"The trouble with the old prison system was that we did not understand the characters of the men who have been sent to prison, and because they have been equally ignorant of us," said Thomas Mott Osborne '84, speaking before a large gathering in the First Parish Church House last evening. "The men thought that the only difference between themselves and the men who convicted them was that the other men ad not been caught. This was the wrong view to take and it was our task to change their opinions and to make them men who would be of service to the community and not a menace when they came out.
"A long time ago, prisons were used as a place of detention pending the trial of the prisoner, and if he was convicted pending his death, for then men were hung for most crimes. The other use of the prisons was as a place to put men who could not pay their debts.
"Then capital punishment was largely done away with, and the problem of prison reform entered in. Conditions changed so that a few years ago the prisons almost all had the honor system. The men worked together in silence and separated at night. Some few 'trusties' were allowed to go outside the walls to do menial labor. But it was not a success; it was in fact a distinct failure. Two-thirds of the graduates from the prisons came back for another term, and most of the rest did not return only because they were too clever to be caught.
"Then a few years ago the governor of New York appointed a committee for prison reform, of which I was made chairman. We began to study the situation by getting the criminal's point of view, and for this purpose I went to prison for a week.
"Then for the first time the prisoners began to believe anew. They felt that someone was interested in them, and the harrier between prisoner and the outside world was broken down."
Mr. Osborne then told how he had been appointed warden of Sing Sing and to explain the league which he had instituted there. He showed how willing the prisoner was to do his part if an opportunity was given him. To prove this he cited instances where men had gone out and led straight lives, and read extracts from several letters, of which the most significant one was the following: "You ask me how I have been doing. I should be an awful fur if I should make a promise and then break it. You never want to be untrue to your friends, and those men back there in the league are the best friends I ever had."