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December 18, 2011 | History

My life in prison 3 editions

Cover of: My life in prison | Donald Lowrie
About the Book

Written by Bernie Weisz Historian July 8th, 2010 Pembroke Pines, Florida contact:
Donald Lowrie's book "My Life In Prison" gives a fascinating account of the injustices witnessed by an inmate who served his time at "San Quentin State Prison" in the early 1900's. San Quentin State Prison is located on 432 acres on Point Quentin in Marin County, California, and is north of San Francisco. It was opened in July, 1852 and is the oldest prison in California. The state's male death row is located at San Quentin, as well as it's only gas chamber. In recent years, however, the gas chamber has been used to carry out lethel injections. Donald Lowrie, a down and out young man, started out the book by asking several questions to the reader, showing why he committed a crime of which he would be sentenced to 15 years! Lowrie asks the reader: "Have you ever been broke? Have you ever been hungry and miserable, not knowing when or where you were going to get your next meal, nor where you were going to spend your next night? Have you ever made holes in your shoes trying to get work, meeting rebuff and insults in return for your earnestness and sincerity, and encountering an utter lack of an understanding of your crying necessity in those with whom you have pleaded for a chance? Thousands of persons have felt these thoughts, have suffered these experiences, but very few have done what I did and then told about it, as I am going to tell". So what did Lowrie do? Lowrie starts out by explaining that when he was a little boy, some unknown prowler went into his house at night and stole his father's watch. Lowrie claims that since he was jobless, homeless and futureless, "that childhood incident came back to me, and the fact that I decided to emulate the unknown gentleman who had appropriated my father's watch tends to stregnthen the claim that man is a simon-pure imitative animal". Lowrie takes a coin and decides if it comes up heads, he would rob a house, if tails, he would do nothing. Doing the coin flip under a gas lamp, it came down "heads". Lowrie relates: "the head of "Liberty" stared me in the face. I flung the coin into the gutter and buttoned my coat. I had suddenly become a criminal". Next, Lowrie breaks into a house at night and discovers someone else in the house with him. Everytime he moves, someone moves simultaneously. Lowrie writes: "I must get to the window, and quickly. As I moved, I noticed a glare on my right. The next instant I realized what had occurred. I had been dodging my own reflection in the hall mirror". Lowrie got out of the house with an 18 karat Swiss jewelled watch and three $20 gold pieces. Eating his first breakfast in 84 hours and reflecting on what he just did, he writes: "somehow I felt that there should be a reaction, that I ought to be horrified at the thought that I committed a crime:but the food tasted natural and I was happy, actually and unqualifiedly happy. I actually felt absolutely no qualms of conscience". Proud of his heist, he pawns the watch for $80 and realizes he needs sleep. Right before Lowrie goes to a rooming house, the pawn shop owner alerts the authorities of his suspicious customer and Lowrie is arrested. Lowrie explains next: "Against the advice of counsel, I pleaded not guilty and stood trial before the Superior Court. Before the trial was half over, however, I regretted my decision". Lowrie goes in front of a jury and is sentenced to 15 years in San Quentin State Prison. Lowrie states: "I was taken to San Quentin on the 24th day of July, 1901". Although this book predates both World War One and Two, it's antiquity doesn't tarnish it's message:"Imprisonment only makes bad criminals worse criminals". Although Lowrie tries to impress the reader with words that even I, with a fairly vast knowledge of esoteric vocabulary had to frequently search deeply and laboriously into a dictionary to keep up with his story, he presented a very clear and lucid journey into the hell of incarceration one faced back in 1901. It doesn't seem, although judged vicariously, that things have changed much even today. Lowrie detailed multiple instances of torture (several grueling instances are expounded upon in the book, especially in conjunction with the use of a straight jacket in an unlit dungeon for minor infractions) that the reader of this book will definately conclude is unhumane and barbaric. Here is Lowrie's description of his encounters with "The Jacket": "They took me down to the dungeon and onto one of the dark cells. There was an old mattress on the floor and they told me to lay down on it, and they put the jacket on me. It held my arms so I couldn't move them, but that wasn't enough. They turned me over on my stomach and laced me up. R....