“Three Little Boys in Prison,” by Charles Holden (from The Mother’s Assistant, January 1844; pp. 32-33)
I occasionally visit the house prepared for some of the criminals in our city. It is situated at the westerly part, in a very picturesque retreat. It would pass, in the eyes of strangers, as the seat of a wealthy gentleman, rather than the residence of the poor and culpable.
A recent visit to this place disclosed a very painful sight. Myself and a friend wished to visit the prisoners, and various doors were unbolted and thrown open, that we might pass. Enclosed between some of these walls of stone, were men imprisoned for stealing, for intemperance, &c. The door of one of these stone cages being opened, disclosed to our sight three little boys. Their ages were from ten to twelve years. They had been sentenced to thirty days’ imprisonment for stealing! What a painful contemplation was this! The lads had been there but a few days. A dreary period of imprisonment was before them. They stood at their grated window, looking out at the high fence, by which the cells are enclosed. Their caps were upon their heads, as though but a few minutes were to elapse, ere they could depart from their rugged room. They turned toward us, and burst into tears! The most touching appeals were made to us, to obtain their liberation; and promises of future good conduct were most profusely made. We conversed with them. Two had been Sabbath school scholars, and promised to attend punctually on each Sabbath, to their class, if they could but escape the horrors of their prison-house!
I was never more seriously affected at juvenile depravity, and its consequences, than by this scene. The boys had not the hardened boldness of experienced thieves, or the filthy coarseness of the bad boys we often see at large. They were well dressed, cleanly boys; the ruddiness of health on their cheeks and the sparkle of intellect in their eyes, and their deportment was that of lads whose parents had cared for them.
‘Where are your parents?’ I asked one of them.
‘My father is dead; my mother is at home,’ was the answer.
‘Weeping, no doubt,’ said I, ‘for your imprisonment, and for the offence which caused it.’ A fresh flood of tears broke forth, as the lad begged for liberty to go to his mother!
When we concluded to withdraw from this unpleasant scene, they clung to us with the tenacity of despair, beseeching us for liberty. Even after the door of their cell had been bolted, they applied their mouths to the interstices, and besought relief in most piteous accents. Poor boys! We could afford them none, and left them to wear away their tedious imprisonment, in the massive prison-house, prepared for depraved men.
What a perversion of Nature’s laws was here. These lads should have been basking in the sunshine and fresh air, gladdening the hearts of parents by their happy faces and buoyant laugh. How painful the reverse! I could but doubt the policy of imprisoning lads like these, in a gloomy cell, with hardened men or degraded women on each side of them. The kind discipline of a parent, the wholesome restraint of a humane master—to turn their erring steps into the true path, by counsel and persuasion—how much better this, than such a discipline. The thirty days of idleness, that these lads passed on that occasion, did them no good. It may have made them more artful to avoid imprisonment again, but how little was the heart affected by kindness. The hearts of lads at their age, might be won to virtue and honor by the right method, with little pains. Their parents might fitly weep over the desolation of their house, when those whom they had so kindly cared for, were far removed, at their tender age, from their care, and thus imprisoned. It is a case which may well excite the pity of every parent.
Portland, Me., Jan. 1844.