October 14, 2016

Thursday group reading on prison sources (week 4)

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/students/modules/hi398/timetable/seminar3-copy/

Please could you read and comment on the following sources (please see this post for information on how to comment on gobbets). Please can you also bring along and comment on one source that you found in the MRC.


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  1. Oscar Wilde – The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 1898

    What was Reading Gaol?

    A prison located in Reading, opened in 1844 and closed in 2013. It was based on London’s new model prison at Pentonville. It was designed to carry out the new technique of the separate system. It served as a site for public executions in addition to executions which took place inside the prison as well, up until 1913.

    Oscar Wilde and Reading Gaol

    Oscar Wilde was a prisoner held at Reading Gaol and wrote his poem based on the memory of an execution that took place while he was serving a sentence for homosexual offences. Charles Thomas Wooldridge was the murderer whose execution inspired Wilde’s poem.

    The poem meticulously describes the harsh realities of prison life. He discusses the prisoners as a whole through the narrative and highlights the brutality of life as an inmate, as well as describing the execution of his fellow convict.

    The Poem:

    Wilde emphasises the numbing that prison life brought to the convicts by claiming that although he ‘was a soul in pain, My pain I could not feel’ and puts everything as very matter of fact, with his explicit and simple explanation that the convict whom is the primary subject of this poem ‘had killed the thing he loved, And so he had to die’ (Wooldridge murdered his wife for her infidelity).

    Wilde claims that prisoners would drink the air and sun as though it were wine, indicating the prominent feelings of claustrophobia and harsh conditions of life within the prison and enclosed cells.

    He depicts himself and his fellow inmates as being rejected from society and God, saying that ‘The world had thrust us from its heart, And God from out His care’. This makes them seem complete outsiders of society with a sudden severed connection from the outside world.

    He comments on the Wardens and their behaviour. Surveillance through their watchful eyes and the high walls which surrounded them he writes, provoked men to often say that they were ‘glad, The hangman’s hands were near.’

    His description of their appearance and demeanour is dire, with a ‘Shaven head and feet of lead’ with the feeling of Terror lying still within every man’s heart. Their desperation for freedom from this horrible place is clear from Wilde’s portrayal that men knelt to pray whom had never prayed before. Time would stand still in the prison, as they would feel ‘the minutes crawl’ and each day became a year.

    The prison regime is briefly described: 6am cleaning of cells, 7am all was still ‘For the Lord of Death with icy breath, Had entered in to kill’ (a description of the fear that would ensue when the hangman would enter the cells). He then goes on to describe the process of the execution: ‘They hanged him as a beast is hanged’, the deed was quick and he was hurriedly taken down and buried, stripped of his clothes and given to the flies, no grave, only mud and sand by the prison wall. The Chaplain would not kneel to pray. The spot will then be bare and sterile for 3 years before anything was planted there as ‘They think a murderer’s heart would taint, Each simple seed they sow’

    For Wilde and the rest of the prisoners, ‘what was dead was Hope’.

    25 Oct 2016, 12:00

  2. Abi Wren

    Thomas Fowell Buxton.

    • There are undoubtedly gradations in the inhumanity which is practised towards prisoners, and in the exertions, which are used to corrupt them; yet the same principle reigns very generally through out.
    • Best illustrated by a few facts;
    - House of Correction (Chelmsford) – advised by jailer not to enter as sicknesses very prevalent; it appeared the youth had died in the morning of the small pox, and one was dying of Typhus Fever.
    - Horsemonger Lane House of Correction – cells are about 6 feet by 8, sometimes as many as 5 and constantly 3 are placed within them for the night. Bedstead – 22 inches wide, when 3 sleep together, one must lie on the floor and other 2 are accommodated by lying on the bed in opposite directions.
    - `Coldbath-fields- saw a yard of which there is no inspection, and in a retired cell in that yard, 3 men and a boy. The men had been tried, convicted, and sentenced for attempts at the most disgraceful and most abominable of crimes. The boy a lad of 17 years old, of very decent appearance, committed by a magistrate on the complaint of his master, for idleness.
    • Many and very previous are the instances which have come to my knowledge of persons corrupted by prison.
    • Newgate – attention drawn to a boy, whose schoolmaster said he was an example to all the rest, so quiet/reserved and so unwilling to have any intercourse with dissolute companions. – complacent to the system.
    • I cannot entertain a doubt of this lad having been ruined by Newgate. He slept his first night and subsequent fortnight in the same bed as a man charged with murder (obvious contrast in crimes, the boy had no strong evidence against him of any crime), during that period and long after, the spirits were freely introduced.
    • At first he abstained from them, but soon he found that the soon either adopt the manner of his companions or he would be in danger. ( problem of having criminals of differing crimes in one place)
    • Prison inmates reenact courtroom proceedings when a crime is committed to the criminal community within a prison – towel tied in knots to symbolise a judges wig.
    • Unhappily justice is not administrated with the same integrity within the prison as without it.
    • Bribes to judge will sure an acquittal, but neglect of this formality is a sure prelude to condemnation – blatant corruption.
    • Punishments are various – standing in a pillory was the heaviest.

