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Alton Penitentiary Report - 1855 and 1856

Source:  Alton Weekly Courier, February 5, 1857

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          The Report of the Inspectors, Warden; &c., of the Illinois State Penitentiary, for the years 1855 and 1856, has just been issued from the Courier job office, and from it we condense the following statement of of its present position and management:


          The Inspectors' report is chiefly occupied with the fiscal affairs of that Institution. Under the Act of 1855, which appropriated $35,000 for the purpose, one hundred and four new cells have been erected, at an expense of $31,200 for the whole. Other improvements and additons have been made, amounting to several thousand dollars, showing a balance of the appropriation of $42.50.


          The Inspectors recommend the pavement of a portion of the yard, as conductive to the comfort and health of the convicts. In wet weather, portions of the prison yard are almost impassable. Additional cells are also needed, as the rate of increase of the convicts has been so great that the prison is now full and crowded. They say to properly provide for the present number of convicts would require the erection of two hundred and nineteen additional cells. On this account, they recommend the building of another penitentiary - a large one in the northern part of the State, which will supersede the present one. They say, the present prison, while it cannot be enlarged, will cost as much to maintain it as if its limits were much greater, its working capacity being out of proportion to its annual cost. The present prison grounds, having become very valuable, could be sold for a sum that would go far towards the erection of a new prison upon a better and much more extended scale, saying nothing of throwing open valuable property to the business enterprise of the people of Alton, and taking away from their doors a competition in various branches of mechanical labor with which they cannot successfully compete.


          The Warden, S. A. Buckmaster, Esq., states that at the date of his last report, January 1st, 1855, there were three hundred and thirty-two convicts confined in the prison. Since that time, six hundred and nineteen have been received, and four hundred and seventy-six have been discharged (to wit), one hundred and forty-seven have been pardoned by the Governor of Illinois, two hundred and eighty-one have been discharged by expiration of sentence, one by order of the Supreme Court, one by writ of habeas corpus, twenty-six have died, and twenty have escaped, making the number now in prison four hundred and seventy-five, showing an increase of over forty percent in the last two years.


          The following is a statement of the States and counties where the convicts are born:  Maine 4; New Hampshire 2; Vermont 13; Massachusetts 4; Rhode Island 1; Connecticut 3; New York 7, New Jersey 6; Pennsylvania 31; Delaware 1; Maryland 3; Virginia 16; North Carolina 2; South Carolina 2; Georgia 1; Alabama 1; Louisiana 2; Ohio 26; Tennessee 15; Kentucky 24; Indiana 9; Illinois 18; Michigan 2; Missouri 2; District of Columbia 1; Unknown 4; Ireland 78; Germany 50; England 31; Canada 19; France 11; Prussia 4; Switzerland 3; Belgium 1; Norway 1; Wales 2; Poland 1; Atlantic Ocean 1; Scotland 8.  White males 452; white females 4; colored males 18. Total, 475.


          The warden also refers to the subject of the mileage allowed to Sheriffs for the conveyance of convicts to the Penitentiary, which has long been a crying evil. By the present law, the several Sheriffs are allowed thirty-five cents per mile for the transportation of convicts to the Penitentiary, when the number is not more than two; for all over that number taken at any one time, twenty cents per mile is allowed. The amount thus paid by the State for the past two years to the Sheriff of Cook county is about eleven thousand dollars, there being two hundred and thirty-seven convicts sent to the prison from that county alone, and of the six hundred and nineteen received during the past two years, there were three hundred and forty-six from the twelve northern counties. Now as the price fixed by that law was evidently intended to be a fair remuneration for the services rendered (there being no railroad facilities at that time), but now, the Warden argues, when there are such extensive railroad facilities, and the price for transporting convicts is reduced to three cents per mile, it would seem that the compensation might be reduced certainly as low as ten cents per mile.


          The Chaplain, Rev. Dr. McMasters, states that divine services are performed twice every Sunday in the prison, once to the men and once to the women. Besides this, several hours are devoted every Sabbath afternoon to walking through the wards and conversing with the convicts on religious subjects. He states that during the last fifteen months, ninety-five of the convicts have made public professions of repentance, while many others have promised amendment of life. He does not express confidence in the sincerity of all these professions, but many, he thinks, are truly penitent and steadfast in their purpose of reformation. The convicts are generally as cheerful as could be expected. The Chaplain suggests that a small appropriation be made for the purchase of books for the use of the prison; as he justly thinks there can be no great improvement morally without intellectual enlargement.


          The Inspectors speak of the Prison Physician, Dr. Hez. Williams, in very deservedly high terms. They say:

"To the report of the Physician, we take a particular pride in directing your attention. When it is recollected that a large proportion of the convicts received at the prison are afflicted with some chronic disease, while others are suffering from functional derangement of long standing, the mortuary report for the last two years is a matter of great satisfaction, and presents a result, the joint effect of medical skill and prison discipline, not excelled, if equaled by any similar institution in the country."

          In relation to some exceptional cases, but which require some action on the part of the Legislature, the Inspectors say:

"Several cases of insanity having occurred in the prison, and there being no provision made for the proper treatment of such cases within the prison walls, we would respectfully represent the propriety of some legislative action on that subject by which the insanity of the convict can be tried, and it so pronounced, that some provision be made for their admission into the State Asylum, or otherwise disposed of as your honorable body may think best.


There is another class of cases to which we would invite your attention and immediate action. We refer to a class of female convicts who come into the prison pregnant. The laws passed for the government of the prison do not appear to have contemplated such an event, and no provision has been made for such cases. The prison is neither provided with a lying-in hospital or nurses. The convict and her offspring are an encumbrance to the Warden. The child cannot be separated from its mother, and yet it has no proper place there. The Inspectors and Warden have no power in the premises; and if it should be understood that the executive clemency could be successfully invoked in such cases, the evil would only be increased, for it is not to be doubted that such as are convicted of crime, or expect to be convicted, would not long hesitate to comit one crime to escape the penalty attached to the commission of another.


Every convict should have a separate cell. His health and morals imperatively demand it, but in the present condition of things it is impossible. The cells are very small, being three and a half feet by seven feet, and are barely large enough for one. To continue this state of things would engender disease in winter, and in summer invite and almost insure a deadly epidemic. With two in a cell, in a great majority of cases, the hope of the moral reformation of the convict is destroyed. The comparatively innocent are placed in the closest relations with the most hardened and desperate, and come out of prison at the expiration of the time for which they were sentenced, educated in the ways of crime, and ready for any desperate deed, and thus the object of their incarceration, aside from the public security, will have totally failed."

          The lease of the prison expires on the 10th day of June, 1858, and it will therefore be necessary for the present Legislature to pass such laws in relation to its future management or disposal, as they may think best. The subject is now before the Legislature.


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