Long before I became Leader of the Theosophical Movement I had seen much to convince me that we do not know what remedies to use for crime and poverty nor how to apply them. A terror grew in my heart, and I became sick and discouraged, because I saw so much cruelty and indifference: so much suffering and so little done to relieve it. To establish schools of prevention -- that was my dream. It was not born in a day but came after long experience of work among the destitute in New York, mostly on the East Side. It was impressed on my mind during many visits to the prisons there, and to Ellis Island, and in much rescue work among the unfortunates of the streets.
It was plain to see that little could be done really and permanently to help them. What was needed was a new system of education for the prevention of the conditions I met. To reorganize human nature when it had already lost faith and become awry and twisted, skeptical and cynical, seemed almost or quite impossible. I saw that the only way was to mold the characters of the children in the plastic first seven years of their lives and then, somewhat differently, on from seven to fourteen.
. . . he [W. Q. Judge] showed me how to find in theosophy solution of all the problems that had vexed me: how it points the way to the right treatment of the downtrodden and outcast of humanity, and to the real remedies for poverty, vice, and crime. On all these subjects the first word of theosophy is this: he who would enter upon the path that leads to truth must put new interpretations on the failings and mistakes of his fellow men. He must come to understand the law of eternal justice -- karma, that "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" -- and to know the necessity it implies for an unconquerable compassion, because those who fail and fall short do so always through ignorance. Crime is always the result of ignorance, and there can be no cure for it until this is recognized.
What, for example, does the criminal know about the god within him or his responsibility as a human being or the large scope of life? What does he know of the power of the immortal self? It is because these unfortunates are wholly ignorant of the difference between the brain-mind and the divine life, between the angel and the demon within themselves, that they have moved on blindly down and out of the better life.
Their criminality, if the truth were known, has grown up upon the idea that dread of punishment is the proper, natural, and only effective deterrent of crime and the one reasonable motive for avoiding wrongdoing. And what is this but the natural corollary of the old mistaken teachings? Consequently, once a man has fallen into error -- once he has made his primal mistake and taken the first step downward, braved the thing and broken through the glamour, so to speak, though it were but by the stealing of a loaf to appease his hunger -- he becomes, in all probability, a formidable menace to society. And is it not ignorance that makes him so? Ignorance: that false, pernicious fear of forces or powers, a deity, outside of himself; that lack of the sovereign knowledge of the god within?
How then dare we condemn any man? How do we know what we ourselves might have done if placed as they had been, in other lives long since forgotten? Even the best of us may have made mistakes as grave as those of any convict in the prisons. How do we know? The road to crime is the road of ignorance; he who would have assurance that his own feet shall never tread it, let him cultivate a large toleration for all and a grand compassion for the erring. Let him beware of harsh judgment, lest the taint of it should follow him through many lives. The soul is judged by the divine law, not by man. The moment we condemn our neighbor, that moment we doom ourselves. For we are all part and parcel one of another: brotherhood is indeed a fact in nature, a truth which would be obvious but that we go through life masked in these personalities or false selves of ours and are unaware of the real selves within which are divine.
What is needed is that we should do away with the idea of punishment altogether, and in its place put correction, redemption. I would have the word crime erased from the dictionaries and from human speech. Crime is a disease, and calls not for punishment but for cure. We must deal firmly and mercifully with those afflicted. They need hospital treatment -- brotherly, educative, karmic -- wisely administered, and not prisons and cells and scaffolds.
We ought not dare to be content or indifferent when we hear of a man imprisoned. One so suffering through his ignorance and errors should become our charge, not in such a way as to pauperize him or increase his weaknesses, but to put him on the road to overcome them. One who has strayed into the wrong path, even so grievously as to have taken human life, should become our charge that we may reform him and make him a useful citizen. He is an invalid and should be treated as such. He has been infected with the psychological influences of the age. He is a victim of its ignorance, bowed down under the pressure of its conditions and burdened and hopeless with the weight of his own mistakes. Yet he is susceptible to curative treatment; he might be made of value to the race. Somewhere in the nature even of the most wretched, spiritual life is still pulsating, a ray from the great eternal still shines. A man lost to society, as the saying goes, degraded utterly in his own and the world's estimation, can still be lifted up and put on his feet. The higher nature can still be aroused in him.