    • Mr __was being constantly tried/punished – seemed the only way to fit in where to adopt mannerisms of his peers, thus adopting a criminal culture.
    • He lost the repugnance to their society, caught their flash terms, and sung their songs, acquired a taste for spirits, and a taste so strong rooted, that even now he finds it difficult to resist the cravings of his diseased thirst for stimulants. – prison proving be doing the exact opposite of reform.
    • Extract from Mr __ ’s wife; “I felt everything a wife could feel for a virtuous man and an affectionate husband, forced into such a society; and his irretrievable ruin, even in this respect, presented itself to my view.”
    • Remarked by Mr Locke – “Of all men we meet with, 9 parts in 10 are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education” – social conditions as cause for crime – grassroots.
    • Without money or education the youth are forced into crime as means of survival.
    • ‘He came to your prison a misdemeanant; you send him from it’s walls a criminal – wasted in strength , polluted in principals, and ruined in character.” – Crimalising those who were not inwardly morally wrong to begin with.

    26 Oct 2016, 10:29

  3. Abi Wren

    Thomas Fowell Buxton (2)

    • His is then a rapid career, he soon knows every haunt of vice, and is known by the fraternity of thieves as a willing labourer in any branch of their calling; his face grows familiar to the officers of justice; he has soon passed through half the prisons in the metropolis; till at length he stands at the bar, committed of some act of desperate enormity; the dreadful sentence of the law is passed upon him, and all hopes of mercy are forbidden. – Vicious cycle of depravity and desperation leading to crime – indoctrinated into criminal culture.

    • Blaming society for the failing those in the criminal justice system, and those who are lost in the system.

    • Youths ‘catching the spirit of their associates’ whilst being in prison.
    • Idea of crime being a contagion, infecting those in prison.
    • There should some conformity between the letter and the execution of law.
    • This conflict should cease between sentence and reality.
    • Some attainable improvements to be made by jails;
    - Jail should be divided into day/sleeping-rooms, and distinct yards.
    - Warm and cold baths should be provided.
    - Circular apertures of open iron work – ventilation.
    - Shutters and windows be constructed to exclude the possibility of prisoners looking into any other yard.
    - Apartments for the reception of friends of the debtors should be constructed.
    - Chapel should be constructed so that one class of prisoners may not be seen by another.
    • Prisoners separated into classes;
    1. Capital felon
    2. Simple felony
    3. Criminals under death sentence
    4. Misdemeanours and persons wanting sureties
    5. Misdemeanours of the grossest kind.
    6. Children

    • A bell to be fixed to alert in cases of escape.
    • Parity of a crime ought to meet with disparity of punishment; and it seems hardly just that, if a man commits an offence on one bank os a stream which separates two countries, he should be chained and half starved – if on the other bank, he should be well fed, well clothed, and exempt from boldly suffering.
    • It is the chief boast and glory to all of Great Britain, that equal justice is administered to all, but utmost surely be admitted, that an exception to this exists, while imprisonment is relaxed, or aggravated, not according to the degree of crime, not according to any rule or standard.

    26 Oct 2016, 10:30

  4. Henry Mayhew, The Criminal Prisons of London (1862)
    ‘Millbank Prison-the convict depot’

    • Mayhew was an advocate of reform in the 19th century.
    • Millbank prison, described ‘like a fortress’, was a modification of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. The suggestion was for it to be an effective mode of employing and reforming convicts. Not only were the convicts to be held in prison for their crimes, but the prison was to act as a kind of workshop where prisoners would engage in various trades, as well as earn some portion of money from their work.
    • In 1832, new regulations were installed which isolated prisoners more completely than had been the case, and there was a strong focus on religion and religious reform. By 1843, the prison ceased to be the city’s national penitentiary, and was resigned to become the general depot of prisoners under sentence of transportation.
    • From this point, the prisoners were allowed to integrate more during work, while the prison still maintained a dimension of religious reform. Prisoner behaviour was watched carefully and badges of good-conduct were awarded. The prison wardens held the belief that work was a major aspect of reforming prisoners.

