HL Deb 11 July 1839 vol 49 cc136-45
The Lord Chancellor

, in moving the second reading of the Prisons Bill, said, it was one which was entitled to the most serious consideration of their Lordships. Its great objects were as far as possible to prevent crime, and to correct those who had been guilty of it. Their Lordships had of late concurred in several acts for the removal of the punishment of death from certain offences which had heretofore been liable to that punishment, and in that he thought they had acted wisely; but as Parliament had adopted that course, it became the more its duty to enact such measures as might be most effectual to prevent crime, and to punish it when committed. There were two ways by which this could be done: one was, by an effective police—and he regretted to say, that that which now existed in most parts of the country was lamentably deficient; and the other was by a wholesome state of prison discipline, to be adopted in the several counties. It was with a view to both those objects, that the present bill was offered to their Lordships. It was to enable magistrates of counties to adopt such a system of separate confinement as would tend to make the prisoners leave the prisons better subjects, and to put them in that state which would prevent a repetition of their offences. This was a matter which had for a considerable time occupied the attention of every civilized country in the world. A separate system had for a long time existed in America, whence it had attracted the attention of the governments of Europe, many of which had sent out competent persons to observe how the system was carried on, and to report on its effects. The reports of those individuals to their respective governments was highly favourable to the American system. The gentlemen sent out from France were, before going out, strongly prejudiced against that system, but on seeing its operations and effects, their reports were altogether in its favour. It was not, however, necessary that we should go to any foreign country to see how such a plan worked, for we had it operating in the Glasgow Bridewell, and if their Lordships looked to the reports of the prison inspectors, they would find, that it had been attended with the most salutary results. This had been shown by the best of all tests, that of experience. One of the worst effects of confinement in our gaols on their present system was, the association of persons young in guilt with characters much worse than themselves. The bad effects of this, particularly in the gaols of Scotland, where the system of prison discipline was in general much worse than in the gaols in England, were shown in the reports of the prison inspectors, and they were in many instances most demoralising and disgusting. One object of this bill would be, to cause that separation of the prisoners which would prevent this contamination. One objection to it was its severity; but no two things could be more different than solitary confinement in its ordinary sense, and that kind of confinement which this bill contemplated, In the one case the pri- soner was secluded from all society, and left without work or employment of any kind, save that of brooding over his own thoughts, which must be of a painful kind; but the prisoner separately confined under this bill, though he would be kept from any communication with his fellow prisoners, would be wholly secluded from society. His mind would be engaged by being kept in constant employment, and he would be open to the visits of those who would do him good, he would be open to the visits of the officers of the prison, the magistrates, and the chaplain. The reports on their Lordships' Table were filled with instances of the good effects of this system. The principle had been already adopted in many prisons, and in every case with success. It was an object of this bill to legalize and facilitate it in all prisons. In that case an enlargement of the means heretofore employed in counties would be necessary, and additional expense would be required for the enlargement of prisons, but he was sure their Lordships would not think, that an additional outlay in the county-rates would be ill-bestowed for such an important purpose. He said this on the assumption, that their Lordships would admit the system to be a good one, and if they did, he was sure they would concur with him in thinking that a portion of the public money could not be better employed than in promoting it. The increased expenditure which might be required for carrying the system into operation would be chiefly in the first outlay for enlarging the prisons, but after it came into full operation it would be found to diminish the annual expense. This would be seen by a comparison of the expense of a large and well-regulated prison with that of a small one under bad management. Of these the reports on the Table furnished several instances. Thus, for example, the expense of the maintenance of each prisoner in the Glasgow Bridewell did not exceed 3l. per annum, but if the imprisonment was for a longer period, the prisoners earned all they cost, while in some other prisons it cost 30l. per head, and on the average of many prisons 17l. per head. The expense of attendant officers in the Glasgow Bride-well was 2l. 10s. per head, while in other prisons it cost 12l. per head; so that, as he had stated, the first expenditure would not on the whole be found an objection to the plan. He had heard only two principal objections to the system: the first was, that it would destroy that uniformity of system which existed at present: and next, that it would supersede the authority of the magistrates. With respect to the first, be would admit, that it would destroy the classification of prisoners, which was now adopted; but it was found, that that classification had not answered its intended object. For instance, where men were classed according to the crimes of which they had been convicted, it might happen, that the very worst character in the county might be imprisoned for a slight offence. He would, therefore, be a very unfit associate for persons who had never committed any serious offences. If this bill were adopted, the question of classification could not arise, because the prisoners would be separately