I recently had a conversation with someone who seemed entirely motivated by kindness and also entirely, dangerously wrong.
The subject was prisons, and more specifically the treatment of prisoners:
Steven Hayes, who was convicted of a deadly 2007 home invasion in Connecticut that was so brutal it gained international attention, is receiving hormone therapy in prison as part of a gender transition https://t.co/jaDpU5UQEp
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve read a few books on prisons, crime, and legal systems. My opinion of the American legal system is that it is kind of terrifying; it usually catches the right person, but not always; unscrupulous people absolutely can use it to destroy your life.
Prisoners can be divided into roughly three groups:
People who shouldn’t be there (innocent, or their sentences are absurd for their crimes)
People who should be there, but feel genuine remorse
Some prisoners shouldn’t be there at all, some should be treated better than they currently are and given more support for reintegration to the non-prison world, and some should be tortured to death.
Over in real life, I try hard to be kind to others. I hand out cookies and hot cider on cold days to the neighborhood kids, volunteer with the homeless, and feel bad about eating animals.
But kindness requires… policing. Children cannot play on the playground if it’s full of homeless druggies. Homeless shelters cannot help if they are full of strung-out druggies, either. Even eating “free range” chickens requires that farmers raising chickens in batteries be prevented from slapping a fraudulent “free range” sticker on their meat.
Kindness alone is insufficient for creating a “kind” world. Many people are not nice people and will take advantage of or harm others if given the chance. Being “kind” to such people simply allows them to harm others.
My interlocutor in the conversation about the “trans” inmate basically argued that taxpayers should fund cross-sex hormone therapy for a man who raped/tortured/murdered a family (raped and murdered their kid, too), because it is medical care that prevents pain and suffering.
This argument is flawed on two grounds. The first is obvious: the entire point of prisons is to cause suffering. Prison isn’t fun; if it were fun, people would want to be there. Prison has to be unpleasant in order to function as any sort of deterrent, and we do actually want to deter people from committing crime. (In this case, the fellow should suffer to death, but that’s irrelevant, since the death penalty isn’t on the table in Connecticut.)
This doesn’t mean that I want to torture all of the prisoners–see above–but that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that punishment is an part of what prisons are for.
The second flaw is the matter of obligation. We may not wish to cause further harm to an inmate–having determined that prison is sufficient already–but that does not obligate us to relieve suffering that we didn’t cause in the first place.
This is a very common conversation in the car: “Mom! I forgot my toy! We have to go back!”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to go back. You had half an hour to get ready, so you had plenty of time to get Mr. Fuzzy before we left. Hopefully you’ll plan ahead better next time.”
Yes, kiddo is going to cry, but he’s old enough to remember Mr. Fuzzy; it’s not everyone else in the car’s job to fix his mistake.
The fact that someone wants to undergo a sex change does not mean they need to; they may be unhappy because they cannot, but there are 2.3 million other people in prison who are also unhappy because there are things they cannot do. There are people who will never attend their children’s birthday parties; men whose wives will leave them; women whose sick and aging parents will die without saying good-bye.
Life is filled with tragedies; there is nothing special about wanting to be a girl that it sets it above the others and obligates tax payers to pay for it.
I am fine with paying for actual life-saving medical care, up to a point–diabetics in prison shouldn’t be denied insulin, for example. But wanting to be a girl is not an emergency. It’s a luxury, and once you’ve torture murdered a few people, you don’t get luxuries anymore.
To this is replied that I am, in some way, denying the inmate’s humanity, or perhaps drawing lines in the sand that could get shifted in difficult cases to cause harm to someone I do not want harmed, etc. The idea that we should not decide a trivially easy case because someday a more difficult case may come along is obvious nonsense, and “humanity” in this context is meaningless. I wouldn’t torture a dog, even though they aren’t human. I think it is immoral to kill or mistreat great apes, elephants, and dolphins.
Dolphins don’t torture humans to death.
If we are going to remember that someone is a human, we should remember his victims. They were humans; he is merely a member of Homo sapiens, a distinction he neither earned nor made meaningful.
There are several sleights of hand, here. The first is the exchange of causing harm and preventing harm. We may have an obligation not to cause harm, but we lack one to prevent harm. The second is the classification of sex hormones as necessary medical care. It is not; no one dies from not undergoing HRT. The third was characterizing a denial of medical care as a human rights violation. Human rights, you know, the things the UN decided were important after the Holocaust.
Put these three sleights together, and wanting to spend my money on my own children instead of on sex hormones for a murderer is equivalent to shoveling people into ovens.
I don’t think most of these sleights my interlocutor made were intentional–rather, I think she (or he) is a very kind person who has been effectively deceived by others who prey on her niceness.
Step one in fixing this sort of problem is to realize that kindness cannot exist in a vacuum: predators have to be stopped or children will be murdered, and we do this via coercion, which is, yes, painful. Step two is realizing that money (and resources) is limited, and that spending it on one thing requires not spending it on something else. Once we realize that, we have a quick and easy morality test: would sane people take money from their children in order to spend it on this?
In this case, normal people find the idea abhorrent: no loving parent would deprive their children in order to provide a murderer with luxuries.
If your “kindness” leads to acting abhorrently, it isn’t really kindness.
I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.
And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.
If I recall correctly, Lewis once spilled a lot of hot coffee on a white inmate who was threatening him, but otherwise claimed not to have many real problems–lucky for everyone involved.
Other people have not been so lucky.
According to Wikipedia, (with slight rearrangements for narrative’s sake):
Most prisons in the United States were racially segregated until the 1960s. As prisons began to desegregate, many inmates organized along racial lines. The Aryan Brotherhood is believed to have been formed at San Quentin State Prison, … They decided to strike against the blacks who were forming their own militant group called the Black Guerrilla Family. …
The initial motivation for the formation of the group in San Quentin in 1964 was self-protection against an existing black prison gang. …
After being formed in California prisons in the mid-1960s, the Aryan Brotherhood had spread to most California prisons by 1975. As some of the leaders were sent to federal prison, they took the opportunity to start organizing in the federal prisons. … By the late 1970s, there were fewer than 100 members, but that grew rapidly as they absorbed other racist and skinhead groups, with over 20,000 members in the federal and state prison systems. …
By the 1990s, the Aryan Brotherhood had shifted its focus away from killing for strictly racial reasons and focused on organized crime such as drug trafficking, prostitution, and sanctioned murders. … For example, Gambino crime family boss John Gotti was assaulted while incarcerated in Marion Federal Penitentiary in 1996, and he allegedly asked the Aryan Brotherhood to murder his attacker. Gotti’s attacker was immediately transferred to protective custody and the planned retaliation was abandoned. …
Gotti also organized a business partnership on the outside between his group and the Brotherhood on the outside, which greatly expanded the group’s power on the streets. …
Welcome back to Anthropology-ish Friday: The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons, by Arthur Griffiths, a British prison administrator and inspector of the late 1800s. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.
An account from the Prisons of Burmah (aka Myanmar):
“The acquisition and annexation of Burmah by Great Britain, first the lower province with three-fourths of the seaboard, and then the entire kingdom, were accomplished between 1824 and 1886, in a little more than half a century, that is to say. Until this took place the country was generally in a state of anarchy, the king was a bloodthirsty despot, and the state council was at his bidding no better than a band of Dacoits who plundered the people and murdered them wholesale. The ruling powers were always anxious to pick a quarrel …
“The outbreak of hostilities led to cruel retaliation by the king of Burmah upon all Europeans who resided in the country, whether as missionaries or merchants engaged in trade. One of them, an Englishman, Mr. Henry Gouger, was arrested as a spy and arraigned before a court of justice with very little hope of escaping with his life. He was fortunately spared after suffering untold indignities and many positive tortures. Eventually he published his experiences, which remain to this day as a graphic record of the Burmese prisons as they then existed. He was first committed to the safe keeping of the king’s body guard, and confined with his feet in the stocks; then he was transferred to the “death prison,” having been barbarously robbed and deprived of his clothing. He was not entirely stripped, but was led away with his arms tied behind his back, bare-headed and bare-footed to the Let-ma-yoon, the “antechamber of the tomb.” ”
The following quotes are from Gouger’s account:
“While we were passing this week in the inner prison, a frightful event took place, which threatened the immediate destruction of the whole community; indeed, it is wonderful that the instinct of self-preservation did not deter our parent of the prison from executing his order. A woman was brought in covered with the pustules of the small-pox. … Even the Burmese prisoners themselves expressed their astonishment, but remonstrance was useless. The gaolers, however, showed a little common sense by placing the unfortunate creature in a clear spot by herself to avoid contact with the other inmates of the prison, with delicate threats of punishment if she moved from it.
