Fire descended upon an Ohio prison and some three hundred charred bodies are the penalty. Again the public press calls for stricter methods of repression, and, as the Baumes Laws resulted from agitation to keep confirmed criminals in prison longer, so will this uproar probably have the effect of stiffening the already too severe regulations of our penitentiaries.
Yet, if crime is not to be treated with crime, what is one to do with the vicious creatures whom the combination of slum environment, bootlegging, and a certain indigenous American lawlessness have bred in teeming swarms? The first step seems to be to bring the penitentiary system out of its almost medieval sloth, and to coordinate penology with science. Psychology and research have discovered that a prisoner's future record will depend but little on the crime he was incarcerated for, but more importantly on his home environment, his habits, and his character. Thus to herd in one ensemble first offenders, murderers, and speeders results merely in inoculating all with the anti-social virus of the most experienced and hardened lifer. The first necessity is segregation, according to possibilities of cure, for crime is largely a disease. Men with appendicitis are not placed in contagion-bearing wards.
The next move in modernizing prisons--and all these experiments have been carried out more or less successfully in Europe--is to apply the indeterminate sentence to all criminals. Under this system a prisoner is placed on parole as soon as he is fitted for the responsibilities of civilized life. And he is not released until a competent examiner is fairly certain his disease is cured. A confirmed criminal will therefore die in prison--a separate prison where he will not contaminate his fellows--and society is saved the trouble of his crime and his recapture.
For this system to be fair and practical every effort must be made to place the criminal as gradually as possible in the routine of a normal human being. In the countries where the indeterminate sentence and segregation are the penal practise, work is provided for all prisoners, who are paid the usual rates for jobs accomplished. In America indolence is the rule in many prisons and the cause of much disorder, owing to trade union, jealousy of free prison labor. But work under normal wages would obviate this objection as well as making less abrupt the prisoner's release from penitentiary routine. As the prisoner improves under considerate and careful treatment, he is given more and more freedom, allowed to work under supervision in neighboring factories, live in rooms with curtains but not bars, and finally paroled with the money he has saved under close police watching until he has proved himself capable of citizenship. Of course if this handling does not aid the inmate he is placed where he can never be a menace to society and kept there. For modern penal methods are not sentimental. They meet and face the problem of the criminal squarely, without Prison Welfare Societies on the one hand, or torturing wardens on the other, but with a completely renovated arsenal of science, sympathy, and study.