confined, whenever the magistrates of counties adopted the principle, but it would be left to them to decide whether they thought such a system fit for the particular county. The magistrates would have power to make rules and regulations for the prisons of their county, which would be submitted to the Secretary of State. It might be objected that this would be placing too much power in the hands of the Secretary of State. But the Secretary of State would have only the power to approve or reject the rules or regulations. At present he had not only that power, but also that of altering or adding to rules of prison discipline submitted to him. Here, however, he would have, as he had already said, only the power of approval or rejection; and it was clear that there must be a controlling power of the kind vested somewhere. Formerly it had been left to the judges of assize to inspect, and approve or reject the prison regulations submitted to him by the magistrates at the assizes, but though no man had a higher respect for the character and authority of the judges than he had, he did not think the selection a wise one. A judge in the usual hurry of assize business was not the most competent to decide upon the fitness of regulations of prison discipline; and, besides, amongst fifteen judges it would happen that there would be differences of opinion, and thus what one judge would think a sound and salutary regulation in one circuit, another would reject on another circuit as wholly objectionable, This would destroy uni- formity of discipline. It might be said that the 10th and 11th Clauses would give too much power to the Secretary of State, but those clauses might be so modified in the Committee as to remove that objection. He knew it was said that if the Secretary of State was disposed to have the separate system, he might say that he would not approve of any system of prison discipline recommended by the magistrates which did not embody that system; but there was a proviso to the 11th Clause, which he should propose, which did away with this objection—"Provided always, that in any case in which the Secretary of State shall disapprove of any such plan, he shall state in writing the grounds of his disapproval, and it shall not be lawful for him to disapprove of any such prison on the sole ground that such plan proposed does not allow separate confinement." The question was, whether their Lordships were now prepared to say, that they would prevent the introduction of the separate system? That was a grave responsibility for them to take upon themselves. Let them look at the evidence before them of the value of this system—let them look at the testimony of all persons who had examined into the subject—let them look at the state of crime in this country, and at the state of the prisons in this country—and if their Lordships, with that information before them, should throw out the bill and say that they would not authorise this system, their Lordships would be taking on themselves a very grave responsibility. He would also call their Lordships' attention to this fact, that in some places prisons had been built expressly for the separate system, and which were unsuited to any other. Were those counties which had built them to be told, after having so laid out their money for the adoption of a prison discipline so much approved of generally, that that system was not to be sanctioned? He could not believe, that such would be the case, when they looked at the reports of the inspectors of prisons, and at the mass of evidence unmet by any objections of weight. He would only beg, before their Lordships took such a step, that they would read the report of the inspector of the bride well of Glasgow. In that report, instances were stated of persons of dissolute and bad character, who had long been accustomed to a course of crime, having acquired a knowledge of a trade, and who had repented of their former course of life, and had turned for their future livelihood to that trade which they had learned whilst in prison. What a blessing this was, not only to the individual, but to the country at large. But if they kept a man in prison for six months or a year, and turned him out again without being reformed, what good had they done? They had kept him from evil, it was true, for the time that he was in prison; but they turned him out to do evil again, which he most certainly would. But let them imprison a man in a prison conducted the same as the Glasgow one—instruct him in moral duties, and teach him the means of gaining an honest livelihood; let him be kept from contamination, and at the end of six months they made him a good subject. This system had the effect of deterring others from crime, whilst the individual punished was a reclaimed man. Of course, before noble Lords threw any doubts upon that, they would read the reports of the different inspectors of prisons. No noble Lord, should, in fact, come to a vote on this bill without having read those reports; for this bill was no trifling matter—it concerned the state of crime, and the security of life and property in the country. If it were their Lordships pleasure to countenance that the magistrates might, if they thought fit, adopt the system, it was proposed to give an additional facility, by the erection of a prison on this system in the vicinity of London. Undoubtedly the magistrates of the counties sought to have the opportunity of inspecting it in operation, and of seeing how the system worked before they adopted it themselves. But if their Lordships should pass this bill, and authorize the erection of a model prison in the neighbourhood of London, that all might see how the system was conducted—unless such an experiment should produce different results to what it had done in every other place where it had been tried, he had not the least wish that any compulsory power should be enacted to make magistrates adopt the system, having the full conviction that they would adopt it of themselves. It was much better that they should adopt it of themselves; but the object of this bill was to give them the power, if they thought fit to exercise it, and to offer them the opportunity of seeing how it worked. He trusted their Lordships would allow the experiment to be tried.