    -Interesting point: the prison had an exceedingly high rate of illness and mortality, compared to other prisons.

    26 Oct 2016, 16:06

  5. Oliver Baldwin

    Ground Plan of the Pentonville Prison for 520 Prisoners on the Separate System(1844)
    • Designed by Joshua Jebb, Pentonville prison was built in 1840-42 and based on the Haviland Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
    • The central hall is the main part of the building with 5 other wings where male prisoners would live on probation for 18 months.
    • When built, many commented on its cheerful and airy nature.

    Inside Newgate Prison from Queen’s London (1897)

    • The source shows reproduced photos of Newgate Prison. Areas that have become known as The Graveyard, The Chapel and The Central Courtyard can be seen.

    Newgate Prison and the Central Courtyard
    • The name Newgate comes from one of the city gates.
    • This is where the female prisoners could exercise, in one of three exercise areas separated by walls.
    • Visitors were able to come through here and converse with prisoners in the visiting box.
    • The prison would hold almost two hundred people, many were held for murder or because they were awaiting trial and the Central Criminal Court.
    • The Cells are primitive. All with a bible and prayer book.

    The Chapel
    • Men and women were at separately with no view of each other.
    • The setup is similar to any other chapel with a pulpit for the preacher and space for musical accompanists.
    • Dickens talks about a certain pew that was reserved for the prisoners that were condemned to death. The coffins for these condemned men were even placed alongside the pew which Dickens protested.
    • This condemned pew was in the centre of the room with the prisoners all sitting around it.

    The Graveyard
    • Rather than a typical layout of a graveyard. The one at Newgate was a passage with high stone walls where the initials of the criminal’s surnames are the only marker.
    • Murderers executed at Newgate were those who had committed their crimes north of the Thames in the Metropolitan area.
    • Those executed Newgate were buried in coffins encased with limestone.

    26 Oct 2016, 16:59

  6. Parliamentary Papers, 1897, Report from the Departmental Committee on Prisons (Gladstone Committee), pp. 382-94, evidence of Michael Davitt

    Evidence from Mr Michael Davitt heard by The Departmental Committee on Prisons which was established under the chairmanship of Herbert Gladstone in 1894. It was a response to continuing and intense criticism by newspapers and periodicals such as The Daily Chronicle and TheFortnightly Review, of the existing prison system, and of the Chairman of Prison Commissioners, Edmund Du Cane.

    Mr Michael Davitt had been sentenced to 15 years at the Old Bailey in 1870 for treason (due to a failed raid on Chester Castle) during which he spent time in Clerkenwell House of Detention, Newgate, Millbank and Dartmoor. Whist in prison he was treated harshly, however, he managed to get a letter out to an Irish MP who began to campaign against cruelty inflicted on political prisoners.

    Mr Davitt’s evidence highlights many different issues within prison the prison system including: solitary confinement for long periods of time, abuse by warders, and insanity amongst prisoners. However, it is worth noting that Mr Davitt gives evidence to the Committee in 1897, 27 years after he was sentenced.

    Throughout the evidence that is given by Mr Davitt he states that he was a political prisoner and that as a result of this he felt that he was treated differently to other prisoners. Thus, this simple fact seems to have had an impact on his evidence as he appears to see himself as being different from others in the prison system. It is also interesting to note that he complains about not being able to have access to a newspaper for two months whilst waiting for his court trial. However, Mr Davitt does appear to fairly comment on the other prisoners and makes some interesting suggestions for reform.

    He speaks of the strictness of the warders in disapproval and states how the flogging of 24 or 36 lashes is a fearful punishment to inflict for even striking a warder, and if a prisoner only knocked off a warder’s hat, and did not injure his body, he was flogged. Mr Davitt also speaks of how the warder was practically present when his solicitor came to visit him.

    When speaking on the topic of mental health he states how the ‘old lags’ tried to get into an invalid prison or one where work was part of daily life, and also goes on to say that those who were genuinely insane were treated by the doctors as if they were putting it on.

