HC Deb 05 March 1824 vol 10 cc755-66

On the order of the day for the second reading of this bill,

Mr. Bennet

said, he would avail himself of that opportunity to make some observations on the conduct pursued, in many of the prisons, with respect to the punishment of hard labour, especially as connected with the Tread-mill. He began by alluding to the conduct of the magistrates of Northallerton, who had persevered in inflicting the punishment of hard labour previous to conviction. Finding that such a proceeding was contrary to law, they said that they would not compel prisoners to work in the mill, but they took care to exercise severities towards them, in the event of their refusing to work; and it was of little consequence to the individual, whether he was directly ordered to work, or on being half-starved for his refusal, was compelled to prefer labour to famine. The magistrates of Northallerton could compel persons to hard labour; for there were other modes besides that of the tread-mill. He should therefore feel it his duty to propose a clause, providing that no person before trial should be allowed to work at hard labour, even with his own consent, otherwise these amateur magistrates would be enabled to persist in their favourite speculation. He was a great friend to the principle of the tread-mill properly applied; but it was only as a punishment after conviction that he could feel himself justified in approving of it. Transportation, generally speaking, was rather a favour than a punishment to convicted offenders, and hard labour at the treadmill might Often be substituted with ad- vantage. But, in order to make it a punishment of disgrace, it was necessary that they should prevent any one from volunteering to undertake it, as in that case the association would be interfered with, upon which its efficacy should mainly depend. There was another question connected with tread-mill discipline, to which he was anxious to call the attention of the right hon. secretary. He had himself Seen many of the mills at work, and was surprised at the unequal distribution of the labour. It was not upon the magistrate, nor even upon the gaoler, but upon the miller, that the quantity of work required from each person depended; and, so imperfect was the arrangement in many instances, that the proportion of Work done in summer, under all the inconveniences of heat, was often considerably greater than in winter. The House was, he thought, bound to do one of two things—either to take the subject into their own hands, by appointing a committee of inquiry, or to settle at once a maximum of labour beyond which magistrates should not be allowed to go. As this punishment was administered at present, persons found guilty of felony were sentenced to lighter labour in some places, than those who were found guilty of misdemeanors were in others. According to a calculation life had made, the labour of one person at the tread-mill in a summer's day, was equal to ninety-six ascents up the monument, and the labour of the same person on a winter's day was 38 times less. He had received a letter from Mr. Higgins, the gaoler of Lancaster, who had the reputation of being one of the most humane, and whom he knew to be one of the most intelligent persons in such a situation. The letter stated, that the maximum of labour ought not to exceed 12,000 feet, and it was known that at Brixton, the women sometimes did 13,000. According to a calculation which he had made, the work done at Lancaster was equal to 37 miles in a day. The calculation must be still greater where 17,000 feet were done; which was the case in one county. Whether the House would choose to appoint a committee, or to discuss his proposition at once, he would submit, that the maximum for men ought not to exceed 10,000 feet, and that for women ought not to exceed 8,000. He did not think it fit to leave the execution of the law to magistrates, or rather to millers, to enforce hard labour, or to require none at all, as he might choose to work the mills.—He next alluded to the state of the small prisons, which were generally in the most miserable state; there being in many of them no provision for religious instruction, little or no cloathing, and no beds but dirty straw for the prisoners to sleep on. In his opinion, the corporations of the towns in which these prisons were situated, if not able to keep their prisoners as they ought to be kept, should be compelled to send them to the county gaol, where they would be better taken care of. The first that he should mention was the borough gaol of Reading, to show what the condition of these prisons was. "The gaol," as the report states, "is situate in the middle of the market-place adjoining the Guildhall; it is composed of the first-floor of a public-house, of which it is an integral part, having no connexion by passages or stairs, however, with the rest of the house. It consists of three rooms; the largest is 17 feet by 13, with afire-place, and two windows communicating with the street. The second room is 13 feet by 9, separated from the one just described by inch and half slabs, which are so warped and rent, and cut by the prisoners, that conversation is readily carried on from one room to the other. The third room is within the larger, 6 feet by 6 feet 4 inches, and lighted only by a borrowed light. All the rooms are eight feet four inches in height. There is no airing yard, nor separate day apartments. No labour is supplied—no rules affixed—no religious instruction appointed, nor any gaoler resident. When the sessions are held in the town, more than thirty persons have been confined in the space above described, when the gaoler is obliged to rely more upon his irons than upon his walls." According to a narrative, of the accuracy of which he had not the smallest