HC Deb 01 July 1844 vol 76 cc154-8

On the Order of the Day for the House to go into Committee on the Prisons (Scotland) Bill,

Mr. Wallace

observed, that the state of the prisons and of their inmates in a great many of the gaols in Scotland, together with the expense which their maintenance occasioned to the inhabi- tants, had given rise to a very general feeling with respect to the expediency of persevering in the system of confinement recently introduced into that country under the Prisons Regulation Bill. His object in rising at the present moment was to put a question to the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary, of which he had given notice on a former evening, and he hoped he should receive a reply to his inquiry, which related to certain prisoners now under sentence of transportation in the gaols in Scotland, who were, owing to the rigorous treatment enforced upon them under the new system, reduced to such a state of weakness and debility as to render it impossible for the authorities to carry the sentences passed upon them into effect. He understood that in the gaol of Glasgow there were nineteen or twenty persons in this condition, that there were, likewise, a number of prisoners in the gaol of Perth; in the town gaol of Dumbartonshire; and that in the prisons in various other parts of Scotland the same facts were observed. He could not refrain from characterizing that as a very bad system of prison discipline, the operation of which destroyed the health of those confined, even before they were put upon their trial. His objection to the new system of prison discipline was founded on his belief that it was an impracticable absurdity. Long imprisonment had never, to his knowledge, been productive of good to the culprit. If it had been found that placing persons in confinement for a long period after they had been in a course of training for crime during many years had reformed those so confined, then it might, perhaps, be admitted that the system of gaol reformation was good; but it never had succeeded in adult cases. In the instances of very young persons alone it might be productive of good effects; but these were not the class of prisoners upon whom the prison discipline was tried. It had been resorted to in the case of persons who had been for years in the habitual commission of crime, and who no sooner were liberated from prison than they were detected in a new crime, and again placed in confinement. The people of Scotland were taxed very heavily, and contributed large sums towards the support of these reformatory prisons; but the only result that had been observed was the thriving condition of the official persons connected with them, to whom large salaries were paid for their services. In short, his opinion, and not his alone, but that of a very numerous class, was, that as far as Scotland was concerned the whole system of prison discipline had nearly, if not entirely, failed. The question which he had to put, was whether the right hon. Baronet were aware that in the gaol of Glasgow there were any persons confined who were in such a state of debility as to render it impossible to carry into effect the sentence of transportation which had been passed upon them.

Sir J. Graham

did not think the present was the fittest opportunity for discussing the important question whether the system of prison discipline now enforced in the prisons of Great Britain was the best that could be devised or not. His experience of the system as it was in operation at Pentonville and Parkhurst, had led him to the conclusion, that it was on the whole highly conducive to the amelioration of those persons who had been placed there to undergo its effects. The system had been expressly limited to those two prisons, with a view to ascertain its results before it was applied on a larger scale throughout England. His hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate, who was a Member of the Prison Board of Scotland, took the same view that he did with respect to the successful operation of the system in that country, and he was prepared to state to the House his belief, that the experiment was not proved to be a failure, but that on the whole it had been attended with success. Passing on to answer the hon. Member's question, the House must not misunderstand the point, nor be led to attribute the state of health of the prisoners whose confinement in gaol was the subject of the complaint of the hon. Gentleman, to the length of imprisonment which they had endured, for the fact was, that these were all recent cases of confinement, and the bodily condition of the prisoners previous to their conviction was such as not to enable them to undergo their sentence of transportation. This state of things was not peculiar to Scotland: it was common to every prison throughout the kingdom, and in those instances where prisoners were found unable to endure transportation, an humble Address was presented to Her Majesty representing the facts, and the result was, a commutation of the former sentence into one of imprisonment in lieu of transportation. In the absence of any such circumstances, he uniformly advised the Crown to carry the sentence of transportation into effect. He thought that punishment was a salutary one; indeed, he considered it the best secondary punishment that could be devised. He had no such very great confidence in the benefits resulting from the reformatory system of imprisonment. Considering the redundance of labour in every branch of employment, he did not look upon those who were discharged from prison and thrown upon the labour-market as able to compete with the honest unpolluted labourer, and by force of this and other adverse circumstances they were in a great number of cases thrown back upon their former associates and habits, and tempted again to resort to the commission of crime. For these reasons he considered he had performed his duty to society by recommending that the sentence of transportation be carried in most of the cases of convicts into effect confined even at Pentonville. With respect to the cases to which the hon. Member for Greenock referred, they formed exceptions to the rule, nor was it possible to carry the original sentence of transportation passed upon those prisoners into effect on account of the diseases with which those convicts were infected. The consequence was, the commutation of their sentence into one of imprisonment. That imprisonment must necessarily be enforced in the county gaol where the culprit was tried, and the cost of his support in prison likewise must be borne by the county. He was bound at the same time to admit that the number of prisoners so circumstanced was considerable in Scotland as it likewise was in England, and the number was on the increase. This was not a new evil; on the contrary, it had long thrown on the county-rates in both countries a very considerable charge in the cost incurred for the maintenance of these prisoners. It was a subject to which the attention of the Government ought to be directed; and he could assure the hon. Gentleman that he would not fail to give it his best consideration.

Bill passed through Committee.

House adjourned at a quarter past 8 o'clock.