Upton Sinclair, ed. (18781968). The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest. 1915.
Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist
By Alexander Berkman
(The life-story of a man who served a fourteen-year sentence in the Western Penitentiary of Pennsylvania for an attempt at assassination)
(Introduction by Hutchins Hapgood)
NOT only has this book the interest of the human document, but it is also a striking proof of the power of the human soul. Alexander Berkman spent fourteen years in prison, under perhaps more than commonly harsh and severe conditions. Prison life tends to destroy the body, weaken the mind and pervert the character. Berkman consciously struggled with these adverse, destructive conditions. He took care of his body. He took care of his mind. He did so strenuously. It was a moral effort. He felt insane ideas trying to take possession of him. Insanity is a natural result of prison life. It always tends to come. This man felt it, consciously struggled against it, and overcame it. That the prison affected him is true. It always does. But he saved himself, essentially. Society tried to destroy him, but failed.
If people will read this book carefully it will tend to do away with prisons. The public, once vividly conscious of what prison life is and must be, would not be willing to maintain prisons. This is the only book that I know which goes deeply into the corrupting, demoralizing psychology of prison life. It shows, in picture after picture, sketch after sketch, not only the obvious brutality, stupidity, ugliness permeating the institution, but, very touching, it shows the good qualities and instincts of the human heart perverted, demoralized, helplessly struggling for life; beautiful tendencies basely expressing themselves. And the personality of Berkman goes through it all; idealistic, courageous, uncompromising, sincere, truthful; not untouched, as I have said, by his surroundings, but remaining his essential self.
The Russian Nihilistic origin of Berkman, his Anarchistic experience in America, his attempt on the life of Frickan attempt made at a violent industrial crisis, an attempt made as a result of a sincere if fanatical belief that he was called on by his destiny to strike a psychological blow for the oppressed of the communitythis part of the book will arouse extreme disagreement and disapproval of his ideas and his act. But I see no reason why this, with the rest, should not rather be regarded as an integral part of a human document, as part of the record of a life, with its social and psychological suggestions and explanations. Why not try to understand an honest man even if he feels called on to kill? There, too, it may be deeply instructive. There, too, it has its lessons. Read it not in a combative spirit. Read to understand. Do not read to agree, of course, but read to see.
In the storeroom I am stripped of my suit of dark gray, and clad in the hateful stripes. Coatless and shoeless, I am led through hallways and corridors, down a steep flight of stairs, and thrown into the dungeon.
Total darkness. The blackness is massive, palpableI feel its hand upon my head, my face. I dare not move, lest a misstep thrust me into the abyss. I hold my hand close to my eyesI feel the touch of my lashes upon it, but I cannot see its outline. Motionless I stand on the spot, devoid of all sense of direction. The silence is sinister; it seems to me I can hear it. Only now and then the hasty scrambling of nimble feet suddenly rends the stillness, and the gnawing of invisible river rats haunts the fearful solitude.
The hours drag in unbroken sameness. Not a sound reaches me from the cell-house. In the maddening quiet and darkness I am bereft of all consciousness of time, save once a day when the heavy rattle of keys apprises me of the morning: the dungeon is unlocked, and the silent guards hand me a slice of bread and a cup of water. The double doors fall heavily to, the steps grow fainter and die in the distance, and all is dark again in the dungeon.
The numbness of death steals upon my soul. The floor is cold and clammy, the gnawing grows louder and nearer, and I am filled with dread lest the starving rats attack my bare feet. I snatch a few unconscious moments leaning against the door; and then again I pace the cell, striving to keep awake, wondering whether it be night or day, yearning for the sound of a human voice.
Utterly forsaken! Cast into the stony bowels of the underground, the world of man receding, leaving no trace behind. Eagerly I strain my earonly the ceaseless, fearful gnawing. I clutch the bars in desperationa hollow echo mocks the clanking iron. My hands tear violently at the doorHo, there! Any one here? All is silent. Nameless terrors quiver in my mind, weaving nightmares of mortal dread and despair. Fear shapes convulsive thoughts: they rage in wild tempest, then become calm, and again rush through time and space in a rapid succession of strangely familiar scenes, wakened in my slumbering consciousness.
