Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice

Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
The “Solitary”
(From “My Life in Prison”)

By Donald Lowrie

(The writer of this picture of prison life, after serving a sentence of fifteen years in San Quentin, has become one of the leaders in the prison reform movement in California)
HE was a thin young man of medium height, with long, straggly blonde hair and beard. He was garbed in a ragged suit of dirty stripes. His steel-gray eyes blinked as though the light hurt them, and yet they were very alert, and there was a defiance, an indomitableness in their depths. They protruded slightly, as the eyes of persons who have suffered so frequently do. The lines radiating from the corners bespoke mental as well as physical distress, as did the spasmodic twitching of his mouth. His skin was akin to the color of a thirsty road and his garments looked as though he had not had them off for months—the knees and elbows bulged and the frayed edges of the coat curled under. I was conscious of a warring within me. I had not yet learned who he was, and still I knew I was gazing at a human creature who had been through hell.…  1
  “Treat Morrell right,” admonished the lieutenant as he withdrew from the room and left us together.  2
  Morrell! The notorious “Ed” Morrell, about whom I had heard so much, and who had been confined in the “incorrigibles” for five years!  3
  The majority of the prisoners, as well as the freemen, believed him innocent of the offence with which he had been charged and for which he had been subjected to such awful punishment. So this man was Ed Morrell! No wonder I had been agitated.…  4
  He arose from the chair and stood dejectedly while I took the necessary measurements, and then I led the way to the back room, where the bathtub was located. I started to return to the front room for the purpose of marking his clothes, but he stopped me.  5
  “Wait a minute,” he urged. “Wait and see what a man looks like after five years in hell. I was a husky when I went up there, hard as nails and full of red blood, but look at me now.”  6
  While speaking, he had dropped off the outer rags, and a moment after stood nude beside the tub of warm water. The enormity of what he had suffered could not have been more forcibly demonstrated. His limbs were horribly emaciated, the knee, elbow, and shoulder bones stood out like huge knots through the drawn and yellow skin, while his ribs reminded me of the carcass of a sheep hanging in front of a butcher’s establishment. The hollows between them were deep and dark. I thought of the picture I had seen of the famine-stricken wretches of India.…  7
  “What are those scars on your back?” I asked as he sank onto his knees in the water.  8
  “Scars,” he laughed, sardonically. “Scars? Those ain’t scars. They’re only the marks where the devil prodded me. I was in the jacket, cinched up so that I was breathing from my throat when he came and tried to make me ‘come through,’ and when I sneered at him he kicked me over the kidneys. I don’t know how many times he kicked; the first kick took my breath away and I saw black, but after they took me out of the sack I couldn’t get up, and I had running sores down here for months afterwards. I ain’t right down there now; I’ve got a bad rupture, and sometimes it feels as if there was a knife being twisted around inside of me. It wouldn’t be so bad if they’d got me right, but to give a man a deal like that dead wrong is hell, let me tell you.…”  9
  As we stepped into the barber shop there was a noticeable air of expectancy. The word had passed through the prison that the new warden had released “Ed” Morrell from “solitary.” All but one of the half dozen barbers were strangers to Morrell. They had been committed to the prison after his siege of solitary confinement had begun. The one exception was old Frank, a lifer with twenty years’ service behind him.…  10
  He took a step backward and a hush fell over the little group.  11
  “With all due respect, Ed, you’re the finest living picture of Jesus Christ that I’ve ever seen, so help me God. And, Ed,” he added, hastily, his voice breaking, “we’re all Jesus Christs, if we’d only remember it.”  12

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