The Marquess of Salisbury

said, the noble and learned Lord had argued as if this bill were for establishing an uniformity of discipline in the prisons of this country. He contended that the effect of this bill, if suffered to remain at all in the state in which it was at present, would have a diametrically opposite effect. It was only a few years since their Lordships had passed an Act for effecting a greater uniformity in the government of prisons in the country, and in pursuance of that Act the very first thing done had been to establish two distinct systems of prison discipline—one, which enabled the magistrates to adopt such regulations as they thought fit; and the other, which ordered what should be the future regulations of prisons where the separate system was not adopted. He thought the Secretary of State the proper person to give his assent to the rules laid down by Magistrates; but he did not think it was a good system which gave the magistrates the power of laying down rules and regulations; he thought they ought to be laid down by Act of Parliament, and that no person, however learned or competent, should have the power to alter them. With regard to the system of solitary confinement, he did not think it had been so successful in reforming prisoners as was stated. There were two parties in America that held very different opinions on the subject. It appeared to him that the proper mode would have been for the Government to have obtained powers to build a prison which might serve as a model to other establishments for time to come, and if they found that it worked well, then to enforce, not to empower the establishment of the system all over the country. The noble and learned Lord had certainly done a great deal by the promise which he held out; he trusted that he regarded that promise as a pledge given by her Majesty's Government to the country, that the Government would commence the erection of such a prison as might serve for a model for the erection of others. He felt that the responsibility of throwing out a bill establishing the system of separate confinement would be great indeed, and with that understanding, that the Government intended to build a prison to serve as a model to others, he would not press his objections to the bill, but if necessary, take the sense of their Lordships at a future stage.