doubt, 222 persons had passed through that prison in the course of the last year; there being within its walls no bedding but straw, no infirmary or sick room, no chapel, nor any provision for divine service. He would ask the House whether they would wish the gaol to continue in that state, or whether they would not compel the magistrates to send their prisoners to the gaol of the county? The next he should notice was that of Rochester, which had almost every fault that a prison could have. There was great want of room, no place for the sick; tried and untried criminals and debtors, all lived together as far as regarded the men, and these had the opportunity of constant communication, through an iron railing, with the women. No employment, no instruction, no religious service. The next he should allude to was that of Yarmouth. At the time that it was visited by the committee for the improvement of prison discipline, two poor boys were confined in the fourth cell, taken up as vagrants, and committed for one month for being found on the river at an unseasonable hour of the night. They were confined not only in a state of idleness but in darkness: their cell having no window. In another cell was a strong healthy man accustomed to husbandry work, who was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. In consequence of the closeness of his confinement and entire want of exercise, he became so ill that for several weeks he was confined to his bed. About fifty prisoners passed through it in a year. No one could give more credit than he did to the secretary of state for his exertions; but he hoped the suggestions he had thrown out would cause some alterations to be made in the bill.—The hon. member then adverted to the number of maniacs who were confined in different prisons among the felons, one of whom, he said, had been shut up for 16 years. He thought it would be proper to make it compulsory on the government to find proper places for such maniacs as had been condemned to be shut up on account of having committed some crimes, separate from other prisoners. There ought to be an asylum apart for them. He was the zealous advocate for the infliction of some well graduated punishment, which would supply the place of capital punishment, and therefore when such a punishment had been found as promised to answer this purpose, he thought it was of some importance to endeavour to relieve it from the anomalies he had pointed out. He wished to pass no censure on individuals, whose zeal might have led them into errors; but he had shown, that in consequence of the zeal of some, and the want of attention in others, great anomalies did exist in the application of the labour of the tread-mill as a punishment; and it was necessary that these anomalies should be removed, or they could not expect to carry the public opinion with them in inflicting it; and without this, all punish- ments became nugatory, and were so much gratuitous pain.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that as to the employment of prisoners, before trial, on the tread-mill, the objections of the hon. gentleman applied to employment of every description, as well as that of the tread-mill. In fact, this was the declared opinion of the legislature. In a bill passed last session there was a clause, which he thought was so clear that it could not be mistaken, by which it was expressly forbidden to put any prisoner to hard labour before he was sentenced to it. Contrary to his expectations, however, it had been misunderstood. One instance had occurred in which a prisoner, before trial, was put to hard labour; and it was thought no infringement of the act, because he had made his choice of going to hard labour in preference to being kept on bread and water, which was the alternative offered him. This was, no doubt, a breach of the act. He had thought it almost impossible to make a law more precise than the act of the 4th of Geo. 4th. cap. 64. The right hon. gentleman here read the clause which, in substance, stated, that no magistrates should be authorised to make prisoners go to hard work before trial, unless by their voluntary consent, when they were to receive a proper proportion of the money they earned by their labour. And, even with their own consent, this act did not authorise the magistrates to class such prisoners with convicted persons. He was surprised that the intention of this clause should have been doubted; but as it had been, there was now a necessity to provide some remedy. He felt, however, a great difficulty in doing this. Pie was as ready to admit, as the hon. gentleman, that the employment of the tread-mill before trial was a great grievance, and under the present act it was not lawful so to employ it. By the laws of this country, every man was presumed innocent until he had been tried; when accused of any offence he was not deprived of his liberty as a punishment, but to insure his presence on the day of trial. It was, in the first place, therefore, extremely unjust to send unconvicted prisoners to work at the tread-mill. But he objected to it also on the ground of its weakening the effect of that punishment. It took away the stigma that should belong to the punishment appropriated exclusively to guilt, by making it also the lot of the innocent. He saw nothing more that the House could do in this point, than to strengthen their former enactment if possible and make a law that under no circumstances should a prisoner be sent to hard labour before he was sentenced to it as a part of his punishment for the crime of which he was convicted. He came now to the second topic of the hon. gentleman's speech—the different degrees of labour, and consequently the inequality of the punishment inflicted by the tread-mill. The hon. member's remedy for this was, to