Everything Librarian: Who Was Inmate John Barney Prine?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Who Was Inmate John Barney Prine?

In researching historic prisoner records, one of the factors I look for as a researcher is a meaty inmate record file and John Barney Prine (b. abt. 1911-?) of Florida has a very lengthy file of about 200 pages of material. In reading each and every document it became immediately apparent why this inmate file was so big-- John B. Prine was a high maintenance inmate and most of his file was made up of disciplinary records. John Prine was a bad boy, locked up at age 16 for a Violation of Postal Laws in Leavenworth Kansas in 1927.

Prine Prison Violations

With 44 disciplinary violations, John Barney Prine shows a clear disregard for the rules of prison. Now, to be fair, prison has a lot of rules and complete obedience is expected. Also, Prine is a teenager. Most 16 year old children are professional boundary pushers. The disciplinary violations of Prine include:


Went to a ball game while he was supposed to be in school
Talked in main hall while marching
Built fire in his cell
Left his place of work without permission
Fighting
Disobeyed orders of guard
Failed to line up for count
Made music after hours and insolence
Loafed on gallery

These are all low-level violations of prison rules but John B. Prine spent a lot of time in isolation and on a restricted diet due to his poor behavior. Prine also loses a lot of 'Good Time'-- these are days that are credited to prisoners who are well behaved. Because of Prine's numerous prison violations he spends his full three years in prison rather than getting out early for good behavior.

The Doctor's Report

By the 1920's Leavenworth has a physician examine each inmate upon arrival to determine their physical and mental fitness for their stay in prison. From this doctor's report we gain a little backstory from Prine himself.

"This 'kid' is only 16 years of age, and claims that he was arrested previous to his now incarceration at the age of fourteen (14) years for drunkenness and fighting. He states that his father was killed by lightning, and that he left school while in the (4th) grade at the age of ten (10) years because he had to go to work....Upon examination of this youngster, I find nothing wrong with him mentally with the exception that his mentality is of a low grade and type." Ouch, that last sentence is totally judgmental.

Letter to Mother

I am not sure why there is a letter written to his mother in John Prine's prison record but it is such a sweet little time capsule. Written in elementary cursive and in stilted language, the letter shows the personal side of this rebellious teenager. One wonders if a copy ever reached the Prine household, or has it languished in his prison file for 100 years?

"I am studying poultry from books here. I am also studying penmanship. I have been going for 10-1/2 days, 1-1/2 ours [sic] a day can you see any improvement in this and the last one. I wish you wood [sic] keep these letters from now one [sic] so I can see them when I come home and it won't be long now."

There are many misspellings and grammatical errors in this letter from John Prine to his mother but this is still pretty competent writing for a teenage plumber's helper with a fourth grade education.

Post Prison in 1930 Census in Florida

So what happens to John Barney Prine after he is released from prison? I found him living with his mother and his step family in Wauchula City, Florida in Hardy County. His occupation is listed as laborer and that he performs 'odd jobs.' We know that this is the correct John Prine because he gave his mother's name as Bessie McGahgan when he was admitted to prison. The fact that the census taker records the family name as 'McGahagin' shows the fluidity of spelling in the early 20th century. This is also the final historical record that I can find of young John Barney Prine, who had an unusually long prison file and the same name of a famous American singer-writer.

Appendix

1930 Census

"United States Census, 1930," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:SRT3-KPZ : accessed 9 May 2018), John B Prine in household of James Z Mcgahagin, Wauchula, Hardee, Florida, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 3, sheet 7B, line 73, family 180, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002), roll 317; FHL microfilm 2,340,052.

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