In the spring of 1944, nearly two and a half years after registering with the Selective Service as a conscientious objector, Alfred Hassler was sentenced to three years in Federal prison for refusing to accept the draft or participate in an approved civilian program. Had his hearing been held a week later, he would have been released, as the Selective Service stopped drafting men of his age (34). Instead, however, he spent almost a year in the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania penetentiary, until he was pardoned in March 1945.
Hassler assembled his Diary of a Self-Made Convict from his prison journal and letters to his wife and friends. The book wasn’t published until almost ten years after his sentencing. It’s a unique document, as Hassler was far from a typical prisoner. A member of the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest organization in the U.S. devoted to nonviolence, he was married, well-educated and, as his title indicates, something of a self-made convict in that he could have chosen to serve as a conscientious objector without going to prison.
Hassler wasn’t separated or isolated from other prisoners, and mixed freely with bank robbers, racketeers, rapists, and murderers. It’s clear he was an approachable guy who gained the trust of a wide variety of men–both prisoners and prison officials–easily, and he recorded the stories of dozens of his fellow inmates: from a black man busted for heroin use to “Nucky” Johnson, one-time political boss of Atlantic City. At the time, Federal prisons were full not just of “traditional” prisoners but also draft-dodgers, deserters, conscientious objectors and suspected spies such as members of the German Bund. As a result, Diary of a Self-Made Convict portrays a remarkable cross-section of 1940s American society, or at least a peculiar subset of it.
Although Hassler seems by nature to have been a discreet and gentle man, he is frank about the worst aspects of prison life. He notes that effeminate men are preyed upon and is approached at least once by a prisoner looking for a homosexual partner. Masturbation–or, as one of the prison’s psychologists refers to it, “learning to live with yourself”–he finds “widely–almost universally–practiced.” Racism is institutionalized, with blacks segregated from the white inmates through a variety of Jim Crow measures. He observes theft, brutality, and intimidation–and also despair:
Last night some wild geese passed overhead, flying low. Their honking was quite clear as they flew south, and for just a moment I caught a glimpse of the long “V” of their flight silhouetted against the patch of sky visible from my cubicle. At the very moment of their passage, from some other near-by cell I could barely hear the deep, almost silent sobs of one of my fellow convicts. It is no longer a novel sound, but it wrenches my whole spirit with wretchedness whenever I hear it. During the day, the men maintain the cloak of bravado in which they wrap their self-respect; at night, alone in the darkness, their grief and fright sometimes become too much for them to bear.
I suppose that the very unpopularity of their subject keeps prison books from staying in print for too long. Malcolm Braly’s classic, On the Yard, is out again as a New York Review Classic, but that’s something like the third or fourth time it’s been reissued over the course of the last forty-some years. Still, I’m surprised that Diary of a Self-Made Convict hasn’t attained at least an equal or better standing. It’s a simple, honest, objective and well-written account of prison life that makes it quite clear that even a man who made a deliberate choice to go–and then served less than a year–found it a soul-testing experience. If learning about prison is part of a basic education in life, and I think it is, then it would be tough to find a better basic text than Diary of a Self-Made Convict.
[Diary of a Self-Made Convict is, in fact, in print from a company that calls itself Literary Licensing, LLC. and appears to be a small-time operator in the direct-to-print, copyright-free publishing business. But I recommend finding a used copy instead via Amazon or AddAll.]