A Fragment of the Prison Experiences of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. New York, December, 1919.

This document has no connected Zotero data.

Created by Patrick Golden .
Last edited by Patrick Golden .

Loading scanned document...

<lh>A Fragment of the Prison Experiences of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman

<plda>New York, December 1919

<hl>The State Prison At Jefferson City, MO.


<txtab>Twenty-Six years ago, in 1893, I paid the first toll for my opinions in the State of New York with a year’s free residence in the Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary. I found the cells small, dark, and filthy, the sanitary conditions appalling, and the general attitude toward the convict on the part of prison officials hard and cruel.

Terrible as these conditions were, they had some justification. In 1893, there was barely a spark anywhere to discredit the antiquated and inhuman theory of predestination -the Calvinistic idea that man is born a sinner and that he must expiate his sins through suffering and pain. This attitude toward the criminal and the methods of punishment rest on this biblical conception to this very day. Much more did that idea prevail twenty-six years ago.

Since then criminology has undergone a revolution. Libraries are filled with works on the origin and causes of crime, on the futility of punishment as a corrective of crime. More and more frequently modern writers have pointed out that crimes are related to social conditions, and that brutal treatment of prisoners makes them become more hardened and anti-social.

With a vast literature on scientific criminology and the widespread attempt to reform prisons, to humanize the treatment of the unfortunate social offender, one might have expected some changes in the penal institutions of this country. Yet in the year 1918 in the Stat of Missouri and Georgia, and for aught we know in every State in the land, prisons continue to be “built of bricks of shame” and

The vilest deeds, like poison weeds,
Bloom well in the prison air.
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there.
Pale anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair

To be sure, the cells in the Missouri State Penitentiary, at least in the female wing, are larger and some of them lighter than the vermin-infested cells on Blackwell’s Island twenty-six years ago. But even there the cells are never light enough except on very sunny days, while more than half the cells are in utter darkness and without ventilation. In fact, the air is the most tabooed article in the Missouri prison. Except in extremely warm weather, the windows are rarely opened, healthy women are forced to breathe the putrid air of consumptives and syphiletics. During the influenza epidemic, when thirty-five prisoners lay stricken, we had to plead and fight for the opening of a window. To this day I can not understand how any one of us survived except that the Lord “takes care of us poor sinners.”

Yes, the cells are larger, the sanitation modern, but in every other respect, in the attitude of the officials toward the prisoner, the cold indifference to his needs, the methods of breaking his will, and above all, the mode of employment have not improved, but are even worse than my experience on Blackwell’s Island in 1893.

I cannot dwell here on the blood freezing reception accorded each hopeless victim when the prison doors close upon her. That alone is enough to crush the bravest spirit and to turn one’s very soul to gall and hate. I shall treat of this in my forthcoming book, dealing with my twenty months’ experience in the Missouri State Prison.

It is the task system that prevails in this prison - as truly slavery as ever existed in this country before the Civil War - which chiefly needs to be exposed. The contract system of prison labor has been abolished “officially” - the State is now the employer. Yet no slave owner so drove, coerced and exploited his slaves as Missouri bleeds and exploits its helpless victims in the penitentiary at Jefferson City.

Two months are allowed to learn the trade, which consists of sewing jackets, overalls, auto coats and suspenders - tasks varying from 45 to 121 jackets a day, or from 9 to 18 dozen suspenders a day. Now, while the actual machine work on these different tasks is the same, the number of jackets in the 88 to 121 tasks is double to the 45, 55 and 66 tasks; hence double physical exertion is required. Yet the different tasks must be made in the same number of hours, without regard to age, physical endurance, periods of menstruation, when machine work is sheer torture to women. Even illness, unless it is of a very serious nature, is not considered sufficient cause to be relieved from the terrible task. So, unless one had previous experience in the needle trade, or a special aptitude for it, one’s life is made a veritable hell, beginning a few days after commitment and lasting till the final day of release. No understanding for human variations, no consideration for mental or physical limitations, except for a few favorites of the prison officials, those who are usually the most worthless. The shop foreman in charge is a boy of twenty-one, who took up the art of slave driving at the age of sixteen. He bullies and terrorizes the women, holding the threat of the blind cell and the bread-and-water diet over them.