Study the development of the minds and characters of the so-called criminals and in the course of time you will discover that it is the agony of the battle going on in their lives -- with the consciousness of the higher self pleading strongly and working to redeem them from the temptations of the lower -- which has unstrung them and made them abnormal. Inquire into the inner history of the boy with the morphine habit and you will find, often and often, that he took to the drug to quiet his conscience. That is at the root of the trouble with these drink and drug addicts in all cases except those caused by heredity. Conscience, that light out of eternity which is a part of every human life, is so strong and powerful in them and so works upon their lives, making them miserable, that they must do something to escape from it. They would kill themselves, but very fortunately for themselves have not the courage; and so they take to the dreadful "panacea," and the habit grows.
There is no man who commits a crime but he is, in respect to that action, abnormal, insane. Every boy and girl, and every man or woman behind bars is irresponsible. They do not understand the laws of life, they are at the mercy of their own ignorance. How can we doubt that the moment a man feels murder in his heart he has stepped beyond the borders of sanity? When the lower nature is fired with resentment, hatred, or fear to the degree that it is ready to kill, the real man has lost all control of the mind. The impulses of the demon-self, when it is fired to a certain point, become uncontrollable: the mind is distorted and disarranged, the man is insane.
When a man is charged with a crime and brought into court to be tried and to receive sentence, how much do we know, how much do judge and jury know, of the environment he has grown up in? Of his prenatal conditions, his heredity, his physical disabilities? Of his education or lack of education? How much do those who condemn him know about his life, inner and outer? A diseased body may easily cause mental and moral disease. A man's heredity may be such that, though his purposes normally are high and his intentions of the cleanest, he may drift and go wrong through lack of self-understanding. The mark was put on him before he was born -- the very vehicle that produced him may have carried the family taint.
Yet constantly we brand such men criminals and impose on them punishments instead of correctives. It is always punishment, severe punishment: isolation, and to be locked in a cell for months or years according to the nature of his misdoing and the decision of a judge who knows no more about the man he is sentencing, really, than he does about the atoms in the deepest parts of the sea -- who does not so much as know himself, nor has ever discovered or analyzed his own possibilities, divine or demoniacal, and therefore cannot fall back upon those sublime resources in his own being which would enable him to do real justice to his fellow men.
Then too, let the best of us examine himself and say truly whether so great a gulf divides him from the prisoner behind bars. A man may be essentially mean and selfish in his character and yet go through life a model of respectability because he has been too inert and forceless, or too cowardly, to break the laws: it is not the worst men that we hang or imprison by any means. With many criminals, the very force that went into their crimes would make them fine servants of humanity if their crime-insanity were cured.
A man may be today a hero and a saint and tomorrow, under the impulse of his lower nature, may be brought quite down by some remarkable temptation. The wavering mind is in the light today and tomorrow in the shadows: it may drop below the level of the soul-life at any time and do disastrous things. Here is the divine overshadowing, the illumination, the high endeavor, and the purpose; and yet upon a sudden urge, in a moment -- for a bagatelle, a nothing -- the greater self may be shut away and banished, that the mortal and the animal self may have sway and power. . . .
Look at our prisons, those monuments of iniquity, and then say that our religion and our politics have lifted the standards of life. Is it not obvious, a truism, that every house of correction should have within itself the means and power to correct and redeem, and yet of what avail are our legal systems and prison systems for the moral correction of the criminal? What feature in them is calculated or designed, and efficacious, to lift him out of the mud and the shadows and darkness of despair? What is there in the law that is corrective, even in the least degree? Nothing -- and it was never intended that there should be. All that is thought of is this utterly futile idea of punishment that can serve no good purpose in the world. A man commits a crime and is put behind prison bars, and the whole thought is to punish him harshly and severely -- to serve what end or accomplish what benefit for any man, no one thinks at all.
How easy it is to make a criminal! If there is poverty in the family, or ignorance, or some hereditary taint that manifests under pressure -- it might otherwise never manifest at all -- a child may grow up without ever having experienced one of those spiritual states of consciousness that are normal and necessary to the inner health; may never for a moment have felt that it came from the god-world and the great mystery, and is cared for by nature in a myriad wonderful and delicate ways. How shall such a one, so weaponless and undefended inwardly, be secure against temptation when it comes? . . .