pass a law, providing a maximum of labour which should not be exceeded. It was impossible to carry this suggestion of the hon. gentleman into effect. It might be true, as stated by the hon. gentleman, that the miller had the power to relax or augment the labour of the prisoners, that the mechanist had the power to regulate the labour; and, if it were true, it was then evident, that it would be very difficult to provide a remedy for the inequality of which the hon. member complained. In one mill he had stated that the prisoners took 16,000 steps, in another 10,000, and in another only 8,000 a day. But, did he therefore infer, that the labour was great in proportion to the number of steps? The degree of labour depended on the manner in which the miller fed the mill. It might therefore happen, that he who took only 8,000 steps, if working in a mill which was kept well supplied, performed more work than he who took 12,000, or 16,000 steps. There was one part of the hon. gentleman's calculations so extraordinary, and so obviously fallacious, that it was sufficient to shake the confidence which the House might be disposed to place in his other calculations. He had stated, that some of the prisoners, performed a task equal to that of walking 37 miles a-day. But he had at the same time stated, that the prisoners took about 12,000 steps a-day or about two miles and a quarter. The hon. member made it out, that these two miles and a quarter of perpendicular ascent were equal to thirty seven miles of walking on a plane; but, though he did not know on what data the hon. member had founded his calculations he differed entirely as to the result. In the first place, the motion in the treadmill was not perpendicular ascent; for the wheel revolved under the feet of the prisoners, and met their steps. He denied that this labour was at all equal to dragging the weight of the body up a perpendicular ascent. If, indeed, the hon. gentleman had shewn that the labour of the tread-mill was injurious to health, it would have been a more convincing argument of its ill effects than all the statements of Dr. Good or any other writers. He was happy to hear from the hon. member that there were prison-fanciers; as he was sure that those magistrates who took a pride and pleasure in visiting prisons, conferred a benefit both on the country and on the prisoners. But, if there were prison-fanciers, there were also gentlemen who were very astute at finding out objections to the tread-mill. Amongst them was a friend of his own, a baronet, who had formerly a seat in that House, sir J. Coxe Hippisley, and who had devoted much time and attention in detecting the bad properties of the treadmill. But it so happened that sir John was the inventor of the crank-wheel, which he wished to introduce into prisons. It was incumbent on those who were so ready to point out the disadvantage of the treadmill to find some better mode of punishment. When he saw that eight or ten hours labour a-day at it produced ill health; he should implore the hon. gentlemen to diminish its effects by introducing a law affixing a maximum of punishment. Suppose this maximum was fixed at 10,000 steps; did he not think that this would not lead to monstrous abuses? To take the case of two persons, one weak, the other strong—was there to be no discretion here? Were they both to perform their 10,000 steps? Was it not better that the law should remain as it now stood; which left it to the discretion of the magistrates? If the maximum were in force, would not magistrates say to the gaoler, "You have the act of parliament to guide you, we will not interfere;" and would not the whole duty thus devolve on the gaoler? With respect to the smaller jurisdictions, he would admit that the bill of last year was incomplete, if by it he had intended to regulate them. But the bill applied exclusively to prisons which permitted the classification of prisoners. There was a clause which enabled magistrates having local jurisdiction to contract with the magistrates to send their prisoners to the county gaol; but the hon. gentleman would go further, and make it imperative on the magistrates to send all prisoners to the county gaol. Let him only look at some of the conse- quences. While there were small and local jurisdictions it was necessary that the gaol should be near the spots where those jurisdictions existed. The class of offences of which they took cognizance was not very heinous, but still they coupled imprisonment. If the hon. gentleman could persuade magistrates who possessed local jurisdiction to give it up, he (Mr. Peel) should be very glad to receive it; but while it remained, great inconvenience would be occasioned by separating the gaol from the seat of the magistracy. Suppose a man went to gaol for a month or a week, was he to be sent 20, 30, 40, or even 50 miles to the county gaol? Such a measure would be a gross aggravation of the punishment. Conceive a prisoner apprehended at one place where he was to be tried, and sent to another at a considerable distance to be kept till the day of trial, and then brought back. Here were two journeys; and journeys performed under the painful circumstances of being ironed and guarded. The situation of the prisoners was bad enough in these small prisons, and was deserving of consideration; but the remedy proposed was not what he would adopt. The evil might be remedied by improving the gaols, not by sending the prisoners to the county gaols. With respect to maniacs he wished the hon. gentleman could find out some other means of securing them. At present those lunatics who had been condemned on account of having committed some crime were necessarily kept confined. He could not appoint them separate attendants, and he had no other power, as the law stood, but to send them to prison.