The vilest language is used to the women, some of them old enough to be the boy’s mother. Of course, he is paid to show results. The only way he can get results is through slave-driving methods, as well as by actually stealing part of the women’s output, especially from the more ignorant, who are unable to do their own counting.

On more than one occasion I have seen this miserable foreman deliberately steal jackets and suspenders from colored girls who are serving twenty-five year sentences and from illiterate white girls. If they dare insist that they delivered their quota of work, they are punished for “impudence,” in addition to being punished for “short” work. In view of the fact that four punishment marks a month reduce the prisoner one grade, and that a higher grade means speedier release from the prison hell, the enormity of this petty official’s criminal thievery can be appreciated. Yet this man is considered fit to be in charge of sixty to seventy “criminals.” It does not take much wisdom to find the greater criminal.

It may be argued that this ignorant and vulgar young man is only a tool, and therefore not to blame. Partly this is true. The State is the real offender, the officials of the Prison Board, as well as the petty subordinates who live by the sweat and blood of the social outcasts. The very first year the State of Missouri became the exploiter of the convicts labor, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the salaries of the prison officials had been increased $20,000 per annum. No wonder the Acting Warden, Captain Gilvan - a bully and a brute who used to administer flogging when it was still “officially” in vogue in Missouri - once said to us in the shop, “I must have the task. You must make it. No such thing as can’t. If you do not give me the task, I will punish you. And I punish cheerfully.” Having the support and approval of such a man and the sanction of the head matron, a woman entirely bereft of feeling, it is natural for the foreman to squeeze and press and bully the task out of the women. But can anyone suppose that the foreman could lend himself to such brutal slave-driving, if he were not depraved himself?

It is utterly impossible to keep up the required speed day after day. The working hours are nine a day, but in order to complete the task, the women are driven to the old-time sweatshop methods of taking work evenings into their cells. In view of the fact that the cells are vermin infested, and the jackets and suspenders the prisoners make are sold broadcast and have already been handled by consumptive and venereally infected male prisoners, who prepare the work, the results can readily be imagined.

Personally I was well supplied by many friends with nourishing food. I am an adept at the needle trade, having worked at it for many years, when I first came to know the many economic opportunities in our so-called democracy. Yet I never could keep up the mind and soul-destroying speed in the prison shop. Therefore I know what it means to the underfed women prisoners.Not one but emerges with impaired health.

If the contract system were really abolished, why would the State of Missouri drive its prison inmates? For a very simple reason: the State of Missouri, like the private contractor, does business with private concerns in every State of the Union. Proof of this is given by the labels sewn on every garment that leaves the prison. I was able to smuggle out a few, which are reproduced here.

Civilization claims to have advanced, and in no country do we hear so much about prison reform as in our own. Yet what can we say for the State of Missouri, when at the head of their female department is a woman in charge of ninety women prisoners who has control over their life and death?

This woman, Lilah Smith, has been employed in penal institutions since her fifteenth year, and has, therefore, little education or training. She is a believer in rigid discipline and punishment. She is really a neurotic, who has no control over here temper. She users physical violence on the slightest pretext, especially when a particular prisoner is not in her good graces. Not once in twenty months did I hear her address one single encouraging or kind word to a prisoner. Flogging in the State of Missouri has been officially abolished, but Lilah Smith’s vigorous slapping goes on.

There are three methods of punishment: First, the women are deprived of their recreation; second, they are locked up in their cells for forty-eight hours, from Saturday to Monday, on a diet of bread and water, and then they are sent to a blind cell, a cell 52 inches by 104 inches, with and aperture of 7 inches by 12 inches, supplied with one blanket, two pieces of bread and two cups of water a day. In this tomb they are kept from three to twenty-two days.

Added to this maddening torture are the bull rings, which, while never used for white women during my stay, were used on colored girls.