“We never heard what induced this barbarity, but she was most likely suffering for the misconduct of some relative in the war, and the authority who sent her there could not have been aware of the disease, for she had not been among us more than twenty-four hours when she was again taken away.
“But by what means was infection averted? Inoculation or vaccination was unknown. Here were about fifty persons living in the same confined room without ventilation, and yet not one of them took the disease. The fact seems almost miraculous, and I should have doubted the nature of the malady had it not been acknowledged and dreaded by everyone, the natives as well as ourselves. I can only account for our immunity by the free use of tobacco.”
EvX: I’ve noted before that tobacco appears to have certain anti-parasitic and possibly anti-microbial properties. It’s ironic that something that damages your lungs might simultaneously protect you from infection, but it’s not a completely insane idea.
Back to the account:
““In the Indies,” says one old authority, “when one man accuses another of a crime punishable by death, it is customary to ask the accused if he is willing to go through trial by fire, and if he answers in the affirmative, they heat a piece of iron till it is red hot; then he is told to put his hand on the hot iron, and his hand is afterward wrapped up in a bay leaf, and if at the end of three days he has suffered no hurt he is declared innocent and delivered from the punishment which threatened him. Sometimes they boil water in a cauldron till it is so hot no one may approach it; then an iron ring is thrown into it and the person accused is ordered to thrust in his hand and bring up the ring, and if he does so without injury he is declared innocent. …”
“Another ordeal was to take the accused to the tomb of a Mohammedan saint and walk past, having first loaded him with heavy fetters. If the fetters fall off, he is declared to be clear. “I have heard it said,” is the comment of one authority who had little confidence in the good faith of the tribunal, “that by some artful contrivance the fetters are so applied as to fall off at a particular juncture.” …
“To follow this man on his reception and through his treatment will give a good idea of prison life in Burmah. His clothing was first issued to him; a loin cloth of coarse brown stuff and a strip of sacking to serve as his bed. His hair was close cut and his head was as smooth as the palm of his hand, save for one small tuft left on the crown; his name was registered in the great book, and he was led to the blacksmith’s shop, where his leg irons were riveted on him, anklets in the form of a heavy ring to which a connecting ring with two straight iron bars was attached. At the same time a neck ring of iron as thick as a lead pencil was welded on, with a plate attached, nine inches by five, on which a paper recording the personal description of the individual was pasted. …
““If there is a type of revolting human ugliness, it is the Burmese gaol-bird,” says the same authority, “with his shaven head and the unmistakable stamp of criminal on his vicious face. All convicts seem to acquire that look of low, half-defiant cunning from their associates, and a physiognomist would not hesitate to describe nine-tenths of the men before us as bad characters if he saw them in any society. Many of this gang are Dacoits, and their breasts, arms and necks are picture galleries of tattooed devices, fondly cherished by the owners as charms against death or capture. Some have rows of unsightly warts, like large peas, upon the breast and arms which mark the spots where the charms have been inserted,—scraps of metal and other substances inscribed with spells known only to the wise men who deal in such things. One or two natives of India are amongst the gang, and these are conspicuous by the absence of the tattooing universally found on the Burman’s thighs. A powerfully built convict at the end of the rank, in addition to the usual irons, has his ankle rings connected by a single straight bar, so that he can only stand with his feet twelve inches apart.
“‘Look at that fellow,’ says the superintendent; ‘he is in for five years, and his time would have been up in three months. A week ago he was down at the creek with his gang working timber, and must needs try to escape. He was up to his waist in water and dived under a raft, coming to the surface a good fifty yards down the stream. The guard never missed him until a shout from another man drew their attention, when they saw him swimming as hard as he could go, irons and all, towards a patch of jungle on the opposite side.’ Amongst a repulsive horde this man would take first place without competition. ‘Reckless scoundrel,’ is written on every line of his scowling face, and such he undoubtedly is. After the severe flogging his attempted escape earned for him, he assaulted and bit his guards and fellow prisoners, and the bar between his anklets was the immediate result.”
“According to Chinese law, theoretically, no prisoner is punished until he confesses his crime. He is therefore proved guilty and then by torture made to acknowledge the accuracy of the verdict. The cruelty shown to witnesses as well as culprits is a distinct blot on the administration of justice in China. The penal code is ferocious, the punishments inflicted are fiendishly cruel, and the prisons’ pig-stys in which torture is hardly more deadly than the diseases engendered by the most abominable neglect….
“Few Europeans have experienced imprisonment in China. One Englishman, Lord Loch, has given an account of the sufferings he endured when treacherously captured during the war of 1860. “The discipline of the prison was not in itself very strict and had it not been for the starvation, the pain arising from the cramped position in which the chains and ropes retained the arms and legs, with the heavy drag of the iron collar on the bones of the spine, and the creeping vermin that infested every place, together with the occasional beatings and tortures which the prisoners were from time to time taken away for a few hours to endure, returning with bleeding legs and bodies and so weak as to be scarcely able to crawl, there was no very great hardship to be endured…
“There was a small maggot which appears to infest all Chinese prisons: the earth at a depth of a few inches swarms with them; they are the scourge most dreaded by every poor prisoner. Few enter a Chinese prison who have not on their bodies or limbs some wounds, either inflicted by blows to which they have been subjected, or caused by the manner in which they have been bound; the instinct of the insect to which I allude appears to lead them direct to these wounds. Bound and helpless, the poor wretch cannot save himself from their approach, although he knows full well that if they once succeed in reaching his lacerated skin, there is the certainty of a fearful lingering and agonising death before him.”
“Japan as an enlightened and progressive country has made strenuous efforts to establish “as perfect a prison system as possible; one which is in harmony with the advancement of science and the results of experience.” These reforms were commenced in 1871 and were continued in various new prisons at Tokio, Kobold, Kiogo and upon the island of Yezo, all admirably organised and maintained. This movement was hurried on by the great overcrowding of the small provincial prisons on account of the accumulation of long-term prisoners. No proper discipline could be applied and there was absolutely no room for short-term offenders. Most of those sentenced to hard labour and deportation are now sent to the penal settlement on the island of Yezo, where they are employed both within the prisons and at agriculture in the open air. Every advantage is taken of the natural aptitudes of the Japanese, and the inmates of gaols prove the most expert and artistic workmen.”
EvX: Abashiri Prison is still there. According to Wikipedia,
Abashiri Prison … The northernmost prison in Japan, it is located near the Abashiri River and east of Mount Tento. It holds inmates with sentences of less-than ten-years. …
In April 1890, the Meiji government sent over 1,000 political prisoners to the isolated Abashiri village and forced them to build roads linking it to the more populous south. Abashiri Prison later became known for being a self-sufficient farming prison, and cited as a model for others throughout Japan.
…The prison is also known for its wooden nipopo (ニポポ) dolls carved by its inmates.
It’s in Hokkaido, one of the snowiest places in the world.
Some Japanese Prison History:
“Even in the middle of the nineteenth century the same brutal methods of torture prevailed as in China (from where their bloody codes were mostly borrowed), and there are preserved collections of instruments of torture as diabolical as any known to history. Crime, too, was not lacking in those “isles of the blest,” and every species of moral filth and corruption abounded, which was shown in its true colours when the liberty of the press was granted, in 1872-1874. The number of executions and deaths in the native prisons at that time was said to average three thousand per annum.
“The chief prison of the empire, in Tokio, as described by Mr. William M. Griffis, who visited it in 1875, was very different in its sanitary appointments and general condition from the prisons of Tokio to-day. …
“Tokio has now two prisons; the first and chief is situated upon the island of Oshikawa at the south of the city, and the second, the convict and female prison of Ichigawa, is in the centre of the city. … Otherwise the two prisons resemble each other closely and a description of one will answer for both, says Mr. Norman, who described them in 1892, and gives the following account:
“The entrance is through a massive wooden gateway, into a guard-room adjoining which are the offices of the director and officials. The prison itself consists of a score or more of detached one-story buildings, all of wood and some of them merely substantial sheds, under which the rougher labour, like stone-breaking, is performed. The dormitories are enormous wooden cages, the front and part of the back formed of bars as thick as one’s arm, before which again is a narrow covered passage, where the warder on guard walks at night.
