Richard Frith Quinton.

Crime and criminals, 1876-1910 online

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prisoner having been injured, but I
asked the coroner to let me go and
examine. On my return I informed
the coroner that there was no " cut,"
but there was a "scar" that was prob-
ably some years old. A discussion then
took place as to whether or not a " scar "
was a " cut." Several jurors joined in,
and the coroner, who was a very peppery
old gentleman, took the side of the
original juror and decided in the affirma-
tive. On my trying to convince him to
the contrary, he implied that I was
trifling with the Court, and that he would
commit me for contempt. I waived the
point, and avoided the catastrophe.

In 1894, after sixteen years experi-
ence of centralisation, the whole prison


system, and the administrative machinery
for carrying it out were subjected to a
very strict investigation and overhaul.
For some time previously criticism had
been free and constant in magazines and
newspapers. The Daily Chronicle, which
appeared to have taken prisons under its
special protection and scrutiny, brought a
sweeping indictment, not only against
the system itself, but also against the
administration. Some of the criticism
was forcible enough, with a view to bring
about salutary reforms, but for the most
part it was marked by asperity, and
many of the defects indicated were un-
duly magnified, so as to give an im-
pression to an ordinary reader that
centralisation had not met with the
success that was claimed for it. The
result of these articles, and of the corre-
spondence to which they gave rise in the
Press, was that Mr. Asquitli, who was
then Home Secretary, appointed a De-
partmental Committee, with Mr. Herbert
— now Lord — Gladstone as cliairman, to


inquire into the subject. The terms of
the reference were so wide as to embrace
an examination of the entire system and
its working, or the general " conditions
under which prisoners are confined."

The Press indictment, so far as it con-
cerned the administration, could not be
sustained. The Committee found that
the Prison Commissioners had loyally
and efficiently carried out the principles
laid down in the Acts of Parliament, and
in the recommendations of various Com-
mittees and Commissions, and that they
had achieved in organisation, discipline,
order, and economy, a striking admini-
strative success. But several defects
and shortcomings in the system itself
were at the same time noted, and recom-
mendations were made in regard to them,
some of which were carried out admini-
stratively, and others were subsequently
embodied in Acts of Parliament.

The chief recommendations of the
Committee were: — Abolition of unpro-
ductive labour, extension of associated


labour, improved classification, penal re-
formatories for young prisoners, special
sentences for habitual criminals, training
prisons for officers, amalgamation of con-
vict and local prisons, and that an addi-
tional member of the Prisons Board
should be appointed, who should be a
medical man.

The Committee were of opinion that
the " system should be made more elastic,
more capable of being adapted to the
special cases of individual prisoners."
Rules and regulations are of course
specially necessary in a penal establish-
ment if those in authority are to have
any compass to steer by, and many of
the governors thought at the time that
" elasticity " might lead to slackness. It
seems to have been the irony of fate
which subsequently gave the chairman
of the Committee, in his capacity as
Secretary of State, an object-lesson in
tlie working of the system on elastic
lines. I am not disclosing any prison
secrets in stating that the Suffragettes



were not dealt with according to the
rules at all, that they were shifted in
whole batches from the divisions in which
they had been placed by magistrates, and
that they had, in whatever division they
found themselves, privileges and indul-
gences to which they had no title. Rules
were consequently ignored, dissatisfaction
prevailed amongst the ordinary prisoners,
and the only guiding principle left for
the governor and staff seemed to be that
" it was a poor rule that would not work
both ways."

It is needless to point out that laxity
of this sort tended to make martyrs very
cheap, to stimulate the militant tactics of
the Suffragist societies, and to furnish
them with valuable advertising statistics
for their publications as to the numbers
of the victims sent to prison, and the
total years of imprisonment they suffered
for the cause. At a later period they
were able to supplement these figures
with the statistics of hunger strikes and
forcible feeding, so as to demonstrate the


helplessness of the authorities in trying
to cope with their methods.

