Arthur Paterson.

Our prisons online

. (page 1 of 7)
Online LibraryArthur PatersonOur prisons → online text (page 1 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook







119, PALL MALL, S.W.
191 1


One Shilling; net.








119, PALL MALL, S.W.



THE contents of this volume were published in the form of
articles to the Times in June, 1910, and I have to thank the
proprietors of that paper for their courtesy in allowing me
to reprint them.

These sketches of prison life and administrations have been
taken from personal observation on the spot, and they see the
light again because it is thought that the public outside the
sixteen-foot wall, in spite of books that have been written by
writers with distinguished names and undoubted experience
inside is still insufficiently acquainted with all that
happens in our prisons, not only to prisoners, but to their
officers, from the Commissioners toiling at Whitehall to the
warders at the gaols.

No theories for comprehensive prison reforms are advanced
in these pages. The volume is a plain narration of facts
given by one who can claim the privilege, to a somewhat
exceptional degree, of having possessed the friendship of
criminals both in this and other countries, and who has also
had the opportunity of learning a good deal about those
who spend their lives in disciplining and caring for these
criminals in prison.













X. THE SENTENCE - . - 58




IT is a mere commonplace to say that the efficiency of
our prison system is a matter of national importance ; but,
for all that, it needs saying. Though society is beginning
to feel a real sense of responsibility toward those members
of the community who have not had a fair chance in life,
and though it is even able to grasp the fact that the right
treatment of crime in prison is fruitful of good results only
if followed up outside the gaol, it is extraordinarily ignorant
of what is actually going on in the prison world.

How many well-educated people, actively interested, pro-
fessionally and otherwise, in the social improvement of
persons known to the police not to mention the ordinary-
public could undergo with credit an examination, say,
from the Secretary to the Prison Commission, upon the
routine of a warder's day's work in a local prison, the
official duties of a governor or an inspector of prisons, of the
medical officer of a gaol, or even of a chaplain under up-to-
date conditions ? While as to diet, punishments for mis-
conduct, and rewards for diligence and good behaviour, and
the life generally of the various classes of prisoners they
are as unfamiliar to most people as the domestic customs
and tribal laws of the native races in Central Africa.

An attempt will be made in this, and in succeeding
chapters, to set forth the full circumstances of life and
administration in our prisons.

The first subject claiming attention is the central
authority the Prison Commission at Whitehall.

The Commission came into existence through the passing
of the Prisons Bill of 1877. Up to that time, though an
attempt had been previously made to deal with the matter
by an Act in 1865, it had largely failed, and the prisons of
this country were separately governed by local authorities.
In 1876 there were 113 of these places, under the adminis-
tration of some 2,000 Justices of the Peace. There was no



common standard of administration among the multitude of
authorities. Each prison had its own particular way of
dieting, punishing, and employing its inmates, and its own
idea of the amount of space and of ventilation required by a
man doing time. The result was chaos of a scandalous
description. Though many honourable exceptions existed,
certain prisons being managed well and humanely even
according to modern ideas, the majority were in a bad way.
Some gave prisoners too much to eat, others too little.
Some worked them unmercifully at nothing but tread-wheel
and oakum -picking. In another prison a prisoner was
known to remain in bed fifteen hours at a stretch. In certain
places benevolent cranks reigned supreme : and a delightful
account is given by Sir Edmund Du Cane in his book
' Punishment and Prevention of Crime ' of a gaol where
the prisoners were not allowed to do anything but read,
though as a privilege instead of learning lessons all day they
were allowed to pick a little oakum. Hard bodily labour
was forbidden in this prison. The Bible was the principal
lesson-book, and the prisoners were made to learn off by
heart large portions of the Testament. A beautiful story is
quoted of a felon who upon his release at the expiration of
his sentence was said to have promptly committed another
crime sheep-stealing so that he might return to prison.
He had reached Ephesians, and wanted to finish the Testa-

The comment of a Select Committee of the House of
Commons on the state of things generally was that ' several
prisons are in a very unsatisfactory condition, and proper
punishment, separation, or reformation in them is impossible/
The remedy for this resolved upon by Parliament was the
transference of all control over prisons to a central authority.
The Prisons Bill of 1877 enacted that the whole of the
prisons in England were to be handed over to the Home
Secretary and a body of Commissioners appointed by Royal

The change had to be made in the face of bitter opposition,
but the results as a whole have fully justified the Act. The
Commissioners appointed were first-rate administrators, and
Mr. Asquith's Departmental Committee of 1894, presided
over by Mr. Herbert Gladstone, which made searching
inquiries into the results of the Act of 1877, reported that
' the centralization of authority has become a complete
success in the direction of uniformity, discipline, and

Prison administration, however, is a very complicated,


many-sided business. Its success depends not only, or
even chiefly, upon ' uniformity, discipline, and economy *
though these things must be at the root of it all. The main
factors in life within prison walls, if the effect of that life
upon those committed to it is to be for good and not for
evil, must be an atmosphere and an influence which make
all prisoners feel crime and misbehaviour to be unprofitable,
unworthy, and a mistake, and honesty of life, uprightness,
and a good reputation to be the better part and the course
that pays not only for the time being, but all through life.

