HC Deb 02 July 1844 vol 76 cc259-72
Mr. Mackinnon

rose to move— That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the Report of the Inspectors of Prisons, and the state of discipline in the Gaols for the adoption of an uniform system of punishment, with such improvements in the management as can be safely adopted. The hon. Gentleman said, having been requested by many persons, magistrates and others, to bring this question under the consideration of the House, I do so with some satisfaction, feeling perfectly convinced that some uniform system of prison discipline is requisite, and that the establishment of certain regulations ought no longer to be deferred. I only regret that some other gentleman, some county Member of extensive practice as a magistrate and well acquainted with prison discipline has not undertaken the subject, but as no one came forward, I have ventured to bring the subject before the House. It seems that although nothing as yet has been done on prison discipline, that at various times the subject has been under the consideration of the Legislature. So far back as 1821, a Committee was ordered by this House, by which in their Report it was recommended that a penal code for the government of gaols and of prison discipline should be enacted. In the year 1828 the subject was again brought before this House, at a subsequent period, in 1835, a Parliamentary enquiry took place on the subject of prison discipline, and in the 2nd year of her present Majesty's reign an Act was passed for the classification of prisoners and other improvements. The appointment of Inspectors of prisons has formed a new æra, and has been an additional step in the progress of prison amelioration. To these inspectors the country is much indebted for their valuable reports and indefatigable exertions. In the 8th Report of the Inspectors Home district, 13th August, 1843, they say, "the mischievous effects arising from the association of prisoners is no longer a question. There is a general conviction that the separate system for prisoners has been adopted with advantage." However, it is not my intention here to enter into the respective merits of the various plans suggested for the regulation of prisons, I desire not to point out to this House one plan as preferable to another, but merely to say, that a Committee ought to decide after the examination of witnesses which system ought to be adopted, and to recommend that principle of prison discipline most likely to answer the purpose we all desire to carry into execution. As I have said, I believe the Inspectors have done considerable service. At the same time, it must be admitted that sometimes they have involved themselves in great contradictions, and like all persons appointed to an office have desired to find fault sometimes without any cause. The contradictory statements are found in many of their reports, one of which recommends the tread-wheel, at a subsequent period another report finds fault with this mode of discipline. Every one must be aware that a great diversity of opinion exists not only amongst magistrates and inspectors, but in the community as regards one system of prison discipline over the other. The silent system, the solitary system, the class organization, the factory system, and the plan styled the working class, adopted very generally in the United States, particularly at Pitsburg and at Philadelphia, have all their advocates and opponents. Now, Sir, I do not stand here to advocate one particular system, I think that consideration would be better undertaken and performed by a Committee of this House; I will only say that great objections may be made to each if considered separately. It may be said of the Solitary, that it is perhaps the most severe punishment that can be inflicted on a human being. Dr. Johnson somewhere remarks, that "solitude is dangerous to reason without being favourable to virtue." Now there are instances of unfortunates being confined in a solitary cell for eight or ten years. How far solitary confinement has a tendency to cause insanity, seems doubtful; perhaps the hon. Member opposite, (Mr. Wakley) the Member for Finsbury, whose professional avocations call him to attend on many occasions, which may enable him to give information to the House will give us his sentiments on the subject. Now in reference to the Silent system, it is admirably, I believe, managed, both in the Model prison at Pentonville and in other places lately organized, and there seems no novelty in that discipline; it appears that the silent system was in use many years ago on the Continent, and its adoption here in England is not a novel idea or recent improvement. If I remember correctly, the same system of prison discipline existed, as reported by a Frenchman of the name of Courlois, who was incarcerated in the prison of the Inquisition at Lisbon in 1745. This person, in the account he gives of the prison, states all the