Thus we are manufacturing criminals -- the regime we tolerate is doing it. There is no attempt at correction or reform in it, it is simply cultivating crime as though crime were our best treasure. In doing so, it is wasting human material, injuring the nation and the race, and imperiling the moral life of our children and our children's children. Whether we hang these victims of our stupidity or not, the system itself is vile. They are shut in and there they sit with no light from the blue heaven to shine in upon them and never a sound in their ears of the singing of birds. Never a kindly hand is reached out to help them; on all sides, instead, the stern hand of the codes is there to menace, hedge in, or strike at them. In their rebellion against what they are made to suffer they are creating a certain atmosphere, mental and moral; and living in and breathing it, they are going down and down and down. It affects everyone who comes in contact with it. The aggregation of such deadly thought in a prison is awful: it is a poison that pollutes our whole civilization and injures not only the living but the unborn.
How would you like to have to sit all day long in your own armchair in your own home, with the sun shining in, and to know that there you were and there you must stay, and might never move? Would you not grow wild and resentful, and rebel? Would you not lose courage and become reckless? And when you were freed, would you by any possibility be the same man you were when your torment began? You may not know what a cell is: the few square feet of room with perhaps an occasional ray of light straggling in, with a table and a bed and nothing beside. And from there they are herded together to the jute factories under guard, and to the room where they are fed like animals. Three weeks or a month of the treatment they undergo would make rebels of us all; we could not stand it. The injustice and inhumanity of it all are such that everything that was low in them becomes lower, and everything high recedes.
Were I continually in the presence of those who had found out some of my weaknesses and were constantly reminding me of the fact, whether with words or not, it would double back on me and become the larger part of my life. I should perhaps not have the strength to bear up against the pressure of it. In every prison these conditions exist. The convicts live in an atmosphere of despair. They have made their mistakes and cannot free themselves: from the first they are utterly discouraged, and it is that terrible discouragement which is the soil in which criminality grows. There are those who talk to the unhappy ones urging on them above all things remembrance of their sins. It never did any good and never will. They are sick and tired of the wearisome ways of men.
The prison worker who would do any good at all must put aside every thought of condemnation and speak to the men, not of their mistakes and errors, but with utter conviction of their latent godlike qualities: the godlike qualities that are in every human being. He has to begin with a grand generosity of heart and let his thought be wholly as to how he can serve and help them. Applying the master key of sympathy and good-fellowship, which is greater and better than pity, we shall get the wisdom that illumines the way to right thought and right action. Sympathy is always imaginative and brings true knowledge of what is needed. He who uses it finds his resources grow and his own portion not left desolate. It makes a man's mind so plastic that words are hardly needed to find out the cause of another's trouble. It translates itself into action almost without the need of intermediary speech.
Let a man possessing it do the utmost with what means he has, and strength shall be shed through him and it shall go far enough. He will show it in his manner, unintentionally as it were. Words can express nothing real of it. The gift of a flower or a book may say something; that genuine interest which strictly avoids referring to the mistakes or present position of the prisoners expresses it perhaps best of all. Compassion, remember, is really the key and secret talisman; it alone can open the way to that divine-human part which still remains even in the most degraded. And none -- not the greatest of reformers, not the most erudite of mankind -- can find the remedy for the ills of life unless he has found the key within himself.
A theosophist, working in the prisons, would never make an effort to convert a man, never remind him that he is a sinner, no matter how degraded he may be or how low he may have fallen. He will tell him that he has missed the way -- the best or right way -- to live. He will tell him of the duality of human nature, and how the passions and inclinations, selfishness and avarice, can be changed and the lower nature made the servant of the higher. Let me say that there is as much enlightenment and promise, in spite of everything, in our penitentiaries as I have ever found among an equal number of people anywhere. There are, of course, born degenerates who can be set aside; but take any group of average people, put them in stripes, crop their hair, and let them be locked in cells and treated like hunted things -- and I question if they would look any more prepossessing than the convicts do or show any more signs of promise.
When I have wanted to study human nature in its deepest aspects and to see things as they are, it is precisely among the classes considered most degraded that I find I have learned most. Some of the best men and women I have ever met have come out from just such surroundings. Some of the noblest workers for humanity are those who have been through the dregs, through the fire, through the dreadful crucifixion of vice. They have come out so strong, so earnest, so full of sympathy, that nothing could stay them. Out of the thousands I have interested myself in and tried to help, nine-tenths have not disappointed me, and even the rest have not disappointed me altogether. Because of their heredity or some unexplained condition they have drifted back, but I have known that something had been sown in their lives and that after a little more suffering it would grow.