In the eighties and up to the time when the report of the
Departmental Committee of 1894 was published, there is
strong evidence that, great as were the achievements of the
Commission in the direction of strictly administrative reforms,
the men in power did not grasp the possibility that such a
thing as enthusiasm or inspiration was desirable in prison
management except in the direction of good sanitation
and construction and the physical well-being of prisoners,
combined with exact obedience to orders and discipline.
Justice according to the law every man and woman, was
to receive, no matter what crime he or she had committed.
But that anything beyond this justice was necessary,
or even advisable, hardly entered the heads of the
authorities of that day. This was pointed out in the report
of the Departmental Committee of 1894 with great frank-
ness ; and a series of far-reaching recommendations were
made in the direction of a different procedure and principle,
both in system and in work.

That was seventeen years ago. The men who were in office
in the eighties have now retired. The present members of
the Commission have been appointed since 1894. It will be
interesting to consider the reputation they bear to-day.

If the truth must be told, the impression that appears
to exist in the minds of most people interested in the re-
generation of our criminal classes is that, while individually
and as private persons the members of the present Prison
Commission may be men of kind heart and excellent
intention, officially they are hide-bound autocrats, looking
upon red tape as an honourable badge of office, and
believing that the perfection of administrative efficiency is
to be achieved by exacting from their officers clockwork
regularity in performance of duty, and a discipline among
prisoners into which no human feeling or sentiment must
be allowed to intrude.

The Prison Commissioners are wedded, it is said, to the
virtues of mere punishment as a reformatory influence, and


so far as they are concerned punishment punishment and
nothing but punishment shall be the lot of all unfortunates
sent to gaol. It is admitted indeed by some critics that
the establishment of the ' Borstal Institutions/ and the
efforts made to reclaim and reform juvenile-adult offenders
in ways other than by prison discipline, are signs of
grace ;> but even here the belief prevails that these reforms
are due to pressure of public opinion alone.

It may be said at once that this popular impression of
the Prison Commission is entirely, even ludicrously, devoid
of foundation in fact. The investigations made by the
writer have been searching and extensive. It was necessary,
in order to ascertain the full facts of the case, to request
permission from the authorities to see and to know all that
goes on. That permission was readily given. All informa-
tion has been supplied most willingly. It has been possible
to unlock all doors and to peep into every secret of the
prison houses. As a result one fact has been proved clearly
and beyond dispute. No body governing a public service has
less intention of being fettered by red tape than the Prison
Commission. The men who compose it are not only practical
administrators, with far too much personal dignity to care
a farthing for mere authority or the trappings of official
etiquette, but they are reformers of the keenest and most
intrepid kind.

The record of progress of the Department for the last
seventeen years shows this. In every direction the traditional
usage of the past has been broken remorselessly where
occasion required it ; and all that has been done, including
the great reforms in the treatment of the juvenile-adult
prisoners at Borstal and elsewhere, has been directly initiated
by the Commissioners themselves, and in no single instance
forced upon them by opinion and pressure from without.

But the most impressive and significant feature of the
Department as it is to-day lies not in what it has accom-
plished, but in what it would do, if it could, and, as oppor-
tunity offers, may do in due time. The men who direct the
Commission are instinct with life and energy. They have
done much, but they show you plainly that they look upon
their progress as simply a foundation on which to build
more and more. If their wishes and intentions were to be
published, which for obvious reasons they will not be, proof
could be given that no reformers outside the Home Office
have more plans in their heads for improving prison
administration in so far as that is possible, and all services
connected therewith, than the officials within the Department.


In saying this there is no intention of making out the
Commissioners to be other than men as liable to err as the
rest of us. They are not above class prejudice; they have,
in common with their staff, leanings in the direction of there
being nothing like leather. They also think, and not without
justice, that, having spent many years studying and working
at prison administration from every point of view, they are
rather better judges of what can be done and should be done
than enthusiastic idealists who have not had any adminis-
trative experience at all. Moreover, they are strictly
practical, and see much more plainly than other reformers
the supreme difficulties which the very best reformatory
system must meet with from the qualities and nature of the
ordinary criminal whether that nature is the result of
heredity, or a feeble brain, or downright ' cussedness.'