“There is not a particle of furniture or a single article of any kind upon the floor, which is polished till it reflects your body like a mirror. No boot, of course, ever touches it. The thick quilts, or futon, which constitute everywhere the Japanese bed, are all rolled up and stacked on a broad shelf running round the room overhead. Each dormitory holds ninety-six prisoners, and there is a long row of them. The sanitary arrangements are situated in a little addition at the back, and I was assured that these had not been made pleasant for my inspection. If not, I can only say that in this most important respect a Japanese prison could not well be improved. In fact, the whole dormitory, with its perfect ventilation, its construction of solid, highly-polished wood, in which there is no chance for vermin to harbour, and its combined simplicity and security, is an almost ideal prison structure. Of course the fact that every Japanese, from the emperor to the coolie, sleeps upon quilts spread out on the floor, greatly simplifies the task of the prison architect in Japan.
“On leaving the dormitories we passed a small, isolated square erection, peaked and gabled like a little temple. The door was solemnly unlocked and flung back, and I was motioned to enter. It was the punishment cell, another spotless wooden box, well ventilated, but perfectly dark, and with walls so thick as to render it practically silent. ‘How many prisoners have been in it during the last month?’ I asked. The director summoned the chief warder, and repeated my question to him. ‘None whatever,’ was the reply. ‘What other punishments have you?’ ‘None whatever.’ ‘No flogging?’ When this question was translated the director and the little group of officials all laughed together at the bare idea. I could not help wondering whether there was another prison in the world with no method of punishment for two thousand criminals except one dark cell, and that not used for a month. And the recollection of the filthy and suffocating sty used as a punishment cell in the city prison of San Francisco came upon me like a nausea.”
EvX: I find it interesting that a little over a hundred years later, a rank ordering of Burmese prisons as worst, Chinese prisons as moderately bad, and Japanese prisons as quite good (as far as prisons anywhere are concerned) probably still holds.
That’s all for today. Egyptian prisons next Friday. Take care and have a lovely, crime-free weekend.
Welcome back to Anthropology-ish Friday: The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons, by Arthur Griffiths, a British prison administrator and inspector of the late 1800s. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.
On Chinese prisons, an interesting mention:
“For capital and other offences of a serious nature there are six classes of punishment. The first, called ling che, has already been mentioned. It is inflicted upon traitors, parricides, matricides, fratricides and murderers of husbands, uncles and tutors. The criminal is cut into either one hundred and twenty, seventy-two, thirty-six or twenty-four pieces. Should there be extenuating circumstances, his body, as a mark of imperial clemency, is divided into eight portions only. … A great many political offenders underwent executions of the first class at Canton during the vice-royalty of His Excellency, Yeh. On the fourteenth day of December, 1864, the famous Hakka rebel leader, Tai Chee-kwei by name, was put to death at Canton in the same manner.”
Back to India:
“I cannot bring this account of crime in India to a close without mention of an atrocity which is unequalled in the annals of human oppression.
“What imprisonment may mean in the East, when inflicted in defiance of the most elementary conditions of health in a tropical climate, has been recorded in letters of blood in the awful story of the Black Hole of Calcutta. The miscreant responsible for the crime was the Nabob of Bengal, Surajah Dowlah, who had gained a fleeting triumph over the early English settlers, and having captured Fort William at the mouth of Hugli, and made all the occupants prisoners, he turned them over to his savage followers. For security they were incarcerated in one small room or chamber some eighteen feet square. The season was the height of summer; the room was closed to the eastward and southward by dead walls and to the northward by a wall and door, so that no fresh air could enter save by two small windows, strongly barred with iron.
“Into this limited space human beings were crammed, already in a state of exhaustion by a long day spent in fatiguing conflict, and several of them seriously wounded. Piteous entreaties were made to the guards on duty to diminish the numbers imprisoned by removal elsewhere; large sums were offered as the price of this boon, but with no effect. No step could be taken without the permission of the Nabob, who was asleep, and none dared wake him. After vain attempts to break open the doors and fruitless appeals to the mercy of the sleeping Nabob, “the prisoners went mad with despair.” The rest of the story can best be told in the words of one of the masters of the English language, Lord Macaulay.
““They trampled each other down, fought for the places at the windows, fought for the pittance of water with which the cruel mercy of the murderers mocked their agonies, raved, prayed, blasphemed, implored the guards to fire among them. The gaolers in the meantime held lights to the bars, and shouted with laughter at the frantic struggles of their victims. At length the tumult died away in low gaspings and moanings. The day broke. The Nabob had slept off his debauch, and permitted the door to be opened. But it was some time before the soldiers could make a lane for the survivors, by piling up on each side the heaps of corpses on which the burning climate had already begun to do its loathsome work. When at length a passage was made, twenty-three ghastly figures, such as their own mothers would not have known, staggered one by one out of the charnel house. A pit was instantly dug. The dead bodies, a hundred and twenty-three in number, were flung into it promiscuously and covered up.
“But these things which, after the lapse of more than eighty years, cannot be told or read without horror, awakened neither remorse nor pity in the bosom of the savage Nabob. He inflicted no punishment on the murderers. He showed no tenderness to the survivors. Some of them, indeed, from whom nothing was to be got, were suffered to depart; but those from whom it was thought that anything could be extorted were treated with execrable cruelty. Holwell, unable to walk, was carried before the tyrant, who reproached him, threatened him, and sent him up the country in irons, together with some other gentlemen who were suspected of knowing more than they chose to tell about the treasures of the Company. These persons, still bowed down by the sufferings of that great agony, were lodged in miserable sheds, and fed only with grain and water, till at length the intercessions of the female relations of the Nabob procured their release.
“One Englishwoman had survived that night. She was placed in the harem of the prince at Moorshedabad.”
“It is told in history how the merciless Nabob was eventually called to strict account. The English at Madras vowed vengeance, and an expedition was forthwith fitted out for the Hugli, small in numbers, but full of undaunted spirit, and led by one of the most famous of British soldiers, Lord Clive. The victory of Plassy, which consolidated the British power in India, overthrew Surajah Dowlah, who expiated the crime of the Black Hole when captured and put to death by his successor Meer Jaffier.”
A tribal feud comes to the Andaman Prison:
“An atrocious murder which echoed through the whole world was that of the viceroy of India, Lord Mayo, who was killed by an Andaman convict in1872. The viceroy had visited Mount Harriet, a finely wooded slope rising above Port Blair and looking out over Viper Island with a glorious view eastward, in order to judge of its suitability as a sanatorium. He had just finished the descent. “The ship’s bells had just rung seven; the launch with steam up was whizzing at the jetty stairs; a group of her seamen were chatting on the pier-end. It was now quite dark, and the black line of the jungle seemed to touch the water’s edge. The viceroy’s party passed some large loose stones to the left of the head of the pier, and advanced along the jetty; two torchbearers in front.”
“The viceroy, preceding the rest, stepped quickly forward to descend the stairs to the launch. The next moment the people in the rear heard a noise, as of “the rush of some animal” from behind the loose stones; one or two saw a hand raised and a knife blade suddenly glisten in the torchlight. The viceroy’s private secretary heard a thud, and instantly turning round, found a man “fastened like a tiger” on the back of Lord Mayo.
“In a second twelve men were on the assassin; an English officer was pulling them off, and with his sword-hilt keeping back the native guards, who would have killed the assailant on the spot. The torches had gone out; but the viceroy, who had staggered over the pier-side, was dimly seen rising up in the knee-deep water, and clearing the hair off his brow with his hand as if recovering himself. His private secretary was instantly at his side in the surf, helping him up the bank. ‘Burne,’ he said quietly, ‘they’ve hit me.’ Then, in a louder voice, which was heard on the pier, ‘It’s all right, I don’t think I’m much hurt,’ or words to that effect.
“In another minute he was sitting under the smoky glare of the re-lit torches, on a rude native cart at the side of the jetty, his legs hanging loosely down. Then they lifted him bodily on to the cart, and saw a great dark patch on the back of his light coat. The blood came streaming out, and men tried to staunch it with their handkerchiefs. For a moment or two he sat up on the cart, then he fell heavily backwards. ‘Lift up my head,’ he said faintly, and said no more.”