    One of the main themes in Mr Davitt’s evidence is the problem of the solitary confinement and being locked up for 23 out of every 24 hours. He is very much against solitary confinement as it is not very productive and suggests that ‘if old offenders were sent at once to public works prisons after sentence, and put immediately to some useful manual labour, it would be better for them, and it would be a more humane treatment.’

    He supports the idea of separating young and ‘old lags’ to prevent the latter having a bad influence on the former, and also free inspections from local councillors, along with decentralisation of larger prisons.

    26 Oct 2016, 17:33

  7. Aleema Salami

    Thomas Fowell Buxton, An Inquiry whether Crime and Misery are Produced or Prevented, by our Present System of Prison Discipline
    – Context
    ○ Thomas Buxton was a member of Parliament, brewer, abolitionist and social reformer
    ○ The Committee of Alderman commissioned in September 1815 to visit of assess English jails
    ○ “The Committee of Aldermen appointed to visit various prisons, are of a different opinion : they think, ” that on no consideration ought indulgence to be carried so far in a prison, as that it shall cease to punish as a prison;”
    ○ Visited prisons in London, Hertfordshire and Surrey
    § Houses of Correction in Chelmsford
    § County Jail at Kingston
    § Horsemonger Lane House of Correction
    § Coldbath-fields
    § Newgate
    ○ At the start of 1818, January and February
    § He visited t the House of Correction in Chelmsford on 6 Jan 1818 where he found that there was a lot of illness, that morning someone had died of small-pox and another was dying of Typhus-Fever
    □ Both were young people
    § He visited the Horsemonger Lane House with the Honourable H. G. Bennett 17 June 1818
    □ Here the cells were quite small but regularly housed three prisoners for the night and sometimes five
    § When he visited Newgate he was met with a case of a boy that was convicted with insufficient evidence of a crime and had spent his first night in a cell with some that had committed murder
    □ He was changed by his time in Newgate, adopting the traits, sentiments and mannerisms of the people there
    § Another such case he witnessed of a prisoner changing and adopting the mannerisms of his peers after entering prison was of Mr __
    □ Mr __’s wife wrote to Buxton stating that “though they could not force him to gamble, he was compelled to drink… his health was declining; I saw the destructive effects upon him of such association”
    – Interpretation
    ○ An official document of an inquiry into the state of English jails
    ○ “It is a matter of much satisfaction to me to observe, that my opinions upon the subject of prison discipline, are confirmed by the high authority of ” the Committee of Aldermen of London, appointed in 1815, to visit several jails in England”
    § Considering the author’s background it can be deduced that his assessment is reliable
    □ Abolitionist, social reformer, there is experience in the area of welfare and an understanding of assessing the conditions of those under extreme conditions
    § Several times though, as the document is public, Buxton says things like
    □ “I abstain from exhausting the patience of my reader”
    ® With regards to an explanation of the locations visited
    □ “I must close this chapter… by leaving my readers to decide whether vice and misery are produced or prevented by our system of prison discipline”
    ® In conclusion to a section where he gives evidence, despite the sentiments in the above quote, to show that (in his own words) “surely it is time that there should be some conformity between the letter and the execution of the law”
    □ “It would be tedious to my readers if I were now to abstract all the regulations relative to prison”
    ® The provisions given by the law concerning jails
    □ All this tells us three things
    ® One: “the reader” is educated and well versed in the law, suggesting that the document is to be read and understood by fellow MPs or those in the Committee
    ® Two: Buxton is passionate about issues of social welfare, understandable by his background, but this does not necessarily suggest bias due to his deferring to the reader
    ® Three: it could be deduced that there is a sense of impatience or disappointment in his tone
    The committee having been appointed in 1815 and three years later there seems to be no improvements or alliance of the law and reality

    26 Oct 2016, 17:51

  8. Ground Plan of the Pentonville Prison for 520 Prisoners on the Separate System(1844)

    • Designed by Joshua Jebb, Pentonville prison was built in 1840-42 and based on the Haviland Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
    • The central hall is the main part of the building with 5 other wings where male prisoners would live on probation for 18 months.
    • When built, many commented on its cheerful and airy nature.

    Inside Newgate PrisonfromQueen’s London (1897)

    • The source shows reproduced photos of Newgate Prison. Areas that have become known as The Graveyard, The Chapel and The Central Courtyard can be seen.

