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Chapter 23 - In a West Virginia Prison Camp

In July of 1919 my attention was called to the brutal conditions of the Sissonville prison Camp in Kanawha County, West Virginia. The practices of the dark ages were not unknown to that county. Feudalism and slave ownership existed in her coal camps. I found the most brutal slave ownership in the prison camp.

Officials of state and nation squawk about the dangers of bolshevism and they tolerate and promote a system that turns out bolshevists by the thousands. A bunch of hypocrites create a constabulary supposedly to stamp out dangerous “reds” but in truth the constabulary is to safeguard the interests of the exploiters of labor. The moneyed interests and their servants, the officials of county and state, howl and yammer about law and order and American ideals in order to drown out the still, small voice of the worker asking for bread.

With Mr. Mooney and Mr. Snyder, organizers, I went to the prison camp of Kanawha County where prisoners were building a county road. It was a broiling hot day.

About forty men were swinging picks and shovels; some old grey haired men were among them, some extremely young, some diseased, all broken in spirit and body. Some of them, the younger ones, were in chains. They had to drag a heavy iron ball and chain as they walked and worked. A road officer goaded them on if they lagged. He was as pitiless as the Bull on their bent backs.

These were men who had received light sentences in the courts for minor offenses, but the road officer could extend the sentence for the infraction of the tiniest rule. Some men had been in the camp for a year whose sentence had been thirty days for having in their possession a pint of liquor. Another fellow told me he was bringing some whiskey to a sick man. He was arrested, given sixty days and fined $100. Unable to pay he was sentenced to five months in the prison camp, and after suffering hell’s tortures he had attempted to run away. He was caught and given four additional months.

At night the miserable colony were driven to their horrible sleeping quarters. For some, there were iron cages. Iron bunks with only a thin cloth mattress over them. Six prisoners were crowded into these cages. The place was odorous with filth. Vermin crawled about.

A very young lad slept in a cell, sixteen by twenty feet practically without ventilation, with sixteen negroes, some of whom suffered from venereal disease. There was no sewage system, and the only toilet for this group was a hole in the floor of the cell with a tub beneath. It was not emptied until full. Great greedy flies buzzed about the cells and cages. They lighted on the stripped bodies of the men.

The sick had no care, no medicine. The well had no protection against the sick. None of the wretched army of derelicts had any protection against the brutality of the road overseers. A prisoner had been beaten with the pick handle by the overseer. His wounds were not dressed. Another was refused an interview with his attorney.

I knew it was useless to tell the governor about conditions as I found them. I knew he would be neither interested nor would he care. It wasn’t election time.

That night I took the train from Charleston and went straight to Washington. In the morning I went to the Department of Justice. I told the Attorney General about conditions in the prison camp of Sissonville, ... the fetid, disease-breeding cells, ... the swill given the men for food, . . . the brutal treatment. I asked him to make inquiry if there were not federal prisoners there. He promised me he would make immediate inquiry. This he did. To be sure there were no federal prisoners in the gang, but the investigation scared hell out of them, and the day after the federal agents had been there, fifteen prisoners, illegally held, were released.

The worst abuses were corrected for a while, at least.

Whenever things go wrong, I generally head for the National government with my grievances. I do not find it hard to get redress.

I do not believe that iron bars and brutal treatment have ever been cures for crime. And certainly I feel that in our great enlightened country, there is no reason for going back to the middle ages and their forms of torture for the criminal.

Next page: Chapter 24 - The Steel Strike of 1919