The work of the Committee, however,
was of immense value. Their recom-
mendations embraced nearly every re-
form that has since been carried into
effect. The asperities of the system
were considerably softened, and reforma-
tory features were developed which have
tended to humanise the general working
of the whole scheme, and to add enor-
mously to its efficiency. Whatever may
be the merits or defects of our penal
system as it exists to-day, or whatever
influence prison treatment may have had
in the regulation of crime, it is at all
events certain that life and property are
as safe in England as in any country in
the world.


Penalties not severe under present system — Administi-a-
tion of English and American law — Prisoners under
sentence of death — General conditions of life in
prison — Penal system is a compromise — Industry and
good conduct expected of prisoners — Reformatory
treatment impracticable for minor offenders — Ma-
chinery for investigating grievances— A\^ritings of
ex-prisoners — ^Deterrent and reformatory effects —
Success of system depends on reduction of criminals
— Press comments — American prisons.

From the general survey I have given
of the development of our penal system,
it will be inferred that society does not
exact very heavy toll of those who offend
against its laws, either in respect of length
of sentence or severity of treatment. A
spirit of revenge, indeed, has little, if
any, place in our penal code, and loss of
liberty now constitutes the most effective
deterrent feature in a sentence of im-
prisonment for at least nine-tenths of
those who have to undergo it. At the


same time the administration of our crimi-
nal law is by no means slack or uncertain
in its results. Thirty years ago sentences
of penal servitude were dealt out so freely
for comparatively trivial offences that they
had the appearance of vindictiveness, if
not injustice, and we had, in consequence,
a standing population of 10,000 convicts
as compared with 3000 in the present
day ; but, after the passing of the Sum-
mary Jurisdiction Act in 1879, the Courts
confidently relied more and more on the
efficacy of moderate sentences, and on
the certainty, rather than the severity,
of penalties, for keeping crime in check.
The recent establishment of a Court of
Criminal Appeal has further tended to
prevent miscarriages of justice, and to
render sentences more uniform than they
have hitherto been under the discretion
of individual judges. Experience has
amply justified these beneficent changes
in English law.

If we compare our system with that
of the United States, we find the results


are totally different. There the laws are
strict enough, but the methods of legal
procedure adopted in dealing with crimi-
nals seem to be vitiated by a too chival-
rous veneration for the liberty of the
individual, so that the law is not reso-
lutely administered. Penalties are, con-
sequently, not only lenient, but uncertain
in their incidence, the course of justice
is slow, and the administration of the
criminal law, especially in regard to
murder, is falling into considerable dis-
repute with Americans themselves. Mr.
Andrew D. White, First President of
Cornell University, and subsequently
Minister at St. Petersburg, and Ambas-
sador at Berlin, has recently conducted
an inquiry into this subject. " The re-
sults have been to convince him that at
the present day it is safer to kill a man
in the United States than to kill a deer.
In the course of a year he predicts 5000
men and women will have been murdered.
Twenty years ago there were about 1500
murders in the United States annually.


There are now 8000. The percentage
of murders in the United States to popu-
lation is forty-three times greater than in
Canada, and eight times greater than in
Belgium, which has the worst record
in Europe. An especially disquieting
symptom is the sympathy bestowed on
criminals, which tempts Mr. White to
make the ironical statement that the
State should purchase the Waldorf As-
toria Hotel, confine all murderers in it,
and dine them and wine them until they
die of gout."

If Mr. White's conclusions are cor-
rect, the administration of the law would
appear to be urgently in need of some

Another anomaly, or what seems so
to us, in American judicial procedure, is
the long delay that intervenes between
sentence and execution in those cases in
which a conviction for inurder has been
already secured. In England, of course,
nmrders are not committed on so magni-
ficent a scale, but when a conviction is


once obtained, the sentence is either
carried out within a month, or commuted
to penal servitude. In 1909 death sen-
tences were passed on twenty men and
three women. Sixteen of the men were
executed. Commutation of sentence to
penal servitude was ordered in the cases of
four men and three women — the latter
having been guilty of infanticide. Priso-
ners with life sentences tend to accumulate
in convict prisons, but the total number
of these at the end of the year was
only 136.