cells are so contrived as to be under the eye of the governor; each prisoner is separately confined, never speaks, wears a mask whenever he stirs out of his cell, and if he requires any assistance, has a small clapper at his cell door, which may give notice to the turnkey. M. Courlois was imprisoned for being a free-mason; his account is dated 1745, and the discipline of the Inquisition prison much resembles that of the Model prison at Pentonville. It seems that the French Legislature have of late directed their attention to the several systems of prison discipline, and have come in the French Chamber of Deputies to the following resolutions:— That each prisoner should be separately confined at night that during the day they should be occupied at various trades according to their age, strength and capabilities, that special regulations should be established for the accused before trial, for the condemned after trial, and for those committed for petty offences. In every respect the regulations of the French Chamber appear to be humane, judicious, and likely to answer the purpose of forming a systematic code of prison discipline. Why not imitate this example? Now if there is a variety of opinions, how are you to act, in what manner to determine the best course, why by a Committee of this House, which can thoroughly investigate the subject, examine witnesses, and draw up some general code of legislation! I think such a course would be more satisfactory to the community than a Commission, as all the evidence would be before the public. By some the Report of the Inspectors are said to be correct, by others this is denied. How can you convince the country that they are correct, unless you have an open investigation before a Committee? Much obloquy has at various times been thrown on the magistracy of the country, and an outcry raised against them which may be not only unmerited, but unjust, how are you to ascertain the truth unless you have a Committee to investigate the business. Under all circumstances, therefore, I cannot but think that a Committee ought to be formed for this purpose. Besides, these reasons for a Committee I deem it of the utmost importance to the welfare of the country that some regular system of prison discipline should be enforced in all the gaols in the kingdom; if something of the sort is not done, and done without delay, the centralizing system now so prevalent, I may almost say so fashionable, may follow, and the power of the Home Secretary entirely supersede that of the magistracy. I am fully aware that the right hon. Secretary at the Home Office has no such intention, he distinctly disclaimed it last year in May, in the following sentiments: that he felt fully convinced the discipline and superintendance of the gaols throughout the kingdom ought to be left to the magistracy of the several counties, giving, if thought, advisable, a power to the Home Office to inspect prisons under certain regulations. At the same time, I must say that I should much regret seeing any more centralization beyond what has already taken place. We have had centralization of the Poor Laws, we are about to have it in railroads, we shall have it in 1856 in the currency; all these centralizations may be of use and desirable, but I hope never to see the authority of the unpaid magistracy superseded, or the landed aristocracy and gentry of this country driven from their country residences by a centralized influence that would ultimately deprive them of all power, cause them to be disgusted with a country life, and drive them to the metropolis. The centralizing system did this in France and Spain two centuries ago. See what occurred in France and in Spain about two centuries ago, all the great landed proprietors were left without any influence in their respective districts, they abandoned their country residences, removed to the capital, lost their influence among their tenantry and neighbours, became insignificant and ended by losing all their influence which was totally absorbed by the Crown. I cannot approve of centralization. At the same time I cannot but be of opinion that the centralization of the Poor Law by Commissioners of the Currency, by the Bank Charter Bill, and of Turnpike Trusts, if they could be consolidated, are most advantageous to the country, though the New Poor Law has produced great privation and suffering amongst the lower classes in the community. To avoid further centralization, to do full justice to the unpaid magistracy whose conduct has been impugned, to reconcile the discordant reports of the various Inspectors, and above all, to prevent the centralization of influence over gaols, which will follow sooner or later if a settled code of prison discipline be not formed, which code I think can be best formed by the labours and evidence brought before a Committee of this House. I beg leave, Sir, to move, that a Select Committee be appointed in the words of my notice.

