In Russian and French Prisons : Chapter 9 : On The Moral Influence of Prisons on Prisoners
(1842 - 1921) ~ Russian Father of Anarcho-Communism : As anarchism's most important philosophers he was in great demand as a writer and contributed to the journals edited by Benjamin Tucker (Liberty), Albert Parsons (Alarm) and Johann Most (Freiheit). Tucker praised Kropotkin's publication as "the most scholarly anarchist journal in existence." (From : Spartacus Educational Bio.)
• "Which side will you take? For the law and against justice, or for justice and against the law?" (From : "An Appeal to the Young," by Peter Kropotkin, 1880.)
• "...let us remember that if exasperation often drives men to revolt, it is always hope, the hope of victory, which makes revolutions." (From : "The Spirit of Revolution," by Peter Kropotkin, fi....)
• "...the strength of Anarchy lies precisely in that it understands all human faculties and all passions, and ignores none..." (From : "The Conquest of Bread," by Peter Kropotkin, 1906.)
The central prison of Clairvaux, described in the preceding chapter, may be considered as a fair representative of modern prisons. In France, it is decidedly one of the best - I should say the best if I were not aware that the military prison at Brest is not inferior to the Maison Centrale of Clairvaux. In fact, the recent discussion about prisons in the French Chamber of Deputies, and the outbreaks of prisoners which have been witnessed last year in nearly ail the chief penal establishments of France, have disclosed such a state of affairs in most French prisons that we must recognize them as much worse than the central prison with which I was enabled to make some acquaintance.
lf we compare the prison discipline at Clairvaux with that of English prisons-as it appears from the Reports of tho Commission on Prisons of 1863, as well as from the works of Michael Davitt (1) , John Campbell (2) , the lady who signs herself "A Prison Matron," (3) and Sir Edmund Du Cane, (4) from " Five Years' Penal Servitude," (5) and the letters published last year in the Daily News, by " Late B 24,"-we must recognize that, national pride apart, prison discipline in the French Central prisons is not worse, and in some respects is more humane, than in this country. As to German prisons, it may be inferred from what we see in literature, and what I know from my Socialist friends, that the treatment to which prisoners are submitted in Germany is, without comparison, more brutal than in the Clairvaux prison. And, with regard to Austrian prisons, they may be said to be now in the same condition as they were in this country before the reform of 1863. We may thus safely conclude that the prison described in the preceding chapter is certainly not worse than thousands of like institutions spread all over Europe, but rather ranks among the best.
If I were asked, what could be reformed in this and like prisons, provided they remain prisons, I could really only suggest improvements in detail, which certainly would not substantially ameliorate them; and, at the same time, I should perfectly recognize the immense difficulties standing in the way of every amelioration, however insignificant, in institutions based on a false principle.
I might suggest, for instance, that the prisoners be more equitablv remunerated for their labor-to which proposal the prison administration probably would reply by showing the difficulty of finding private employers ready to erect expensive workshops in prisons, and the consequent necessity of hiring out the convicts to them at very low prices. And I could not advocate that the State should undertake to supply prisoners with labor, because I know perfectly well that the State would pay the prisoners as badly, and even worse, than do some of the private employers at Clairvaux. The State would never risk sinking millions in workshops and steam engines, and without the use of a perfected machinery it would be unable to remunerate the prisoners' labor better; it would continue to pay from seven to ten pence a day. Besides, State enterprise could hardly introduce the variety of trades which I have mentioned in the above chapter, and this variety is one of the first conditions for supplying the prisoners with a regular occupation. In this country, where private employers are not admitted within the prisons as they are in France, the average production of each prisoner in 1877 did not exceed £3, and the maximum it had reached was only £22. (6)
I certainly should suggest that the system of prohibiting talk between prisoners should be frankly given up, because the prohibition remains in France, in England, (7) and in America, a dead letter and a useless vexation. And I should suggest also that the use of tobacco be permitted, because it is the only means to put an end to the disgraceful trade in this prohibited article which is carried on by the warders both in France and in England, (8) and sometimes also by the employers of labor. This measure has already been taken in Germany, where tobacco is, or shortly will be, sold at the canteen; and it obviously will be the most adequate means for reducing the number of smokers. It is, however, but a minor detail, which would not much improve our penal institutions.
