Government guidelines for prison management in the 1890s
The draft rules, prepared under the Act of last Session, for the discipline and government of prisons which have just been presented to Parliament are the first-fruits of a serious attempt to bring the treatment of prisoners into accordance with modern notions.
The Department Committee which took evidence and reported in 1895 spoke, on the whole, favourably of the condition of things. No gross abuses were revealed. Few clear instances of failure of duty on the part of prison officials were proved; and the purport of the report was that, at all events since 1865, there had been no lack of zeal or humanity. The conspicuous fault of our prison discipline was a want of intelligent elasticity. A prisoner was dealt with too much as a machine; he ran a risk of being brutalised - not, indeed, by cruelty, which was very rare, but by mere force of the routine system to which he must submit. Among the inhabitants of a great prison there are all classes and conditions; some whose presence is an accident, who have never been there before, and who, if not corrupted, will not return; some who are veterans in crime, instructors in its mysteries, certain to return soon after their term is over, and certain also to corrupt and infect all near them. Even in the best managed prisons there was too much disposition to treat every one in one way. The governor meant to do well by all, and all must fare alike. No less unfortunate was a want in many prisons of intelligent outside co-operation with the governor.
The new rules have been framed with a view to the correction of these evils, and if they err they do so on the side of leniency. They bring one into the presence of new ideas as to the relations of society to crime. Not only has the notion of vengeance and retaliation, with all its incidents, passed away; the state of despair once common, in which it was thought that the best that could be done was to keep criminals out of mischief as long as possible, is also gone. The new rules are framed on the assumption that criminal habits are in many cases curable, and that in the treatment of crime, as of other diseases, isolation is essential. We are not sure that the rules give to governors whose hearts are in their work the full discretion desirable. A clever man with a genius for understanding and influencing criminals might find his hands tied by some of the rules. The best that can be said for them is that they are prepared with a knowledge of the difficulties of prison life and with a desire to carry out humane ideas. But for casual references to locks, bolts, turnkeys, and corporal punishment, one might be reading an account of a model lodging-house run on Socialistic principles, with an eye to the spiritual, mental, and physical requirements of the inmates. One fault of the old, and for that matter many new prisons, was the mingling together of age and youth, the occasional and the professional criminal, the man with one or two offences against him and the criminal who gloried in a lifelong record of offences and who used the leisure of prison for getting confederates and planning new depredations. At this evil many of the new rules are aimed.
There are to be three classes of prisoners. One class will consist of those who have been previously convicted of serious crimes, or are proved to be habitually criminal, or are known to be of corrupt habits; another class will be composed of first offenders. The latter are to be kept apart from all other prisoners. In a third category fall prisoners who are within twelve months of release, and who have shown signs of amendment and seem likely to conduct themselves well on quitting prison. We do not find in the new rules the magnificent, if somewhat fantastic, ideas of liberty which mark the Elmira prison régime. There are no arrangements for debates on ethical subjects or for the publication of a newspaper or magazine written, printed, and published by prisoners for prisoners. But the idea that they are to be instructed in some trade and otherwise fitted to earn a livelihood, and that the length of sentences depends much on industry and good conduct, has never before been prominent. Here and there one notes a provision recalling the fact that the rules are not for free men and women; for example, 'a prisoner will not be allowed to change his religion except in any special case in which a director is satisfied after due inquiry that the change is proposed from conscientious motives.' Otherwise many of the rules read for all the world like the arrangements of a public school, strong on the modern side, or a technical institution for the benefit of backward pupils. Who knows but in the future model prisons may not be taken over by the Education Department or affiliated to ancient seats of learning? No doubt already in some prisons a system not unlike that here described is at work. But a new standard of efficiency for all is laid down; for example, useful instruction is made compulsory; good libraries will be formed in all prisons; and well-behaved prisoners will have greater facilities for seeing their friends and relations. Complaints are sometimes made as to the poverty of prison diet. A study of the new regulations on this subject does not confirm these complaints. Many of the prisoners will receive much more generous fare than they knew out of prison. Many a workman's wife would be glad to have for herself and her children the food which is provided for female convicts.
The new rules express the opinions of persons who have thought much on the subject of prison discipline. And they will be the least likely to expect that such changes will work wonders. The atmosphere of a prison cannot be pure, no matter what pains are taken as to its ventilation; the technical instruction given in it is a poor substitute for hard work in ordinary honest ways; and marks may be got by a person who, left to himself, quickly falls under the old evil influences. To the officials are given counsels of perfection about the duty of trying to 'raise the prisoners' minds to a proper feeling of moral obligation by the example of their own uniform regard to truth and integrity, even in the smallest matters.' But by the new policy some will be saved from lapsing into crime; and in any case society will have satisfied its quickened sense of responsibility towards those whose crimes are accidents in their lives. There will be less lumping together the human wild beast and the helpless and unfortunate, the curable and incurable, and a few months' imprisonment will not always leave an almost ineffaceable brand.