The Man Behind the Bars
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THE MAN BEHIND THE BARS
THE MAN BEHIND THE BARS
WINIFRED LOUISE TAYLOR
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Copyright, 1914, by
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Published October, 1914
MY PRISON FRIENDS
Lest any one may charge me with extravagant optimism in regard toconvicts, or may think that to me every goose is a swan, I wish to saythat I have written only of the men—among hundreds of convicts—whohave most interested me; men whom I have known thoroughly and who neverattempted to deceive me. Every writer's vision of life and of humanityis inevitably colored by his own personality, and I have pictured thesemen as I saw them; but I have also endeavored, in using so much fromtheir letters, to leave the reader free to form his own opinion.Doubtless the key to my own position is the fact that I always studiedthese prisoners as men; and I tried not to obscure my vision by lookingat them through their crimes. In recalling conversations I have notdepended upon memory alone, as much of what was said in our interviewswas written out while still fresh in my mind.
I have no wish to see our prisons abolished; but thousands ofindividuals and millions of dollars have been sacrificed to wrongmethods of punishment; and if we aim to reform our criminals we mustfirst reform our methods of dealing with them, from the police court tothe penitentiary.
Winifred Louise Taylor.
August 6, 1914.
THE MAN BEHIND THE BARS
THE MAN BEHIND THE BARS
I have often been asked: "How did you come to be interested in prisonersin the first place?"
It all came about simply and naturally. I think it was W. F. Robertsonwho first made clear to me the truth that what we put into life is offar more importance than what we get out of it. Later I learned thatlife is very generous in its returns for what we put into it.
In a quiet hour one day it happened that I realized that my life was outof balance; that more than my share of things worth having were comingto me, and that I was not passing them on; nor did I see any channel forthe passing on just at hand.
The one thing that occurred to me was to offer my services as teacher ina Sunday-school. Now, I chanced to be a member of an Episcopal churchand their Sunday-school was held at an hour [Pg 4]inconvenient for myattendance; however, in our neighborhood was a Methodist church, and asI had little regard for dividing lines among Christians I offered myservices the next Sunday to this Methodist Sunday-school. My preferencewas for a class of young girls, but I was assigned as teacher to a classof ten young men, of ages ranging between eighteen and twenty years, andhaving the reputation of decided inclination toward the pomps and thevanities so alluring to youth.
It was the season of revival meetings, and within a month every memberof my class was vibrating under the wave of religious excitement, andeach one in turn announced his "conversion." I hardly knew how to handlethe situation, for I was still in my twenties, and as an Episcopalian Ihad never experienced these storm periods of religious enthusiasm. Sowhile the recent converts were rejoicing in the newly found grace, I wasconsidering six months later when a reaction might set in.
Toward the close of the revival one of the class said to me: "I don'tknow what we're going to do with our evenings when the prayer-meetingsare over, for there's no place open every[Pg 5] evening to the men in thistown except the saloons."
"We must make a place where you boys can go," was my reply.
What the class proceeded to do, then and there, was to form a club andattractively furnish a large, cheerful room, to which each member had apass-key; and to start a small circulating library, at one strokemeeting their own need and beginning to work outward for the good of thecommunity.
The first contribution toward this movement was from a Unitarian friend.Later, Doctor Robert Collyer—then preaching in Chicago—and Doctor E.E. Hale, of Boston, each gave a lecture for the benefit of our infantlibrary. Thus from the start we were untrammelled by sectarianism, andin three months a library was founded destined to become the nucleus ofa flourishing public library, now established in a beautiful Carnegiebuilding, and extending its beneficent influence throughout the homes,the schools, and the workshops of the city.
Of course I was immensely interested in the class, and in the success oftheir library venture, and as we had no money to pay for the services[Pg 6]of a regular librarian the boys volunteered their services for twoevenings in the week, while I took charge on Saturday afternoons. Thislibrary was the doorway through which I entered the prison life.
