One of the most difficult things to do is to get an insight into the management and condition of a prison. Those in it naturally are not in a position to talk, even if they had the opportunity and the privilege, while the attaches, of course, will not talk, except in an extreme case. The testimony of an ex-convict is justly somewhat discredited at the best. A guard who has been discharged also falls under suspicion as having a motive to slander the superintendent who has removed him.
In an accumulation of evidence, however, there is at least moral proof. "Where there is so much smoke, there must be some fire." Some time ago the INTELLIGENCER printed the sworn statement of Lorenzo D. Bright, a discharged convict, which made out a pretty bad state of affairs for the prison management at Moundsville. Superintendent Van Pelt contented himself with a general denial, a slur on Bright, and a challenge to inspect the prison. So far as result are concerned, the penitentiary might be "inspected" as well from Wheeling as anywhere else. Of course, the prisoners are under duress.
On Saturday there arrived in the city two men who were that day released from the prison, having served their terms, less good time. They were Frank Adams, a printer, of Washington, D. C., and Thomas Burns. These were two of five who were arrested in 1888 for burglary at Rowlesburg, Preston County. W. W. Shock's store there was entered and robbed. Four of the men admitted their guilt and declared Adams innocent. He said he had been with the men only half an hour then they were arrested. Still, he was convicted with them, and served four years, three months and several days. One of the five served six months and was pardoned on the grounds of insanity. Two lost ten days good time and will be released next week.
Adams was seen by and INTELLIGENCER reporter last evening, and he told some interesting things about the prison. The peculiar fact about his story is that it is borne out by very peculiar documentary evidence which he smuggled out of the prison in some mysterious way, and which contains transcripts of the police records, dates of punishments inflicted and not recorded as the law requires, and statistics of significance as to the finances and other features of the prison management.
Whatever may be said of Adams's record, he is a very intelligent man. He acted as "librarian" at the prison and wrote letters for illiterate prisoners, as did also Burns, who in addition has been Dr. Bruce's hospital steward. One of the others of the five was bookkeeper of the prison, and is now shipping clerk in one of the factories.
Adams was arrayed in a suit of clothes given him, as the law requires, when discharged. It was about as flimsy and poor a mass of shoddy as ever put together, and if the state is charged over $2.50 for it it is a case of extortion by somebody.
Adams and Burns were entitled to tickets back to Preston county, but did not want to go there. Adams wanted to go to Bellaire, Washington, Pa., West Alexander, or Wheeling. For some reason, he says, as Harry Lacy said when he came out, Superintendent Van Pelt and the other officials discourage released convicts from coming to Wheeling. Tickets were given Adams and Burns for Pittsburgh, but they stopped here.
Adams makes a general charge against the prison management of incompetence, carelessness and general looseness. Inhuman punishment is declared to be still in vogue. Visiting committees of the legislature are said to be deceived.
Of the inhuman punishments, bucking and gagging seems to be the worst. Adams says he has seen prisoners' mouths split open at the coners by the stick which is tied in their lips as a gag.
The state, Adams said, provided a place to be used as a hospital. This was over the dining room. The superintendent and his family and friends from outside the prison converted this into a skating rink, and there has been no hospital there yet.
The superintendent at one time decided that no prisoner should be let out after hours, but he was the first to violate this, as he brought men out to paint banners for a Democratic jollification, the work being done at night. On the night of the demonstration the guard ordered all the convicts on the tier next the street to leave their lamps burning, and said he would report for punishment the first convict who put his light out before the procession had passed.
The case of Jacob Downtain, who was bucked and gagged till he became unconscious, and then removed where visitors could not see him, and that of James Glenn, who was refused permission to present his case to the legislative investigating committee, as depicted by Adams, seem particularly barbarous and inhuman.
The food, Adams says, is not properly cooked nor served. In twenty-two days he remembers of having beans served eighteen, and they were not thoroughly cooked at that.
Speaking of the alleged school for the prisoners, Adams gives a very funny account. The books are few and not useful, and in eighteen months the supply of slate pencils for over 300 convicts aggregated exactly 100. This certainly cannot come under the head of reckless extravagance. There is not a geography nor a history in the place. Adams was asked to report as to the supply of Bibles, and reported 150 needed. Not one had been bought, although the prisoners are eager to have them.
Newspapers taken by convicts, Adams says, are confiscated by guards. Certain papers are allowed to go in and others shut out. Religious and literary papers sent the prisoners by charitable people in Wheeling are dumped in the waste basket and the prisoners never see them.
The most characteristic thing, perhaps, told by Adams of Van Pelt and his men, is that one occasion they had a lot of wooden guns made, bought copies of the infantry tactics, and began to drill the convicts. When asked about this, Van Pelt referred to the Homestead trouble and said in repeated similar troubles the convicts might prove useful.
Adams referred to a statement made recently as to the rarity of punishments, and said it had been his duty not infrequently to furnish bread and water to those kept on that diet, and he had not infrequently found forty of them at once. The Christmas boxes sent prisoners last Christmas were opened and the contents distributed in common without regard to ownership.
These are but a few of the charged Adams brings. He says women are bucked and gaged the same as men, and that the prison physician does not know of the cruel treatment to which sick prisoners have to submit. Adams has dates, figures and extracts, which give weight to his stories, and mere broad denial from the superintendent whill not satisfy the public that these grave charges are not founded in facts.
Service provided by the staff of the Ohio County Public Library in partnership with and funded in part by the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation.