On Prison Discipline (1867)

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Author(s): Vivian. E.; Year published: 1867; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 86-92
Topic(s): prisons; Location(s): 

By E. Vivian, J.P.
(Read at Barnstaple, 24th July 1867)

As a committee was appointed at the last quarter sessions of this county, on the motion of our first President, to investigate and report upon the whole question of prison discipline, and the introduction of industrial labour into our prisons, it might seem premature to bring the subject before this Association; but as a member of that committee, I am very desirous of obtaining an expression of opinion in this town, and amongst the agriculturists of North Devon, who are supposed to be mainly affected by the proposed changes.

I may assume that punishment should not be vindictive, or simply retributive; it remains therefore to consider it as either reformatory or deterrent.

The formation of habits, either good or bad, is in some measure simply the passive result of a train of thought or action; but it is expedited and confirmed by the development of right motives, and the proposal of suitable objects for attainment. Occupation, both of mind and body, is essential to their health. In the language of Dryden, we may thus apostrophise even the “hard labour” of our jails:

“Offspring of woe, and parent of our ease,
The toil of which pleasure’s self to please,
Allays the grief which spurns direct control,
And stills the raging tempest of the soul.”

Imprisonment without labour of some kind should be altogether banished from our prison system. Idleness is a habit more readily acquired than industry, and, paradoxical as it may appear, is at first even more irksome than compulsory labour. In the instance which I referred to at the sessions, a hard working, industrious man, committed for four months, without hard labour, assured me that he would not only have preferred the treadmill, but that, however much against his will, he was acquiring habits of idleness of body and recklessness of mind, which would, if continued, unfit him for his former occupation. He obtained speedy permission to work in the governor’s garden, or I believe, his anticipations would have proved too true. An idle “rogue and vagabond” would not have felt this; so that imprisonment without labour has the additional evil of being inversely proportioned in its severity to the deserts of those upon whom it is imposed.

There is no difficulty in making industrial labour sufficiently onerous; indeed, beyond a certain amount it ceases to have a beneficial effect, and can only be advocated as being deterrent. Hood thus moralises in one of his humorous sketches:

“Poor Peggy hawks roses from street to street,
Till – think of that to whom life’s so sweet –
She hates the smell of roses.”

The middy who passes his examination, after hard cramming, nails up his Euclid, and consigns it to the deep; but it may be doubted whether the second nature of industrious habit does not always rise again in after life. The material at least is there accumulated ready for use.

The question now immediately under consideration is, whether penal labour should be reformatory or deterrent. In the Devon County Prisons hitherto, the latter has been principally adopted. Labour is made degrading by the unproductive use of the cranks; and a treadmill is now ordered, which will not be applied, even as at first proposed, for grinding corn. Labour without production is doubly irksome to those who retain any feeling of industry, whilst the consciousness that they are a mere burden to those who impose the punishment, instead of earning the cost of maintenance, affords a malicious satisfaction to the depraved. The exposure on the treadmill, especially to visitors, is also an aggravation of punishment, felt most by those who retain a sense of shame; it is therefore open to the objections which have led to the discontinuance of the pillory and stocks, or the moral penalty which, in the use of the lash, is superadded to corporal suffering. Self-respect – Verecundia custos omnium virtutum – cannot be too carefully husbanded.

Solitary confinement and the silent system alone are objectionable, on the ground that the reality is greater than the terror which they inspire; they are therefore only deterrent to those who have actually undergone them, not to the outer criminal world. If unaccompanied with labour, they aggravate the evils of compulsory idleness, and deteriorate both the intellectual and the moral faculties.

Under our present system punishment is continued even during the night. For six weeks prisoners are compelled to sleep upon plank beds. If we analyze this, the discomfort must be felt either whilst awake or asleep. If the former, it would surely be preferable that the time in bed should be shortened; and it is difficult to conceive how punishment can be operative during sleep, even in prison dreams. I fear the truth is, that broken rest adds weariness to the daily task, with an aching back, especially in women, and in some cases bedsores, which doubly incapacitate for the resumption of honest industry. If corporal punishment is ever necessary, it would be far better to allow wholesome sleep, followed by some dozen lashes.

Industrial labour is, I believe, in all respects, preferable. It forms or confirms habits of industry, and is most severely felt by the idle and profligate. It also compels the criminal to earn his own livelihood, instead of burdening the county rates. Under both these aspects prisoners may be advantageously committed for longer terms than at present, so as more effectually to break evil associations, and enable them, under suitable regulations, to accumulate a small fund, which may facilitate the resumption of their former position on leaving prison, instead of relapsing into crime.

On the Continent, especially in Switzerland and Belgium, and in America, and in some of our own prisons, the industrial system has been tried with very great success. The most encouraging of these is the Bedford County Jail, where the whole of the dietary is paid for by the prisoners’ labour.

The following is from a summary of the results recently published in Meliora :—

Sale of manufactured goods and other work done for the year ending:

                               £  s. d.
Michaelmas 1864 ............ 1166 15  8
    "      1865 ............ 1552 16 11
    "      1866 ............ 1675  9  2

In addition to this, the whole of the tailoring, shoemaking, and repairs of the establishment, including the officers’ uniform, is done within the prison.

The amount of cash paid to the county treasurer as profits for:

1864 .................. £350
1865 ..................  450
1866 ..................  500

From Michaelmas 1853 to Michaelmas 1866, sale of articles manufactured in the prison £12,415 16s. 3d., yielding a profit of £4,286 1s. 9d., exclusive of work done in and about the prison, for which no charge is made to the county.

The average number of committals for 1848 to 1852 inclusive was 677, and of re-committals 213; but during the five years from 1858 to 1862, the industrial system being then in full working, the committals have averaged only 503, and the re-committals 158.

The same principle has already been introduced, with much success, into our reformatories and industrial schools. The Devon Reformatory for Boys, at Brampford Speke, contains on an average 26 inmates, and the Devon and Exeter Refuge for Girls 43. In addition to these for young persons convicted of criminal offences, there is an admirably-conducted Home for Neglected Children in St. Thomas, to which, at the last sessions, a capitation grant of 2s. was voted. In each of these industrial labour is enforced, and the proceeds defray a considerable portion of the expenses.

The objections which have been raised against the industrial system are – 1. That it competes injuriously with free labour. 2. That it offers a premium to vice, by enabling criminals to acquire a trade, thus raising them above the honest labourer.

The first of these objections offends against the most elementary principles of political economy. Whatever is expended in the unproductive maintenance of criminals must be withdrawn from the wages fund for free labour, – every additional prisoner therefore throws some industrious man out of employment, or adds an equivalent burden to the ratepayer. If instead of 1 per cent. of the population being in confinement 99 per cent. were dependent on the rates, it would be apparent to all, that the one man out of 100 who had to maintain the other 99 would no longer object to their earning their own maintenance, although competing with him in the industrial market. The principle is the same when the proportion is reversed.

The second objection is more plausible; it was urged at the last sessions, and has been supported by the Press in the supposed interest of the agricultural labourer. Unquestionably, if lucrative trades were taught in our prisons, so as to enable the criminals to earn better wages on their discharge, there would be an injustice done to the honest labourer; but this is not proposed. The only branches of industry which can be acquired by adult prisoners (as mat-making and some small handicrafts) are merely such as would be quite compatible with their former pursuits, and would enable them to employ their leisure hours. If beyond this some of the more profligate characters amongst the village poor were to be draughted off to the manufacturing towns, or were enabled to emigrate, the agricultural labour market would be relieved of a burden, and the utmost evil that could result would be a rise in wages above their present miserable level, with a more than equivalent reduction in the poor and county rates.