Mr. Williams

seconded the proposition. He had seen a correspondence between the Home Office and the Middlesex magistracy, calculated to excite the alarm of the entire country as to the intentions of Government on this subject. The Under-Secretary wrote:— Sir J. Graham is desirous, before he proceeds further, that arrangements should be made by the magistrates for the separate confinement of prisoners before trial, especially of the younger prisoners. And the matter having been referred to Major Jebb and Mr. Crawford, they reported in favour of the plan. We further beg to observe, in relation to any plan of building which the magistrates may adopt for the separate confinement of prisoners, that, for the prevention of intercourse, it is indispensable that the windows of the cells should be closed, and the partition walls of the cells, such as to render impracticable oral communication from cell to cell, except by means which, by attracting the attention of the officers, would insure detection; that the cells should be ventilated, warmed, supplied with water, and provided with water-closets, as at Pentonville Prison; and that the yards should be so divided as to allow of each prisoner taking exercise alone." "The number of cells already built, or about to be constructed for, or adapted to separate confinement in this country, amounts to upwards of 8,000; and we feel justified in stating our conviction that the day is not distant when the individual separation of prisoners will be the established system of prison discipline throughout England. Now, for any one to impose the horrors of solitary separate confinement on persons untried, many innocent—all presumed to be so—and perhaps some of them committed only through the ignorance or malignity of magistrates — for among the magistracy unhappily ignorance and malignity too often existed—to inflict these horrors, perhaps for three, four, or five months, on such a class of persons, was most inhuman. And when it was considered that wrong was frequently the result, who could for a moment consider the system Christian? Let the country look at the cost of the system. He asserted that the greatest delusion had been practiced—the grossest misrepresentation prevailed with regard to the cost of the system. When the estimates were before the House, he showed that the cost of each prisoner in the Model prison of Pentonville was within a few shillings of 40l. a-year. He had taken the trouble of calculating the amount expended on that prison, and on Parkhurst prison, in the Isle of Wight; and he would take the liberty of stating the result. The estimate of the prison at Pentonville, for the accommodation of 510 prisoners, was 75,000l.; but, in addition to that expenditure, they had been going on, year after year in voting other sums for its support, so that up to the present time it had cost the country 87,700l. The cost last year was 40l. for each prisoner; and, adding to that the interest of 5 per cent. on the cost of the building, they would have a cost for the cells of each prisoner of 8l. 10s. or an expense of 48l. 10s. for each. Now, what did a labouring man get? They saw, by those admirably written letters in The Times newspaper from Suffolk, that the labouring man there got 7s. or 8s. a-week for the maintenance of himself, his wife, and eight or nine children. But, allowing him 10s. a-week, that would amount to only 26l. 10s. per annum, while every one of the criminals—convicted felons in Pentonville prison—cost as much as 23 members of labouring men's families. The estimated cost of Parkhurst prison was 25,000l.; but 76,000l. had already been expended on it, and how much more it would cost he did not know, seeing that this very year there had been a vote of 5,000l for that prison. Now, when such delusion was practised for the purpose of inducing the country to adopt this system, some check ought to be put to it, and he wished that this Committee should be granted, in order that the whole subject might be inquired into. The inhabitants of Middlesex were beginning to open their eyes to the vast expenditure that was about to be imposed on them; but he saw, with great sorrow, by the Report of the Prison Commissioners, that preparation was now being made for 8,000 cells for solitary confinement. Were the House of Commons to sanction the system of solitary confinement for untried prisoners, they would desert the duty imposed on them by the plainest dictates of common humanity. He hoped that the country would raise its voice against such a system.

