HC Deb 26 April 1838 vol 42 cc605-9
Lord John Russell

moved for leave to bring in a Bill for the better ordering of prisons. This was the supplement of a bill which had been introduced in another House by a noble Friend of his; according to which, inspectors of prisons had been appointed, and various other acts had been suggested, which, however, he was induced to think might be amended. This bill enabled the councils of cities and boroughs to visit gaols in the same way as magistrates at quarter sessions were now enabled. It provided for the separation of different classes of prisoners; that was to say, that those who were committed for misdemeanors only (but who very often, he admitted, were persons of as depraved habits as those who were felons) should be classified and separated from the felons. Another object which he had in view was to do away altogether with the practice (which he considered to be most erroneous in principle) of employing prisoners as officers in prisons. Such a system, no doubt, as that which existed of employing a certain number of convicted prisoners to fill offices within the gaols, might be said to be one of practical economy, but it was, in his opinion, the worst possible principle which could be devised, and undoubtedly in its working gave rise to the worst consequences. It was a bad principle to proceed upon, that those who had been convicted of crime should possess any power over their fellow-prisoners. Those criminals who were the friends of these officers, who were, in fact, inspectors, were treated with unmerited kindness, whilst less un- deserving individuals encountered very different treatment. There were various other provisions in the bill which it would be better to discuss when the bill should be before them. He would now move for leave to bring in a bill for the better ordering of prisons.

Mr. Hume

said, that there could be no doubt whatever that very great practical reforms were required in the regulation of our prisons, and he rose, in the first place, to express his concurrence in the principle which the noble Lord's measure went to establish, of preventing those, who had been convicted of crime from acting as servants or assistants in prisons. He wished to ask the noble Lord in what manner he meant to carry out the general superintending power over prisons, so as to secure a uniformity of action in all cases. He believed, that unless some powerful and stringent authority were established by the Government, it would be impossible to prevent many of the abuses which did exist. He was rather of opinion that the whole subject of prison regulation ought to be left in the hands of the Secretary of State, and that a uniform system of practice and regulation should be followed throughout all the different gaols of the kingdom.

Mr. Hawes

begged the noble Lord to recollect the resolutions which had been agreed to by the Select Committee, which had been appointed by the noble Lord himself. A considerable time had elapsed since the report of that Committee had been made, and a serious increase of crime amounting to no less than eighteen per cent., had taken place. The report of the Committee to which he alluded, on the laws and regulations relating to prisons, declared it to be the opinion of that Committee that means should be taken for the separate keeping of prisoners; and, secondly, that, for the purpose of carrying this object into effect, it would be necessary to reconstruct or to rebuild certain gaols. On this subject the noble Lord had had a correspondence with the city authorities. Now, the noble Lord, after this correspondence, had an excellent opportunity to establish the best model of prison discipline. He thought there was no one who would not admit, that our gaols, instead of being places of reform, were the nurseries of crime. Let the Central Criminal Court be made the seat of the experiment which had been sug- gested. He wished not to impede the progress of this bill, but he must say, it did not go far enough. It gave a certain power which might not be exercised—it gave a power to the magistrates at the quarter sessions, which practically would not tend one single step towards the reform of prison discipline. But it was important that this change of system should be made on a general and important scale; and if such should be the opinion of the House, let them have a good prison bill. He would here call the attention of the House to the great importance of an improved system of police. From criminal returns which had been made from the office of the Secretary for the Home Department, he found this important fact, that out of forty counties there was an increase of crime in the case of thirty-three. In eight of these counties this increase exceeded thirty per cent.; in nine counties it was between twenty and thirty per cent.; in ten it was from ten to twenty, and the only two counties in which there was stated to be a decrease of crime was, in the counties of Middlesex and Surrey. He attributed this circumstance to the better administration of justice, and to the very improved state of the police. He, therefore, thought, that the whole subject was well worthy of the attention of Government. He wanted much to know what were the intentions of the noble Lord with reference to the resolutions of the Committee, to which he had alluded. Let the House understand whether this was to be the only measure proposed for the improvement of prisons. He understood, that the noble Lord intended to refer this and other bills to a Select Committee. He must say, that a Committee on the subject of prisons having been appointed by the House of Lords—inspectors having been nominated, who had made their report—information having been obtained from Commissioners in France, America, Prussia, and Belgium, and all this information being in the hands of many hon. Members, it would be loss of time to go over the same ground, and he, therefore, hoped, that the noble Lord would reconsider his proposition, as it was of the utmost importance at once to give practical knowledge to those who had not had an opportunity of obtaining it.