So far indeed from this being an evil, every inducement should be offered to divert the growing population of the rural districts to more remunerative occupations. The phenomenon of 9s. a-week in the country, and strikes in the manufacturing towns for 30s., can only be accounted for by the preference of the agriculturists for their healthful pursuits and old associations. On the same principle the country squire might double or treble his rental, if he were to invest his capital in manufacturing industry.

The character of industrial labour which I should advocate would be that to which the prisoners had already been accustomed. The agricultural labourer should be sentenced to work on Dartmoor; the mechanic, in addition to supplying the wants of the prison, should make shoes or coats. The simplest mode of effecting this would be by taking contracts for the army and navy; but political economists would be under no apprehension of the labour market being injuriously affected if a shop were opened at the prison gates. We have got over the dread of the foreigner, and free trade is a principle which will not break down under the feeble competition of a few convicts.

In the reformed legislation of the future, I look forward to changes which, without undue centralization, will greatly improve our local administration. For the industrial system to be fully developed, it will be necessary to have trade prisons to which convicts from all the neighbouring counties can be sent, so as at once to be set at work in their respective callings, for even the shortest terms.

If in addition to these a Refuge were open for discharged prisoners, in which they could earn their living and accumulate a small fund, by means of which they might regain employment, I believe a great number of the unfortunate, and not wholly vicious, would avail themselves of it. I mentioned a case at the last sessions in which this might have saved life as well as character. A wretched criminal who had robbed a trades’ union was cast upon the world without any possible means to support his wife and family. Masters would not employ him, men would not work with him. I had to commit him to what is called “hard labour” for leaving them chargeable to the parish. He was only sentenced for fourteen days, and I warned the guardians of our union that when he came out he must lapse into crime. Within a few days after his release, reckless and drunken, he set fire to a relative’s house. He was committed for trial, but cut short his life-long crime-bill by committing suicide in his cell. The union now supports his family.

Not the least practical advantage of a better system would be the lengthening of terms of imprisonment. In the case to which I have referred, I should have certainly given nearly the extreme sentence. Drinking habits, which in this and almost every similar case, lay the foundation of pauperism and crime, might have been broken by a long residence in the great teetotal establishments which ornament our county towns.

Time only can change habits; but with the careful development of higher motives, and by Hope aroused by the prospect of restoration, I believe that even the most degraded may yet be saved. The treadmill, like the task of Sisyphus, can never effect this. In the latest version of that classic myth, Despair is excluded even from Hades –

“ – Fool! said the Ghost,
Then mine at least is everlasting hope:
Again upheaved the stone.”

On the highest motives I earnestly commend this subject to your consideration. “Law and terrors do but harden”, is the professed creed of Christendom. What is our practice? The treadmill and plank beds, discharge without resource or hope. In proportion as our Criminal Code has been mitigated crime has diminished. Let us introduce the better spirit within our jails, and I have great faith in its civilizing influence.

Skilled white slaves, consigned to an energetic contractor, could at least be made to earn their maintenance. “If a man will not labour, neither let him eat.” should be written over the prison wards. Let us convert this into, “The labourer is worthy of his hire.” It has been done in Bedfordshire, why cannot it be done in Devon?

In conclusion, I may be permitted to add, that the same remarks apply with aggravated force to small municipal prisons. In this borough I find that you have an average of four males and three females; or more exactly, seven prisoners and three-quarters, in your town jail. It would puzzle the ablest of my opponents, if there be any, to devise profitable labour for such an establishment as this. Although the dietary is only 1s. 11½d. per head, the total cost is £151 13s. 7d. per annum. In return for this the municipality is benefitted to the extent of from 12,000 to 15,000 turns of the crank; and the muscles of the prisoners are strengthened, their intellect enlightened, and their morals reformed, by the noble art of oakum-picking.

In criticising the system, I would not be understood as in any degree disparaging the praiseworthy exertions of our visiting justices or your borough magistrates. Through their efforts the present administration is a great improvement upon the old absence of all system, when prisons were little better than normal schools of crime.