    Newgate Prison and the Central Courtyard
    • The name Newgate comes from one of the city gates.
    • This is where the female prisoners could exercise, in one of three exercise areas separated by walls.
    • Visitors were able to come through here and converse with prisoners in the visiting box.
    • The prison would hold almost two hundred people, many were held for murder or because they were awaiting trial and the Central Criminal Court.
    • The Cells are primitive. All with a bible and prayer book.

    The Chapel
    • Men and women were at separately with no view of each other.
    • The setup is similar to any other chapel with a pulpit for the preacher and space for musical accompanists.
    • Dickens talks about a certain pew that was reserved for the prisoners that were condemned to death. The coffins for these condemned men were even placed alongside the pew which Dickens protested.
    • This condemned pew was in the centre of the room with the prisoners all sitting around it.

    The Graveyard
    • Rather than a typical layout of a graveyard. The one at Newgate was a passage with high stone walls where the initials of the criminal’s surnames are the only marker.
    • Murderers executed at Newgate were those who had committed their crimes north of the Thames in the Metropolitan area.
    • Those executed Newgate were buried in coffins encased with limestone.

    26 Oct 2016, 17:52

  9. Bentham- The Panopticon
     Letter 1- idea of inspection principle
     Says his structure will be applicable to all establishments
     Idealy, people are to be inspected all the time- will work for all purposes of prison inc. punishment, reform
    etc, but this is impossible so he has the next best thing
     The more constantly people are to be inspected, the more perfectly will the purpose of the prison be
    attained.
     Letter 2- plan
     Circular, divided into cells, the inspector in the centre – The Inspector’s Lodge
     There is a window in the cell, and iron bars
     Talks of putting a small tin tube from each cell to the inspector͛s lodge to whisper down so each could hear,
    to save you exerting your voice
     There is a bell to function as an alarm in the inspector͛s office
     Talks of constructing a proto-toilet in each cell, through a pipe in each cell leading to a main pipe leading to
    outside of the building
     Should have a water pipe in each cell for prisoners to drink
     Letter 5- essential points of the plan
     Circular structure is the only one which allows you perfect view of all the cells, it enables the prisoners to
    feel that they are always being inspected
     The concept of the design is to allow all inmates of an institution to be observed by a single watchman
    without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched- because the inmates do not
    know if the inspector is looking at them – and this is a key advantage

    26 Oct 2016, 18:15

  10. Bentham- The Panopticon
    Letter 1
    - All inmates, regardless of their reason for confinement, benefit from constant and close observation.

    Letter 2
    - Suggests prisons should be built in the shape of a circle. Each prisoner should have his/her own private cell and a ‘Inspectors Lodge’ should be placed within the middle of the round, allowing view into all cells. There should also be considerable vacant space between the inspectors office and the inmates cells.
    - Each cell should have large windows with the availability of blinds. Lamps with reflectors used to ‘extend to the night the security of the day’.
    - Indoor hot houses to retain heat, making the prison more economic when heat is required in the winter time.

    Letter 5
    - Circular prisons enable prisoners to be watched constantly, something which Letter 1 describes as desirable.
    - The circular also allows for a climate of fear to breed as all prisoners can be seen by the inspector, but the prisoner can’t always tell if they are specifically being watched at a specific time. The shape also allows the inspector to pick up easily on any disturbances which may be taking place.

    26 Oct 2016, 21:59

  11. Birmingham Borough Gaol – From the Birmingham Journal

    - Article detailing an inquiry into a 15 year old boy who had been in prison three times (garden robbing, throwing stones and stealing a piece of beef!!!).
    - Governor describes him as ‘a mild, quiet, docile boy’, clearly not out to cause trouble; beef stealing implies poor and hungry.
    - He had been sentenced to labour on a crank having to make 10,000 turns a day weighing 15lbs and only allowed to eat bread and water; if he shouted in pain or broke the crank he was put in a straight waistcoat (effectively described as a straight jacket with weighted collar) and deprived of food.
    - In this horrific state of being tied up and starved, cold water was thrown over him to stop him fainting.
    - He is tortured mentally and physically so much that when this ‘punishment’ is over, he is unable to do the work on the crank again. The punishment is alternated between hard labour and being tied up until he commits suicide.

