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CHAPTER VI PRISONS—WHY THEY FAIL!
It is generally admitted that prison life, with its discipline and punishments, very largely fails to reform or deter those that are submitted to it.

The reasons are not far to seek. The very fact of a number of men, who are prone to commit certain actions, being detained in prison, makes it certain that many of them will again commit those actions when they are again restored to liberty. For with liberty comes the temptation of opportunity, and with opportunity the fall.

Moral strength cannot be developed in the absence of temptation, for moral qualities must be free or die!

Prisons are at their best but unnatural places; for though the machinery, discipline and even the spirit that animates the whole of the officials be of the very best, still goodness, manhood, honesty and sobriety cannot grow inside a prison wall.

Doubtless tens of thousands of good resolutions are formed in prison. To many prisoners it seems impossible that they should repeat the actions that brought about their imprisonment when once more they are free. But they do repeat them, [72]again and again. Prison life, then, neither deters nor reforms. But it does other things: it deadens, demoralises, or disgusts according to the temperament and characteristics of the individual prisoner.

The fixed belief in the virtue and necessity of prison has had disastrous consequences, for the State has hitherto considered it the one great cure-all for law-breaking. It has till quite recently been the first resource of the law, instead of its last resource, when called upon to deal with its erring children.

Roughly, the men and women who inhabit our prisons may be classified under five heads: First: the feeble-minded; second: the physical weaklings; third: the vagrant; fourth: the casual offender; fifth: the habitual offender. I believe that all our prisoners can be placed in one or more of these divisions, though of course there are variations. Should this be approximately the case, it is certain that a tremendous difficulty arises when the discipline and routine of any one prison, however well conducted, is made to serve for the whole of the classes.

This is where prisons fail, and must continue to fail if the present methods are continued, for in our endeavours to administer equal justice to all classes, we commit the greatest injustice; and in our attempts to be merciful, we are cruel to many of our prisoners.

For the feeble-minded, the weaklings, the vagrants and the habituals, prison has no terrors. To them it is at once a sanatorium and a lodging-house, [73]as necessary for their health and personal cleanliness as quarantine is for those smitten of the plague.

To them the bath and the change of clothing, the clean cell, and the regular food are comforts, even refinement. But to the casual offender such things may be sickening and maddening beyond endurance.

To the former, the semi-idleness of prison, which makes no demand on their physical and mental powers, is grateful and comforting. To the man of industry, brain, imagination and culture this idle monotony is exasperating to a degree, unless he be endowed with philosophical stoicism.

The effect of prison discipline, then, is determined not by the rules and routine of any particular prison, but by the temperament of the individual under detention.

This failure to reform must not be attributed, then, to prison system altogether, still less must it be attributed to any lack of sympathy in the prison officials; but rather to the two facts, that prisons are unnatural places, and that a prison population is made up of strange and motley individuals, each differing widely from his fellows in temperament and taste, in physical and mental capacity.

An educated and refined man, one who loves liberty and social life, must of necessity find prison a terrible place. Should he be of a nervous, imaginative or morbid temperament, he suffers the torments of Hell. He knows in his heart that [74]he has been a fool, probably he is never tired of reminding himself of the fact; but he gets no comfort from his knowledge, it adds no reasonableness to his disposition. He reviews his life again and again, not with feelings of shame or sorrow, but for the purpose of finding some excuse for himself or fixing some blame upon others.

He is full of fear for the future, but he has no sorrow for the past; he has no desire to undo the wrong he has done, no particular desire to avoid such wrongs in the future.

He lives in a state of chronic irritation; he is morose or excitable by turns. He does not find the officials sympathetic or courteous, for they, too, are human, and even in prison like meets with like.

The sufferings of these men are intense. The iron enters into their souls—and though their sufferings are largely self-created, they are none the less real.

Ask such a man to give a description of prison life, and he will give one worthy of Charles Reade.

But suppose we ask a different type of man to give us his opinion; he may be equally well educated with the former, he may have served a similar sentence in the same prison at the same time, none the less, he will present us with a striking contrast.

He will tell you that the prison was dull and monotonous, but just what he expected; that the food was unpleasant, till he got used to it; [75]that many things disgusted him in his early prison days, but he put up with them. He kept all the rules, got all his “marks,” and obtained full remission of sentence. In a word, he made the best of things.

He will tell you that he had no real work to do; that the officials were all good to him, but they had their duty to perform, and that he never insulted them. There was nothing of much interest going on, and that in reality formed his punishment, for he had many interests in the outside world.