Exhausted and weary I droop against the wall. A slimy creeping on my face startles me in horror, and again I pace the cell. I feel cold and hungry. Am I forgotten? Three days must have passed, and more. Have they forgotten me?
One by one the men augment the row; they walk slowly, bent and coughing, painfully limping down the steep flights. From every range they come; the old and decrepit, the young consumptives, the lame and asthmatic, a tottering old negro, an idiotic white boy. All look withered and dejected,a ghastly line, palsied and blear-eyed, blanched in the valley of death.
The rotunda door opens noisily, and the doctor enters, accompanied by Deputy Warden Graves and Assistant Deputy Hopkins. Behind them is a prisoner, dressed in dark gray and carrying a medicine box. Dr. Boyce glances at the long line, and knits his brows. He looks at his watch, and the frown deepens. He has much to do. Since the death of the senior doctor, the young graduate is the sole physician of the big prison. He must make the rounds of the shops before noon, and visit the hospital before the Warden or the Deputy drops in.
Mr. Greaves sits down at the officers desk, near the hall entrance. The Assistant Deputy, pad in hand, places himself at the head of the sick line. The doctor leans against the door of the rotunda, facing the Deputy. The block officers stand within call, at respectful distances.
Next, the Deputy calls, spurting a stream of tobacco juice in the direction of the cuspidor. It strikes sidewise, and splashes over the foot of the approaching new patient, a young negro, his neck covered with bulging tumors.
Plaster hell! the prisoner breaks out in a fury, his face growing livid. Look at this, will you? With a quick motion he pulls his shirt up to his head. His chest and back are entirely covered with porous plasters; not an inch of skin is visible. Damn your plasters, he cries with sudden sobs, I aint got no more room for plasters. Im putty near dyin, an you wont do nothin fer me.
The comparative freedom of the range familiarizes me with the workings of the institution, and brings me in close contact with the authorities. The personnel of the guards is of very inferior character. I find their average intelligence considerably lower than that of the inmates. Especially does the element recruited from the police and the detective service lack sympathy with the unfortunates in their charge. They are mostly men discharged from city employment because of habitual drunkenness, or flagrant brutality and corruption. Their attitude toward the prisoners is summed up in coercion and suppression. They look upon the men as will-less objects of iron-handed discipline, exact unquestioning obedience and absolute submissiveness to peremptory whims, and harbor personal animosity toward the less pliant. The more intelligent among the officers scorn inferior duties, and crave advancement. The authority and remuneration of a Deputy Wardenship is alluring to them, and every keeper considers himself the fittest for the vacancy. But the coveted prize is awarded to the guard most feared by the inmates, and most subservient to the Warden,a direct incitement to brutality on the one hand, to sycophancy on the other.
Daily I behold the machinery at work, grinding and pulverizing, brutalizing the officers, dehumanizing the inmates. Far removed from the strife and struggle of the larger world, I yet witness its miniature replica, more agonizing and merciless within the walls. A perfected model it is, this prison life, with its apparent uniformity and dull passivity. But beneath the torpid surface smolder the fires of being, now crackling faintly under a dun smothering smoke, now blazing forth with the ruthlessness of despair. Hidden by the veil of discipline rages the struggle of fiercely contending wills, and intricate meshes are woven in the quagmire of darkness and suppression.
Intrigue and counter-plot, violence and corruption, are rampant in cell-house and shop. The prisoners spy upon each other, and in turn upon the officers. The latter encourage the trusties in unearthing the secret doings of the inmates, and the stools enviously compete with each other in supplying information to the keepers. Often they deliberately inveigle the trustful prisoner into a fake plot to escape, help and encourage him in the preparations, and at the critical moment denounce him to the authorities. The luckless man is severely punished, usually remaining in utter ignorance of the intrigue. The provocateur is rewarded with greater liberty and special privileges. Frequently his treachery proves the stepping-stone to freedom, aided by the Wardens official recommendation of the model prisoner to the State Board of Pardons.