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

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Created by Patrick Golden .
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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 .
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