Prisoners under sentence of death, who
form a class quite apart, are dealt with
in the local prisons unless their sentences
are commuted. They do not, as a rule,
belong to the habitual or the professional
criminal class. They are generally stolid
in demeanour, and apparently callous in
temperament, eating and sleeping in what
seems to an onlooker indifference and
unconcern during the short period they
have to live. Some go to the gallows,
in my experience of them, in a dazed


condition. I have only once witnessed
abject terror, the greater number meeting
their end with a kind of stoHd fortitude.
I saw one man of the latter class, who had
admitted the justice of his sentence, and
who, on his way to the scaffold, quietly
asked the executioner, who had just
pinioned him, to " give him a good long
drop." He had but a few paces further
to go, which he accomplished with a firm
step, and within a minute he was dead.

In contrasting American with English
procedure in murder cases I do not wish
to set up the latter as an universal model,
or to imply that what suits one country
must of necessity suit all. There is no
reason to think that the judicial system
of a country, any more than its form of
government, however satisfactory these
may be at home, will find equal favour or
success abroad. Transplant the Russian
system to America, or the American to
Russia, and the results would probably
be anarchy and civil war. Judicial
systems must be in accordance with the


national sentiment of the people who live
under them. Miscarriages of justice will
occur, and scandals will arise from time
to time under all systems. If the French
people have their Dreyfus case, and the
Americans their Thaw trial, to emphasise
the fallibility of their respective systems,
we too have our Beck case to remind us
of the fallibility of our own.

The general conditions under which
prisoners live in England do not press
at all heavily on the class from which
prisoners are mainly drawn, nor can they
be considered harsh or severe even for
those wlio have been accustomed to more
comfortable or luxurious homes. The
standard of hygiene and cleanliness is
very high, penal tasks are reduced to a
minimum, cellular confinement is on a
very moderate scale, books are provided
liberally, power to shorten their sentences
is extended to the well conducted, and
lastly the dietary scale, which is graduated
according to length of sentence, contains
a regular supply of plain wholesome food


which meets the physical requirements of
all prisoners — maintaining a high standard
of general health and a very low rate of
mortality. Those who yearn for a " simple
life " could hardly find a better scheme of
existence for their imitation. Absolute
luxury is, of course, inconsistent with a
state of imprisonment, but the relative
luxury of prison fare and treatment has
considerable attractions for large numbers
of persons who earn a precarious living
outside. The restfulness of it, and the
monotony of the dinner bell appeal
strongly to thousands of the vagrant
class, as I have already shown, and
many people think prisons are made too
comfortable. On the other hand there
are easy-going sentimentalists who con-
sider that a moral lecture is the most
appropriate treatment for most offences,
and who denounce the whole penal
system, root and branch. The system in
reality may be said to represent a com-
promise between the respective tenets of
these jarring factions, and most people


seem to be agreed that it tempers justice
with mercy.

In return for the benefits he receives
the prisoner is expected to show industry
and good conduct if he is to enjoy the
further advantages of industrial training,
with gratuity for his work, which are de-
signed for his reformation. The essence
of the Progressive Stage System is the
encouragement of self-help and self-reli-
ance. Not the least of his privileges, in
these days of unemployment, is the help
he gets to find work on discharge. No
prisoner who evinces a genuine desire to
retrieve his character, and work honestly is
refused help. The Discharged Prisoners
Aid Societies assist, by maintenance and
by procuring work, thousands of prisoners
every year. We read now and then in
the papers of ex-prisoners complaining
that the police hunt them from one job
to another, but this practice is officially
discountenanced, and the cases generally
do not bear investigation. Nothing is
heard of those who set to work quietly


and in obscurity to benefit by the lessons
they have had in prison and the timely
aid they received on discharge.