In order to improve them substantially, I might suggest, of course, that each prison should be provided with a Pestalozzi for governor and sixty Pestalozzis more as warders. But I am afraid the prison administration would answer me as Alexander II. answered once on an administrative report: " Where shall I find the men ?" Because really, as long as our prisons remain prisons, Pestalozzis will be exceptionally rare among the governors and warders, while retired soldiers will furnish the greater number. And the more one reflects about the partial improvements which might be made; the more one considers them under their real, practical aspect, the more one is convinced that the few which can be made will be of no moment, while serious improvements are impossible under the present system. Some thoroughly new departure is unavoidable. The system is wrong from the very foundation.
One fact-the most striking in our penal institutions-is, that as soon as a man has been in prison, there are three chances to one that he will return thither very soon after his release. Of course, there are a few exceptions to the rule. In each prison there are persons who have got into trouble quite by chance. There has been, in their life, some succession of fatal circumstances which has resulted in an act of violence or weakness, and this has brought them within the prison walls. Nobody will contend, with regard to these persons, that if they had not been imprisoned at all, the results for society would not have been the same. They are tortured in prisons-none can say why? They themselves feel the wrongfulness of their acts, and would feel it more strongly if they had never been imprisoned. Their numbers are not so small as is often thought, and the injustice of their imprisonment is so obvious that authorized voices have been raised of late, asking that the judges be empowered to liberate them without any punishment.
But writers on criminal law will say that there is another numerous class of inmates of our prisons, for whom our penal institutions have been properly devised, and the question necessarily arises: How far do our prisons answer their purpose with regard to these in mates; how far do they moralize them, and how far do they deter them from further breaches of the law ?
There cannot be two answers to this question. Figures tell us loudly enough that the supposed double influence of prisons-the deter ring and the moralizing-exist only in the imagination of lawyers. Nearly one-half of all people condemned by the Courts are regularly released prisoners. In France, two-fifths to one-half of all brought before the assizes, and two-fifths of all brought before the Police Correctionnelle Courts, are released prisoners. No less than seventy to seventy-two thousand récidivistes are arrested every year; forty-two to forty-five per cent. of all assassins, seventy to seventy-two per cent. of all thieves condemned every year are récidivistes. In great towns the proportion is still more dreadful. Of all ar rested at Paris in 1880, more than one fourth had been condemned more than four times during the last ten years. (9) As to central prisons, twenty to forty per cent. of all prisoners released from them are retaken during the first year after their release, chiefly during the very first months which they spend at liberty; and the number of récidivistes would be still larger if so many liberated prisoners did not disappear, change their names and profession, emigrate, or die shortly after their liberation. (10)
In the French Central Prisons the return of liberated prisoners is so customary, that you may hear the warders saying: " Is it not strange that N. is not yet back ? Has he had time, perchance, to go to another judicial dis trict?" Several prisoners, when leaving the prison where they have succeeded, by their conduct, in obtaining some privileged occupation, used to ask that the post they occupied be kept open for them until their next return! The poor men are sure beforehand that they will not be able to resist the temptations they will meet with on release, and they are sure to return very soon, to end their life in prison.
In this country, as far as my knowledge goes, things do not stand much better, notwithstanding the recent development and endeavors of sixty-three Discharged Prisoners' Aid Societies. About forty per cent. of all condemned persons are still released prisoners, and we are told by Mr. Davitt that as much as ninety-five per cent. of all those who are kept in penal servitude have formerly received, on one or two occasions, a prison education.
More than that. It has been remarked throughout Europe that if a man has been kept in prison for some minor offense, his return to a prison will be under a graver charge. His theft will be more refined; and if he has been condemned, first for an assault, he has a serious chance of returning to the Court as a murderer. The recidive has grown to be an immense problem for European writers of criminal law, and we see that, in France, under the impression of the gravity of this problem, they are now devising schemes which surely do not fall very short of proposals for the wholesale extermination of recondemned people in the most unhealthy colony of the French Republic.
Just now, when I am writing these lines, I see in the Paris papers the tale of a murder committed by a man on the very second day after his release from a prison. Before being arrested and condemned to thirteen months' imprisonment (for some minor offense) he had been acquainted with a woman who kept a small shop. He knew her mode of life, and as soon as released-the second day after his release-he went to her in the evening, as she was shutting up the shop, stabbed her, and tried to take possession of the cash-box. The scheme had been devised down to the minutest detail whilst the man was kept in prison; he had worked it out during his thirteen months of incarceration.
Now, like cases are met with in considerable numbers in criminal practice, although they are not always as striking as that just mentioned. The most terrible schemes of brutal murder are mostly devised in prisons; and when public indignation is stirred by some exceptionally brutal deed, in most cases its origin may be traced, either directly or indirectly, to prison education: the deed has been committed by a released prisoner, or at the instigation of such a man.