Sir T. Baring

said, he was not a very cordial friend to the tread-mill, since its effects were differerent on different persons. Suppose two men, one brought up to hard labour, and another to idleness, to have committed the same crime, and both to have been sentenced to the tread-mill, it was plain that the degree of punishment would be very different for each. The tread-mill at Winchester was one of the first established in the kingdom, and was, he believed, one of the best. He could say, that since it had been in use, the prisoners were more afflicted with colds and rheumatisms than before. He was of opinion, that the application of this punishment should be laid under restraints and restrictions. As a proof of this, the hon. baronet read an extract from the case of a woman of the name of Loder, and was requested by Mr. Sumner to read the whole, with which request the hon. baronet did not comply, but concluded with saying, that he thought there were sufficient reasons for making some law, preventing the unlimited application of the punishment of the tread-mill.

Mr. H. Sumner

said, he was much surprised at the course pursued by the hon. baronet, who had taken a part of the report of the committee, and had founded his argument upon the particular case of Mrs. Loder. Now, he would read that case from beginning to end. It was thus set forth in the report;—"The woman Loder was committed by the petty sessions at Guildford (the rev. G. Walter Onslow, chairman), on the 11th October last, on a charge by the parish officers of Godalming, of having been delivered of a bastard child, and being then chargeable to the parish. It appeared that the said bastard was her third child, by three several fathers; and she was sentenced to the mitigated term of three months' confinement to work at the house of correction. She was put upon the wheel on the 13th of October, but on account of the feeble and emaciated state in which she appeared at that period, she was not upon the wheel again for the next fourteen or fifteen days of her imprisonment, nor till extra allowance of food for her, and 12 ounces of bread and an ounce of sugar per diem for the child, had insured the life of the child, and so far recruited the mother's strength, that, as being a preferable state to remaining all day alone in her ward, she desired to go to work with the other women on the wheel. Her hours of actual work upon the wheel were from half-past eight or nine to twelve in the morning, and from half-past one to four in the afternoon. Her periods of work never exceeded fifteen minutes, nor the remission ever less than ten. She was weighed on the 31st of October, after four or five days work, and then weighed eight stone two pounds, and again on the 13th December, and having worked through the whole of the interval was found to have gained nine pounds weight. On the 15th December she took cold, and was, by the surgeon's order, confined to her ward, and between that day and the day of her liberation, the 2nd of January, she lost two pounds and a half weight. She has declared she was better fed, and had more care taken of her, and was altogether more comfortable during her imprisonment, than she had ever been before; that she had gained health and strength during the time she was subject to work on the wheel; and on her leaving the prison, expressed much apprehension that she should not fare as well on her return home" [hear!]. Now that statement would clearly show the effects of the exercise. With respect to the other parts of the bill, his right hon. friend had anticipated all he had to say. His hon. friend (Mr. Bennet) was a member of a society for the improvement of prison discipline. One of its members, whom he had now in his eye (Mr.Buxton), had published a work upon the subject, and he confessed, that, up to the appearance of that work, he had given very little attention to this subject; but he thought he might now say, that no man had been more zealous than himself latterly to obtain liberal grants to ameliorate the condition of the prison which came within his inspection. But before they proceeded to legislate, perhaps it would be as well to wait, until they had a little more experience of the new light which, it seemed, had lately broken in on them. No man had had more experience on this subject than he had.

