Prison as an opportunity? Odd as it seems, that’s how Eugene Debs, who ran for president from prison, framed his incarceration. Running as the Socialist Party’s candidate in 1920, it was he who established that it’s possible to campaign for the nation’s highest office despite being locked up. In an essay originally published in The Century and republished in the prison newspaper The Beacon in 1922, the famous socialist activist recounts the many lessons afforded him by his time in prison.
“America has always been a land of second chances, founded on fresh starts, new possibilities, and the belief that every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” wrote the White House on their 2023 proclamation of April as Second Chance Month. A labor and human rights activist his entire life, Eugene Debs would have agreed that everyone deserves dignity and respect. More than 100 years ago, he wrote that people in prison “are in all essential respects the same as the average run of people in the outer world.” Ironically, he was grateful for his time in prison for what it taught him about humanity itself.
It wasn’t his first time behind bars, though. Convicted of contempt of court for his role in the Pullman Strike of 1894 and sentenced to six months, he passed the time by reading pamphlets, books, and connecting with socialist activists via letters and visits. Shortly after his release, he officially joined the Socialist Party. Time and again, he turned incarceration into opportunity.
Over a century since Debs’ writing, the notion that people who have been incarcerated are somehow less entitled to dignity and respect remains, allowing a system of lingering and sometimes lifetime punishments to thrive. Collateral consequences, those not directly imposed by the courts but that stem from having a conviction, number in the thousands and extend well beyond the completion of one’s official sentence. Eleven US states permanently disenfranchise anyone convicted of a felony. In Tennessee, 21 percent of Black citizens are barred from voting due to having a felony.
Debs refused to be denied his democratic participation, even while incarcerated and unable to vote. He ran for president from the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, winning over 3 percent of all ballots cast. Nearly one million Americans voted for the incarcerated Socialist Party candidate, who was alternatively described as a political prisoner or a traitor against the nation. Something of a perennial candidate, his prison bid for president marked his fifth and final attempt.
In Agenda, a prison newspaper out the Washington State Penitentiary, writer David Kirk shares an anecdote about Debs’ time in prison that suggests in his personal life, he put into practice the values he extolled. At the Atlanta Penitentiary, he patiently mentored a fellow prisoner described as “foul-mouthed” and “incorrigible,” who had been placed in isolation after committing violence. Debs went where others feared to go. “Steeped in the belief that even desperate men will respond to the touch of kindness, he went into the cell…” and slowly, through conveying to the man that he believed in him and his ability to change, the man transformed himself and his behavior.
A defender of the incarcerated, Debs was a fierce critic of the prison system. He had simple suggestions to improve the prison system. The conditions of our prisons translate into public safety in our communities, he cautioned:
There needs to be created a public sentiment that realizes for its own protection the community must clean up the prison as far as they may be possible, and make it a place where criminal tendencies may be checked and overcome instead of being encouraged, as they now are, to the ruin of their immediate victims, and their increasing detriment to society.
He recommended that a nonpartisan, apolitical board should oversee the prison, and be granted the powers of pardon, parole, and commutation. Debs would be disappointed to know that parole has declined dramatically since the early twentieth century, with both pardons and commutations now being highly politicized. Independent oversight of prisons is a perennial recommendation, a century later, that still struggles to gain traction.
“Prison inmates should be paid for their labor at the prevailing rate of wages,” wrote Debs in 1922. He recommended that their earnings be placed on their books or shared with their families, “so that when the convict is released he will not have to return to a sundered home and face a hostile world.” Today, no US state pays incarcerated workers anywhere near minimum wage and some states do not pay at all. Economic hardship upon release remains one of the most cited barriers to successful reentry.
“…[U]ntil the time comes when social offenders are placed under scientific treatment instead of being punished as criminals,” he wrote, foreshadowing modern calls for treatment instead of imprisonment, “every effort should be put forth to improve the moral and physical condition of our county jails, our State prison, and our Federal penitentiaries.”
What was Debs’s crime? Speaking out against World War I through his political lens. “I know of no reason why the workers should fight for what the capitalists own,” he lamented. It was deemed a criminal opinion. The Espionage Act of 1917, under which he was convicted, was used as a tool of repression, criminalizing broad swaths of speech. Despite obvious first amendment concerns, Debs’ conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court. His sentence was commuted to time served by incoming President Harding, to whom he’d lost the presidential race. Sadly, Debs’ health had suffered during his time in prison, and he died five years after his release.
The essay, available as part of Reveal Digital’s American Prison Newspapers collection, is worth a read in full. For more on the activist, please see JSTOR’s Eugene V. Debs Collection, which mostly consists of letters sent to him. It provides a glimpse at early 20th century socialist and labor organizing and attempts to repress it.
Other political prisoners whose incarceration shaped their life, thought, and work include Nelson Mandela, after whom the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners are named (The Mandela Rules); former President of Uruguay who protected same-sex marriage, legalized abortion, and legalized cannabis, José Mujica; activist and Black Liberation Army former member Assata Shakur; philosopher, academic, and author Angela Davis; suffragette Dorothy Day; and anarchist organizer duo Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.
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