The worst tragedy which occurred during my stay in the prison was the deliberate murder of Minnie Eddy. When I entered in February, Minnie has already been there a number of months. She struggled valiantly with the task, which she seemed unable to master. To avoid punishment, she used every cent her sister sent her to hire the task. In November, 1918, she began to complain of pain in her head and throat. She went to the doctor, but he ordered her back to the shop. She went back, but seemed unable to pull herself together to do any work. The matron decided she was shamming, and put her in punishment. At first she was kept in her own cell on bread and water; then the matron, realizing that we were feeding Minnie, transferred her to the so-called hospital, where a mattress was refused her, and only a bare cot and blanket were supplied. In that place the unfortunate woman was kept another week.

I went to the matron shortly after Minnie was put into the hospital, begging for her release. Then, Thanksgiving Day, Minnie was brought down and allowed to eat her Thanksgiving dinner of putrid pork on an empty stomach. Two days later I took Minnie a couple of soft-boiled eggs, and seeing on her table a box sent by her relatives some weeks before, and which had just been given her, I warned her against using the decayed food in her present condition. But she was ravenous.

That evening some of the prison trusties came to me and told me that Minnie was in a heap on the floor, unconscious. I demanded that they call Miss Smith, the matron. The matron screamed at and slapped the unconscious woman. She was allowed to remain in her cell until Monday, when I could endure the situation no longer, and insisted on seeing Mr. Painter, President of the Prison board, who came over at once. He had been told that Minnie was refusing food. He gave orders to have her moved back to her own cell, and put one of the girls in charge as her nurse. From the latter I learned that an attempt was made to feed Minnie forcibly, but it was too late. She never regained consciousness, dying Wednesday evening, at seven o’clock. Her terrible death benefitted the other women, inasmuch as no one was afterwards placed in the death trap for more than five days. So the dead sometimes aid the living.

There are two criterions on the part of the officials in dealing with the prisoners. If they are sick, they are told that they are shamming; if they cannot make the task, they are told they are lazy.

Frequently sick prisoners are ordered back to the shop by the physician when they are barely able to drag themselves along.This is the more remarkable because he is not an unkindly man and was especially decent to me. The reason for his indifference to the other women there I discovered during my last days at the prison. He is a daggers’ points with the Board; therefore he is unable to do what he would like.

The Missouri State Penitentiary has the merit system, which is only another method of pressing out more labor from its victims. Those who can stand the nerve-tearing speed and get into Class A, the highest class, have their time reduced almost in half. Therefore many of the women work beyond their limit of physical capacity to get out of the hell hold, even at the expense of their health. However, only State prisoners benefit by this merit system. Not so the Federal prisoners. They are forced to make the task every day, though their time is in no way affected. Imagine the outage in the case of a prisoner serving a twenty-five-year sentence. Day after day, year in and year out, she is browbeaten and harassed to make the task. If she fails, she is repeatedly thrown into the “blind cell.” If she succeeds, she gains nothing. The Federal Government pays the State for the upkeep of each Federal prisoner. In addition, the State makes a huge profit from the labor of these Federals. In return, it gives them not a single privilege. The deduction of six days’ time a month is provided for by the Federal Government. It is a most unspeakable injustice toward helpless human beings.

In disclosing conditions prevalent in the Female Department of the Missouri State Penitentiary I am in no way prompted by personal grievances. Thanks to the liberality of Mr. William R. Painter, President of the Prison Board, and possibly also because of the fear of publicity on the part of the management, I have no personal complaints to make. In justice to Mr. Painter, I must say that he is a rather unusual man for his position. Whenever his attention was called to some grievances, he was always ready to remedy it. But prison abuses are conditioned in the very character of prison life and corrupt politics, so that nothing short of the complete abolition of prisons will ever eradicate the terrible wrongs committed in penal institutions.

Meanwhile it is necessary to continue to point out that criminals are victims of our mad social arrangement, and to emphasize the utter failure of punishment as a corrective, as well as to expose the average brutal and ignorant type of prison official. The recognition of this may help to change our better-than-thou attitude toward the criminal.

