APRIL 28, 1952
HYDE PARK, Sunday—I have been very much troubled about the recent prison riots. I have no illusions about the fact that there are hardened criminals in the state prisons and that one can't expect them to change from criminals to decent human beings overnight or even after many years.
But a prison should be a place where brutality is eschewed by the guards. The prisoners have been brought up on brutality and have used brutality all their lives; but you put them in prison to teach them respect for the law. You can do that only if the men who are in charge of them try to administer even-handed justice and to minimize the use of force. This requires strong personalities and strong characters because force, though always in the background, should, if possible, never be used. The aim must be to create respect for the law and the power of the government.
Prison riots, of course, usually stem from bad food and from brutality on the part of the guards. Brutality can be eliminated by a choice of better guards and stricter enforcement of rules. Bad food is something that depends on appropriations. If these are insufficient, it is impossible for the prison administration to give the inmates enough food properly prepared. It can also mean dishonesty somewhere along the line, or it can mean bad management. No one can discover which of these things is at fault except the state administration, in state prisons, and the Federal government in Federal prisons.
Another important factor in modern penology is the effort made to rehabilitate the inmates. Some can never be rehabilitated. Under proper psychiatric treatment and through work and fair human understanding, however, some inmates come through their prison experience and actually return to society as useful citizens. More and more the effort is being made to accomplish these desired ends, and we are learning more and more about the best methods of dealing with personality problems and giving the inmates a chance to find themselves.
Here in the United States we probably have some of the best prisons in the world, and some of the worst. I have seen many of them, and I believe the efforts made for rehabilitation of prisoners are far more worthwhile than merely keeping in confinement human beings who have shown their inability to live in modern society. I would put more care and emphasis, of course, on our reformatories and young prisoners, because they are frequently victims of circumstances, environment and inheritance. We have a better chance of rehabilitating youngsters who have gone wrong than we have of doing anything for a man who is serving his second or third term. But we will accomplish nothing if we sit back complacently and think that we have done all we can do in improving our prisons. These riots have drawn our attention to the fact that something is wrong, and we should not rest until we find out what can be done about it.