Let me select another; this man may be considered an authority, for although he is under sixty years of age, his sentences amount to more than forty years. He knows Portland, Dartmoor, Parkhurst and, of course, many local prisons. He has had as much as fifteen years at a stretch, and as I understand he is again in prison, it is quite possible that ultimately (unless Mr. Gladstone’s Preventive Detention Act takes possession of him), the accumulation of his sentences may outnumber the years of his life.

For he, too, got all his “marks” and has never failed to get three months off every year served.

There is not an idle bone in his body; he is industrious, skilled and intelligent; he loves liberty; to him the song of the birds and the smiling of the flowers are pleasant; he is kind to dumb animals, and to him children are a joy.

His health is not broken, his intelligence is not atrophied, he is still alert and brisk—in fact, he [76]is too much so. He knows all there is to be known about prisons, and he knows the “ropes” too.

At liberty, he makes war upon society. In prison, he bows to the inevitable and makes the best of things. He is, and always has been, prepared to take the consequences, if caught, of his crime. But he has never yet persuaded himself, or tried to persuade himself, that he is a fool.

If again allowed liberty, he will cheerfully prepare for another campaign, and hope for a “long run.” He weighs things up, for he is a logician, and so many crimes are equal to so much detention.

I have many of this man’s letters from various prisons. I have details of his daily life. He tells of being in hospital and of his better food; he tells me that he is hoping for liberty and means to see me again. But he never makes any complaint, neither does he complain at liberty. Many hours have I spent with him discussing his life and prospects, crime and prison, but no complaint about his treatment has he ever uttered. Although habitually criminal, he considered himself much above the bulk of prisoners, and he will tell, ingenuously enough, that “prison is too good for most of them.” Yet he had carried fire-arms and shot a policeman. He was not well educated, but he had read a great deal while in prison, where he had picked up a smattering of French.

He was a clever workman, and had developed a special branch of his trade during his many [77]detentions. As a prisoner he is perfect, as a citizen he is atrocious and impossible.

If we ask the half-mad fellow who is constantly in prison for deeds of violence to whom uncontrolled liberty means joy and life, we shall be able to read his answer in his eyes; they tell us that revenge is his great hope. But if we ask the aimless and hopeless wanderer who has been certified again and again as “unfit for prison discipline,” we find no evidence of passion, no sense of grievance and no signs to indicate that prison was an undesirable place. Did not old “Cakebread” go cheerfully to prison, although her detentions numbered over three hundred!

If we seek an opinion from tramps and vagrants, they, if honest, will tell us that from time to time prison is a necessity to them; that if they cannot obtain entrance for vagrancy, why, then they will break somebody’s window and so make sure of prison comforts, for it is “better than the workhouse.”

If we consult youthful ex-prisoners, i.e. juvenile-adults, of whom unfortunately I know many, we get an altogether too favourable picture of prison life.

Many of them do not hesitate to tell us that they can “do it on their heads.” Though physically this may be an exaggeration, yet the expression conveys a pretty accurate description of the effect imprisonment has had upon them. Lest it be thought that I am satisfied with prisons as they are at present, I will point out the [78]reforms which I consider necessary in our penal system and our prison administration.

1. There is too much indiscriminate and unnecessary gaoling; prisons should be the last resource, not, as too frequently happens, the first.

In England and Wales alone nearly 100,000 persons are committed to prison every year because they cannot promptly pay fines that have been imposed for minor offences.

I hold that every offender fined, if she or he possesses a settled home, should be allowed adequate time to pay the fine. Probably this would keep 40,000 first offenders out of prison every year, with a corresponding reduction in the number of second offenders in the following years.

What folly can equal the plan of bundling a decent man or youth into the prison van, and putting all the machinery of prison into operation because he cannot pay forthwith a few shillings!

2. The old law of restitution and reparation must be revised. The First Offenders Act, now superseded by the Probation Act, was not an unmixed blessing, for, while it kept thousands of dishonest persons out of prison, it never convinced them of the serious nature of dishonesty. To use their own expression, “they were jolly well out of it”; consequently the wrong done to the individual was not impressed upon them. The law had [79]been satisfied, to them nothing else mattered.

At the instigation of the Howard Association, Mr. Gladstone added a clause to the Probation Act empowering courts of summary jurisdiction to order restitution for goods or money stolen up to the value of £10. But magistrates do not put this clause in force; yet such a clause is not only just, but merciful.

Nothing can be worse for a young rogue than to know that he has stolen a considerable sum of money, and spent it in wicked waste without anything happening to him. Undoubtedly prison is bad for youths, for a month soon goes, but during that time character, aspiration and industry go also.

For the life of me I cannot see why orders for restitution should not be made; neither can I see any objection to our numerous probation officers having charge of these cases and collecting by instalments the money ordered.

For nothing will so effectually bring home to dishonest youths the enormity of the offences more than compulsion to pay back that which they have stolen.