“The assassin, Sher Ali, was a very brave man belonging to one of the Afridi tribes, who had done excellent service to more than one commissioner at Peshawar and distinguished himself as a soldier. He was completely trusted by Colonel Reynolds Taylor, one of the best of our Indian officers, when at Peshawar, and was often in attendance on his family; in fact, he was the confidential servant of the house. This man, however, belonged to a society in which tribal feuds were a hereditary custom. Some such feud existed in his family and he was called upon to take his part in exacting a bloody vengeance for a quarrel. Had he committed the murder on his own side of the frontier, no notice could have been taken of it; and it would have been esteemed a legitimate deed sanctioned by the religious feelings and customs of the tribe; but his offence was committed within British territory and must be tried by British laws. He was convicted and sentenced to transportation to the Andamans instead of death, which he would greatly have preferred. Continually brooding under a sense of wrong, he took the first opportunity that offered for murderous retaliation and found the death he desired, on the gallows.”
Some observations on the Andamanese
“Attempts to escape from the islands were at times frequent, encouraged by the easy access to the sea and the facility with which boats could be seized. But recaptures were also constantly made, and there were other chances against the fugitives, especially that of being run down by the aboriginal Andamanese. The natives of these islands are savages of a Nigrito race allied to the Papuans, but who, from having had no connection with the outer world for several centuries, have kept their blood absolutely pure. They are of small stature, the males a little under five feet in height, but finely made and well proportioned. In colour they are a jet black, and are among the darkest hued specimens of mankind. They are inveterate smokers, men, women and children, and are bright and intelligent, somewhat childish, petulant and quick tempered, but merry and light-hearted. They constitute a good unofficial guard, and as they constantly prowl round the convict settlements are a great deterrent to escape. 160 Being well used to jungle life, they are very successful trackers, who frequently bring back fugitives dead or alive. If by chance the evading convicts fall into the hands of the Jarawa tribe, their fate is sealed. These Jarawas are and always have been utterly irreclaimable; neither kindness nor force has had any appreciable effect in overcoming their unconquerable dislike to strangers, even of their own blood belonging to other tribes. Armed with bows and arrows, they show fight whenever encountered, and when pressed and punishment is attempted, they retire into the impenetrable jungle.”
EvX: I have posted about the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands before, including the world’s most isolated people, the Sentinelese.
An Amusing Approach to Jail-Keeping:
“At one time the Ratnagiri gaol contained about three hundred and sixty convicts; “at least two-thirds were Chinamen and Malays from the Straits, great ruffians, each with a record of piracy or murder, or both combined. Many of them were heavily fettered and carefully guarded by armed police when at their ordinary work in the ‘laterite’ quarries, for they were mostly powerful men;” the tools they used were formidable weapons and as there were known to be deadly feuds always present among them, serious disturbances and outbreaks were constantly dreaded. Nevertheless, misconduct was exceedingly rare; breaches of gaol discipline were much fewer among these desperadoes than among the milder Hindus in the work-sheds within the gaol. The fact having in due course created much surprise, inquiries were instituted as to why pirates and murderers, usually so insubordinate in other places, were so well-conducted and quiet at Ratnagiri.
“The riddle was presently solved. “For some years one Sheik Kassam had been gaoler. Belonging to the fisherman class and possessed of very little education, he had, nevertheless, worked his way upward through the police by dint of honesty, hard work and a certain shrewdness which had more than once brought him to the front. At last, toward the end of his service, the gaolership falling vacant, he was, with everyone’s cordial approval, nominated to the post.”
“With comparative rest and improved pay, the old gentleman waxed fatter and jollier and was esteemed one of the most genial companions the country could produce. The cares of state, and the responsibility of three hundred murderous convicts, weighed lightly on Sheik Kassam. He developed a remarkable talent or predilection for gardening, almost from the first. “He laid out the quarry beds, brought water down to irrigate them, produced all the gaol required in the way of green stuff, and made tapioca and arrowroot by the ton. …
“Presently this favourite slice of garden was safely boxed in from the public view by an enclosure some eight feet high, extending from the gaol itself round to the gaoler’s house, the only entrance to it being a little wicket-gate by the side of the sheik’s back-yard.
“At last the head-superintendent of the Bombay prison heard that Sheik Kassam’s disciplinary system consisted in his bringing the most dangerous of the Chinamen and Malays quietly into his back-yard from the adjoining garden, and there regaling them with plenty of sweetmeats, sugar, drink in moderate quantity, and adding even the joys of female society of a peculiar sort. If any one became unruly or saucy, he was liable to get a dozen lashes, but if they behaved decently they all had their little festivals with regularity. After this discovery, poor old Sheik Kassam’s character as a model gaoler was gone; he was dismissed, but with a full pension which he did not live long to enjoy.”
EvX: Sounds like the fellow had a pretty good system.
Welcome to Anthropology Friday. This month’s pick is more history than anthropology, but hopefully still interesting: The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons, by Arthur Griffiths, 1838-1908. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.
Griffiths was a British prison administrator and inspector who wrote over 60 books, many of them mysteries or military histories–and many of them about prisons. According to Wikipedia:
Today’s excerpts pertain to crime in India, chiefly that of thuggee, the semi-ritualized murder of travelers by a group known as the Thugs.
“Crime in India does not differ essentially from that prevalent elsewhere, although some forms are indigenous to the country, engendered by special physical and social conditions. As a rule, the people of India are law abiding, orderly and sober in character, but there is an inherent deceitfulness in them that tends to interfere with the course of justice.”
On the smuggling of money into the Montgomery jail in Punjab, one of the largest in India:
“The prisoners become very clever and use all sorts of devices to smuggle in coins, tobacco, opium and other drugs and dice. They are allowed to wear their own shoes, but these are examined very carefully, for the soles are frequently found to be made of tobacco, four-anna pieces and other things than leather.
““A common dodge,” says Captain Buck, “among the prisoners for concealing coins and other small things is to make a receptacle in the throat by means of a leaden weight about the diameter of a florin and half an inch thick; this is attached to a string some six inches long, a knot in the end being slipped between two teeth to prevent it sliding down the throat. By holding the head in a particular position for some time every day, ‘waggling’ the weight about, and from time to time altering the length of the string, a pouch can be formed in the throat suitable for holding as many as fifteen rupees. The possessor of this strange ‘safe’ is able to put in and take out his treasure with facility, but it is exceedingly difficult to make a man disgorge the contents against his will, or even to find out whether he possesses the pouch at all without the use of the Röntgen rays.” [X-rays]
“When England’s work in India is reviewed in the time to come, full credit must be given to the humane administration which sternly suppressed the atrocious malpractices that so long afflicted the land, such as “Suttee,” or the burning of widows on the funeral pyre; the human sacrifices to the bloodthirsty idol of Jagannath; “Thuggee,” that vile organisation for secret murder which devastated the entire continent and killed so many unsuspecting victims. … It was fostered by the prevailing conditions in a vast extent of territory, divided among many princes and powers, each ruling independently and irresponsibly, with many kinds of governments, and with their hands one against the other, having no common interests, no desire for combination, no united police, no uniform action in the repression of determined wrong-doing. Everything conspired to favour the growth of these daring and unscrupulous land pirates.
“There were no roads in those early days, no public conveyances, no means of protection for travellers. The longest journeys from one end of the continent to the other were undertaken of necessity on foot or on horseback; parties hitherto complete strangers banded together for common security, and mixed unreservedly with one another. … it was possible to wander into by-paths and get lost among the forests, jungles, mountains and uncultivated tracts where but few sparsely inhabited villages were scattered. Direct encouragement was thus afforded to freebooters and highwaymen to make all travellers their prey, and many classes of robbers existed and flourished. Of these the most numerous, the most united, the most secret in their horrible operations, the most dangerous and destructive were the Thugs.
“The origin of Thuggee, as it was commonly called, is lost in fable and obscurity. Mr. James Hutton, in his popular account of the Thugs, thinks that they are of very ancient date and says they are “reputed to have sprung from the Sagartii who contributed eight thousand horse to the army of Xerxes and are mentioned by Herodotus in his history. These people led a pastoral life, were originally of Persian descent and use the Persian language; their dress is something betwixt a Persian and a Pactyan; they have no offensive weapons, either of iron or brass, except their daggers; their principal dependence in action is on cords made of twisted leather which they use in this manner. When they engage an enemy they throw out this cord having a noose at the extremity; if they entangle in this either horse or man, they without difficulty put them to death.” …
“In the latter part of the seventeenth century Thevenot speaks of a strange denomination of robbers who infest the road between Delhi and Agra and who use “a certain rope with a running noose which they could cast with so much sleight about a man’s neck when they are within reach of 50 him, that they never fail; so that they strangle him in a trice.” These robbers were divided into seven principal classes or families from which the innumerable smaller bands sprang.”