    - The article states that there were many other cases of this type of horrific torture:
    - 1) A man named Hunt (not of ‘sound mind’ is stated) is ordered by the governor to be put in a straight jacket for an unspecified crime. He shouted in immense distress and so the governor and warden shoved salt into his mouth making him sick.
    - 2) Boy named Webb (again 15 yrs old) was heard saying ‘goodbye’ to a fellow prisoner and was therefore strapped to a wall with his arms, legs and head fastened in the infernal machine. Was only given 8oz of bread a day, no water and had to do hard labour on the crank.
    - 3) There are more cases of this type of punishment for today what we would see as incredibly petty crimes: e.g. a man who made brushes for the prison made a shaving brush for a warden and was sentenced to 14 days hard labour.
    - 4) Man called Maiden, 19 yrs old, imprisoned for running away from employment. Again starved and put in a straight jacket.

    - It is said that all tasks by prisoners that were not carried out (mainly the crank) were punished with time in the straight jacket and deprivation of food, water, bedding and light.
    - Many more cases are outlined briefly all being punished in the same way for tiny offences such as tapping on the wall and writing on a can.
    - In many cases of the enquiry, the governor, surgeon and wardens all seemingly make things up and state that these severe torture methods are false, even though these orders of punishment were all given by the same governor.

    26 Oct 2016, 22:46

  12. Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, Prisons and Prisoners (1914)
    Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences is a book by the suffragette Constance Lytton. The book contains accounts of her various prison sentences from 1909 to 1911. Chapter XIII chronicles her stay at Walton Gaol in Liverpool, her third imprisonment. Lytton served eight days of the fourteen sentenced to her for throwing a rock at an MP’s car, as she was released early for reasons that I presume were related to her health, although she briefly suspects that it may because of her class. Jane Warton is Lytton’s ‘alter ego’ for a time. She disguised herself as a London seamstress in order to conceal her true identity so that she did not receive any special treatment or early release in/from the prison. This was because Constance Lytton, as the daughter of a viceroy, was a woman of good social standing.
    The main theme in the chapter appears to be how (female) political prisoners are treated at the time. Lytton also disguised herself as Jane in order to find out how lower class women in prisons, more specifically suffragettes were treated. While it is unclear whether the authorities found out her true identity, she was treated better as her sentenced passed, and was ultimately released six days early, unlike her other suffragette companions. However, it must also be noted that her treatment from figures such as doctors who were forcibly feeding her, wardenesses, nurses, and the governor improved after she reacted badly to a particular force feeding and doctors realised that she had a weak heart.
    Through her experience, Lytton also sheds light on how female political prisoners could protest within the space they were confined to. She primarily is on hunger strike, which results in multiple rounds of force feeding. However, Lytton also protests by refusing to make her bed, breaking a glass wall which shields a gas light, defacing the walls, and making formal complaints of her treatment to figures of authority during her stay.

    26 Oct 2016, 23:34

  13. Aksana Khan

    This interview reveals two key issues; firstly, the main ideas Gladstone and his peers had in reforming prisons; secondly, the maltreatment of prisoners in the nineteenth century.

    Michael Davitt, the subject of the interview, encapsulates these two themes. This is because he was an ex-prisoner convicted of treason following his involvement with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Davitt was given a ‘ticket of leave’ following a growing movement to give amnesty to Irish political prisoners. As he documented his mistreatment, and those of others, this makes him an ideal witness for a committee who were frustrated with the military regime of Du Crane’s prisons. There are limitations with Davitt’s account as it had been almost twenty years since he left. However, his views were relevant as the dialogue between Davitt and his interviewers touched on the changes made following the publication of this report in 1897. These include the end of the silent system, the employment of useless labour such as the crank and treadmill, as well as adopting measures against encouraging recidivists, and the influence they had on young offenders. Given this source is a public document commissioned by Parliament, Davitt’s account legitimises the growing welfarism in Victorian domestic policy.

    Both parties not only shared the same opinion regarding the prison regime, but also the prison administration. Owing to the dominance of Foucault thought in the historiography of prisons, this interview highlights the need to change prison personnel is overlooked. This is reflected in the Committee’s leading question to Davitt, ‘Do you think that the harsh treatment which exists now is to a certain extent due to the fact that the warders are of a class inferior from that which ought to be drawn from?’ Another question touching on improving prison chaplaincy was prefaced with the statement: ‘I think they are divided into two classes. One, those who really go into it with the Christian object of reforming, and the other class…who goes…because he cannot get anything better.’ The committee’s lack of neutrality is obvious in how these two questions are framed. Both parties agree that there should be greater diversity in prison wardens and ministers in order to ensure a ‘humane treatment’ of prisoners. This is because of the brutality prisoners experienced at the hand of ex-soldiers and ex-Navy wardens, as well as the apathy from uninspired ministers.