Whatever the schemes hitherto introduced either for the seclusion of prisoners, or for the prevention of conversation, prisons have remained nurseries of criminal education. The schemes of well-meaning philanthropists who fancied they could make so many reformatories out of our convict establishments, have proved a complete failure; and while official literature tries to make light of this characteristic feature of our penal institutions, those governors of prisons who see and tell the things as they are-not as it is desired they should be represented-frankly avow that prisons have not moralized anybody, but have more or ]ess demoralized all those who have spent a number of years there.
It cannot be otherwise; and we cannot but acknowledge that it must be so, as soon as we analyze the effect the prison exercises on the prisoner.
First of all, none of the condemned people - a few exceptions apart - recognize that their condemnation is just. It is a secret to nobody; but we are inclined to accept it too lightly, while in reality this circumstance is a condemnation of the very first principles of what we now call justice. The Chinese who is condemned by his "compound family " Court to expatriate himself; (11) the Tchuktchi who is boycotted by his fellow-men; the man who is condemned to a fine by a Water Court of Valencia or of Turkestan, almost always re cognizes the justice of the verdict pronounced by his judges. But no such sense is awakened in the inmate of our modern prison.
Here is a man of the " Upper Prison Ten " condemned for having " run a long firm," that is, for having started some business to exploit "the cupidity and ignorance of the public," as one of the heroes of the admirable prison sketches by Michael Davitt used to say. Try to convince him that he was not right in starting his " business." His answer probably will be: " Sir, the small thieves are here, but the big ones are free, and they enjoy the respect of those very same judges who condemned me." And he will mention to you one of those companies which were started for robbing the naive people who thought to enrich themselves with gold-mines in Devonshire, with lead-mines under the Thames, or with electric lighting. We all know these companies; we know their pompous circulars; we know how they rob the poorest classes of their savings.... What shall we reply to the representative of the Upper Ten ?
Or, take this other person who has been condemned for what the French argot describes as having mange la grenouille, that is, for having spent public money. He would answer you: " I was not sufficiently cunning, sir, that is all." What will you, what can you reply when you know perfectly well, and he knows much better than yourself, how many small and still more big " frogs" are " eaten " every year without ever bringing the eaters before a judge? " I was not cunning enough," that is the sentence he will repeat to himself as long as he wears the prisoner's coat; and let him lie in a cell, or clear the Dartmoor moors, his brain will work in the direction of meditating the injustice of a society which pardons the most cunning and punishes those who were not cunning enough. As soon as he is out, he will necessarily try to occupy the highest steps in the ladder; he will try to be cunning; he will conceal the " swag " better.
I do not affirm that each prisoner considers his deeds as a quite honorable pursuit; but it is undoubtedly true that he does not consider himself as less honorable than those who sell turnips instead of orange marmalade, and fuchsine-colored, alcoholized water instead of wine, who rob shareholders, who also traffic by a thousand means " on the cupidity and ignorance of the public," and who, nevertheless, enjoy the esteem of society. " Steal, but do not be caught I " is a common saying in prisons all over the world; and it is useless to try to combat this watchword as long as in the wide world of " business " transactions the border land between honorable and dishonorable remains as wide as it is now.
The teaching which the prisoner receives within the prison is not much better than that given by the outer world. I have mentioned in the preceding chapter (page 291) the scandalous traffic in tobacco which is carried on in French prisons, but I thought it a feature which had disappeared from the prisons of this country until I found the same traffic mentioned in a book on English prisons. Nay, the figures and the proportions are the same: in the first place, ten shillings out of of twenty for the warder; and then, exorbitant prices charged for tobacco and other things which the warder brings to the prisoner-such is the Millbank tariff. (12) The French tariff is twenty-five francs out of fifty for the warder, and then the above-mentioned exorbitant prices for tobacco.
In fact, both in the administration and in the commercial undertakings which are carried on in big prisons, there are unavoidably so many small frauds that I often heard at Clairvaux: "The real thieves, sir, are those who keep us here-not those who are in." Of course, it will be said that even the least possibility of pronouncing such a judgment ought to disappear, and that much improvement has been already made in that direction. I gladly admit that it is so. But it is another question as to whether it can completely disappear. The very fact that it still remains true of so many prisons in Europe shows how difficult it is to get rid of bribery in the administration. At any rate, the above remark is still fully justified in the case of a very great number of European prisons.
While mentioning this factor of demoralization in prisons, I shall not, however, lay too much stress on it; not because I do not realize its exceedingly bad and wide influence; but because, even if it completely disappeared from prison-life, there would still remain in our penal institutions so many demoralizing factors, which cannot be got rid of as long as a prison remains a prison, that I prefer rather to insist upon them.