EvX: According to Wikipedia, Thugs have been known as organized bands of criminals in India for at least 600 years. The earliest known reference to their activities dates from 1356, in Ziyā-ud-Dīn Baranī‘s History of Fīrūz Shāh:
In the reign of that sultan [about 1290], some Thugs were taken in Delhi, and a man belonging to that fraternity was the means of about a thousand being captured. But not one of these did the sultan have killed. He gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the lower country, to the neighbourhood of Lakhnauti, where they were to be set free. The Thugs would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti and would not trouble the neighbourhood of Delhi any more.
The strangest part about the story of the Thugs is that it is basically, as far as I know, true. There really was a secret cult, probably descended from Muslims who’d started worshipping Kali (somehow) and went around murdering people as part of their “religion” and more-or-less way of life. Wikipedia recounts:
Membership was sometimes passed from father to son, as part of a criminal underclass. The leadership of established Thug groups tended to be hereditary, as the group evolved into a criminal tribe. Other men would become acquainted with a Thug band and hope to be recruited, as Thugs were respected by the criminal community and had a camaraderie of numbers and shared experience. Robbery became less a question of solving problems associated with poverty and more a profession.
Back to Griffiths:
“At all times many hundreds of predatory castes existed in India, chiefly among the marauding hill and forest people, and some of them are still recorded by name in the census papers. These people lived openly by plunder, and were organised for crime, and for determined gang-robbery and murder. There was no established police in those days equal to coping with these gangs, and the government of the East India Company had recourse to the savage criminal code of the Mohammedan law.
“When Warren Hastings was governor-general, he decreed that every convicted gang-robber should be publicly executed in full view of his village, and that all of the villagers should be fined. The miscreants retaliated by incendiarism on a large scale. One conflagration in Calcutta in 1780 burned fifteen thousand houses, and some two thousand souls perished in the flames. A special civil department was created to deal with this wholesale crime, the character of which is described in a state paper dated 1772. “The gang-robbers of Bengal,” it says, “are not like the robbers in England, individuals driven to such desperate courses by want or greed. They are robbers by profession and even by birth. They are formed into regular communities, and their families subsist on the supplies they bring home to them. These spoils come from great distances, and peaceful villages three hundred miles up the Ganges are supported by housebreaking in Calcutta.”
Once on a time the world was infested with a monstrous demon… who devoured mankind as fast as they were created… Kali cut the demon with her sword… but from every drop of blood that fell to the ground there sprang a new demon. She paused for a while, and from the sweat, brushed off one of her arms, she created two men, to whom she gave a rumal, or handkerchief, and commanded them to strangle the demons. When they had slain them all, they offered to return the rumal, but the goddess bade them keep it and transmit it to their posterity, with the injunction to destroy all men who were not of their kindred.
She condescended to present them with one of her teeth for a pickaxe, a rib for a knife, and the hem of her skirt for a noose, and ordered them, fo the futuer, to cut and bury the dbodies of whom they destoryed.
“In the early part of the nineteenth century the audacity and murderous activity of the Thugs increased to such a fearful extent that the British government was roused to serious consideration. … Mr. Brown, when engaged in his inquiry at a village named Sujuna, on the road to Hatta, heard a horrible story of a gang-robbery in the neighbourhood. A party of two hundred Thugs had encamped in a grove in the early morning of the cold season of 1814, when seven men, well-armed with swords and matchlocks, passed, conveying treasure from a bank in Jubbulpore to its correspondent in Banda. The treasure was ascertained to be of the value of 4,500 rupees, and a number of Thugs, well-mounted, gave chase. Coming up with their prey at a distance of seven miles, in a water course half a mile from Sujuna, they attacked the treasure-bearers with their swords, contrary to their common practice of strangling their victims, the latter plan being possible only when the objects of their desire were taken unawares. Moreover, the robbers left the bodies where they lay, unburied and exposed, which was also an unusual proceeding. A passing traveller, who had seen the murderers at work, was also put to death to prevent his giving the alarm. As much rain fell that day, none of the villagers approached the spot till the following morning, when the bodies were discovered and a large crowd came to gaze at them.
“Great difficulty was experienced in bringing home the crime to its perpetrators. This often happened in such cases from the strong reluctance of people to give evidence and appear in court for the purpose; even the banker who had lost his cash hesitated to come forward and prove his loss, and this was no isolated case. …
“Sir William Sleeman has left a personal record of his own achievements. “While I was in the civil charge of the district of Nursingpoor, in the valley of the Nurbudda, in the years 1822, 1823 and 1824,” he tells us, “no ordinary robbery or theft could be committed without my becoming acquainted with it; nor was there a robber or a thief of the ordinary kind in the district, with whose character I had not become acquainted in the discharge of my duty as magistrate; and if any man had then told me that a gang of assassins by profession resided in the village of Kundelee, not four hundred yards from my court, and that the extensive groves of the village of Mundesur, only one stage from me, on the road to Saugor and Bhopaul, were one of the greatest beles, or places of murder, in all India; and that large gangs from Hindustan and the Dukhun used to rendezvous in these groves, remain in them for days together every year, and carry on their dreadful trade along all the lines of road that pass by and branch off from them, with the knowledge and connivance of the two landholders by whose ancestors these groves had been planted, I should have thought him a fool or a madman; and yet nothing could have been more true. The bodies of a hundred travellers lie buried in and around the groves of Mundesur; and a gang of assassins lived in and about the village of Kundelee while I was magistrate of the district, and extended their depredations to the cities of Poona and Hyderabad.”
“…in the cantonment of Hingolee, the leader of the Thugs of that district, Hurree Singh, was a respectable merchant of the place, with whom Captain Sleeman, in common with many other English officers, had constant dealings. On one occasion this man applied to the officer in civil charge of the district, Captain Reynolds, for a pass to bring some cloths from Bombay, which he knew were on their way accompanied by their owner, a merchant of a town not far from Hingolee. He murdered this person, his attendants and cattle-drivers, brought the merchandise up to Hingolee under the pass he had obtained and sold it openly in the cantonment; nor would this ever have been discovered had he not confessed it after his apprehension, and gloried in it as a good joke.”
EvX: This is why market-dominant minorities evolved. You’re going to have a hard time shipping goods from place to place if your business contacts keep murdering you for not being part of their ethnic group.
“Many persons were murdered in the very bazaar of the cantonment, within one hundred yards from the main guard, by Hurree Singh and his gang, and were buried hardly five hundred yards from the line of sentries. Captain Sleeman was himself present at the opening of several of these unblessed graves (each containing several bodies), which were pointed out by the “approvers,” one by one, in the coolest possible manner, to those who were assembled, until the spectators were sickened and gave up further search in disgust. The place was the dry channel of a small water course, communicating with the river, no broader or deeper than a ditch; it was near the road to a neighbouring village, and one of the main outlets from the cantonment to the country….
“Accounts of such affairs, as found in contemporary records, might be multiplied indefinitely. Colonel Sleeman’s report of the Thug depredations for a year or two when they were most virulent—1836-37—fills one large volume. On a map which he made of a portion of the kingdom of Oude, showing a territory one hundred miles wide from north to south, and one hundred and seventy miles from east to west, are marked an endless number of spots between Lucknow, Cawnpore, Manickpur, Pertabgurh and Fyzabad, all of them indicating beles or scenes of murders perpetrated.”
EvX: The photo is fuzzy, but I believe the map in this slideshow, or one very like it, is the one Griffiths is referencing. The rest of the slide show is interesting and relevant.
Since Thugs tended to be related to each other, Sleeman also constructed genealogical trees of thuggee families, like the one above.
Back to the book:
“These places were pointed out by captured Thugs and “approvers” who had been actively present and taken part in the murders. There were some 274 beles in all, or one for about every five miles; the fact was proved by the continual disinterment of skulls and skeletons of the often nameless victims. Each recorded great atrocities and many wholesale murders. The number of deaths for which each Thug miscreant was personally responsible seems incredible. One man, Buhran by name, killed 931 victims in forty years of active Thuggee, and another, Futteh Khan, killed 508 persons in twenty years, making an average of two monthly for each assassin. …
“When and how Thuggee began may not be definitely known, but it is certain that its votaries always attributed a divine origin to the practice. They esteemed the wholesale taking of life to which they were vowed a pious act, performed under the immediate orders and protection of the Hindu goddess, indifferently called Devee or Durga, Kali or Bhowanee. Murder was in fact a religious rite, the victim being a sacrifice to the deity. The strangler was troubled with no remorse; on the contrary, he gloried in his deed as the pious act of a devout worshipper. He prepared his murders without misgiving, perpetrated them without emotions of pity, and looked back upon them with satisfaction, not regret.
