Sunday, 3 April 2011

Prison reform 1880-1914

By the late 1880s, belief in punishment and deterrence as the main objects of imprisonment and confidence in the separate system as a desirable and effective means of dealing with prisoners came increasingly under question especially from a rabid campaign in the Daily Chronicle.[1] The result was the departmental committee chaired by Herbert Gladstone in 1894 and 1895 reflecting changes in attitudes towards prisoners.[2] ‘We start’, said the Committee, ‘from the principle that prison treatment should have as its primary and concurrent objects, deterrence and reformation’.[3] The Committee recommended that unproductive labour, in particular the crank and tread-wheel should be abolished and that the principle of labour in association, practised for many years in the convict service, should be extended to local prisons. They argued that under proper conditions association for industrial labour relieved isolation was healthier, eased the task of providing industrial work in prison and, if regarded as a privilege that could be withdrawn, would not endanger control.[4] The Committee also recommended that further efforts should be made to classify prisoners, that books should be made more widely available and that educational facilities should be extended. They urged that the rules about visits should be exercised with discretion not rigidly applied, especially in circumstances where they would be beneficial to the prisoner. For convicts, the initial period of solitary confinement should be reduced, since its original reformatory purpose had long since deteriorated into one of pure deterrence. A juvenile reformatory should be established to take offenders up to the age of 23 for a period of between one and three years with the emphasis on individual treatment and special arrangements for after-care. For the ‘habitual criminal’ preventative detention was introduced to enable courts to impose an additional sentence of 5-10 years as a deterrent. More generally, the Committee emphasised the urgent need for aid and after-care to be available to prisoners on release and for the voluntary bodies concerned to have opportunities to establish contact with prisoners before their discharge.

On the publication of the report, Sir Edmund Du Cane, chairman of the Prison Commissioners resigned his post, something welcomed in the press as ‘the inevitable end of a discredited system’.[5] The report is frequently used to mark a shift in penal policy away from a rigidly deterrent approach and a condemnation of ‘useless’ labour to one grounded in a more ‘reformative’ system of imprisonment and this has given it the appearance of a prospectus for radical change.[6] However, its recommendations were implemented slowly and piecemeal.[7] There were significant weaknesses in the report arising largely from its failure to address the issue of prison administration as well as conditions for prisoners and its indecisiveness, a reflection of the weakness and amateurish nature of the committee from the outset.[8] That the publication of the report came less than two months before the resignation of Rosebery’s Liberal government and its defeat in a general election meant that its impact was further limited. The result was that some of its recommendations were watered down while others were simply ignored. The momentum for change in penal policy dissipated and it was not until 1898 that legislation was passed.[9]

Few of the Gladstone recommendations required legislation since powers had already been delegated to the Home Secretary to frame and revise prison rules and this may explain why the Prisons Act 1898 had such a lengthy development. In addition, there was little parliamentary pressure for a legislative review of penal policy and although draft bills were written in 1896 and 1897, they were not seen as a priority The Prison Act 1898 dealt mainly with changes in the nature of prison labour, by providing for association in labour if this was practicable, for the phasing out of the crank and treadwheel and for the use of oakum picking only as a last resort. The Act also made provision for the courts to classify into one of three divisions those sentenced to imprisonment without hard labour. This novel development reflected the contemporary view that it was more appropriate that the sentencing court rather than the executive should decide the conditions under which an offender should serve his sentence. In practice, courts seldom used any but the third classification, the most severe but the provision was not repealed until 1948. The legislation made important structural changes by amalgamating the Prison Commissioners and the Directors of Convict Prisons and in establishing the principle of lay involvement in monitoring prisons through Boards of Visitors.

The Victorian prison

...was a man’s world; made for men, by men. Women in prison were seen as somehow anomalous: not foreseen and not legislated for. They were provided with separate quarters and female staff dealt with all that for reasons of modesty and good order - but not otherwise differently.[10]

The most common offences committed by women were linked to prostitution and were, essentially, ‘victimless’ crimes such as soliciting, drunkenness, drunk and disorderly and vagrancy that tended to be dealt with by the courts either by fines or short periods of imprisonment. Until Holloway became a female-only prison in 1903, women were held in separate sections of mixed prisons. However, the unlawful activities of the predominantly middle-class Suffragettes posed a major problem for the prison authorities especially when they began going on hunger strikes. What distinguished the suffragette hunger strike campaign was the calculated use of the press, especially after the government began to force-feed suffragettes. In reporting stories of determined women prisoners, newspapers presented a challenge, for millions of voters, to more docile images of women.[11]

On 24 June 1909, an artist Marion Wallace Dunlop was arrested and imprisoned after painting an extract of the 1689 Bill of Rights on the wall of the House of Commons. Like other suffragette prisoners, she refused political status in prison and, on 5 July, began a hunger strike in protest. After ninety-one hours of fasting, she was released. Other suffragettes followed her example and were also released. From September 1909, Herbert Gladstone, Home Secretary (1905-1910), introduced forcible feeding[12]. Historians are divided over the importance of force-feeding. Some justify it simply on the grounds that it saved the lives of hunger strikers. On the other hand, suffragette propaganda portrayed it as oral rape and many feminist historians have agreed with this perspective. Over a thousand women endured, what Jane Marcus called ‘the public violation of their bodies’ and a contemporary doctor said that ‘using the term ‘medical treatment’ as a cloak, commits an act which would be assault if done by an ordinary doctor’.[13] There was also a class dimension. Influential women like Lady Constance Lytton[14] were released, while working-class women were treated brutally.[15] As the number of suffragette prisoners’ rose and suffragette propaganda continued to make capital out of forcible feeding, the government changed its strategy. In April 1913, the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge on Ill-Health Act was passed. This allowed the temporary discharge of prisoners on hunger strike combined with their re-arrest later once they had recovered and was soon described as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.