    26 Oct 2016, 23:54

  14. Aksana Khan

    Even though one could argue that Davitt’s sense of victimhood does question his reliablity, nevertheless his testimony exposes gaping holes in the ameliorative creed which supposedly dominated the Committee’s mindset.
    1) He does so by consistently comparing English prisons to those abroad. These comparisons highlight how conservative the British system was as they did not teach prisoners music (as the Americans did), have non-Conformist ministers (like the French), or employ less punishment (like the Irish, although this may be a biased opinion given Davitt’s political persuasion).
    2) The Committee members were concerned that teaching prisoners a trade would affect domestic businesses. Davitt however was a keen proponent of this, arguing that it ensured productivity of the prisoner once he left the prison.
    3) Issues with mental health, particularly with how prison doctors were often inexperienced when distinguishing prisoners who were malingering and those who were genuinely considered ‘insane’.
    4) The fact that the ethics behind the laws governing police supervision of prisoners with a ‘ticket of leave’ were not applied in practice. Davitt argued that often police officers were harsh and unforgiving; this led to the former prisoner offending again.
    Overall, this demonstrates that whilst the Committee members may be seen as ‘liberal’ compared to Du Crane and his prison administrators, their views did not necessarily chime with those of Davitt. This is because they could not fully empathise with those who have been in prison. This tension has meant that any reform would be considered conservative compared to what those, like Davitt would have wanted.

    26 Oct 2016, 23:54

  15. Oscar Wilde – The Ballad of Reading Gaol
    Published in 1897 and written sometime in the two years prior, The Ballad of Reading Gaol details a macabre account of Oscar Wilde’s time in prison sentenced with hard labour. Imprisoned for homosexuality in 1895, Wilde touches on themes of evil, death and the failures of the justice system, taking an empathetic approach to his fellow prisoners. Written in the form of poetry, each section of stanzas follows somewhat chronologically during another prisoner’s hanging day, diverting sporadically as Wilde displays his wider philosophical musings.
    One of the recurring thoughts of the poem is repeated in the first section and the last, which is the concept that ‘all men kill the thing they love’. Wilde means this both literally and metaphorically, but distinguishes the two by arguing it is the brave who kill by the sword and the coward by a kiss. This is a reflection of Wilde’s own personal guilt regarding the pain he has caused family members with his incarceration. He repeats this idea later on as he believes the prison walls are built from shame, and that all prisoners are outcasts regardless of the severity of their crime.
    This leads into a discussion of sin, and who of the punished are deserving. Wilde would suggest that whether a crime is great or insignificant, it is irrelevant as they are all left in the same place, gazing ‘wistfully’ at the sky above. Wilde paints the prison cells as ‘separate hell’ and ‘numbered tombs’ proclaiming ‘the world had thrust us from its heart/ And God from out His care’. Morality is not just an issue for the prisoners but Wilde also discusses the morality of the jailers themselves, arguing each must lock their lips and make their face a mask, or else they might be moved to ‘comfort or console’, no good in ‘Murderer’s Hole’. This sense of abandonment and despair could be interpreted as a criticism of the justice system, and the way in which society treats prisoners as less than human.
    The sense of hopelessness is prevalent throughout the depiction of the hanging itself, and draws upon religious connotations. The ‘terror’ each man felt is shown to be unrelenting, and Wilde describes how men turn to prayer, ‘who had never prayed before’ as a last resort. On the day of the hanging Wilde remarks that there is no chapel, possibly to highlight the conflict of capital punishment with religious morality. Wilde does not lose faith in religion, as when a murderer is returned to the Earth he muses that the public might claim it would taint the soil, ‘but God’s earth is kindlier than man’, and still beautiful flowers may bloom. When relating to the theme of hope it would suggest that hope and redemption only comes after death. One of his final thoughts is ‘how else but through a broken heart/ May Lord Christ enter in?’, displaying his conviction that God loves everyone despite previous doubts of abandonment.

    27 Oct 2016, 07:58


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