“The Thugs gave free vent to some of the worst passions of perverse humanity; they were treacherous, underhanded, pitiless to those they deemed their legitimate prey. But yet they were seldom guilty of wanton cruelty; the pain they inflicted was only that caused by depriving a human being of life. It was a rule with them never to murder women, and they generally spared infant children whom they adopted, bringing them up in their traditions. Even if a woman was doomed to suffer she was most scrupulously preserved from insult beforehand, either by act or word. In private life they were patterns of domestic virtue, affectionate to their own families, fond of their homes; well conducted, law abiding subjects of the state that gave them shelter.”
“General Hervey quotes a curious instance of the heredity of the criminal instinct which showed itself in the descendants of the old Thugs settled at Jubbulpore, in the days of the active pursuit of these murderers by Sir William Sleeman. A generation of young Thugs had grown up around the School of Industry, a kind of reformatory for the offspring of the captured criminals, and the careers of some of these have been followed. Many of the youths found employment with European gentlemen as private servants, and in one particular instance the inherited propensity was curiously illustrated.
“A railway engineer, Mr. Upham, employed in the construction of the Indian Peninsula Railway, was stationed at Sleemanabad near Jubbulpore. Returning home one evening, much fatigued after a long tour of inspection, he lay down to rest on his bed and from his tent, the curtain of which was raised for ventilation, he saw two of his table servants—both of them lads from the reformatory—engaged in cooking his dinner. He presently noticed that they squeezed into the pot on the fire certain green pods they had plucked from a neighbouring bush, and presuming they were herbs of some sort added for flavour, he said nothing, but he was curious and having little appetite he dined very lightly, chiefly on rice and milk. He picked some of the pods, however, and put them in his pocket, where they remained till next day, when he became ill and rode over to see the doctor. He fainted when he reached the doctor’s office. Restoratives being promptly applied, he so far recovered as to be able to produce the pods which the doctor at once pronounced to be of datura. Suspicion thus aroused, the two servants were arrested and brought to trial, when the head cook was convicted and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. This boy was of the old Thug stock, and obviously the desire to destroy human life was in his blood, brought out by greed; for the object was, of course, to rob Mr. Upham while he was unconscious.
“They were apparently irreclaimable, these Thug children. One boy was detained in prison until grown up in the hope that he would prove well-conducted. All his relations had been Thugs; his father (who had been executed), his uncles, brothers and forebears for several generations, and numbers of them had suffered the extreme penalty. He was cognisant of their misdeeds and the retribution that overtook them, but his own inclinations lay the same way, and no sooner was he at large than he embraced the evil trade and was soon known as a jemadar with an increasing reputation as a daring leader of Dacoits. Eventually he was won over to the side of justice and did good service as an “approver.” ”
EvX: “Dacoit” is Indian for bandit; I do not know if it has any other connotations. Among the list of “famous dacoits” on wikipedia is Phoolan Devi, the “bandit queen” and later a member of the Indian Parliament:
Born into a low caste family in rural Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan endured poverty as a child and had an unsuccessful marriage before taking to a life of crime. … She was the only woman in that gang, and her relationship with one gang member, coupled with other minor factors, caused a gunfight between gang members. Phoolan’s lover was killed in that gunfight. The victorious rival faction, who were upper-caste Rajputs, took Phoolan to their village of Behmai, confined her in a room, and took turns to rape her repeatedly over several days. After escaping (or being let off), Phoolan rejoined the remnants of her dead lover’s faction, took another lover from among those men, and continued with banditry. A few months later, her new gang descended upon the village of Behmai to exact revenge for what she had suffered. As many as twenty-two Rajput men belonging to that village were lined up in a row and shot dead by Phoolan’s gang.
Since Phoolan was a low-caste woman, and her victims were high-caste men, the press portrayed the Behmai massacre as an act of righteous lower-caste rebellion. The respectful sobriquet ‘Devi’ was conferred upon her by the media and public at this point.
Phoolan evaded capture for two years after the Behmai massacre before she and her few surviving gang-members surrendered to the police in 1983. She was charged with forty-eight major crimes, including multiple murders, plunder, arson and kidnapping for ransom. Phoolan spent the next eleven years in jail… In 1994, the state government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party summarily withdrew all charges against her, and Phoolan was released. She then stood for election to parliament as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party and was twice elected to the Lok Sabha as the member for Mirzapur. In 2001, she was shot dead at the gates of her official bungalow (allotted to her as MP) in New Delhi by former rival bandits whose kinsmen had been slaughtered at Behmai by her gang.
That’s enough for today. Remember, Hobbes was right. See you next Friday for the next installment.
Angola, also known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is the largest maximum-security prison in the US. It holds 6,300 inmates, most of them for life–and for those who have no families or friends to bury them, death.
Before it became a prison, Angola was a slave plantation, named for the country most of its residents came from. With 18,000 acres and a working farm (complete with cotton fields) run by inmates, many people call it the nation’s last plantation.
I wanted to move away from traditional anthropology–focused primarily on “primitive,” non-industrialized peoples–and focus instead on the economic, political, and social lives of people on the margins of our own societies, such as pirates; criminals; prisoners; and the completely innocent, ordinary poor.
Spoiler alert: This is not an upbeat book. I mean, the author tries. He really does. But we are still talking about criminals who’ve been sent to prison for life. If you’re looking for something cheerful, go look at funny cat pictures.
Amazon’s blurb for the book reads:
Never before had Daniel Bergner seen a spectacle as bizarre as the one he had come to watch that Sunday in October. Murderers, rapists, and armed robbers were competing in the annual rodeo at Angola, the grim maximum-security penitentiary in Louisiana. The convicts, sentenced to life without parole, were thrown, trampled, and gored by bucking bulls and broncos before thousands of cheering spectators. But amid the brutality of this gladiatorial spectacle Bergner caught surprising glimpses of exaltation, hints of triumphant skill.
The incongruity of seeing hope where one would expect only hopelessness, self-control in men who were there because they’d had none, sparked an urgent quest in him. Having gained unlimited and unmonitored access, Bergner spent an unflinching year inside the harsh world of Angola. He forged relationships with seven prisoners who left an indelible impression on him. There’s Johnny Brooks, seemingly a latter-day Stepin Fetchit, who, while washing the warden’s car, longs to be a cowboy and to marry a woman he meets on the rodeo grounds. Then there’s Danny Fabre, locked up for viciously beating a woman to death, now struggling to bring his reading skills up to a sixth-grade level. And Terry Hawkins, haunted nightly by the ghost of his victim, a ghost he tries in vain to exorcise in a prison church that echoes with the cries of convicts talking in tongues. …
According to Bergner, in Angola’s early days in the late 1800s (post-Civil War,) conditions were extremely bad. Convicts were basically worked to death in Louisiana’s swamps; average life expectancy for a long-term prisoner was only 6 years.
The state took over the prison in 1901, which hopefully ended the working-to-death-era, but as Wikipedia notes:
Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, authors of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, said that Angola was “probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930.” Hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola. White-black racial tensions in the society were expressed at the prison, adding to the violence: each year one in every ten inmates received stab wounds.
In 1952, 31 inmates cut their own Achilles’ tendons in protest against prison conditions, (which are reported as pretty horrible,) but things didn’t really improve until the 70s, when Judge Polozola decided the prison was so bad that if the legislature find funds to clean things up, he’d start releasing prisoners. According to Bergner, this led to an initial improvement in conditions, but subsequently a liberal warden with a kumbaya-approach to running the place was appointed and matters degenerated again. The lax approach to managing the prisoners led to men sleeping in cafeteria-tray armor in hopes of not being murdered by their neighbors in the middle of the night.
A more conservative warden replaced the liberal one, marched in military style, re-established order, and got the shivving rate back down. Angola appears to have found a workable middle-ground between getting worked to death in the swamps and getting stabbed to death during candle-lit kumbaya sessions.
But since Louisiana is poor and people tend not to want to spend money on criminals, Wikipedia notes:
In 2009, the prison reduced its budget by $12 million by “double bunking” (installing bunk beds to increase the capacity of dormitories), reducing overtime, and replacing officers with security cameras.
That sounds like a bad idea.