As for my own experience, in all my twenty months of the closest contact with my fellow prisoners, I did not find one I could call depraved, cruel or hard. On the contrary, I know a “lifer” there who had come to the penitentiary hardly more than a child. She has already served fifteen years. She is a most tender and devoted creature. She has one hold on life - a dog, whom she loves and tends with a mother’s devotion. Who is the true criminal - this poor heart-broken little woman or the officials who have the power to let her spend her remaining years in freedom, and yet keep her? Another woman, who has a fifteen-year sentence, is completely broken in health, and in constant misery.She is passionately devoted to her only child, a little boy. Is she the criminal or those who keep her there? Her offense was the result of a moments aberration; theirs is a cold-blooded, methodical and daily crime. Who is the greater criminal? Another woman, the mother of eight children, worked and starved half to death on a farm. She is thrown into prison for stealing a pig. Who is the greater criminal, this poor woman or the State which sent here there? I found no criminals among my fellow prisoners, only unfortunates - broken, helpless, hapless and hopeless human beings.

How rich in comparison are we political prisoners! Kate Richards O’Hare, who has the gift of going into the life of every prisoner, soothing and comforting and sustaining her, and is herself sustained by the ideal and the love of thousands. Rare little Ella Antolini, with here marvelous stoicism, her splendid fortitude, and her great capacity for human sympathy. We politicals are rich, indeed. Rich in the love of our dear comrades, rich in our faith of the future, strong in our position. But the others? It is for them we plead, against the wrongs, the inhumanities committed against those in the prison we left behind. Indeed, in every prison in the land.


<loc>A Fragment of the Prison Experiences of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. New York: Stella Comyn, 1919, p. 5-11.

EG served a sentence at Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary from 1893 to 1894 for delivering speeches inciting to riot to gatherings of the unemployed in New York. She was put to work at the prison, first in a sewing shop and later as a nurse

Generally, basic sanitation and cleanliness were much improved in American prisons in the twentieth century compared to the previous one. This was due in part to the efforts of penal reform organizations such as the National Prison Association, founded in 1870. Earlier conditions of the Missouri State Penitentiary are described in the book Twin Hells written by John N. Reynolds (Chicago: M.A. Donahue and Co., 1890), who wrote that the prison had strict but fair discipline, sufficient, if monotonous meals, and overall adequate sanitation, although he believed that the prisoners should have be given greater access to education for purposes of self-betterment

From the 1870s through the Progressive Era of the 1890s to World War I, reformers called for the improvement of conditions in prisons and, more broadly, for a systematic rethinking of the purposes and practices of American penal institutions. This era of reform began with the founding of the National Prison Association in 1870, although the prison reform movement was highly decentralized and never concentrated within one body. The goals of the reformers were numerous and included abolishing contract labor and severe physical punishment, creating self-governing prisoner bodies, founding specialized institutions to deal with women, juveniles, and other specific groups, and reforming sentencing practices to make them indeterminate based on individual criminals rather than crimes. In all their goals, they sought to make the prison experience a more reformative than punitive one for inmates. The most famous of these reformers was Thomas Mott Osborne (1859-1926), author of Within Prison Walls (New York:Appleton, 1914), which recounted the writer’s experience of voluntarily spending a week in Auburn Prison in New York. Osborne was appointed warden of Sing Sing Prison in New York in 1916, where he implemented many of the reforms suggested by himself and fellow Progressives. He met with Missouri Governor Frederick Gardner and several state prison officials on 20 April 1917 and gave a talk on the importance of implementing indeterminate sentencing and giving prisoners more self responsibility

Both the verse and the quote “built of bricks of shame” come from Oscar Wilde’s poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The full stanza from which the quote is taken reads, “This too I know – and wise it were / If each could know the same – / That every prison that men build / Is built with bricks of shame, / And bound with bars lest Christ should see / How men their brothers maim.” EG regularly quoted this passage; see for example “The Tragedy at Buffalo” (Free Society, 1901).

The Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City was one of the largest prisons in the country and the only general purpose prison facility in Missouri (the three other facilities in the state housed only juvenile offenders). It was one of only a few prisons in the country which had a dedicated, segregated female wing.

In 1918, an extremely contagious influenza virus killed over 50 million people worldwide. EG describes prisoners falling ill to this disease as well as syphilis and tuberculosis (or “consumption”).After she and others brought publicity to the issue of infectious diseases in Missouri State Penitentiary, the state built a new tuberculosis clinic and began to test and treat for venereal diseases. The report of the Missouri State Prison Board in 1921 states that, with the new funding by the federal government, “each case of syphilis has been treated, and as near as possible, cured.”