Restitution would also be the greatest punishment for adult offenders in this direction.

For the forger, the burglar, the maker of counterfeit coins, the manufacturer of spurious notes, and all clever, calculating and persistent rogues other methods should be tried, for prison cannot demoralise them.

[80]

But for a first offender, even though he be of years, who has committed some breach of honesty, restitution seems the most effective way: the only reasonable plan for the prevention of demoralisation and the expense of prison.

Given, then, reasonable time for the payment of fines, a thorough application of the Probation Act, and the establishment of compulsory but limited restitution—given these, half our prisons may be closed. Quite recently the governor of a large London prison declared that one-fourth of the daily average of his prisoners ought not to be in prison at all. I believe that statement to be below, not beyond the truth. We can easily see that if our prison population were reduced by one-half, great reforms would naturally follow in prison administration. Practically there would be the same amount of work to do in prison, for the various government departments would still require the commodities that prison labour supplies.

Prisons would then become hives of industry instead of castles of indolence, and prisoners would, of course, be given a much larger financial interest in the work done. Under such conditions, prisons, too, would naturally become pathological and psychological observatories. With proper men, and proper time to make the observations, prisons would reveal to us some of the dark wonders incident to the strange mixture of humanity we thoughtlessly dub criminal. When that happy day comes we shall be able to [81]differentiate between crime and disease; we shall no longer punish men for their afflictions, but we shall treat them as patients in places other than prisons. Look for a moment at that growing, ever-growing army of people, the feeble-minded and irresponsibles—prisoners who are perpetually haled in prison, and to whose ranks four hundred are added every year. From prison to the streets, from the streets to the police station, from the station to the police court, and from thence to prison forms the vicious circle of their hopeless lives.

Certified as “unfit for prison discipline,” yet everlastingly in prison; not fit for liberty, yet constantly thrust into liberty; homeless, hopeless, friendless, battered from pillar to post, eyesores to humanity, they tread the vicious circle. Some day we shall pity them and care for them and give them, under control, as much childlike happiness as they can appreciate—such work as they can do with simple comforts and controlling discipline; but no useless liberty, no opportunities of perpetuating their kind, no more of the vicious circle and no more prison. And the tramps and the loafers, too, must be taken in hand, and not with a gloved hand either, for prison is no place for them. The month or six weeks is soon over. They have been cleansed, they have recuperated. Then, heigho! for the hedgerows if it is summer, the Embankment or shelters if it is winter.

Their vagrant days must end, and end in detention in some place where the wholesome [82]Pauline advice may be carried out—if they will not work, neither shall they eat! but with no chance of a second generation. And there is another class of whom I must speak, but I do so with fear and trembling: I refer to the wild and gross women who live upon our streets, and whose individual convictions number anything between twenty and four hundred. Look! during the year 1906, 933 women, each of whom had served more than ten imprisonments, were once more in Holloway Gaol.

Some hundreds of them had been in that gaol more than twenty times each! Many of them were known personally to me; for I had seen them in the cells, and I had seen them at liberty; I had seen them drunk, and I had seen them sober.

But whether sober or drunk, they are slaves of a gross, overmastering passion elemental in its intensity—to them nothing else matters.

But the State says they are inebriates, and treats them as such. Yet drink is but an incident in their lives and effect, and the cause of their condition lies deeper, much deeper. Down through generations some germs have come and have found an abiding-place in their bodies, bearing fruition in their terrible and hopeless lives. Is an ordinary prison a place for them? is one month’s, two months’ or six months’ detention of any avail in their case? I think not!

But ask the prison authorities, or consult the records, and you will get an answer! Do the [83]claims of humanity ask for no consideration? has science nothing to say upon the matter? Are we to go on for ever tinkering with a vital question, giving such women an endless succession of short imprisonments which only serve the purpose of renewing their health that their lives may be devoted to the most fearful purpose to which any human being can be subjected?

But when all these unfortunate classes are properly cared for, we shall still require prisons; but they must be specialised prisons, and our officials must be properly qualified and equipped for their work.

The science of healing must play a more important part; the doctor must be a student of mental as well as physical diseases.

When the days of short imprisonments are ended we shall probably have a “receiving prison” to which the offenders will be sent on conviction for “observation” and “classification,” and thence drafted to different prisons suitable to their age, condition and ability. For a plan of this description would bring the duties of governors, doctors, chaplains and warders, within the sphere of possibility. Failing this, strive as they may and do, we ask them to perform the impossible. But in the prisons of the future, specialised as they will be, classification will still have to play an important part; but classification will be no longer governed by the number of convictions a youth or adult has received but by the real character, temperament and ability of the prisoner.