Sir J. Graham

by no means complained of the course which had been pursued by his hon. Friend in bringing on this Motion this evening; on the contrary, he had to thank him for consulting his convenience on more than one occasion. It was not his intention on the present occasion to enter on a defence of that obnoxious system termed centralization, nor to discuss the various topics referred to in the speech of the hon. Gentleman, who, in addition to Prison Discipline, had touched on currency, railroads, and the Poor Law. He must observe, however, that it appeared some-what inconsistent that the hon. Member for Coventry should have seconded the Motion moved by his hon. Friend, for he could not conceive two Gentlemen agreeing in one Motion entertaining more opposite opinions on the subject which was the ground-work of the present discussion. His hon. Friend (Mr. Mackinnon) seemed to think that all power over these gaols ought to be concentrated in the Home Office, and that he (Sir J. Graham) wae anxious to have that power. But hs must say, the duties devolving on him in that office were not so very easy or agree able that he should wish for additional powers— Non mihi regnandi venit tam dira cupido. The hon. Member for Coventry, on the other hand, objected to State Prisons, and to the interference of the Secretary of State. The calculations of the hon. Member for Coventry with reference to the cost of each prisoner in Pentonville were altogether erroneous. There was also an error common to the Mover and Seconder with respect to the use of the expression "solitary confinement," as applied to prisoners. Solitary confinement was unknown in this country. It did not exist in any prison in England at this moment. There was what was termed the separate system, which was as easily distinguishable and as widely different from solitary confinement as light from darkness. His hon. Friend wished to introduce uniformity of system, yet that was altogether at variance with his proposition that gaols should remain under the control of the magistracy. An approach to uniformity of discipline for the punishment of the same offence was possible, and he submitted to the House that on the whole the system as it now stood was advantageous as conducing to this result. The power of controlling the management of the county gaol was vested in the magistracy. To the Executive Government the power was given of inspection, and the right to visit; and the inspectors reported from time to time. The Secretary of State had certain limited powers intrusted to him by Act or Parliament; beyond those powers he could not go. He might advise the magistracy, he might make objections, he might offer suggestions, but they were entitled to weigh his reasons and the validity of his recommendations. Certain powers were absolutely entrusted to the Secretary of State, and one most important power related to the regulation of the diet of the prisoners. Differing entirely from the hon. Member for Coventry with respect to the Magistrates of England, whom the hon. Member described as acting from malignity and as influenced by the worst motives — entertaining the highest respect for them—he was bound to say that in the execution of his duty as Secretary of State, he was under the greatest obligations to them, and there could be no stronger illustration of it than the fact mentioned by the hon. Member for Coventry, that there were now building by the voluntary act of the county magistrates 8,000 cells for separate confinement in the different county gaols of England. Under any check that could be imposed, he believed confinement necessarily led to awful calamities affecting the human mind. But separate confinement properly watched was, he believed, on the whole, the best system of imprisonment. He saw in his place the hon. Member for Finsbury, who had had the opportunity in the most formal and searching manner of watching the progress of that system. From his professional ability and his general character no one was more competent to form an opinion on the subject, and he appealed to the hon. Member in support of what he had stated. His hon. Friend, the Member for Lymington, had compared the system adopted at Pentonville to the Inquisition; and what was the description he gave of the discipline