Much has been written about the moralizing effects of labor-of manual labor,-and surely I should be the last to deny them. To keep prisoners without any occupation, as they are kept in Russia, means utterly to demoralize them and to inflict on them a quite useless punishment, to kill their last energy, and to render them quite unable later to earn their living by work. But there is labor and labor. There is the free labor, which raises the man, which releases his brain from painful or morbid thoughts-the free labor which makes man feel himself a part of the immense life of the world. And there is the forced labor of the slave which degrades man, which is done reluctantly, only from fear of a worse punishment, and such is prison-labor. I do not speak of so wicked an invention as the treadmill, which a man must move like a squirrel in a wheel, supplying a motive power which could be supplied otherwise at a much cheaper rate. I do not speak also of picking oakum, which permits a man to produce in the course of a day the value of a farthing. (13) As to these kinds of labor the prisoners are fully entitled to consider them merely as the base revenge of a society which has done so little since their childhood to show them better ways towards a higher, more human life. Nothing is more revolting than to feel that one is compelled to work, not because somebody wants one's work, but merely to be punished. While all humanity work for the maintenance of their life, the man who picks oakum is condemned to perform a work which nobody needs. He is an outcast. And if he treats society as an outcast would, we can accuse nobody but ourselves.
Things do not stand better, however, with productive labor in prisons. In the world market where produce is bought only for the bargains that can be realized on sale and purchase, the State can seldom be a successful competitor. So it has been compelled to invite private employers to give occupation to prisoners. But, to attract such employers and to induce them to sink money in factories, and to guarantee a certain amount of labor to a certain number of convicts, notwithstanding the fluctuations of the market-and this under such unfavorable circumstances as a prison and the prison-work of untrained laborers- the State has been compelled to concede the prisoners' labor for near]y nothing-not to speak of the pots de vin, which certainly have something to do with the low prices at which prisoners are hired out to employers. There fore, the wages paid to prisoners, both by the State and private employers, are merely nominal.
We have seen in the preceding chapter that the highest full wages paid by private employers at C1airvaux rarely exceed 1s. 8d., and in most caves are below 10d. for twelve hours' work, while one-half, and more, of these wages are kept by the State. At Poissy, the average wages in a private enterprise are 3d. (29 centimes) a day, and less than 2d. (19 centimes) in the workshops of the State. (14)
In this country, since the Prison Commission Of 1863 discovered that convicts earn too much in penal servitude, the prisoner earns nearly nothing but a very small diminution of the term of imprisonment; and the trades carried on in prisons are such that the average daily value of the prisoner's work exceeds ls. only in skilled labor (shoemaking, tailoring, and basketmaking). (15) As to the other trades, the market-value of the prisoner's work mostly varies from 3d. to l0d.
It is obvious that, under such circumstances, the work which has no attractiveness in itself, because it gives no exercise to the mental faculties of the laborer, and is paid so badly, comes to be considered as a mere punishment. When I say my Anarchist friends at Clairvaux making ladies' stays, or pearl-shell buttons, and earning sixpence for ten hours' work-out of which twopence were retained by the State (threepence, and more, with common-law prisoners)-I fully understood what disgust must be inspired by such work in the man who is condemned to do it. What pleasure can he find in such toil ? What moralizing effect can it exercise, when the prisoner repeats again and again to himself that he is working merely to enrich his employer? When he has been paid eighteenpence at the end of the week, he and his comrades exclaim: "Decidedly, the real thieves are those who keep us in-not we!"
But still, my comrades who were not compelled to work, used to do this kind of work; and sometimes, by assiduous labor, some of them managed to realize as much as tenpence per day, instead of six, when the work implied some skill or artistic feeling. They did so, however, because they had an inducement to labor. Those Who were married were in continual correspondence with their wives, who had a hard time of it as long as their husbands were in prison. Letters from home kept coming in; they could be answered. The bands which connected the prisoners with home were not broken. As to those who were not married, or had no mother to support, they had a passion -study; and they scooped away at pearl-shell in the hope of being able, at the end of the month, to order some long-desired book.
They had a passion. But what a passion can inspire the common-law prisoner, secluded from his home from all attachments which might have connected him with the outer world ? For, with a refinement of cruelty, those who schemed our prisons did all in their power to cut all the threads which might keep up the prisoner's connection with Society. They trampled under foot all the best feelings that the prisoner has, like other men. His wife and children are not permitted in this country to see him more than once every three months, and the letters he may write are a mere mockery. The philanthropists who have schemed our prison discipline have pushed their cold contempt for human nature so far as to permit the prisoner only to sign a printed circular! A measure the more despicable, as each prisoner, however low his intellectual development, fully understands the petty feeling of revenge which lies at the bottom of this measure, whatever be the excuses as to the necessity of preventing communication with the outer world.