[84]

And in these prisons there will be work demanding the use of muscle or fingers; there will be opportunities for the use of brains, and some chance for the emotions of the heart to have play.

Consider for a moment the life of a man undergoing a five years’ sentence. It is one of deadening routine! With mechanical certitude his actions are controlled and ordered: the same food in amount and kind at the same time each day and served in the same manner.

The same amount of cell, the same amount of bed, no opportunities of doing kindnesses, no opportunities for receiving kindnesses, his brain, heart and muscles alike are kept stagnant. Yet he schools himself to deceive, for he knows that if he plays the hypocrite long enough he will reduce his sentence by fifteen months. Consequently he develops a servile manner and a low cunning. Let any otherwise decent man live this life for three years and nine months, always having before him the one object—that of shortening his term—and I need not ask what the psychological result will be.

Yes! this bribe to good behaviour must be abolished, even though Captain Maconachie arise from his grave to defend it. And the prisons of the future will know it not, for the prisoner’s release will be determined by other conditions than mere mechanical obedience. And with the passing of the “ticket-of-leave,” “police supervision” [85]is also passing; truly it is time that both were dead and buried. Perhaps I may astonish some folk by stating that “police supervision,” notwithstanding its impressive sound, was a farce absolute and complete.

An ex-convict had no fear of it. He could “report” himself by letter! and I have never, though I have often inquired into such complaints, found the statements about detective and police interference with the employment of discharged prisoners justified; neither have I known any “old lag” who found the supervision irksome in the least degree.

The conditions were too easily fulfilled; an occasional visit to the police station, and then reporting by letter sufficed. But sometimes we are apt to forget that even employers and the public have a right to consideration equally with the discharged prisoners. Supposing, as not infrequently happens, a dangerous rogue obtains a situation of trust by the aid of forged character and references. What can the police do? What ought they to do if honest? but I am quite certain any officer that needlessly interfered with an ex-convict who was honestly trying to obtain a livelihood would get scant mercy from his superiors. The police and detective force know this quite well.

Mr. Gladstone’s Preventive Detention Act will do much to lighten the labour of Scotland Yard. The pity is that it limits a sentence of preventive [86]detention to ten years; for at the expiration of this time, whatever be the age, mental and physical condition or past record of the prisoner sentenced under the Act, he must be discharged though he be homeless, hopeless and friendless. He may, of course, be discharged much earlier if circumstances warrant, especially if he has friends and work to take up.

Now the men who qualify for the provisions of this Act are of two classes. First: the determined and persistent criminal who lives by crime, desires to live by crime, and to whom no other life has any attraction.

Against these men, after being adjudged by a jury to be habitual criminals, we ought to be safeguarded even as we protect ourselves against known madmen.

The second class are criminals because they are quite irresponsible—a helpless class of individuals who have not the ability to maintain themselves, who can do nothing useful unless under control. Most of the men who comprise these two classes are of middle age, many of them decidedly old. When their preventive detention expires they will be ten years older. I question the mercy, as well as the justice of thrusting these old men into useless liberty. Surely it would be better to detain them under reasonable conditions, to let them quietly die out in the hope that few will be found to take their places. And in the days to come that most woefully afflicted human, the [87]epileptic, will not wear the criminal badge or the convict’s brand, and the hideous cruelty inflicted on these unfortunates will be no longer perpetrated.

Their sorrows and their sufferings will make no vain appeal to our pity and care, for we shall protect them and ourselves in a human and scientific way; but not in prison! And when that time comes the horrid term “criminal lunatic” will also disappear from our vocabulary, for it is high time this classification was buried and numbered with the monstrosities of the past.

I protest against this phrase and the consequences that attach to it. Verily it passes the wit of men to conceive how any one can be a criminal and a lunatic at one and the same time, for if he be the one he cannot be the other. So Broadmoor will become the “State Asylum,” and the cruel farce of putting undeniably insane people on their trial will no longer be tolerated, for quietly and mercifully, after due certification they will pass to the mental hospital with no brand of criminality upon them. But I would ask: Are we to be for ever impotent before disease of the brain? Are physical afflictions and deprivations to remain for ever unconsidered when justice holds the scales, and when punishment is decreed? I think not! nay, I am sure, for in the prisons that are yet to be the paternal hand of the State, while exercising a restraining power over its stricken children, will consider their afflictions and limitations and have mercy upon them.

[88]

Then, blighted youth, blighted through poverty; disease, malformation or accident will be no longer neglected even though it be criminally inclined; then, the reproach that the State helps only those that can help themselves will be wiped out; then, even in our prisons, the weaklings will receive some portion of their due, and the days of criminal neglect will be ended.

THE END


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