and so little in the future on which to feed. Indeed the keenest suffering which the incarcerated ever experienced is that which flows from these sensibilities when the horrors of former years pass in review before the mind and the future threatens equal terrors when they shall find themselves without protection, without sympathy, overwhelmed with disgrace and the consciousness of guilt. But painful though it be, it is the first indication of promise, the first step in the path of reform. It is the price which all who are susceptible of improvement must pay for the comparative tranquility and sense of comfort which our system furnished to those who are capable of enjoying them. Thus the gentler features of this system do not become sources of comfort until there is an adaptation to receive them as incentive also, and aids to reformation. When the individual is fairly set out in this path, I permit myself to indulge no doubt as to the character of the treatment most favorable for its sound continuance. The ways of virtue must be made pleasant if we would have the wanderer accept our invitation to walk therein. Comfort, peace, sympathy, commendation and respect, are the natural fruits of integrity and well doing to the free. Can they be less necessary to sustain the feeble who are struggling to deserve them? Are they less justly due to the great efforts which such persons must make than to the conduct which flows from the natural choice of a better constitution.”

  Under this treatment these are the results:

  “The following abstract of violations and punishments, as illustrating these remarks, may not be out of place here.

  “In April, 1844, the first month after my connection with the prison, there were:

             violations     35 ǀ          punishments 13
May . . . . . . . . . . .     “       18 ǀ  May . . . . . . . . . . .  “   12
June . . . . . . . . . . .    “       20 ǀ June . . . . . . . . . . .   “     6
July . . . . . . . . . . .     “      17 ǀ July . . . . . . . . . . .   “     17
August . . . . . . . .     “      10 ǀ August . . . . . . . . .  “      7
September . . . .      “       9 ǀ September . . . .     “    9
October . . . . . . .     “       5 ǀ October . . . . . . .    “     5
November . . . . .     “       6 ǀ November . . . . .   “      5
December . . . . .      “       4 ǀ December . . . . .    “     4
January 1845 . .      “       4 ǀ January, 1845 . .    “     4
February . . . . . .      “       6 ǀ February . . . . . .    “     6
March . . . . . . . . .     “        3 ǀ March . . . . . . . . .   “     3
April . . . . . . . . .    no violations ǀ April . . . . . . . .no punishments
May . . . . . . . . . . .     “       1 ǀ May . . . . . . . . . . .     “     1
June . . . . . . . . . . .     “       3 ǀ June . . . . . . . . . . .   “      3
July . . . . . . . . . . .      “      17 ǀ July . . . . . . . . . . .    “     11
August . . . . . . . .     “        1 ǀ August . . . . . . . . .  “      1
September . . . .     “        2 ǀ September . . . .     “      2
October . . . . . . .     “       2 ǀ October . . . . . . .    “      2
November . . . . .     “       7 ǀ November . . . . .    “      7
                      ——— ǀ                    ———
   Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 164 ǀ    Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .108

  “It will be observed that in the early months the number of punishments often fell far short of the number of violations. Many of the offenders were admonished and warned of the consequences that would follow a repetition of their offences. This treatment often secured all that was desired, and where it failed, the second act was promptly followed by the penalty which had been previously promised. Some of the punishments have been very slight, such as the deprivation of a meal; of books; the prohibition of exercise, &c. In a very few cases they have been severe. Such are the long terms of solitary confinement and the cropping of the hair. This last has been resorted to in but one instance, but with excellent effect.

  “Thus it will be seen that the whole number of violations for the past year, exceed those of the first month by only ten; a result which is doubly gratifying when the character of the offences is considered.

  “An immense majority of those running through the year, was of the lightest description; simple infractions of arbitrary rules, arguing neither depravity nor a rebellious spirit so much as the supremacy of natural law, over those imposed by the unnatural condition of the offender.”

  The following beneficent plan will commend itself to every unprejudiced mind:

  “But it is not to be supposed that a state of feeling so favorable to the growth of better principles can be produced and sustained without the expenditure of much labor and the use of various means chosen for the purpose. Those which I esteem most efficient have been the use of books, the daily chapel reading and personal instruction.