In French prisons-at least, in the Central prisons-the visits of relatives are not so severely limited, and the governor of the jail is even entitled in exceptional cases to allow visits in a common parlor without gratings But the Central prisons are far from the great cities; and, as the great cities supply the largest numbers of convicts, and the condemned people chiefly belong to the poorest classes, only very few women have the means to make the journey to Clairvaux for a few interviews with their husbands.
And thus the best influence to which the prisoner might be submitted, the only one which might bring a ray of light, a softer element into his life-the intercourse with his relatives and children-is systematically secluded. The prisons of old were less clean; they were less " orderly" than the modern ones; but, at any rate, under this aspect, they were more humane.
In a prisoner's grayish life, which flows without passions and emotions, all those best feelings which may improve human character soon die away. Even those workmen who like their trade and find some esthetic satisfaction in it, lose their taste for work. Physical energy is very soon killed in prison. I re member the years passed in prison in Russia. I entered my cell in the fortress with the firm resolution not to succumb. To maintain my bodily energy, I regularly every day walked my five miles in my cell, and twice a day I per formed some gymnastics with my heavy oak chair. And, when pen and ink were allowed to enter my cell, I had before me the task of recasting a large work-a great field to cover-that of submitting to a systematic re vision the Indices of Glaciation. Later on, in France, another passion inspired me-the elaboration of the bases of what I consider a new system of philosophy-the bases of Anarchy. But, in both cases, I soon felt lassitude overtaking me. Bodily energy disappeared by-and-by. And I can think of no better comparison for the state of a prisoner than that of wintering in the Arctic regions. Read reports of Arctic expeditions-the old ones, those of the good hearted Parry, or of the elder Ross. When going through them you feel a note of physical and mental depression pervading the whole diary, and growing more and more dreary, until sun and hopes reappear on the horizon. That is the state of a prisoner. The brain has no longer the energy for sustained attention; thought is less rapid, or, rather, less persistent: it loses its depth. An American report mentioned last year that while the study of languages usually prospers with the prisoners. they are mostly unable to persevere in mathematics: and so it is.
It seems to me that this depression of healthy nervous energy can be best accounted for by the want of impressions. In ordinary life thousands of sounds and colors strike our senses; thousands of small, varied facts come within our knowledge, and spur the activity of the brain. Nothing of the kind strikes the prisoner; his impressions are few, and always the same. Therefore-the eagerness of the prisoners for anything new, for any new impression. I cannot forget the eagerness with which I observed, when taking a walk in the fortress yard, the changes of color on the gilt needle of the fortress, its rosy tints at sunset, its bluish colors in the morning, its changing aspects on cloudy and bright days, in the morning and evening, winter and summer. It was the only thing which changed its aspect. The appearance of a parrot in the yard was a great event. It was a new impression. This is probably also the reason that all prisoners are so fond of illustrations; they convey new impressions in a new way. All impressions received by the prisoner, be they from his reading or from his own thoughts, pass through the medium of his imagination. And the brain, already poorly fed by a less active heart and impoverished blood, becomes tired, worried. It loses its energy.
This circumstance probably explains also the striking want of energy, of ardor, in prison work. In fact, each time I saw at Clairvaux the prisoners lazily crossing the yards, lazily followed by a lazy warder, my imagination always transported me back to my father's house and his numerous serfs. Prison work is slavish work; and slavish work cannot inspire a human being with the best inspiration of man-the need to work and to create. The prisoner may learn a handicraft, but he will never learn to love his work. In most in stances he will learn to hate it.
There is another important cause of de moralization in prisons which cannot be too much insisted upon, as it is common to all prisons and inherent in the system of deprivation of liberty itself. All transgressions against the established principles of morality can be traced to a want of firm Will. Most of the inmates of our prisons are people who have not had firmness enough to resist the temptations that surrounded them, or to master a passionate impulse that momentarily overpowered them. Now. in prison. as in a monastery the prisoner is secluded from all temptations of the outer world; and his intercourse with other men is so limited and so regulated that he seldom feels the influence of strong passions. But, precisely in consequence of that he has almost no opportunity for exercising and reinforcing the firmness of his Will. He is a machine. He has no choice between two courses of action; the very few opportunities of free choice which he has, are of no moment. All his life has been regulated and ordered before hand; he has only to follow the current, to obey under the fear of a cruel punishment. In these conditions such firmness of Will as he may have had before entering the prison, disappears. And, where shall he find the strength to resist the temptations which will suddenly arise before him, as by enchantment, as soon as he has stepped outside the walls? Where will he find the strength to resist the first impulse of a passionate character, if, during many years, everything has been done to kill in him the interior force of resistance, to make him a docile tool in the hands of those who govern him?