There is a potent personality among the members of the
Commission. In a hundred ways it turns up in far-away
prisons and among all sorts and conditions of officials. In
our gaols now, as a rule, there is sincerity and often kindly
tolerance of small peccadilloes, and the desire to help a
prisoner. Mistakes are made, of course, and sometimes
grave ones. The most careful training and probation does
not turn prison officials into wingless angels. So much is
required of them in control of temper, in tact, shrewdness,
forbearance, and common sense, that it is not possible that
they should always be blameless. The life of a prison
officer is as hard and wearing an existence as may well be
conceived. Then it is not possible for the Commission to
guarantee that the governor, or the doctor, or the chaplain
shall always be just the right man in the right place. Last
of all, the difficulties and complications of the organization
of the prison world are endless, as will presently appear.
It is not, therefore, laid down here that prison administra-
tion is perfect, or ever will be, or that our prison system or
its directorate is free from weakness. But it is not in the
least like what its critics believe it to be. It is not by
intention harsh, cold, or unsympathetic. In spite of
mistakes and a system still far from perfect, and the inevit-
able difficulty on the part of officers to live up to all that is
required of them, the heart of the service is in the right
place. It is a brave and a hopeful service, a service full of
faith, energy, and charity ; the men at the head of it love
their work, and are determined to spare no effort to make it,
so far as they are able, all that it ought to be.




ORDINARY prisoners, or persons sentenced to imprisonment
in the third division for not more than two years, outnumber
all other classes put together ; and the problem they present
is, broadly speaking, the problem of prison treatment as a

It is a dreary and most difficult problem ; and though the
Prison Commissioners and their officers of every degree
have given many years of strenuous effort and thought to
the subject, it cannot be said that they have succeeded
in finding a solution satisfactory either to themselves or to
the public. Nevertheless, what strikes an observer most
forcibly is the energy and enterprise with which the problem
has been approached and the progress that has been made
of late years in dealing scientifically with it. Twenty years
ago prison life of all kinds was a deadly level of mechanical
routine, which benumbed or tortured the new offender, and
had no effect whatever, in the main, upon the old hand. A
low diet, hard discipline, and dull, unintelligent work
these were the characteristic features of a prisoner's life in
those days. He has a very different time of it now. The
diet is sufficient and of good quality ; at the same time it is
not ' tasty ' and is not therefore beloved by the majority
of criminals. There are three degrees. ' A. diet,' the first
and the worst, is given for the first week breakfast, bread
and a pint of gruel ; dinner, bread and porridge, or bread
and suet pudding, or bread and potatoes ; supper, bread and
gruel. After the first week B. diet is given. This includes
bread and porridge at breakfast and supper, but adds meat
or meaty soup, or bacon and beans to the midday meal. On
this the prisoner lives for four months. Beyond that
limit and for the rest of his sentence he has C. diet, which
still further increases the allowances of meat and potatoes at
dinner, and provides him with cocoa in lieu of porridge at
night. Prisoners are weighed periodically, and if they lose
flesh or strength receive special diet under medical orders.

The discipline of a prison still is, and must always be,
strict. It forms, in these days, almost the only really
' deterrent ' feature to those who have ceased to care for
the disgrace of committal to gaol. But year by year its
sternness grows less. The old rule that prisoners must not
converse still holds, but they are now allowed to say a word
to one another now and then. No warder of the new school


addresses his charges in the tone which may still be heard
sometimes from men of the older time. He must be firm
always, but as he requires civility, so he must exercise it.
Obedience from a prisoner, and industry and attention to
all rules and good behaviour, are encouraged now by a
system of 'marks' and 'stages/ by which a prisoner who
tries to do well receives reward in various forms. In other
words, incitement to well-doing, rather than punishment for
ill-doing, has become the dominant note in prison manage-
ment. Nor has this system reached its fullest development
even yet. Among juvenile-adults i.e., lads between sixteen
and twenty-one years old rewards for good conduct have
been carried farther than anything previously known. If the
departure from rule and tradition proves really successful in
their case, something will be done in the same direction for
the men and women.

But all such changes must develop very slowly. The
most dangerous enemies to true prison reform are those
excellent persons who persist in looking upon a criminal as
a mere victim of circumstances a sort of lost dog or cat,
only requiring kindness and abundance of sympathy to
become a sleek and well-conditioned member of society.
The humanitarian instinct has become a ' cult ' in these
days, and while, like all instincts, it should receive attention
and even expression, it requires controlling most carefully in
its actions concerning persons who have committed crime.

What is the attitude of the ordinary prisoner ? In the first
place, he is perfectly well aware that he is not in gaol from
misfortune, but from his own fault. He has hurt some-
body. He has behaved like a brute, or has done a mean or
dishonest act, or, at the least, deliberately infringed a law
framed, as he knows, for the protection of society. It is
obvious, therefore, that for the sake of justice, for the pro-
tection of the person, or persons, he has wronged, and, not
least, for his own sake as a creature with a soul capable of
better things, he must receive punishment. He must,
while in prison, be under some disability in comparison to
his life outside. He must, in short, pay a penalty.

