The Twin Hells; a Thrilling Narrative of Life in the Kansas and Missouri Penitentiaries

Author: John N. Reynolds

Chapter IV the Punishments of the Prison

The discipline of this institution is of the very highest character, and is unequaled in any similar institution of the United States. The officers are very watchful and strict. The inmates who work on the surface are not permitted to converse with each other only within the hearing of an officer, and then only with regard to matters that pertain to work. The convict attends to his duties, observing the strictest silence. When visitors pass about the prison the inmate is not permitted to lift up his head to gaze at them. Not even is he permitted to take a drink of water or to leave his place of work for anything without the permission of the officer in charge. As soon as a criminal enters the prison and is clothed in stripes, a copy of the rules and regulations is placed in his hands for perusal. If he cannot read, an officer reads them to him. On the first day of his admission the prisoner receives certain tickets, which are permits for privileges granted to him. One of these tickets allows him to have tobacco if he used the same before coming to the penitentiary; one allows him to receive visits from his friends; another to write a letter, monthly, to his relatives; and still another gives him the privilege to draw a book from the library, weekly. These privileges are highly appreciated by the prisoners. For the first offense in violation of any of the rules and regulations the refractory prisoner is deprived of his ticket; and in extreme cases these tickets have been kept from the prisoner for six months. To deprive the convict of his tobacco for a month or two, if he uses it, and many do, is a severe punishment. This kind of punishment is usually effectual in securing good discipline. There are extreme cases, however, that require severer punishment. To meet this contingency, dungeons are provided. As their name implies, they are dark. They resemble an ordinary cell with the exception of the door, which, in the common cell, contains open spaces for the admission of light; but the dark cell admits neither light nor a sufficient quantity of air. There is no furniture in this dark cell. While undergoing punishment, if a prisoner desires to rest, he can do so by reclining on the stone floor. No refractory prisoner ever grows corpulent while confined in these dark cells, as he only receives one meal of bread and water in twenty-four hours! The prisoner is often kept in these cells from eight to ten days. Sleep is almost impossible. When a prisoner enters the dungeon he is required to leave behind him his coat, cap and shoes. During the winter months it is often very cold in these cells, requiring the prisoner to walk up and down the dungeon in his stocking feet to prevent his freezing, and this for a period of ten days, in nearly every instance compels submission. After the dark cells thaw out, during the summer months, they are excessively hot. Sometimes in winter the temperature is below zero, and in summer it often rises to one hundred degrees. They are then veritable furnaces. Generally, after the prisoner undergoes the freezing or baking process for eight or ten days, he is willing to behave himself in the future. They are sometimes so reduced and weak when brought out of the dark cell that they can scarcely walk without aid. I have seen them reel to and fro like drunken men. They are often as pale as death. That in many cases the prisoner contracts cold which later on terminates fatally, is one of the principal objections to this mode of punishment. There is no doubt that the dark cells of the Kansas Hell have hastened the death of many a poor, friendless convict. If a person in the mines does not get out his regular weekly task of coal, on Saturday night he is reported to the deputy warden by the officer in charge, and is sent to the blind cell before supper, and is kept there until the following Monday morning, when he is taken out and sent to his work in the mines. While in there he gets only bread and water once in twenty-four hours. This is a great inducement to work; it certainly prevents criminals from shirking their labor, and soon converts a lazy tramp into a rustling coal miner. There is one thing, however, that is connected with this system of punishment that I will criticise. The officer under whose immediate control the prisoner is placed fixes the period of his confinement in the dungeon. It gives the officer a good opportunity to abuse a prisoner he may dislike. These subordinate officers are not all angels. Some of them are lacking in sympathy. They have become hardened, and frequently treat their men like beasts. These persons should not possess such a dangerous power. The warden or deputy warden should decide the character as well as the period of punishment.

If in this dark cell ten days and nights is insufficient to subdue the rebellious spirit of the convict, he is taken out and placed in the solitary cell. This is similar to the ordinary cell, with the exception that it contains no furniture. Here the convict remains on bread and water until he is starved almost to death, or until he is willing to submit and do his work as ordered.