EG went to church for a short time while in prison. See letters to Stella Ballantine on 15 July 1917 and 6 February 1919.

 A reference to the task system which was a method of arranging prison labor in which inmates were expected to meet a quota of work each day. From late 1917 on in Missouri, the state enforced each inmates’ meeting of this quota, or “task”. This differed from the previous system where a contractor would pay a set price for each worker regardless of their output. This new individualized system allowed for more specific reward and punishment, such as the merit system (see note 21). While the state enforced task system was meant to be a reform away from contract labor, it produced results which seemed to be no different. A 28 July 1917 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch titled “CONTRACT LABOR STILL IN PRISON AS TASK SYSTEM” describes how the Oberman Manufacturing Firm, which had contracted inmate labor before the practice was banned, was able to monopolize the output from the task system, in effect making the prison its own factory again. The article also states that the firm’s profits were increased because it only had to pay the state per task instead of per prisoner, eliminating the cost of paying slow or inexperienced workers the same amount as fast ones.

In the system of contract prison labor, prisons hired out their inmates to firms who then supplied materials and machinery for work and took over as supervisors within the prison. Contractors paid far less than standard labor wages for this privilege and generally worried more about maximizing profits than rehabilitating inmates. The contract system was attractive to states because, regardless of its potential as a reformative practice, it solved the problem of obtaining funding for prisons. The Missouri legislature held hearings about the efficacy of the contract system in 1915 and 1916 after hearing reports about the mistreatment of inmates at Jefferson City by contractors and prison administrators. On its findings it passed a measure which would have abolished contract labor after July 1, 1916, a deadline which was subsequently pushed back to December 31 of the same year.
As 1916 ended and no new system had been legislated, the Prison Board authorized a six month contract to the Oberman Manufacturing Company, which it said could be abrogated at any time. The impetus to find a replacement for contract labor finally came when reports of the misuse of contract funds by Warden D.C. McClung caused an uproar within the state in early 1917. Even so, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on 14 February 1917 that prison officials and spokesmen for the contractors were still attempting to convince Governor Gardner to extend prison labor contracts for a year. McClung was eventually indicted by a grand jury in October 1917 and was exonerated the next year. Beginning in late 1917, Missouri replaced contract labor with what was known as the piece-price system, where the state furnished work materials and supervised labor, then bid off finished products to outside firms.

 Kate O’Hare also describes the shop foreman on page 104 of her book In Prison (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923). She calls him “an ignorant illiterate, uncouth stripling about twenty years of age” and complains that he penalized prisoners he did not like by manipulating reports about their work.

 The Missouri State Prison Board was a three member, Governor-appointed body which held administrative power over Missouri State Penitentiary as well as three other small state correctional facilities. It was created in 1917 after Warden D.C. McClung resigned in response to allegations of corruption. William R. Painter served as the president of the Prison Board from 1917 to 1923. EG goes on to speak highly of Painter later in the letter


Porter Gilvin (1862-1922) became Warden of the Missouri State Penitentiary in October 1917. He had previously served as Deputy Warden at the prison for 15 years. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial on 19 October 1917 said of Gilvin that “he has not … shown himself particularly receptive to new ideas in the management of [prison] institutions.”

EG apparently worked in a number of clothing factories and shops during her life in St. Petersburg and New York. She also worked for a time in the sewing shop at Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary.

With the abolition of contract labor, businesses were no longer allowed to operate inside prison facilities, although they were still able to indirectly employ inmates with the state acting as a mediator. In Missouri, firms sold raw materials to the state and bought back the finished product for a sum based on the amount of the “task” met. While this process was supposed to be bid on in the open market, some firms were able to get exclusive and favorable deals, notably the Oberman Manufacturing Company, a former contractor which bought finished clothing from the prison and then sold it to the public without advertising its origins. According to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on 28 July 1917, Oberman was able to monopolize the output of the prison by providing large amounts of cloth which the state could not afford before the next legislative session allocated money to the prison labor system. In return for supplying raw material, the company was given first priority in the bidding process. The monopoly created by this relationship resembled the contract system.