The Duke of Richmond

said, that having for some years constantly visited many of the prisons of this country, he felt that he ought not to remain silent on the present occasion. He did not feel that the bill now standing for the second reading was a perfect or final measure. The ground on which he agreed to it was this: one of the great objects they had in view, consistently with carrying on the criminal laws of this country, was to have an uniform system of prison discipline; but because he found he was not in the situation to get a perfect measure, was he to be deprived by opposing the second reading of the bill of a measure which, in his opinion, would be of great advantage and which would not disturb any uniformity of system which now existed; for he believed that even in the metropolis, at this moment the same system was not carried on in any two of the prisons? He believed that there were very few prisons in this country in which there was uniformity of system. He knew but two in the county of Sussex, one in the east and the other in the west of the county, where the prisoners had separate cells, where there was a separation—not that separation which his noble and learned Friend spoke of, but a partial separation to prevent the prisoners communicating with each other. He would answer for it, that in these prisons under the present regulations, it was impossible for the prisoners to communicate with each other so as to contaminate one another and that was the object which they had in view to prevent. With respect to the operation of the system at the place where he resided, and where it had been carried into effect, it had produced a large decrease of crime; and though there had been an increase in the number of constables, and more persons had been sent to prison in consequence, yet there was still a larger decrease in the number of committals. He knew several labourers who had gone into prison charged with heinous offences, who had remained there a short time, but from the facility which they had given to them of considering the situation in which they had placed themselves from the period when they had left the House of Correction to the present time, they had become honest, industrious labourers. There was another great advantage in this partial separation. The great difficulty that a young man had now, if unfortunately he strayed from the path of virtue, was, when he left the prison at the expiration of his sentence, to get any man to employ him; his character was destroyed; he was jeered and laughed at by the good men of the parish, because they always knew that he came out of gaol a much worse man than he went in. But under this system the farmers of the country being aware that a man was not worse but must become better from being in prison, because they knew that he could not communicate with the other prisoners, and because they also knew that he received instruction from a schoolmaster, and was attended by a chaplain, and that it was impossible that he could come out of prison worse than he went in, would give him a chance of becoming an honest man. This, to his mind, was one of the greatest advantages of the proposed system, and had already been substantiated in his own county, it might be said, that if this course were so successfully pursued in Sussex, the magistrates in other parts of the country had the same power to adopt a similar system; but he begged to say, that great difficulty was experienced in carrying this system into effect, even in Sussex, for want of an Act of Parliament to enforce its observance as a permanent system; nor did he know whether the magistrates of Sussex would be able to go on with the system unless some Act were passed upon the subject. There were some clauses in the bill in which he would suggest certain alterations; he would not, however, enter into details at present, but would only repeat, that he considered this bill better than the law at present in existence. He thought it could not create any inconvenience, but, on the contrary, by this law an experiment would be tried in various parts of the country, which, after a few years, would enable their Lordships to decide upon what was the best system; and then, by repealing all the old laws, they might establish an uniform plan of prison discipline throughout the country, which might be equally beneficial both to the agricultural and the manufacturing districts. He, therefore, should most readily support the second reading of this bill.

The Duke of Wellington

thought the bill ought to be read a second time. His objection to it was not that it went too far, but that it did not go far enough. There were some clauses in the bill respecting the classification of prisoners which, in his opinion, ought to be struck out altogether, because they would mislead the magistrates as to what it was the real intention of the Legislature to effect. When the bill should come out of Committee, especially after the suggestions of noble Lords for its improvement should have been adopted, he thought they would be able to accelerate the operation of the new system, more particularly as it respected the classification of criminals in the various prisons.

Viscount Duncannon

The noble Marquess (Salisbury) having expressed a hope that it was the intention of her Majesty's Government to erect a model prison, it might be satisfactory that he (Viscount Duncannon) should state that there was a motion before the other House of Parliament for a grant for that purpose; and that he was himself in treaty for a piece of ground on which it was the intention of her Majesty's Government to proceed with the least possible delay to erect a model prison.

The Earl of Chichester

observed that every improvement in prison discipline had proceeded upon the principle of the separation of the prisoners—a provision which was most essential in any system of prison discipline. That principle their Lordships well knew was adopted in several prisons in the time of the Protectorate, and had been carried out still farther, in many places, in modern times. He should prefer, if it were practicable, to see the silent and the separate system combined. However, he hoped their Lordships would pass this bill; and that the amendments which might be introduced into it in committee would not destroy the opportunity now afforded for carrying out the separate system under certain limitations.

The Lord Chancellor

said, that the silent system had the same object in view as the separate system, but the former was much less efficacious. There were very strong cases mentioned in the reports of the inspectors of prisons, showing that the silent system could not be carried into effect. Within a comparatively short space of time it appeared that upwards of 5,000 punishments were inflicted for the violation of the silent system—thus demonstrating that that plan could not at all be put in competition with the separate system.

Bill read a second time.