Another mode of punishment resorted to in a few cases, is even more brutal than the dark cell. The obdurate prisoner is stripped naked and tied to a post. The hose which is connected with the water-works is turned upon his naked body. The water pressure is sixty pounds to the square inch. As the water strikes the nude body the suffering is intense. This mode of punishment is but rarely resorted to. It is exceedingly wicked and barbarous. It is a shame to treat a human being in such a manner. There are many hardened criminals and desperate characters in the penitentiary, and it may sometimes be necessary to resort to extreme measures, but there have been many instances when, as it seemed to me, these excessive punishments might have been avoided and still the good discipline of the prison maintained. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." But the author would have you recollect that the punishments of the Kansas penitentiary are not as severe as the discipline in her sister institutions. Many of the inmates of this prison who have formerly served terms in others of like character, have shown him the scars and marks of brutal punishment. One of these poor unfortunates showed me his back, which is covered with great furrows in the flesh caused by the cat-o’-nine-tails in the hands of a merciless official of the Missouri penitentiary. Another prisoner carries thumbs out of joint and stiffened by the inhuman practice of hanging up by the thumbs in vogue in a former place of imprisonment, and still another carries about with him ugly wounds inflicted by bloodhounds which overtook him when trying to escape from a Southern prison.

The foregoing is a view of the punishments inflicted from a prisoner’s standpoint. That the reader may arrive at just conclusions, I quote the statements on the same subject made by the warden, Captain Smith, in his able biennial report of last year. In doing so, I beg leave to state that the convict who had ever been the object of the prison discipline, or who had spent his ten days and nights in one of those dismal dungeons, subsisting on bread and water, would readily say that the warden had treated the subject in a manner "very mild."

"The discipline has been carefully looked after, and as a general thing prisoners yield to strict discipline quicker than most people think. They seem to see and realize the necessity of rules, and very seldom complain, if they violate them, at the punishment that is sure to follow. Our punishments are of such a character that they do not degrade. Kansas, when she established her penitentiary, prohibited corporal punishment. She is one of the few States that by law prohibits the use of the whip and strap; taking the position that it is better to use kindness than to resort to brutal measures. I have often been told, and that, too, by old prison men, that it was impossible to run a prison and have first-class discipline without the whip. Such is not my experience. We have had within our walls perhaps as desperate men as ever received a sentence. We have controlled them, and have maintained a discipline second to none in the country, How did we accomplish this? Our answer is, by being kind but firm; treating a man, although he may be a prisoner, as a man. If he violates rules, lock him up. Give him an opportunity to commune with himself and his Maker; also give him to understand that he is the executioner of his own sentence, and when he concludes that he can do right, release him. It matters not how vicious, how stubborn, or what kind of a temper he may have, when left with no one to talk to, and an opportunity to cool down, and with a knowledge that when he comes to the conclusion that he will do better he can be released, he leaves the cell feeling much different than the prisoner who leaves the whipping-post, after having received any number of lashes that a brutal officer may desire to inflict. One goes to his work cheerful, and determined to behave himself; the other dogged, revengeful, completely humiliated, and only lives in hope that he may at some time take his revenge upon the person that ordered or inflicted the punishment, and upon the State or country that would, by its laws, tolerate such a brutal or slavish practice."


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Chicago: John N. Reynolds, "Chapter IV the Punishments of the Prison," The Twin Hells; a Thrilling Narrative of Life in the Kansas and Missouri Penitentiaries, trans. Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946 in The Twin Hells; a Thrilling Narrative of Life in the Kansas and Missouri Penitentiaries (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1920), Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2022,

MLA: Reynolds, John N. "Chapter IV the Punishments of the Prison." The Twin Hells; a Thrilling Narrative of Life in the Kansas and Missouri Penitentiaries, translted by Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946, in The Twin Hells; a Thrilling Narrative of Life in the Kansas and Missouri Penitentiaries, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1920, Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2022.

Harvard: Reynolds, JN, 'Chapter IV the Punishments of the Prison' in The Twin Hells; a Thrilling Narrative of Life in the Kansas and Missouri Penitentiaries, trans. . cited in 1920, The Twin Hells; a Thrilling Narrative of Life in the Kansas and Missouri Penitentiaries, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2022, from