Although there were several attempts before 1914 to define and improve the nature of convict life and changes in the ways that young offenders were treated, much of the structures of imprisonment followed the foundations laid down by Carnarvon and Du Cane and remained largely undisturbed by reformers, administrators and politicians for much of the following century.[16]


[1] Forsythe, W.J., Penal discipline, reformatory projects and the English Prison Commission, 1895-1939, (Exeter University Press), 1990 and Harding Christopher, ‘'The Inevitable End of a Discredited System'? The Origins of the Gladstone Committee Report on Prisons, 1895’, Historical Journal, Vol. 31, (3), (1988), pp. 591-608 and Hannum, E. Brown, ‘The Debate on Penal Goals: Carnarvon, Gladstone and the harnessing of Nineteenth Century ‘Truth’, 1865-1895’, New England Journal on Prison Law, Vol. 7, (1981), pp. 97-103.

[2] ‘Report from the departmental committee on prisons’, Parliamentary Papers, Vol. lvi, 1895 or the Gladstone Committee.

[3] Gladstone Committee, para 25.

[4] In 1900, as part of the Gladstone reforms, prison were instructed to allow conversation between prisoners at exercise but the reactions of prison governors was almost entirely unfavourable. ‘Conservation, the Prison Commissioners’ Annual Report in 1900 stated, ‘at exercise is not sought after; prisoners prefer to exercise in the usual way.’

[5] Daily Chronicle, 15 April 1895.

[6] See, for example, Loucks, Nancy and Haines, Kevin, ‘Crises in British Prisons: A Critical Review Essay’, International Criminal Justice Review, Vol. 3, (1993), pp. 77-93 that stated at pp. 77-78 ‘The Gladstone Committee (1895) laid the framework for the aims of the modern prison service in England and Wales.’

[7] For contemporary criticism see, Morrison, W.D., ‘The Progress of Prison Reform’, Law Magazine and Review, Vol. 32, (1902-1903), pp. 32-33.

[8] McConville, Sean, English Local Prisons, 1860-1900: Next only to Death, pp. 615-696 discusses the Gladstone report and its aftermath.

[9] Ibid, McConville, Sean, English Local Prisons, 1860-1900, pp. 697-757 examines the tortuous passage of legislation.

[10] Ibid, Priestley, Philip, Victorian Prison Lives, pp. 69-70

[11] Purvis, June, ‘The prison experiences of the Suffragettes’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 4, (1), (1995), pp. 103-133.

[12] This was maintained Reginald McKenna (Home Secretary, 23 October 1911-25 May 1915). Winston Churchill was Home Secretary during the truce in 1910-1911 and it is interesting to speculate what he would have done about force-feeding, as he was a supporter of women’s suffrage. On the attitude of the Home Office from 1906 to 1914 see, Crawford, Elizabeth, ‘Police, Prisons and Prisoners: the view from the Home Office’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 14, (3 & 4), (2005), pp. 487-505.

[13] British Medical Journal, 5 October 1915, p. 908.

[14] Constance Lytton, the daughter of the Earl of Lytton who had once served as Viceroy of India, joined the Suffragettes in 1909 and was arrested on several occasions for militant actions. However, on each occasion, she was released without being force-fed. Believing that she was getting special treatment because of his upper class background, she decided to test her theory. In 1911, she dressed as a working-class woman and was arrested in a protest outside Liverpool’s Walton Gaol under the name ‘Jane Wharton’. She underwent a cursory medical inspection and was passed fit. She was forcibly fed and became so ill she suffered a stroke that partially paralysed her. After her release, her story generated a great deal of publicity for the movement. See, Mulvey-Roberts, Marie, ‘Militancy, masochism or martyrdom? The public and private prisons of Constance Lytton’ in Purvis, June and Holton, Sandra Stanley, (eds.), Votes for Women, (Routledge), 2000, pp. 159-180.

[15] Geddes, J.F., ‘Culpable Complicity: the medical profession and the forcible feeding of suffragettes, 1909-1914’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 17, (1), (2008), pp. 79-94. The forcible feeding of suffragettes in prisons in Edwardian Britain was an abuse that had serious physical and psychological consequences for those fed, and one in which the medical profession was complicit, by failing as a body to condemn the practice as both medically unnecessary and dangerous. Sir Victor Horsley, an eminent but controversial figure, led opposition to forcible feeding, but, with relatively few male colleagues backing him, it continued unchecked. Undeterred, Horsley worked tirelessly to make his profession aware of the realities of the practice and recognise that, as the militant campaign had escalated, the Home Office had used the doctors administering it to punish, rather than treat, the hunger strikers.

[16] Ibid, McConville, Sean, English Local Prisons, 1860-1900, p. 549.

1 comment:

Javier Velásquez said...

Dear Professor Bronw:

I want to congratulate you for your work in your blogs. My name is Javier Velásquez, and i am chilean law academic working in the prision reform history. I have read with such interest your post about the Gladstone comitee, never the less, i have been unable to find online and in journals a copy of the Report.

I have found several articles about it, but i need the Report in order to corroborate a hipothesis in which i am working. I know that there is a "online" digitalized copy of the Report in the "Lancet "journal, but i got no acces to it.

I want to ask your help, if you got a digitilized copy of the report that you can sent to me i would be pretty thankfull.

My mail is jevelasq@uc.cl