Lifting fallen humanity

Daily Reading for December 30 • Frances Joseph Gaudet, Educator and Prison Reformer, 1934

In many churches in New Orleans I see some face I have met in prison, some one with whom I have pleaded, some one whose pledge I have taken. My work has not stopped here. I have gone to the judge and pleaded for leniency. Some have had their sentences set aside, some have been kept from going to the State Prison, having their time spent in the city where they are better treated, and where their friends can come to see them. Then these visits to the prison cause the deputies to treat the prisoners better, for the fear of being reported to higher officials has great force. I have had this to do more than once.

Wardens and jailers become callous through seeing so much misery, and are apt to consider a man guilty because he is a prisoner, and being guilty, in their opinion, he loses all claim to kind treatment. This is the tendency, although there are many noble exceptions. I tell them that a man does not lose his humanity because he is a prisoner, that he still has rights which the deputies should respect.

With the assistance of the Prison Reform Association, I was able to reduce the number of inmates I found in the Parish Prison in New Orleans, when I began this work. There is a chronic class of prisoners, white and colored, who are out one week and in the next. Some deem this class hopeless, but I believe there is some good in all, and as long as there is life there is hope. . . .

I have yet to speak of the worst thing of all. Little boys of all sizes were placed in the yard with men who had committed almost every crime on the calendar, and they were kept with these men four or five weeks before they were tried. If guilty they were sent to the Boys’ House of Refuge. If innocent, they were of course, released; but in either event they are sure to have overheard many things in this school of crime furnished by the city that would have been best unheard. I registered a vow, God being my helper, to bring about a better condition of affairs to save these helpless children, by building a home for them, and to have them committed to my care.

Now a word about the criminals. The Negro has few friends when prosperous, he has still fewer when in trouble. When I began pleading with the judges to deal as leniently with the black man as with the white, they were astonished at the interest I took in these friendless ones and seemed to be of the opinion that they were my relatives or friends, or that I was being paid a salary or receiving compensation from some source. They were greatly amazed when I told them I did not expect any reward here on earth but was simply doing what I thought would please my Maker. I supported myself by sewing and when I lost a whole day to assist some one to get his freedom I must sew part of the night to make up lost time. The prisoners themselves very often forgot to thank me when they got out. They soon forget that they owed their liberty to my efforts, and that they promised to pay at least my carfare for securing them counsel and finding their friends. But this did not stop me. I believed I was pleasing God and that He will bless me for whatever I am permitted to do for suffering humanity. I recall one day some years ago, when I had been out the whole day trying to get favorable evidence to keep a woman from the State Prison, I found myself two miles from home, footsore and hungry, without a nickel in my purse to pay carfare. I had to walk home and naturally my thoughts were gloomy. I asked myself the question, “How long can I go on in this way without financial aid?” which I was ashamed to ask. I felt I must give up the work. . . .

Just then a man stopped in front of me, and grasping my hand, shook it, saying, “Excuse me, Mrs. Joseph, but I must speak to you; I suppose you have forgotten me.”

“Yes,” I replied.

“A year ago,” he said, “I was in prison and you begged me to lead a better life. I promised you that I would. I am now converted to Christ and am glad you made me promise. I hope you will continue your visits to the prison as there are many like myself who need to be advised. Then again, the deputies treat them better when you are around.”

I told him I was glad I had helped him. As I passed on, I said to myself, “I can’t give up this work; I must continue, help or no help.’” The judges were kind, treating me with every courtesy. The Mayor, the district attorney, the sheriff, the captain, the deputies, the newspapers, all were kind and patient, ever willing to give me a hearing. I have a few critics among my own race, who have tried to discourage me by saying it is not a woman’s place to visit prisons and courts; but, as St. Paul says, “None of these things move me,” for I love my people. I am trying to lift fallen humanity, to raise the moral standard higher, and above all, to please God.

From He Leadeth Me by Frances Joseph-Gaudet (New Orleans: Louisiana Printing Co., 1913).

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