Parker's Letter to Attorney General Garland, 1885

This letter to Attorney General Agustus Garland details Judge Parker's views on the purpose and ideals of the justice system. The letter also provides a glimpse into the bureaucratic process that the judge was a part of, and some of his opinions expressed here run counter to the 'hanging judge' stereotype.

Fort Smith, Ark., MAY 27, 1885.

Hon. A.H. Garland,
Atty. General,
Sir: I have received your letter of Apr. 20, with inclosures relating to sending convicts from my court to the penitentiary at Little Rock, as well as yours of the 19th inst. Bearing on the same subject.

I should have answered your letter of the 20th sooner, but pressing business in court caused me to lay it aside. Be assured that my delay is caused by no disrespect to you.

I regard the subject of your letter as one of the first importance, because it is one in which is involved the public good, to some extent at least, as well as the great principle of humanity, that by the mandate of duty we must observe toward even the meanest of God's creatures. The whole system of punishment is based on the idea of reform, or it is worse than nothing. More than this, if there is no reform in it it becomes criminal. Courts and governments can view it in no other light.

Now, you will permit me to say that having to sentence so many men to imprisonment I, several years ago, quietly but quite thoroughly investigated the different places of imprisonment throughout the country, and to my regret I find that the idea of reform has but little to do with the manner of conducting the most of them. They are run on the purely speculative principle of getting the most dollars and cents out of the transaction by those who conduct them -- be they the States or lessees under the States.

In all my investigation I have found but 2 PRISONS in the whole West and South that I regard as fit places to send prisoners to, one at Chester, Illinois, the other (and the best one by all odds,) the House of Correction at Detroit. The Government cannot afford in its consideration of the place of punishment of its prisoners to consider alone the cost of the same. This must not be the primary consideration. First, must be considered the good of the men sentenced, for in this way only, can be cured the diseased member of society.

I have, in the last ten years, sentenced to prison hundreds of men, and when I looked in the faces of these men, the impression filled my mind that not one of them, no matter how depraved had entirely lost that better part of human nature which makes a man a good citizen, and a faint spark of which lingers in the nature of the worst and most depraved convict who ever paid the penalty of the law for his crime.
The object of punishment is to revive, that in some cases almost extinct spark; to lift the man up; to stamp out his bad nature and wicked disposition, that his better and God-given traits may assert themselves, and so govern and direct him that he becomes a good citizen, of use to himself and his fellow men. This cannot be done at prisons conducted upon the principle of the one at Little Rock. The government should have its own prisons and be directly responsible for the treatment of its prisoners, but as it does not have them, at every cost it should ascertain the very best State and local institutions of this kind and send its prisoners there, no matter where the prison may be.

It is not a matter of State pride or local benefit, but a matter of high solemn duty which has governed me in my investigations in this matter.

The House of Correction at Detroit is conducted on humane principles, but the discipline is firm and regular but not too severe. The food is plentiful and healthy; the clothing comfortable and good; the moral influences thrown around the prisoners are the best that can be held out to a man under restraint. Prisoners have the benefit of at least a limited education there. Lectures are delivered to them once or twice a week. Two evenings in the week they have school when they are taught the elements of an education. I have sent there many, many men who could neither read nor write who have come back able to read pretty well, to write a good letter and who have some knowledge of arithmetic. These men have come on their way home by way of Fort Smith to see me as they said, and thank me for having sent them there; that it made men out of them; that they learned there from the teachings of the good men and women who visited them what they never knew before. I have been touched by these examples of apparent sincere reform. I knew at least the men were better than when they went to the House of Correction.
The most of the men sent to prison in my court, are young men or boys, whose character was not yet unformed, whose moral traits had not yet become sufficiently strong to dominate the mind. These men are largely criminals from surrounding circumstances. Hold out to them an inducement to reform -- recognize them as human beings, and there are but few of them who will not avail themselves of sun an opportunity and at least make an effort in the right direction. The want of proper training, ignorance, bad associates and bad advice, in my experience with this kind of people has more to do with making them criminals than natural wickedness or inherited depravity.

Among the hundreds whom I have sent to Detroit, there cannot be found one who has ever complained of mistreatment, on the contrary, they all say they have been treated well.

Several years ago I used to (under the order of the Atty. General) send prisoners to Little Rock, and I never knew one, and I never heard of one who did not complain of mistreatment. When the penitentiary at Little Rock can present the evidence of efforts at reform that are exerted in behalf of the prisoners at Detroit, I will gladly recommend their imprisonment there. But under the system by which that prison as well as many others in the country is governed, there is not reform in it, but on the contrary, men come from it more hardened and more depraved, and feeling more bitter hatred of society and its laws than when they went there. I say nothing of the men who are conducting it. It is the SYSTEM I write of.

Now, a word as to the matter of expense. Under the proposition submitted by the gentlemen who run the Little Rock penitentiary, the only difference in expense between it and Detroit is in the matter of transportation. To enable you to see what this difference is I submit a showing made by the records of my court since Jan. 1st, 1884. From then to the present time I have sent to Detroit 172 prisoners at an average of $42.15 for transporting them. The same prisoners could have been taken to Little Rock at an average expense of $24.26. Additional expense of transportation to Detroit per head $17.59. Total for sending 172 men to Detroit $7250.22. Total for sending the same to Little Rock $4225. Difference &3025.25. It costs more per man in proportion to the distance to take him to Little Rock than to Detroit. This is because of the fact that under the law the marshal gets 10 cents per mile one way for transporting the prisoners to the prison in the State where the court is held. When he takes them to the prison outside the State he does not receive this 10 cents per mile. But this is not the only nor the principal consideration actuating those in authority.

Some years ago when I sent men to Little Rock, who were sentenced for not more than one year, while those sentenced for a longer time were sent to Detroit. The dread and horror of the prison at Little Rock became so great among prisoners that they would ask to be permitted to go before the Grand-jury and plead guilty to some other crime, so they could get their punishment for more than one year and go to Detroit. You make the order now for the prisoners to go to Little Rock and I believe the jurors in my court would hesitate long before they would convict, in many cases where they should do so, as the aversion among the people here to the prison at Little Rock is quite as strong as it is among those who are convicted of crime.

The order to send to Little Rock cannot be justified on the ground that $3000 per year will be saved thereby. I do not consider that there is anything reformatory in that penitentiary. The only thing it does is to prevent men from committing crime while they are confined there. In behalf of humanity I request that you will let the order stand which designates Detroit as the place of imprisonment for criminals sentenced in my court. I have written at length and with candor, because I feel a deep interest in the matter, as you know a great many men are sentenced by me, and when I am performing this disagreeable duty, I don't want to feel that the men sentenced are to receive no benefit but rather be injured by such sentence.
I am, most truly,

Your Obedient Servant,
(signed) I.C. Parker

From the collection of the Fort Smith National Historic Site and the Department of Justice records in the National Archives.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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