Unfortunately for me, Bergner doesn’t explore the prisoners’ economy beyond the occasional reference to trade in cheese, cigarettes, or marijuana. (Cigarettes as prison currency appears confirmed.) He also doesn’t go into much detail about how the 6,300 prisoners (many of whom sleep in a large, open dormitory) regulate social relations among themselves. Rather, he focuses on describing the lives of a handful of inmates. Bergner’s mission is to humanize them–to portray them as people who, potentially, could be redeemed–without forgetting their crimes.
The biggest thing that stood out to me while reading was the gulf between these men’s lives and the world of middle and upper-class people who like to say high-minded things about criminals. The common vogue for blaming bad life outcomes on environmental effects–as though a few changes in early childhood could have radically changed the course of these men’s lives (and their victims’,) sending them to university instead of prison.
But this is not the story the mens’ biographies tell.
Obviously some people end up in prison by accident–unfortunate folks who actually were wrongly convicted. Then there are folks who did make a bad decision–or whose parents made bad decisions–that led to a much-regretted action. But this does not describe most of the Bergner’s criminals.
Rather, they share a combination of impulsiveness (high time preference,) aggression, and low-IQ.
In isolation, each of these traits is not so bad. People with Down’s Syndrome aren’t very bright, but they’re friendly and don’t murder others. An aggressive but smart person can understand the consequences of their actions and direct their aggression to socially-acceptable activities. But taken together, even people who later greatly regret their actions can, in a fit of rage, put a meat-cleaver into someone’s skull.
And even once they are in prison–a place where the average person might reflect that violence was a bad life choice–many criminals commit yet more violence–beating, raping, stabbing, and occasionally killing each other. Despite Angola being more peaceful than it was in the past (a peace imposed by marching guards in full riot gear,) it still requires constant, armed surveillance and daily searches to prevent the prisoners from shivving each other.
Bergner also visits a former Angola inmate in his home, where he now lives with his mother. As they survey the landscape surveying his childhood home–burned down buildings, crack houses on every corner, childhood friends consumed by drug use–it is clear that the traits that lead many men to Angola are not abnormalities, but more extreme forms of the traits responsible for the degradation around them.
This is an extremely difficult problem to solve, or even think up potential solutions for. It’s easy to say, “get the crack out of the cities,” but there were people dealing drugs even inside Angola. If people can smuggle and sell drugs in a maximum security prison, I don’t think anything short of heads on pikes will stop them from smuggling drugs into cities.
And even well-intentioned, drug-free people struggle with basics like picking up trash from their yards and preventing their homes from falling apart. As Bergner writes:
We stepped away from the house, a shabby box of pale green wood, the house Littell had been born in, that his mother still lived in, that he had returned to. A corroded swing set stood in front, then a low, wilting cyclone fence, then a stack of four torn tires like a welcoming statue beside the fence gate. … He never invited me inside, and I have always wondered what level of decrepitude or disarray he preferred not to show me…
Across from his house a vacant lot occupied half the block, a reminder of the property facing O’Brien, except that there the grass was cut low, while here saplings crowded one another amid shoulder-high reeds. An abandoned nightclub buckled behind the saplings. Within the tall grass were the charred boards of two houses leveled by arson while Littell had been at Angola. A pair of tremendous oak trees, draped with Spanish moss, had once shaded those houses. The trees still thrived, though now the effect was different, the dangling webs of moss no longer gentle but looking like an onslaught of chaotic growth spilling from the sky.
“This neighborhood was no Fifth Avenue,” Littell said as we passed between the lot on one side and homes like his mother’s on the other. “But it looked good. Fifteen years ago, a lot of these houses were still pretty new. Now it’s like nature’s taking over. When people move into a community they build up on nature, and now it’s like nature’s coming back and the will of man is losing out.” …
But he felt more threatened than I did, walking me around the neighborhood. Up ahead, three or four teenagers sat on the unrailed porch of a shack with boarded up windows. “They think you’re here to buy drugs,” he said, their eyes tracking us past the house. “They think I’m bringing the white dude around.” …
It was no joke to him. …. He had nothing to show the police if they stopped him for questioning. …
“Every evening, I try to be back inside by eight o’clock,” he said, “‘Cause all I need is to be in the wrong place at the time. They ask me for some ID, they see I got none, they run a check, see I’ve been to Angola, that’s it. Any unsolved robbery, they can pin it on me. You see, Dan, the new thing is that crack. And that’s everybody. It’s seldom you see anyone around here who’s straight. Sometimes it makes me thankful for Angola–all the guys I grew up with are wasted on it.”…
Then I listened to the neighborhood. At six-thirty in the evening it was silent, almost motionless. The dealers on their porch weren’t speaking. Nor were the women in their dingy yellow or powder blue knee-length shorts, sitting on a stoop propped up on cinder blocks. They only stared. No cars drove by…. A few rickety bicycles difted past,w ith grown men riding them. The supermarket where we went to buy sodas had seel mesh ove every window and, inside, scarecely any light… The grocery seemed to be the only operating business around. …
The place was like a ghost town, still inhabited.
I’ve often wondered: what is the difference between poverty and merely being poor or living at a lower socio-economic level? We don’t normally think of nomadic hunter-gatherers or pastoralists as “homeless.” A homeless guy sleeping under a bridge is poor, an aberration in a society where most people can afford homes; a hunter-gatherer sleeping in the bush is just living like his ancestors have always lived.
We might say that poverty is a departure from a community’s average–that is, a man is poor in comparison with his neighbors, not some global, a-historical ranking. But it seems a little dishonest to lump together people who live simply on purpose with people who struggle hard but still can’t get ahead.
So I propose a second definition: the inability to maintain the level of civilization you’re in. The Amish, for example, have a relatively low standard of living, low incomes, etc. But they are more than up to the task of maintaining their infrastructure, building their homes and barns, taking care of their horses, raising crops, etc. Amish society isn’t falling apart.
By contrast, Littell’s neighborhood has fallen apart over the fifteen years he spent at Angola. Nature is reclaiming the houses and burned-out businesses. We can blame crack, but that’s just kicking it back a level: why was this neighborhood blighted by crack while others went unscathed?
Many of the prisoners Bergner follows are functionally illiterate–one struggles (and fails) to pass a quiz intended for younger elementary school children. His struggle cannot be blamed on “lack of opportunity to learn,” as he is enrolled in a prison-based literacy programed whose entire purpose is to help inmates learn to read, and if there’s one thing people have lots of in Angola, it’s time.
Again, just as with impulsivity and aggression, the prisoners’ low-IQ mirrors that of their neighbors and peers back in the free population.
To be fair, this does not describe all of the prisoners. Some (like editors of the Angolite, Angola’s award-winning prison magazine) seem bright; some come across not as impulsively aggressive, but truly sociopathic.
Bergner wants us to consider redemption–the possibility, at least, that some of the men who have served 20, 30, or 40 years in prison may not be dangerous anymore, might have repented, might deserve a second chance at life. (One of the men he follows does seem truly sorry:
“Please take him off,” Terry prayed late at night, in Walnut [one of the dorms.] “He’s hunting me down again.”
His bedtime ritual had been performed hours earlier. On his cot, he had read the verses he’d highlighted months ago during his Bible group back at D. He turned the thin pages to find the neat orange markings
Lord, I cry unto Thee:
make haste unto me;
Give ear unto my voice…
Incline not my heart to any evil thing.
Then, twenty feet from whee the man had lost his sneakers and gained a long, scythe-shaped scar on the left side of his face, Terry knelt beside his own cot and closed his eyes and lowered his head to his folded head.
“Lord Jesus,” Terry went on, with a persistent hope that he was heard though he had failed to be saved,”thank you for looking over me… please keep an eye on my, Lord; can You take some of this away, Lord? Can you forgive me, Lord? …”
But after midnight something had woken him, and now Mr. Denver Tarter wouldn’t let him return to sleep. So Terry knelt again. …
“Please take him off. Please just this one thing.”
Religion plays a prominent role in the narrative, from the warden’s blustering claims of saving souls to the prison’s Pentecostal, “holy roller” church service; from quiet Bible study to the chaplain’s rounds:
Chaplain Holloway was assigned to Camp J. … Holloway pushed a grocery cart full of inspirational literature. … “What’s up, bro?” the chaplain asked at each set of bars. “What can I get for you, bro?” Built thick, a football player in college, he was a white hipster in a golfing shirt in the middle of the Inferno. I don’t know what he was, but he was tireless. And kind.
“How’d you end up back on One, bro?” he asked an emaciated man, referring to the worst of J’s levels, where you were let out of your cell–int a solitary dogrun–only two hours each week.