  “The State makes no provision for books, other than the Bible. A few old volumes were found in an attic store-room, which were out in requisition on my first coming here, but they were, for the most part, ill adapted to the taste as well as the condition of our readers. Our great need in this respect was made known to a few philanthropic ladies in New-York and Boston, who soon collected several hundred miscellaneous volumes, the private charities of their friends. But these sources are entirely inadequate for any permanent supply of sound reading. And the larger number of persons in the male prison to whom such reading would be still more valuable than to the female convicts, are dependent on the same precarious bounties. In view of these facts, I would beg leave to suggest a plan by which a small fund might be raised for increasing the libraries of both prisons; this is to grant to our better class of female convicts a half holiday at the close of the week, which should be spent in manufacturing various fancy articles to be kept for sale at the prison to visitors and others. The advantages of this plan would be manifold. As an indulgence the holiday would be highly prized; but it would be enjoyed only by those whose conduct had ben unexceptionable during the week, and who also had accomplished the largest amount of work required from them. Thus, instead of diminishing the productiveness of their labor for the State, it would rather stimulate them to increased exertion. Beside, many of the females have husbands or friends in the male prison, and there is a strong feeling of sympathy toward the inmates of that institution generally, which would find a very pure and generous gratification in conferring this kind of benefits upon them. It is thought that the adoption of this or some similar plan would enable us to raise a fund sufficient to add to both libraries several volumes each month, an object which, in the absence of all other means of procuring them, would be of no small importance.”

  We have put under this head reports from the Utica and Pennsylvania Asylums for the Insane, because we do believe that advancement in thought and wisdom of treatment in both these departments are and will be simultaneous. When there is a well-digested system of treatment for the one, that for the other will not be far behind. We have no fear of the consequences. We do not think men will seek the causes of excitement that lead to insanity because the disease becomes, by judicious treatment, more easy to cure. We are sure that the better man is by this means led to understand his own constitution, the more he is likely to avoid these causes. And we believe that an anxiety to call sinners to repentance instead of casting them down to perdition for the first offence, yea and for offences seventy times seven, is just as little likely to promote sin as the angel-like ministry now bent on ameliorating the condition of the deaf and dumb, or so-called idiots, is to enlarge those unfortunate classes.

  These reports correspond in the more important features with that of the Bloomingdale Asylum, which we noticed some days ago. Two or three suggestions, however, they bring to us.

  It is stated that some patients have left the Asylum even improved in mind, either from the favorable crisis in their health, or the discipline to which they have been subjected. Whichever way this be viewed, the hint may be turned to vast profit.

  We see with pleasure the tendency to provide something like a home for incurable cases. We do believe that under a still more intelligent regime even the incurables will not pass the years without profit, as well as happiness. Surely their chance is fairer than that of the miser, egotist, or sensual man whom the world does not characterize as insane.

  The project (in the Pennsylvania Hospital) of giving the patients an interest in the care of trees, is worthy all attention. Dr. Kirkbridge says:

  “We have continued steadily to carry out the system originally adopted, of each year planting a considerable number of trees and shrubs, and already have some of the results of this labor become strikingly conspicuous to every visitor to and resident of the Hospital. The variety on the premises is large, and has been in many cases a matter of much interest to patients fond of studies of this description. It would be easy in a few years to have within our enclosures a specimen of every tree that will live in this climate, and I know of no spot near Philadelphia where a complete arboretum could be established with less trouble, or be a subject of greater interest or more utility than upon the 41 acres which compose our pleasure grounds.”

  He also mentions that animals have been added to the Park.

  Whoever has experienced the need of renovation, when the mind has lost its force and serenity, whether from irritation or exhaustion, will find nothing so healthful as the care and companionship of trees and animals. The thousand charms of their spontaneity, of their instinctive life, rouse and feed those just sympathies that are needed to restore the injured nature to its balance. The care of flowers is rather more anxious and too often leads to stooping, therefore is less safe, but their presence has the same balmy, restorative influence.

  The name of Amariah Brigham (New-York State Lunatic Asylum) excites to mention of a debt of gratitude. He will be glad to learn that, from writings of his, one, at a dangerous crisis, received admonition that saved the best hopes of life from a shipwreck. This person, originally of a mind too ardent and willing for the bodily strength, “fed in youth with the poisonous names” of Julius Cæsar and other such worthies, who scarce needed sleep, gave no moment to leisure, or that thoughtless growth, without which, in fact, no genius ever came to flower. This poor young disciple, seized with the fever of thought and study, believed that constant tension was the only fit state for an immortal spirit, and so went on, with daily increasing impetus, an intellectual race that neared the precipice, when writings of Dr. Brigham, describing the causes and symptoms of congestion of the brain, arrested attention just in time to save from the worst effects of these mistakes, and ransom for the pupil, taught the inevitable reaction of body on mind, many years of joyous and active existence that might else have been passed in the sorrowful twilight of insanity, or been broken into worthless pieces by other forms of disease.

  What has been brought out on these subjects during each year, both as to principle and fact, ought to be embodied in pamphlet shape for the use of the people. These reports are little circulated, and every person ought to have full means of information on topics like these.*

“Prison Discipline,” New-York Daily Tribune, 25 February 1846, p. 1.