Bull rings, or simply “the rings”, involved chaining the prisoners hands above their head to rings mounted on the wall such that their feet barely touched the ground. According to prison officials, prisoners were typically left for 8 or 9 hours but other claims stated the chains were typically in place for 14 hours. After reports in late 1913 that one man was held in the rings for 20 days until he confessed the source of his contraband, public pressure to end the use of such torturous forms of punishment erupted. Warden Gilvin eventually announced in 1917 that the rings were no longer part of the punishment regime, and further, he had decided to remove them from the prison.

Minnie Eddie was a house worker serving a 5 year sentence for “1st degree robbery”, meaning a robbery which either caused physical injury or occurred while the offender was armed or appeared to be armed.

According to EG, Minnie’s punishment and subsequent ingestion of rotten food caused a perforations in the lining of her intestines. The official cause of Minnie’s death was given as influenza.

The merit system was one of the reforms to prison labor in Missouri implemented in 1917. It went into effect on November 1 of that year. It was a disciplinary system which placed each inmate into classes determined by work output, behavior, and cleanliness. Fast workers who avoided disciplinary infractions were rewarded with privileges such as consideration for parole, income from labor, reduced sentences, letter writing opportunities, eligibility for work on farms and roads outdoors, access to reading material and recreational activities, and participation in inmate governmental bodies. There were five classes. To be in class A, for six months a prisoner had to perform at least 100% of his or her task and merit 100% in “deportment and cleanliness”. Those in Class B for three months had to perform 80% of the task and 90% of “deportment and cleanliness”. Classes C, D, and E could be achieved without any time limit and required, respectively, the fulfillment of 60%, 50%, and less than 49% of the task and the maintenance of 80%, 69%, and less than 69% of “deportment and cleanliness”. Out of a prison population of 2162 at the end of 1920, 1233 inmates were in the most efficient A Class, 474 in B, 351 in C, 60 in D, and 44 in E.

It was not until the 1930s that a full fledged federal penal system emerged in the United States. Until then, it was typical for the federal government to pay state prisons to take on federal inmates. The federal penal facilities which did exist were dedicated to male prisoners and were too limited in size and scope to house and segregate female inmates. Federal prisoners like EG were subject to federal laws and therefore could not benefit from state level statutes which promised reduced sentences for good behavior.

William R. Painter (1863-1947) was President of the Missouri State Prison Board from 1917 to 1923. He briefly served as a replacement to the embattled Warden D.C. McClung in early 1917. During his tenure as warden he attempted to help fund education for inmates. Kate O’Hare also viewed Painter positively. In a 2 August 1919 letter to her family, she states that “the reason Mr. P. is so much better and more humane than wardens are supposed to be, is that he probably is not, and does not pretend to be a plaster paris saint.”

Kate Richards O’Hare (1877-1948) was a member of the Socialist Party arrested on 17 July 1917 under the Espionage Act for an anti-war speech she delivered in Bowman, North Dakota. She was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. In April 1919 she entered Missouri State Penitentiary, where she became friends with EG despite their different political beliefs. She was pardoned by President Warren G. Harding in 1920 after Socialists and other groups mounted a campaign to set her free. O’Hare publicized her experiences at Jefferson City both through her prison letters picked up by many radical periodicals, and a memoir she later wrote entitled In Prison (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923.

Gabriella “Ella” Antolini (1899-1984) was an Italian-American follower of Luigi Galleani (1861-1931), an Italian anarchist who advocated the use of violent direct action to overthrow capitalism. She was arrested on a train destined for Chicago in January 1918 when it was discovered that she was carrying a bag containing thirty-six sticks of dynamite and a loaded gun. The dynamite in the bag was to be used to avenge the arrest and conviction of 11 anarchists in Milwaukee. She was sentenced to eighteen months at Missouri State Penitentiary for unlawful transportation of explosives. In prison, she became friends with EG and O’Hare, who both saw her as a sort of daughter. On page 692 of Living My Life, EG writes that “Little Ella” had “grown into my heart as my own child.”

Created by Patrick Golden .
Last edited by Patrick Golden .
There are no notes or queries related to this document.