Article — From the June 1929 issue

What’s Wrong With the Right People?

( 2 of 6 )

ii

My own case is typical. Up to the age of fifteen I thought a policeman was a hero, a person to be looked up to and trusted and confided in. Then one evening I was mistakenly “picked up, taken down, and thrown in” by one of them. The treatment I got in the jail from him and his brother officers shot that illusion all to pieces.

Every subsequent contact for twenty-five years strengthened those impressions, and it has taken me the best part of a lifetime to learn that the cop is a victim of the same machine which makes the criminal.

I got my first lesson in violence that first night in the jail. For twenty-five years I punished and was punished. I hunted because I was hunted. I showed no consideration for anybody because I expected to receive none. I learned the game of violence thoroughly, from the police, the courts, the prisons. In the end I came to believe that I could survive only by using violence-and using it first.

I know hundreds of reformed criminals and I don’t know one who was reformed by a policeman’s night-stick, a severe sentence, or prison cruelty. A brutal flogging in a Canadian prison, and, years after, three days in the murderous strait-jacket on a dungeon floor in California, certainly did nothing to turn my thoughts toward reformation.

The strait-jacket was to the prison warden what his rope was to the Vigilante, what the New York Commissioner would make of the night-stick — a short cut. The jacket had a brief reign and a swift and violent end. So far as I know, every man who was subjected to its ferocious punishment was so hopelessly maimed that he was a derelict for life, or so twisted mentally that he became a homicidal maniac. They left the prison like the little Jewish tailor whose hands were too shriveled to do any honest thing except to catch pennies on the street corner, or like me, poisonous and revengeful. This attempt to maintain order by “throwing the fear of God into them” failed as all such systems fail. It culminated in the bloodiest prison break in the history of the United States. Of the twelve men who escaped, six of the most desperate are still at large, with ropes around their necks, and the murders they have committed to keep out of the hangman’s grasp are almost unbelievable.

When I left prison, still weak from the effects of the strait-jacket, I swore to myself that from that time on I would be a creature of the night. I vowed I’d never let the sun shine on me, never make another friend or do another kindly act. The prison officials were safe in their prison, and I turned on society for my revenge. Within three months I was back in jail charged with robbery and shooting a citizen who refused to be “stuck up.” If he hadn’t had a good doctor and a good constitution, I shouldn’t have lived to discover that the pen is mightier than the jimmy or the six-shooter. If the Baumes Law had been in effect, I should never have discovered it, for that law robs the judge of all discretion. On the fourth conviction it is mandatory upon the judge to sentence a defendant to life imprisonment, whether he shoots a citizen or steals a pair of shoes.

For the past fifteen years I have been feeding and clothing myself instead of letting the tax-payers do it, because, at the time of my life when I least deserved it, I met trust and judicial leniency, which gave me hope. The judge who sentenced me to a year when he might have locked me up for life and thrown the key away, took a greater chance on me than I ever took on anything. He stopped my stealing as effectively as a hangman’s rope. He gave me my life and I couldn’t doublecross him any more than I could doublecross the friend who once cut the bars in a jail window and gave me my liberty. Loyalty is the only virtue of the underworld, and the judge appealed to that. He put me in a hole where I had to stop stealing and fall into the lock-step of society.

I repeat that I have never known one criminal who was reformed through cruelty. Such reformation as I have achieved is due, initially, to the act of the judge who said, when he sentenced me to a year instead of to life:

“I believe you have sufficient character to build a new life. I will give you that chance.”

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