One unavoidable defect in the scheme
is its very limited applicability to the
cases of those hosts of minor offenders
who come to prison for short periods
under a month, and who are dependent
chiefly, for reformatory encouragement,
on the lessons of their experience rein-
forced by the admonitions of the chaplain
on reception and discharge. The remedy
for this defect lies in the direction of the
segregation of the majority of them under
the schemes proposed for dealing with
mendicants and inebriates.

It may be thought that under the
system I have attempted to describe
there is not much scope for legitimate
complaints or grievances on the part of
prisoners, but prisoners are very ingenious
folk at finding out weak spots in any
system. Genuine grievances are excep-
tional so far as the system is concerned,
but frivolous complaints are constantly


being made, especially by men. A prison,
unfortunately, is not a palace of truth.
Fraud, false pretences, and deception of
all kinds are very much in the air, so that
officials who live in the midst of it have
to accept statements with a good deal of
scepticism. Fraudulent people seem to
take pleasure in misleading officials, and
thieves will deceive, and steal, even in
prison, when they get a chance. I have
known a female thief, for instance, try to
keep her hand in by stealing her own
property ! When an officer was giving
out her belongings on discharge, the
prisoner stole her own ring off the table,
concealed it, and claimed compensation.
The matron was sent for, and, knowing
her prisoner, promptly had her searched,
with the result that the ring was found
concealed on her person.

Tasks of unproductive labour used to
cause much grumbling and dissatisfaction,
and many grievances are alleged as to the
length and the injustice of sentences ; but
complaints are always frequent in regard


to food — that it is insufficient, badly
cooked, of inferior quality, short of weight,
and so on. Prisoners have various ex-
pedients of their own for helping out
their complaints by tampering with the
diets after issue, and in other ways. One
man, for example, attained his object by
a double fraud. He complained that his
cocoa was bad, so I sent for a sample
from the general issue to compare with
it, and found the prisoner's cocoa had
been diluted. The two specimens were
on the office table, and when the prisoner
was going he managed to ring the changes
on them and carry off the fresh sample.

There are many prisoners who think
much more of the diet than of any of
the other disadvantages in connection
with their sentences. It always appears
to be uppermost in their minds. A col-
league of mine once asked an old hand,
whose intervals of freedom were generally
very brief, where he had been for the past
year. The prisoner said that he and a
pal (both pickpockets), wanting to change


their pitch, had gone over " on business "
to a French race meeting, that they had
been run in, and done time in a French
prison. In reply to an inquiry as to how
he hked it, the prisoner, with food promi-
nently in mind, said : "Oh ! the bullyawng
dunnion was not bad " {bouillon d'olgnon).

A spell in hospital, where perhaps he
may be favoured with an opportunity,
denied him elsewhere, to beg, borrow, or
steal, a part of some one else's diet to
supplement his own, is such a congenial
change for a prisoner of this sort, that he
is generally a regular attendant at the
daily levee of the doctor. Actual invalid
regimen is not at all to his fancy, so that
however severe his symptoms may have
appeared before admission to hospital, lie
recovers his appetite in very quick time.

The conditions of prison life, with the
necessity it entails of issuing carefully-
measured diets to men in separate cells,
tend to bring out prominently the marked
differences of appetite in men of appa-
rently similar physique, and to lend pro-


bability to the doctrine that appetite is
to a great extent a matter of training
and habit. No dietary scale that would
not be in practice extremely wasteful
could possibly meet all these variations,
so that medical officers are fully em-
powered to grant extra food to meet
the exceptional requirements of indi-
vidual cases, and they use these powers

Apropos food complaints, a patient in
hospital one morning told me his egg
was bad. His complaint seemed to me
genuine, as the egg was past the crisis,
so I ordered him another. The prisoner
orderly, however, who was standing be-
side me, thinking I was too fastidious
about it, and the patient also, said it was
" a very good egg, but it was a last year's
egg ! " He added that " he had been in
the trade, and could fake 'em up for the
market," and that an egg in the stage
of this one was always '* good for a
pudding ! "