of the Inquisition? "That every prisoner was debarred from seeing or speaking to any one—he was not even allowed to speak to the gaoler, and was masked in the presence of strangers." He entirely denied the analogy. He spoke in the presence of one of the Commissioners of Pentonville Prison, who, he was quite convinced, would not for a single day give his countenance to any prison in England, if rightly described as similar to the Inquisition, where the prisoners were debarred from seeing or speaking to any one, even the gaoler, and were masked in the presence of visitors. He ventured to say, so far from this being a correct description of Pentonville, his hon. Friend had never seen it. He believed that in the course of each day every prisoner saw at least eight or ten different persons; he was instructed by a schoolmaster, and by a chaplain, and for many hours of the day he had opportunities of conversing with different persons. He had attended the instruction given in the chapel by the schoolmaster to the assembled prisoners. It was true they had no opportunity of either seeing or communicating with each other, but they all saw the schoolmaster, who could see each countenance, and it was a most touching spectacle to observe the sagacity and eager desire of knowledge visible in the faces of the prisoners, and the effect the instruction imparted to them had on their countenances and demeanour. He could assure hon. Gentlemen that if they would themselves visit the prison at Pentonville the misapprehension which existed as to prisoners being debarred from seeing or speaking to any one, and being masked in the presence of strangers, would very soon be removed. The hon. Gentleman had said that he was the author of the system. However that might be, he was well aware that it was a system which required great caution in its administration, and which was liable to great abuses if not constantly overlooked. With respect to what had been called the factory system, he was not aware of the existence of that system in England, apart from the system known as the Separate system; but his opinion of it was, that it certainly tended to occupy the prisoner, and to give cheerfulness to his mind and thoughts. The hon. Member for Coventry greatly mistook the nature of the communication which he was reported to have made to the Middlesex Magistrates if he thought that he had desired to enforce the Separate system in the cases of prisoners before trial. All he had said was this—that if the county magistrates had the assistance of a paid Chairman, the consequence would be that numerous additional committals would be made by the metropolitan magistrates to the Middlesex Quarter Sessions; that by that circumstance the Middlesex gaols would become crowded with prisoners awaiting trial, and what he (Sir James Graham) had said was, that unless they could enlarge the space for the accommodation of prisoners so circumstanced, he could not recommend the appointment of a paid Chairman. Under these circumstances he had thought it his duty to lay before the Middlesex bench the best plans the Government possessed for the erection of prisons, and he (Sir J. Graham) was certainly of opinion that the best and cheapest mode of construction was by building separate cells. In saying this, however, he begged it not to be supposed, that because separate cells were erected, an entirely separate system was introduced. At night it was quite true the prisoners were locked up in cells separate from each other, but in the day time they were allowed to communicate under proper observation before trial. It was not his wish, however, to occupy the time of the House longer upon these points. At this late period of the Session, it could not for a moment be supposed that the appointment of a Committee would serve any good object, whilst, certainly, it might create great distrust and confusion arising from uncertainty. Upon the whole, too, as he had said before, he was so satisfied with the general improvement which was everywhere in progress, that he really did trust such an element of discord would not be introduced as the appointment of this Committee. At any rate, if appointed at all, he confidently hoped that they would not attempt to enter on such an inquiry during the present Session.