“I just told hello to a nurse on hospital call and told her she looked beautiful this morning.”
“Well, you know, babe,’ the chaplain said, understanding what had probably happened, that the man had told her hello and started jerking off, “next time just say hi and skip the rest of the verbology.”
He asked the man if he wanted to pray. They held hands and, leaning together, their foreheads almost touched. “In nine months you could be out of here, back in population,’ he encouraged afterward. … “You want some reading?”
He slipped through the bars a paperback of big-print advice and biblical quotations called You were born a Champion, Don’t Die a Loser. They held hand once more, and the chaplain moved on to the next convict. This was his day, this was his life, cell after cell after cell.
Those of us whose lives are so good that we have time for this voyeurism of peering into prisoners’ lives often approach religion with a disdainful, scornful attitude. Who needs a bunch of rules set down by an invisible sky fairy? Do you really need someone telling you not to steal? Don’t you already know how to behave?
But for many people at the bottom of society–not just criminals, but also the poor, the suffering, folks struggling with addictions, loss, disabilities or life-threatening diseases–religion really does seem to be a comfort, a guide, a way of working toward a better life. As I’ve documented before, in some of the world’s poorest and most isolated places, religious folks are often the only people willing to go to these awful places to try to help people.
It’s easy to look at statistics and say, “religious people are, on average, poor/less educated/more likely to be in prison/etc than atheists” but maybe this is like saying that people who buy hammers have a lot more nails that need pounding in than people who don’t.
The last thing that stands out in this narrative is the women who date and marry convicted murderers. Two of the men whose lives Bergner follows begin dating while in prison (for life). One meets a woman while performing in the annual Angola rodeo; she is impressed by his amateur bull-riding performance and they begin writing letters back and forth. Soon they were planning marriage, hoping for a pardon or an overturned conviction:
Pretty soon, he’d have it going in the courts. Pretty soon, he’d be working for Gerry Lane [just a guy he hopes to work for] himself, raising Belva’ kids like a regular father, straightening out her daughter and making sure the rest of them stayed on the right road Pretty soon, he’d have a son of his own. Pretty soon he’d be lying in bed next to Belva with all their letters piled up between them, all their letters from when he was in Angola, to read over how they got started.
They would be a family. They were already. He hadn’t met the two daughters, but the two boys had been to visit once, when there had been room in Sandra’s car. [Belva doesn’t have her own car but gets a ride with another woman visiting someone at the prison.] He played Pac-Man with the boys. …
The little Pac-Man munches snapped their jaws, and Brooks urged, “Gobble ’em, son, gobble ’em, move that stick,” and Marcus squealed, “Coon ass things! Coon ass things!” He seemed to think the Pac-Man prey were Cajun rednecks.
“Con ass things?” Brooks laughed.
And Marcus aw that it was funny. “Coon ass things! Coon ass things!” He cracked himself up, and Brooks put his cheek next to Marcus’s jittery, giggling head.
The boys had sent Brooks a Father’s Day card, and after his phone call with Belva he took the card from his box …:
“No one chooses a Dad From a magazine ad Or a paper with classifieds in it….
But if we’d had the chance For a choice in advance You’re the Dad we’d have picked in a minute.”
Tight to the top of the inside page, the thirteen-year-old, Kenny, had drawn a smiley face and written, “You are the father we did not have.”
He and Belva do get married, in a ceremony in one of the prison chapels. I rather doubt the relationship will last for the long-haul, however. Dating a guy in prison may seem fun at first, but as year after year of a life sentence pass by (and the author gives us no real reason to expect the men will receive the pardons they hope for,) the problems inherent in any long-distance relationship begin to manifest.
Bergner describes another relationship, begun when the prison’s band performed a show off prison grounds and the guitarist met a fan. She, too, already had a child (in this case, only one,) who quickly bonded with her “new father.” They were also married, but as the years passed, she stopped calling, stopped visiting. I suspect she has just grown bored, found someone else who is physically present in her own neighborhood.
Bergner doesn’t explore these women’s lives, what motivates them to date criminals serving life sentences for murder, nor the effects on their children. Chances are there is something deeply wrong in these women’s lives. Whether it is merely that love sometimes blooms in even unusual places, or something deeper, I can’t say and Bergner makes no comment. His focus is the criminals.
Race is obviously ever-present in the book–Angola’s population is about 90% African American, (according to Bergner,) in a state that’s only 30% black–but he never addresses it in any systematic way, nor does he discuss how (if at all) race impacts relationships between the prisoners.
Disclaimer: my copy of the book was missing a few pages, so there might have been something on those pages that I missed.
Ultimately, this isn’t exactly the book I’d have chosen for Anthropology Friday if I’d had more options, but it was still a good read and probably deserves more attention than it’s garnered.
“3 in 4 former prisoners in 30 states arrested within 5 years of release” (from the Bureau of Justice Statistics press release, April 22, 2014.)Inspired by my recent musings, I thought I would refresh my memory on recidivism stats–I have a vague memory that murderers tend not to recidivate, (murderers tend to stay in prison for a very long time) and that car jackers do, but it’s a bad idea to make claims based on vague memories of old data.
So here’s what the press release has to say:
“An estimated two-thirds (68 percent) of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years…
More than a third (37 percent) of prisoners who were arrested within five years of release were arrested within the first six months after release, with more than half (57 percent) arrested by the end of the first year.”
We could probably save some time and effort if we could effectively identify those third before releasing them. HOWEVER, I don’t know what percent of these people are being re-arrested on parole violations that the rest of us might not really consider “crimes”, like missing a meeting with one’s parole officer or forgetting to register one’s address.
“Recidivism rates varied with the attributes of the inmate. Prisoners released after serving time for a property offense were the most likely to recidivate. Within five years of release, 82 percent of property offenders were arrested for a new crime, compared to 77 percent of drug offenders, 74 percent of public order offenders and 71 percent of violent offenders.”
I’m guessing violent offenders spent longer in prison, and thus were older when released.
“Recidivism was highest among males, blacks and young adults. By the end of the fifth year after release, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of males and two-thirds (68 percent) of females were arrested, a 10 percentage point difference that remained relatively stable during the entire 5-year follow-up period.
Five years after release from prison, black offenders had the highest recidivism rate (81 percent), compared to Hispanic (75 percent) and white (73 percent) offenders.”
So, while while the chances of being a criminal vary widely between groups, criminals from all the groups recidivate at fairly similar rates. This suggests that we are probably actually arresting the subset of people who are criminals most of the time.
“Within five years of release, 61 percent of released inmates with four or fewer arrests in their prior criminal history were arrested, compared to 86 percent of those who had 10 or more prior arrests.”
Maybe guys with 10 prior arrests shouldn’t be released until they’re well over 40?
Some finer grain on recidivism by specific crime, after five years (note: this does not tell us the new offense,) from the PDF:
Looks like my vague memories were correct. Murderers are the least likely to recidivate, probably due to the personal nature of many murders (you’ve got to really hate that guy,) and murderers being older when released, but they are still folks who aren’t great at solving inter-personal problems or running their lives. Rapist probably figure out non-illegal ways to have sex, or else get old enough to be less interested in it. Drunks probably learn to call a cab when drunk.
Relatively speaking, of course. A 50 or 60% recidivism rate still isn’t something that inspires great confidence. To be clear, again, this is not data on how many released murderers commit another murder or how many released rapists commit another rape–this is arrest for any crime. A further breakdown of re-arrest by new crime vs. old crime would be interesting.Carjacking, by contrast, looks like the Xtreme sports of crime–people attracted to this form of violent thrill-seeking seem unlikely to change their spots or find more legal alternatives.
From the abstract: The role of parenting in the development of criminal behavior has been the source of a vast amount of research, with the majority of studies detecting statistically significant associations between dimensions of parenting and measures of criminal involvement. An emerging group of scholars, however, has drawn attention to the methodological limitations-mainly genetic confounding-of the parental socialization literature. The current study addressed this limitation by analyzing a sample of adoptees to assess the association between 8 parenting measures and 4 criminal justice outcome measures. The results revealed very little evidence of parental socialization effects on criminal behavior before controlling for genetic confounding and no evidence of parental socialization effects on criminal involvement after controlling for genetic confounding.
In other words, looks like my basic thesis is holding up. Overall, I suspect it is far easier to fuck up a kid so they don’t meet their full potential (say, by abusing/neglecting) than to get rid of the effects of negative traits. It’s probably best to try to work with people’s inclinations by finding them life-paths that work for them, rather than trying to mold them into something they aren’t.