The most optimistic man in Sing Sing

Warden Lawes believed respect could reform criminals

"To Err Is Human," the warden believed - so strongly he had the motto lettered into Sing Sing's wooden floor.

Any man can commit a crime, argued Lewis Lawes, who ran New York's most important prison from the end of one world war to the beginning of another, but men and laws change: King Solomon was a polygamist, King David an adulterer, George Washington a bootlegger, and Thomas Jefferson a slavetrader.

A man can keep all Ten Commandments but commit a hundred crimes, or violate six but commit no crime at all. "What does that prove?" asked Warden Lawes, the subject of this sympathetic biography by New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal.

As a young reformatory guard in his hometown of Elmira, N.Y., Lawes had decided the answer: There's hope for all of us.

He arrived at Sing Sing on New Year's Day 1919, the prison's seventh warden in four years. As Blumenthal recounts in his "Miracle at Sing Sing," from Lawes's first speech to the inmates, standing with "his boys" on the floor of the dining hall, he made clear that he planned to treat them like men if they paid him the respect of acting that way.

With rare exception, they did. At Lawes's request, Charles Chapin, a brilliant New York editor and wife-killer, headed Sing Sing's newspaper and made a rose garden of the prison yard. The warden hired a cutthroat to shave him each morning. Other felons served as cooks in his family's kitchen, servants to his wife, and nannies to his three young daughters.

In 1929, when New York prisons at Clinton and Auburn erupted in riots, Sing Sing remained calm. When, in 1937, Lawes threw open the prison gates to allow inmates to join his wife's funeral procession, all 1,000 men returned of their own accord.

He arrived at Sing Sing a supporter of capital punishment, but quickly became one of its best-informed and most outspoken critics. In articles and books he denounced the practice; in speeches and radio addresses he showed an astonishing command of national statistics, illustrating its futility. "As if," he argued, "one crime of such nature, done by a single man, acting individually, can be expiated by a similar crime done by all men, acting collectively."

Lawes's activism drew the admiration and friendship of such Jazz Age luminaries as screen star Charlie Chaplin, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reporter Nellie Bly, Scopes Trial master orator Clarence Darrow, and baseball legend Babe Ruth.

By the time he retired, Lawes, too, had become a big name. "The boss" had graced the cover of Time magazine, published six books, launched his own magazine, helped write a Broadway play, narrated two weekly true-crime radio shows, and worked on six movies.

Still, Blumenthal shows that Lawes's tenure as warden was not without incident. The progressive theories of penology that Lawes employed had many foes - some of them, over the years, his bosses. Editorial writers made much of Lawes "coddling prisoners" when he argued that better food and physical, imaginative, and emotional outlets like organized sports, evening movies, and pets would help make more trustworthy citizens of his boys. Critics also seized on Lawes's hunger for publicity and his infatuation with the silver screen: He was a warden, they complained, not a show pony.

Some of those critics felt vindicated when, in 1941, on the eve of Lawes's retirement, three inmates broke out of the prison hospital and escaped the grounds, killing a guard and a police officer. That the most violent outbreak in Sing Sing's history should happen on his watch devastated Lawes. As Blumenthal recounts, "Treat a man like a dog and you will make a dog of him," had long been the warden's motto, but the escape raised the question, "What if you treated a man like a man ... and he made a dog of you?"

Though Blumenthal easily dismantles the arguments of Lawes's critics, he never adequately responds to the warden's own doubt.

Still, in "Miracle at Sing Sing," Blumenthal deftly brings Lawes alive in anecdotes of extraordinary emotive detail. The author writes that he didn't footnote the book to avoid cluttering it, but close readers of minor characters' nearly century-old thoughts and dialogue may find themselves wishing he had.

The warden was a giant in his field, but the book's greatest impression is that of the individual lives he changed. As his second wife found when they went to out dinner, chefs and cab drivers often refused to let Lawes pay his bills, saying: "It's on me, boss. I'm one of the boys."

Mary Wiltenburg is on the Monitor staff.

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