This fact, in my opinion-and it seems to me that there can be no two opinions in the matter-is the strongest condemnation of all systems based on depriving the condemned man of his liberty. The origin of the systematic suppression of all individual will in the prisoners, the systematic reduction of men to the level of unreasoning machines, carried on throughout the long years of imprisonment, is easily explained. It grew from the desire of preventing any breaches of discipline, and of keeping the greatest number of prisoners with the least possible amount of warders. And we may see throughout the bulky literature of "prison-discipline" that the greatest admiration is bestowed precisely on those systems which have obtained the results of discipline with the least possible number of warders. The ideal of our prisons would be a thousand automatons, rising and working, eating and going to bed, by electric currents transmitted to them from a single warder. But our modern and perfected systems of prisons, although realizing perhaps some immediate economies for the State Budget, are also the most appropriate for bringing recidive to the strikingly high figures it attains now. The less prisons appropriate to their present ideal, the less the recidive. (16) And it is not to be wondered at that men accustomed to be mere machines do not prove to be the men whom society needs.
As soon as the prisoner is released, the comrades of his former life wait upon him. They receive him in brotherly guise, and, as soon as liberated, he is taken up by the current which already once has brought him to a prison. Guardians and Prisoners' Aid Societies cannot help. All they can do is to undo the bad work done by the prison, to counterbalance its bad effects in some of the released prisoners. While the influence of honest men who could have tendered a brotherly hand to the man before he was brought into the prisoner's dock, would have prevented him from committing the faults he has committed, now, after he has under gone the prison education, their efforts will remain fruitless in most cases.
And what a contrast between the fraternal reception of the brotherhood of "magsmen" and the reception on behalf of " respectable people," who conceal under a Christian exterior a Pharisaic egotism! For them the liberated prisoner is something plague-stricken. Who of them would invite him into his own house, and merely say, " Here is a room, there is work for you; sit at this table, and be one of our family "? He needs most fraternal support, he is most in need of a brotherly hand stretched out to him. But, after having done all in our power to make of him a foe of society, after having inoculated him with the vises which characterize prisons, who will tender him the brotherly hand he is in need of?
And who is the woman who would like to marry a man who has been once in a prison? We know how often women marry men "to save them ;" but, apart from a very few exceptions, they instinctively refuse those who have received prison education. And so the liberated prisoner is compelled to search for a partner in life among those women-the sad products of an abominably organized society-who have most contributed to bring him into trouble. No wonder that most of the released prisoners return to prison again after having spent but a few months at liberty !
There are few who would now dare to affirm that prisons ought only to exercise a deterrent influence without caring for the moral improvement of the prisoners. But what are we doing to achieve this last end? Our prisons are made for degrading all those who enter them, for killing the very last feelings of self respect.
Everybody knows the influence of a decent dress. Even an animal is ashamed to appear amid its like if its coat renders it conspicuous and ridiculous. A cat, which a boy would hare painted with yellow and black stripes, would be ashamed to appear in this guise amid other cats. But men begin by giving a fool's dress to those whom they pretend to moralize. When at Lyons I often saw the effect produced on prisoners by the prison dress. Mostly workmen, poorly but decently clad, they crossed the yard where I was taking my walk, and entered the room where they had to throw off their own dress and take the prison costume. And as they went out, wearing the ugly prison-dress mended with pieces of multi-colored rags, with a round ugly cap, they felt quite ashamed of appearing before men in such ugly attire. And there are plenty of prisons, especially in this country, where the dress of the prisoner, made out of parti-colored pieces, resembles more the dress of a mad jester of old than that of a man whom our prison philanthropists pretend to improve.