(name intentionally ommitted) put his foot in the middle of my back so as to pull the ropes up tight, and when I hollered he laughed. After they had me laced up so I could hardly breathe they went out and shut the door. It was about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, but when the door was shut it was just like night. For half an hour or so I didn't suffer much, but gradually I began to feel smothered, and my heart hurt me when it beat. I got scared and began to holler, but that only made my heart hurt more, and I was afraid I might die if I didn't lie still. Pretty soon my arms and hands began to tingle, just like pins and needles sticking in them, and this got so bad that I couldn't stand it and I began yelling again". Lowrie also comments further on the effects of a straight jacket's barbaric use as a means of maintaining order. Lowrie asserts:"I saw scores of cases and I talked with dozens of victims immediately after their punishment. The marks of the ropes, the red stripes around the torso and limbs, were always visible and the skin irritated in between. Quite often a man was unable to walk without assistance, and those who could walk did so uncertainly and feebly, somewhat like a man who is drunk". Is this how society corrected a wayward citizen in the early 20th century, or did this foster incorrigibility? This book's copyright is 1915. One wonder's how strict the laws must have been at the turn of the century for a first time offender to get 15 years for simple burglary with no weapon involved in an unoccupied dwelling. To get a feel of San Quentin and it's inmates attitudes, Lowrie wrote: "Like the public in general, I had imagined that men in prison went around with elongated countences and an expression of chronic gloom. Instead I found smiles and indifference-or feigned indifference. Every man realizes that self-pity, or a bid for sympathy, is dispicable. The jocular sarcasm I learned was merely an effort to delude themselves and each other that they didn't mind (being incarcerated). It was the innate, manly trait of "gameness". Many a smiling face in prison, just as in the world at large, conceals a tortured, dispairing soul". There are numerous stories Lowrie covers, e.g. the problem of tuberculosis (then called "consumption"), escape attempts that ended in guards committing cold blooded murder of inmates, how everything in the penetentiary is done "fast" (bathing, shaving, even an execution was done in less than three minutes), the problems of morphine, opium and heroin smuggled inth San Quentin. However, most disturbingly, the anecdotes of the stories of straight jacket torture were the most disturbing part of this book. One must remember, that the inmate was laid on a mattress face down in a pitch black dungeon for a week a a time tied in a super tight straight jacket. Could you imagine if you committed a minor crime and found yourself incarcerated and subjected to this mistreatment? Lowrie reminds the reader that during a bout with "the jacket", the inmate, with no food nor water, for a week at a time one would lay in pitch black and repeatedly urinate and defecate on themselves. Lowrie states that many a prisoner would become deranged in the process and aside from minor infractions, it was also used as a confession technique when the warden wanted to find out how an inmate acquired narcotics. As far as capital punishment, Lowrie voiced strong opinions in "My Life In Prison". Here were his thoughts: "It requires 12 to 18 seconds from the time a condemned man is started from the death chamber until he is dangling at the end of the rope. Why this scientific swiftness? Why the electric chair which is supposed to snuff out life in a flash? If the murder really is a deterrant, why not torture the victim? Why not strangle him to death slowly? Why not do it in the market place, where men and women may come and see? They used to have public executions. Why have they ceased to be public? Because it was found that the sight of a fellow creature being murdered in cold blood hardened those who saw it done. It was realized that such a sight was not good for human eyes and ears. And after all is said and done, it is the poor man for whom the gallows waits. During all the years that men have been murdered by the State at San Quentin, only one man with money has been hanged. Chinese, Indians, negroes, cholos, cripples and dements have died in mid-air, but only one man died who had money. In murder trials where high-priced lawyers are engaged it is the opposing lawyers, not the defendant, on trial". Finally, Lowrie creates a convincing argument that spending time in jail creates the following: "I say calmly and deliberately that few, if any, men are deterred from the commission of crime by fear of the consequences, even after they know the consequences down to the last sickening detail. If I felt that anything beneficial to anyone were accomplished by these conditions, I should have nothing to say. But I know that degradation and a spirit of revenge, a determination to retaliate, to "get even" is frequently the result". Remember, Donald Lowrey wrote these words in 1915. History reminds us that Adolf Hitler formulated most of his anti- semetic hatred of Jews and other minorities and visions of world conquest and domination while he was imprisoned in Germany following World War One. In fact, prison is exactly where he wrote his book "Mein Mampf" where he set down all the destructive roots as to what would follow in the Second World War where over 70 million men, women and innocent children perished. The question is: would this have happened if Lowrie's ideas of the uselessness of incarceration and the breeding of "hate and the spirit of revenge" had been listened to? There has got to be a better way! Regardless, if you can find this book, there are priceless lessons of man's inhumanity and the faults of our systems of criminal correction that exist even today! Find this book!


Library of Congress HV9475.C3 P73

3 editions First published in 1912

Edition Read Locate Buy
Cover of: My life in prison
1912, M. Kennerley
My life in prison
Cover of: My life in prison
1912, [M. Kennerley], John Lane
My life in prison
in English
Cover of: My life in prison
1912, Kennerley
My life in prison


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