Mr. B. Escott

observed, that, at an early period of the Session, he had asked the right hon. Baronet a question as to the legality of permitting the separate system to be applied to the prisoners before their trial. It having come to his knowledge that such a practice had been pursued in several instances, he had ventured to inquire where the Act of Parliament was to be found which legalized such a punishment upon a possibly innocent person. All he would now say was, that he still continued in ignorance of the law by which such a serious wrong was perpetrated, and that, if there was no such legal power in existence, it was high time that the House stepped in to prevent such things from being done.

Sir J. Graham

, in reply, said that the General Prisons Act gave the power of classifying prisoners, and nothing, in his opinion, was more important than that tried and untried prisoners in the same gaol should be kept separate. He considered the application of the system in those cases to be perfectly justifiable, but he begged it might be observed, as he had before mentioned, that the separation was only at night time, communication between the prisoners being permitted under restrictions throughout the day.

Mr. Wakley

believed it was quite true that the particular Act referred to, gave the power which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned; but, nevertheless, he quite concurred in the remarks of the hon. Member for Winchester, and he firmly believed that the House when they passed that Act never contemplated anything more than the due security of the untried prisoner. For his part, he could not conceive on what principle it was recommended that a man should be subjected to punishment before he was tried. The law only contemplated the security of the person, so that the prisoner should be forthcoming when he was demanded. With regard to this point—the treatment of untried prisoners—he had been much struck with what he saw in one of the gaols of Middlesex a few days since, when he had visited it in a professional capacity. Some question about diet had caused him to institute an investigation, and he found to his surprise, that for the first fortnight of a prisoner's incarceration, he was subjected to the lowest possible diet, being denied, in fact, all animal food for the first fourteen days of his confinement. Now was it fair, was it just, that a man who might not be guilty of the crime of which he was accused should be subjected to such treatment as that that took place in the New Prison, at Clerkenwell. The diet upon which these prisoners were placed, was gruel, bread, and broth: with the latter they were supplied three times a week. Bread and gruel were given them for their breakfast and supper. The governor and the medical officer of the gaol were both present, when he was conducting his investigation, and he was so struck with the fact, upon its being elicited, that he at once told them he would mention it in his place in Parliament on the first opportunity. With regard to the Motion before them, he felt with the right hon. Baronet, that it would be impossible to do justice to the subject during the present Session. At the same time he hoped that this discussion would keep the Home Secretary alive to the subject, and that very early next Session he would not object to a Committee being appointed. It was a question which humanity required that they should consider, and it had beatings which at first sight were scarcely apparent. Let them look, for instance, at the question of remands. Would it be credited, that people who were merely remanded by a magistrate, were subjected to hard labour, and were sent to gaol when in the last stage of disease? He knew of cases where people had died in the hospital of a gaol in less than a week after being committed. In one of the gaols of this country, too, there were a number of idiots undergoing confinement who had been committed by magistrates for various offences. As for the solitary system, of which something had been said, it ought to be called the demoniacal system, for nothing could be more atrocious or horrible, and when the separate system made an approach towards the solitary, he thought it ought instantly to be checked. When the Pentonville Prison question was considered, he had been one of the most active opponents of the scheme. He had anticipated no good from the establishment of that prison; but he had thought it might do much mischief. For the past four years, however, he had been called on to exercise the functions of his office in that prison, and, feeling strongly about it, he was determined to ascertain what was going on, and had even gone beyond the line of his duty to find out what were the effect upon the prisoners, of the system adopted there. The result had really surprised him more then he could express. Prisoners had been brought before the jury, and every person connected with the gaol, had been requested to leave the room: the prisoners had been informed, that there was not a single person present belonging to the prison. They had been told, that they would suffer no annoyance whatever from anything they might state, if they only told the truth; and they had been in every way encouraged to speak out boldly concerning all they had experienced. He had questioned them closely, as to how they were situated in that gaol, and in any other gaols in which they might have been confined. He had asked them which sort of discipline they preferred, and he was proud to say, that every prisoner whom he had examined had given the most unqualified testimony in favour of the system pursued at Pentonville. Of the diet they declared that it was ample; of their improvement in mind, they had declared that the instruction they received in the trades they were taught was most serviceable, and a great source of amusement. They declared that the confinement to which they were subjected, was not unpleasant in the slightest degree. They were asked if they had any complaint of any kind, and they unanimously answered, they had nothing whatever of which to complain. These were statements which might sound extraordinary, coming from him in that place; but he should be acting a very disingenuous part if he now concealed his real opinion. He certainly had for some time fancied that the tendency of this sort of separate confinement, wss to depress the spirits of the prisoners, and he thought he had observed in one or two of them, a lowness of spirit, which could not well be accounted for. They had all declared to him, however, that they were satisfied and grateful—so grateful, that they should remember what had been done for them to the last hour of their lives. Many of them who had been taught trades, spoke with the liveliest feeling of gratitude for the benefit therefrom resulting, and were in great glee at the idea of going to the Colonies, obtaining a ticket of leave, setting up in the occupation they had learnt, and gaining an honest livelihood. It had been publicly stated, that several of these prisoners had become insane in consequence of the confinement to which they were subjected. No doubt, three persons had been sent to Bethlem from this prison. When he was informed of the fact, he had instituted very strict inquiry, because he was informed, that no prisoner had been sent to the lunatic asylum from the other metropolitan gaols. From the depositions he had taken upon the point, he had, however, come to the conclusion, that the insanity in these cases was traceable to other causes. Two of the three persons, at least, had an hereditary predisposition to it. The only thing that he could suggest with reference to the prison, was, whether the probationary period might not be advantageously shortened from eighteen to twelve months; and, having thrown out the suggestion to it, he would no longer detain the House.

Mr. Mackinnon

would not press the Motion to a division, hoping that the Committee would be granted early next Session.

Motion withdrawn.

House adjourned at twelve o'clock.