Captain Boldero

said, there was one point connected with prison discipline on which he wished to offer a few words. He had taken the trouble to visit several prisons in this great metropolis, in order to ascertain what was the system adopted with regard to military offenders. He found eighty of those persons in some gaols without labour; in other prisons there were ten and twenty kept to hard labour. But such was the want of uniformity of system, that no court-martial could be satisfied as to those who were kept without labour, or as to those who were really kept at hard labour. Now, in the Penitentiary, as far as regarded the extreme cleanliness of the gaol, and 'the uniformity of heat conveyed through that vast building, it reflected the highest possible credit on those who had the superintendence of the prison. Then there was a fly-wheel for raising water, which was no hard labour for military men. In the Cold-Bath-fields, on the contrary—which he had also visited—the prisoners worked severely. Thus, if a court-martial sentenced a man to hard labour, and he was sent to the Penitentiary, their object was, in a great degree, defeated. He was, however, satisfied of this, that if the noble Lord would establish a uniformity of practice with regard to military offenders, he would do away with the cruel torture of flogging. He had taken a lively interest in the management of prisons, and he thought the punishment of women on the treadmill ought to be abolished. No man, who had not witnessed the effects of that punishment, could judge of it. He had watched the working of the treadmill on a day in March last, and stopped till the men upon it were relieved. Every man, as he came off the wheel (and many of them very hearty able-bodied persons), immediately sat himself down, and commenced wiping the sweat from his brow, though it was an extremely cold day. He mentioned this fact to show, that the labour on the tread-wheel was very severe, and, therefore, he wished it done away with in the case of women. He found that the crimes, generally speaking, of which women had been convicted, were shop-lifting, receiving stolen goods, and passing bad coin. These were all crimes of a very grave nature, yet he did not think that many of these individuals' characters were to be held in so degraded a light as those of men who had been committed for housebreaking, attended, in many instances, with maltreatment of persons. He found, by various reports on the subject of prisons in America, the practice prevailed of making each prison support itself by the work done by the prisoners; and those persons who contracted to feed the prisoners, took care that they attended to their work. Let there be but one uniform line of punishment throughout the whole country for military offenders, and let the soldier be made aware of the exact punishment which would be awarded for each particular offence. It would be also productive of advantage, that in case of courts-martial the officers composing them should be aware what prisons were set apart for the separate confinement of military offenders.

Lord John Russell

concurred in some of the suggestions thrown out by the gallant officer, particularly as to that respecting a uniformity of sentence in cases of similar military offence. He had intended to meet the difficulties of the case by the introduction of a bill limiting a particular prison, or part of a prison, to the purpose of confining military offenders under the superintendence of a suitable inspector, the whole, at the same time, to be subject to the control of the gaoler in chief. With reference to the suggestions thrown out in favour of the prison discipline in the gaols of the United States, he must say he would never lend his influence to sanction a system of such extreme severity as that adopted by the American Government in this respect. He was not at all disposed, though favourable to the separate system after conviction, to build a prison upon the plan of the Commissioners, for the use of the city of London, although they were not of themselves likely to adopt the resolution to build one upon that plan. He was extremely anxious to effect some valuable improvement in the discipline of prisons; but he would not, by proposing a system which must be very costly in the experiment, raise an alarm and opposition that might defeat the benevolent objects which he trusted were yet attainable.

Motion agreed to, and leave given to bring in the Bill.