There is another point. The large majority of all
prisoners only serve short sentences. Out of 205,681
persons committed to prison in 1908-9 (exclusive of convicts),
93 per cent, of the men and 97 per cent, of the women were
sentenced to three months or less, 62 per cent, of the men
and 64 per cent, of the women to two weeks or less. It is
essential, therefore, if prison is not to be a pleasant resting-
place to the majority, that all the worst side of the life


should be presented at the beginning. This acts in two
ways. The necessary shock is given to the first offender,
who must at any cost be made to feel that there is hardness
in prison life. On the other hand, the danger of hardening
him by too much misery and discomfort is avoided by a
gradual relaxation of the worst features of confinement as
his sentence lengthens and a corresponding increase in the
encouragements to him to show that he can be industrious
and patient, and overcome his weakness. Thus the worst
type of ordinary prisoner, the man sentenced to hard labour,
has to wrestle for twenty-eight days with coal-sack making,
an occupation painful to the fingers, or oakum-picking, the
most uninteresting of occupations, or stone-breaking, or
wood-chopping, which is trying in many ways, particularly
to the small of the back. This work a prisoner must do either
alone in his cell or in a cubicle outside where he can see
no one. He hates that. During the first fortnight he has to
sleep on bare boards, though allowed covering, and for the
first week receives the worst diet allowed in prison.

A prisoner without ' hard labour ' also works during his
first month alone, but at ' second-class ' work tailoring,
glove-making, mat-making, or any other occupation which
keeps him well occupied without causing any particular
physical strain.

After the twenty-eight days are past the ordinary prisoner
emerges from his solitude and works all day in association
with others in a shop at blacksmithing, carpentering, mat-
making, brush-making, book-binding, boot-making, or mail-
bag making. In some cases, he goes outside and delves in
the garden, or is engaged in building operations. In any
case, he works at a trade, in which, if he stays in some time,
he can become proficient. He is with his fellows all day, to
whom he may speak on the work. The shops are mostly
large, well lighted and well aired, and in winter well warmed.
In each there is an instructor as well as the warder or
warders. The instructor assists and teaches while the
warders stand like watchful storks, vigilantly observant of
loitering, malingering, or breaking of rules. They must
have all their wits about them.

It is necessary here to correct with all possible emphasis
a delusion dear to very many people, not excepting members
of the magistracy and even Judges of the superior Courts.
As the following true story will show. A young foreigner in
England anxious for information asked a well-known light
of the English Bar what the sentence of ' two years' hard
labour' meant. This great authority replied with unction


that it was worse than a longer term of penal servitude, be-
cause the prisoner was kept at stone-breaking, or the like,
for the whole term ! This great authority totally misled the
inquiring foreigner. No prisoner performs 'hard larbour'
i.e. stone-breaking, etc. for more than twenty-eight days.
After that period he joins the other prisoners in the shops,
and works at a trade, according to his strength, former ex-
perience, or capability, for the remainder of his sentence.
Why is the term ' two years' hard labour/ it will be asked,
still extant ? The Courts of Justice must supply the answer.

The day of a prisoner begins at 5.30 a.m. He then
washes, dresses, and cleans his cell. At 6 his warder
examines the cell and notes down, if the prisoner wishes it,
a request to see the governor or any other superior officer of
the prison. Prisoners can see the governor, medical officer,
chaplain, a member of the visiting committee an in-
dependent committee of Justices of the Peace and an
inspector of prisons from the Home Office, or send in a
written application or complaint direct to the Prison Com-
mission at the Home Office. It will be found that they
make pretty free use of these privileges, and have no hesita-
tion in complaining of any one, if aggrieved, not excepting
the Home Secretary himself through members of the House
of Commons. At 6.10 a.m. work begins and goes on till 7.10.
This is breakfast time. At 8 bell rings for chapel. Prisoners
march there, returning at 8.30. Work begins again at 8.45
and goes on till 12 noon. Dinner is then served. Work starts
for the afternoon at 1.30, and ends at 5 p.m. Supper comes
a * 5-3O> and after that the prisoner's time is his own, to read
his library book he gets one each week from a wide choice
of light literature when he has earned a sufficient number of
good conduct marks until 8.20 p.m., when lights are put
out, and the whole prison turns in. Such is the life of the
ordinary prisoner of to-day.

A word must be said as to classification. The law
provides that any person not sentenced to penal servitude
may be placed by the Court which convicts him in the first,
second, or third ' division.' The ordinary prisoner belongs
to the third division only. No discretion in this matter
rests in the hands of the prison authorities. In order,
however, that first offenders and those who have committed
comparatively trivial offences may be separated from old
hands, a prisoner of the former kind is placed in a class
by himself called the star class, and wears a red star on

1 3 4 5 6 7

Online LibraryArthur PatersonOur prisons → online text (page 1 of 7)