An elaborate machinery is provided



for the investigation of complaints and
grievances. First there are the local
officials at the prisons, then the Visiting
Magistrates, the Inspectors, the Prison
Commissioner, the Secretary of State,
and, for questions of sentence, the Court
of Criminal Appeal, Petitions are very
frequent, especially in convict prisons.
Tlie writers enter into great detail to the
Secretary of State, and sometimes adduce
fresh facts bearing on their cases, which,
after investigation, enable him to remit
the whole, or a part, of the sentence.
Most of the petitions, however, are found
to be without grounds, but this does
not prevent prisoners from renewing
their applications, which many of them
do repeatedly. Remission of sentence
is generally asked for on the grounds of
innocence or extenuating circumstances,
but there are many other forms -of appeal
for clemency. When Sir William Har-
court was Home Secretary he was gener-
ally spoken of by prisoners as " the
Prisoner's Friend." I have seen one


petition addressed to him beginning in
this way : " Hearing that you are a
gentleman of large humanitarian views."
The writer was a violent habitual crimi-
nal, and, although he began his appeal in
this mild way, he ended it with threats
of what he would do if he were not

Anotherpetitioned on economicgrounds.
He began by saying " all the previous con-
victions duly noted at the top of this peti-
tion having failed to work my reform,
mercy and gratitude might be tried.
Justice is a signal failure, and so a
humiliating fact for me to acknowledge."
He went on to say he had a wife and
seven children who, if he is kept in, will
have to go to the workhouse and be on
the rates as he is at present on the taxes.
His release therefore would be a saving
to public funds. If his petition is granted
he will conclude with the usual formula,
and mean what he says, when he adds,
Your petitioner will ever pray, &c.

Other prisoners petition on the groimds


of health, or supplement some other plea
with complaints of the apathy of their
medical advisers, and of the unsatisfac-
tory — if not alarming — state of their
health. Several, however, seem to peti-
tion for the mere joy of it. Some even
forget to ask for anything in their zeal to
let the Secretary of State know their
erudition, or perhaps what they think
of him !

One old prisoner, who was constantly
coming to Holloway, made it a practice
to ask for a petition on the morning after
her arrival. She framed them all on the
same lines. After a few preliminary and
perfunctory observations on the want of
consideration shown by the police to a
lady like herself, she proceeded to supply
the Secretary of State with bits of auto-
biography and family history, including
that of her husband, who had about a
dozen letters to his name. The Visit-
ing Magistrate one day, after listening
patiently to her for five minutes, and
hearing her history, with an account of


her marriage, asked her if she had peti-
tioned. " Oh yes," she said with an air,
" I am in constant correspondence with
the Secretary of State."

Next day, however, she appHed for
another petition before she had received
a reply to her last.

Every petition is carefully read, how-
ever irrelevant or indistinct it may be,
and is passed through the hands of many
officials, and has all its statements of fact
closely investigated before a final reply
is sent to the petitioner and communi-
cated to him by the Governor.

Educated convicts, who write books
and magazine articles after their release,
depicting the horrors of penal servitude
and the hardships and grievances they
experienced in prison, and denouncing
the wrong-headedness and barbarity of
the penal system, have a standpoint of
their own which always seems to imply
tliat the system has been designed for
people of their class. This is far from
being the case. Official refutation of


their views is never offered, because the
system estabhshed by the Legislature
has been reported on by Committees
and Commissions in quite a different
sense. It is natural that prison life
should be more disagreeable to educated
prisoners than it is to ordinary criminals.
The punishment is of necessity much
heavier for them, but surely their respon-
sibility is also greater. To set up a
system that would be congenial to an
educated type would mean impunity,
or perhaps luxury, for a lower class who
form the bulk of the convict population.

It has recently been asserted that the
entire penal system stands self-condemned,
and has totally failed either as a deterrent
or remedial agency for dealing with crime,
because no less than 80 per cent, of
convicts return time after time to prison.

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Online LibraryRichard Frith QuintonCrime and criminals, 1876-1910 → online text (page 9 of 11)