One Saturday a little boy came into the library and handed me thecharming Quaker love story, "Dorothy Fox," saying: "This book was takenout by a man who is in jail, and he wants you to send him another book."
Now, I had passed that county jail almost every day for years; its roughstone walls and narrow barred windows were so familiar that they nolonger made any impression upon me; but it had not occurred to me thatinside those walls were human beings whose thoughts were as my thoughts,and who might like a good story, even a refined story, as much as I did,and that a man should pay money that he had stolen for three months'subscription to a library seemed to me most incongruous.
It transpired that the prisoner was a Scotch boy of nineteen, who, beingout of work, had stolen thirty-five dollars; taking small amounts as heneeded them. According to the law of the State the penalty for stealingany amount under[Pg 7] the value of fifteen dollars was a sentence to thecounty jail, for a period usually of sixty days; while the theft offifteen dollars or more was a penitentiary offence, and the sentencenever for less than one year. I quote the statement of the case of thisScotch boy as it was given me by a man who happened to be in the libraryand who knew all the circumstances.
"The boy was arrested on the charge of having taken ten dollars—allthey could prove against him; and he would have got off with a jailsentence, but the fool made a clean breast of the matter, and now he hasto lie in jail for six months till court is in session, and then he willbe sent to the penitentiary on his own confession."
Two questions arose in my mind: Was it only "the fool" who had made aclean breast of the case? And if the boy was to go to prison on his ownconfession, was it not an outrage that he should be kept in jail for sixmonths awaiting the formalities of the next session of the circuitcourt? I did not then think of the taxpayers, forced to support this boyin idleness for six months.
That night I did not sleep very well; the Scotch boy was on my mind, allthe more vividly [Pg 8]because my only brother was of the same age, and then,too, the words, "I was in prison and ye visited me not," repeatedthemselves with insistent persistence until I was forced to meet thequestion, "Did these words really mean anything for to-day and now?"
Next morning I asked my father if any one would be allowed to talk witha prisoner in our jail. My father said: "Yes, but what would you have tosay to a prisoner?" "I could at least ask him what books he would likefrom the library," I replied. But I could not bring my courage to thepoint of going to the jail; it seemed a most formidable venture. Sunday,Monday, and Tuesday passed, and still I held back; on Wednesday I wasdriving with my brother, and when very near the jail the spring of thecarriage broke, and my brother told me that I would have to fill in timesomewhere until the break was repaired. I realized that the moment fordecision had come; and with a wildly beating heart I took the decisivestep, little dreaming when I entered the door of that jail that I wascommitting myself to prison for life.
But we all take life one day, one hour, at a time; and five minuteslater when my hand was[Pg 9] clasped through the grated door, and two biggray eyes were looking straight into mine, I had forgotten everythingelse in my interest in the boy. I asked him why he told that he hadtaken thirty-five dollars when accused only of having taken ten, and hesimply said: "Because when I realized that I had become a thief I wantedto become an honest man and I thought that was the place to begin."
Had I known anything of the law and its processes I should doubtlesshave said: "Well, there's nothing for you to do now but to brace up andmeet your fate. There's nothing I can do to help you out of thistrouble." But in my fortunate ignorance of obstacles I said: "I'll seewhat I can do to help you." I had only one thought—to save that youngman from the penitentiary and give him a fresh start in life.
I began with the person nearest at hand, the sheriff's wife, and shesecured the sheriff as my first adviser; then I went to the wife of theprosecuting attorney for the State, and she won her husband over to mycause. One after another the legal difficulties were overcome, and thiswas the way the matter was settled: I secured a good situation for Willyin case of his release; Willy[Pg 10] gave the man from whom he had taken themoney a note for the full amount payable in ninety days—the note signedby my father and another responsible citizen; the case was given arehearing on the original charge of ten dollars, and Willy's sentencewas ten days in the county jail; and this fortunate settlement of theaffair was celebrated with a treat of oranges and peanuts for Willy andhis fellow prisoners. A good part of that ten days