Mr. Western

said, that with respect to the proposition of asking no prisoner to work, his opinion was, that as employment was better than perfect indolence, it would be ruinous to deprive the prisoners of the option of employment. An objection had been taken to the punishment of the tread-mill, because it was said to be degrading. Now he thought that all punishment should be accompanied with a feeling of degradation; because it was desirable to make delinquents feel the debasement to which their offences had reduced them.

Mr. W. Courtenay

said, it was manifest that the regulations of this bill could not be applied to all gaols, and could only produce practical good in those gaols which were adapted for its application. He agreed with his hon. friend who spoke first, that the state of the inferior gaols imperiously pressed itself upon the attention of the House; and he looked at the clause now proposed to be introduced in. the bill, as only one step towards the amelioration of our prisons. He thought the more prudent course would be, to adopt this measure in the first instance, and then look out for further information, with a view to an ulterior measure. There was this difficulty in making compulsory regulations, that all the inferior jurisdictions could send their prisoners to the county gaol; which would be attended with great expense. It was true, that if the legislature compelled the county gaol to receive prisoners from the small jurisdictions, it could also compel those small jurisdictions to contribute their share of the expense. If it could be arranged, that the trial of prisoners, as well as their commitment, should fall upon the general jurisdiction of the county, it would, in his mind, be a most happy regulation. With regard to the employment of prisoners before trial, it appeared to him, that the case stood thus: the bill of last session enacted, as clearly as possible, what the magistrates had to do; namely, to work convicted prisoners, but not to oblige prisoners committed for trial to labour without their own consent. These enabling enactments had not been found judicious, and now it was deemed necessary to introduce a disabling clause into the former act. The mode in which this was meant to be accomplished was, by drawing a clear distinction between those cases in which hard labour should be resorted to, and mere employment. The difficulty might be met by introducing words to this effect—"Provided always, that it shall not be lawful to employ prisoners before trial at any labour in which persons sentenced to hard labour had been engaged.

Mr. Alderman Wood

expressed his surprise at the cheers which followed the statement of the hon. member for Surry, respecting the case of Mrs. Loder. This poor woman had been worked constantly on the tread-mill for hours together; and, what was her crime? Why, simply, that she had three children by three fresh men. Now he found that in the country the gaols were filled in consequence of offences against the game laws, or cases of bastardy. But in London they had little experience of either class. He could not agree, that a distinction was to be drawn between the hard labourer and a clerk, who perhaps might be committed to prison. He thought that the treadmill and all other punishments should be distributed alike, without reference to persons. He would put a case, which many members must have heard of, he meant that of a man, who holding a situation of 3,000l. a year, had forged bills to an enormous amount and was now actually walking the streets of London. Why, if that man had been consigned to the tread-mill for life, it would scarcely be more than he deserved; and yet he himself had seen that man in Paris, and he was now to be met with in the streets of London. With respect to women he thought they should not be subjected to the tread-milk Flogging had been done away with in their case, and the wheel should also. He hoped no magistrate would hereafter sentence women to the tread-mill.

The bill was read a second time.

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