That is a convict's first impression, and throughout his life in a prison he will be submitted to a treatment which is imbued with the utmost contempt for human feelings. At Dartmoor, for instance, convicts will be considered as people who dare not have the slightest feeling of decency. They will be compelled to parade in gangs, quite naked, before the prison authorities, and to perform in this attire a kind of gymnastics before them. " Turn round! Lift both arms! Lift the right leg! Hold up the sole of the left foot with the right hand! " And so on. (17)
The prisoner is no longer a man in whom any feeling of self-respect is permitted to exist. He is a thing, a mere number B 24, and he will be treated as a numbered thing. No animal could bear such treatment year after year without heing utterly abashed; but those human beings, who in a few years ought to become useful members of society, are treated in this way. If the prisoner is permitted to have a walk, his walk will not be like that of other men. He will be marched in a file, with a warder standing in the middle of the yard, and loudly crying, "Un-deusse, un-deusse, arch-fer, arch-fer!" If he yields to the most human of all desires-that of communicating an impression, or a thought, to a fellow-creature-he will commit a breach of discipline. And, however docile, he will do this. Before he entered the prison he may have felt reluctance to lie and deceive anybody; here he will learn to lie and deceive, until lying and deceit become his second nature.
He may be sad or gay, good or bad tempered; he must not show it. He is a numbered thing, which must move about according to regulations. Tears may choke him; he must suppress them. Throughout the years of servitude he never will be alone; even in the solitude of his cell an eye will spy his movements and surprise the feeling he wished to keep to himself, be. cause it was a human feeling, and human feelings are not allowed in prisons. Be it compassion for a fellow-sufferer, or love for his relatives, which awakens in him; be it a desire of speaking out his sorrows to somebody beyond the persons officially appointed for that purpose; be it any of those affections which render man better, all is crushed by the force which denies him the right to be a man. condemned to a bestial life, all that might suggest better feelings will be carefully sup pressed. He must not be a man, so it is ordained by the prison rules.
He must have no feelings. But woe betide him if by ill-luck the feeling of human dignity awakens within him! Woe to him if he is annoyed by a disbelief in his word; if the searching of his dress, repeated several times a day, humiliates him; if the hypocrisy of going to the chapel, when nothing attracts him there, is repugnant to him; if he betrays by a word, by the tone of his voice, the contempt he feels for a warder who carries on the traffic in tobacco and steals the last coppers of a fellow-prisoner; if the need of showing compassion to somebody makes him take pity upon a feebler comrade and share his bread with him; if he has maintained enough of human dignity to revolt against an unmerited reproach, an unmerited suspicion, a rough taunt; if he is honest enough to rebel against the small intrigues, the favoritism of the warders;-then, the prison will become a hell to him. He will be crushed by labor beyond his strength, if he is not sent to rot in the black cell. The most trifling breach of discipline, which would pass unnoticed in the hypocrite who makes his way up the prison-ladder by his base conduct, will call down a punishment upon his head; it will be treated as insubordination. And each punishment will lead to a new one. He will be brought to madness by small persecutions, and may be happy if ever he leaves the prison except in a coffin.
It is easy to write to the newspapers that the warders ought to be under severe control; that governors ought to be chosen among the very best men. Nothing easier than to build Administrative Utopias! But man is man; the warder as well as the prisoner. And when men are condemned all their life to false relations with other men, they become false themselves. Prisoners themselves, the warders become as fastidious as the prisoners. Nowhere in my life, except around the Russian monasteries, have I seen such a spirit of petty intrigue as we saw amid the warders and the surroundings of Clairvaux. Compelled to move within a small and limited world of trivial interests, the prison authorities feel its influence. Small tittle-tattle, narrow discussions about a word said by such a prisoner and a gesture made by another, supply the material for their conversations.
Men are men; and you cannot give so immense an authority to men over men without corrupting those to whom you give the authority. They will abuse it; and their abuses of it will be the more unscrupulous, and the more felt by the abused, the more limited and narrow is the world they live in. Compelled as they are to live in the midst of a hostile camp of prisoners, the warders cannot be models of kindness and humanity. To the league of the prisoners, they oppose the league of the warders. And, as they hold the power, they abuse it like all those who hold power in their hands. The institution makes them what they are, petty and vexatious persecutors of the prisoners. Put a Pestalozzi in their place (if only a Pestalozzi would accept the function), and he also would soon become a prison warder. And, when I take all the circumstances into consideration, I really am inclined to say that still the men are better than the institution.
And a rancorous feeling against a society which always was but a step-mother to him grows within the prisoner. He accustoms him self to hate-cordially to hate all those " respectable " people who so wickedly kill his best feelings in him. He divides the world into two parts: that to which he and his comrades belong, and the outer world represented by tile governor, the warders, the employers. A brotherhood rapidly grows between all the inmates of a prison against all those who do not wear the prisoner's dress. These are the enemies. Everything which may be done to deceive them is right. The prisoner is an out law to them; they become outlaws to him. And, as soon as he is free, he will put this morality into practice. Before having been in prison, he may have committed faults without reflection. Prison education will make him consider society as an enemy: now he will have a philosophy of his own-that which Zola summed up in the following words: " Quels gredins les honnêttes gens! "
Not only exasperation against Society does the prison develop in its inmates; not only does it systematically kill in them every feeling of self-respect, dignity, compassion and love, and favor the growth of opposite feelings,-it inoculates the prisoner with vises which be long to the most abject category of reprobates. It is known in what threatening proportions crimes against decency are growing all over the Continent, as well as in this country. Many causes contribute towards this growth; but amid these various causes one occupies a marked rank; it is the pestilential influence of our prisons. In this direction, the deteriorating influence of prisons on society is felt perhaps
I do not speak only about those unhappy creatures-the boys whom we saw at Lyons. We were told in sober earnestness that day and night the whole atmosphere of their life is permeated throughout with one foul breath of depravity. It is there, in such nests of corruption as the boys' department of the Prison of St. Paul, that we must look for the growth of what the lawyers describe as " the criminal classes," not to the laws of heredity. But the same is true with regard to prisons where fully grown people are kept. The facts which we came across during our prison life surpass all that the most frenzied imagination could invent. One must have been for long years in a prison, secluded from all higher influences and abandoned to one's own and that of a thousand convicts' imaginations, to come to the incredible state of mind which is witnessed among some prisoners. And I suppose that I shall say only what will be supported by all intelligent and frank governors of prisons, if I say that the prisons are the nurseries for the most revolting category of breaches of moral law. (18)
I shall not enter into details upon this subject, only too lightly treated now in a certain kind of literature. I only wish to add that those fall into gross error who imagine that the complete seclusion of prisoners and cellular imprisonment can promise any improvement in that special direction. A perverse turn of imagination is the real cause of all like cases, and the cell is the best means for giving to imagination such a turn. As to how far imagination can go in that direction, even alienists, I suppose, do not suspect it: to know it one must spend several months in a prisoner's cell, and enjoy a full confidence of his neighbors.
On the whole, cellular imprisonment, which has so many advocates now, would be merely a useless cruelty, and a powerful instrument in weakening still more the bodily and mental energy of the prisoners. Experience all over Europe, and the dreadful proportion of cases of insanity which have been witnessed everywhere that cellular imprisonment has been resorted to for any length of time, are conclusive in this respect, and one cannot but wonder how little this experience has profited. For a man who has some occupation which may be a source of enjoyment to him, and whose mind is by itself a rich source of impressions; for a person who has nothing outside the prison to worry him, whose family life is happy, and who has no such mental preoccupations as might become a source of continuous pain to the mind, seclusion from human society may not be fatal, if it lasts only for a few. months. But for those who cannot live with their own thoughts, and especially for those whose relations with the outer world are not quite smooth, and who are worried by their own thoughts, even a few months of cellular imprisonment may prove a most fatal experiment.
1 "Leaves from a Prison Diary." London, 1885
2 "Thirty Years' Experiences of a Medical Officer in the English Convict Service." London, 1884
3 "Prison Characters," by a Prison Matron. London, 1866.
4 "The Punishment and Prevention of Crime." "English Citizen" series. London, 1885.
5 "Five Years' Penal Servitude," by One who has, endurec it. (George Routledge and Sons.)
6 "It rose to 70l. at the Lusk prison-farm, where forty-two convicts only were kept. See Edmund Du Cane's "Punishment and Prevention of Crime."
7 Michael Davitt's "Leaves."
8 "Five Years' Penal Servitude," p. 61
9 Compte Rendu général de l'Administration de la Justice Criminelle en France en 1878 et 1879; Reinach, Les Récidivistes. Paris, 1882.
10 "If those who die after liberation and those whose recidive crimes are not discovered be taken into account, it remains an open question whether the number of récidivistes is not equal to that of the liberated prisoners." - Lombroso, L'Uomo delinquente.
11 Compare Eugene Simon's La Cite Chinoise.
12 "Five Years' Penal Servitude," by One who has endured it, p. 61
13 Du Cane, l.c., p. 176.
14 Speech of M. Dupuy (de l'Aisne) at the French Chamber of Deputies on January 18, 1887.
15 "The Punishment and Prevention of Crime," p. 176.
16 In Russia the number of récidivistes is only eighteen per cent, as against forty to fifty per cent. in Western Europe.
17 "Dartmoor," by late B 24, in the Daily News, 1886.
18 Mr. Davitt's remarks in his "Leaves from a Prison Diary," show that the same thing is true with regard to the prisons of this country.
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