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It is now just fifty years since the immortal HOWARD commenced that illustrious career, which has conferred on his country such important blessings, and justly ranked him among the greatest benefactors of mankind. Those who are unacquainted with the writings of this extraordinary man, can form but an imperfect concep-. tion of the state of the prisons of this country at that period. Dungeons, dark, filthy, damp, and unventilatedchains and fetters of oppressive weight--food, unwholesome and insufficient-were the prominent charac-. teristics of prison treatment. : Of the loathsome state of many places of confinement, an idea may be formed when HOWARD states that but few gaolers would incur the risk of infection by accompanying him into the cells; that, on his first journey, the leaves of his memorandum book were so tainted, as to be unfit for use; that the vinegar which he carried with him, as a preservative against infection, soon lost its properties ; and that, during these visits, his clothes became so offensive as to prevent him from travelling in a close carriage.
Although, at this period, the infliction of cruelty derived no sanction from the laws--although torture, in any shape, formed no part of a criminal's sentence
yet, in point of fact, imprisonment in the greater part of the gaols of Great Britain carried with it sufferings which amounted to torture, and at the bare contemplation of which humanity shudders. A fatal disorder, known by the name of the Gaol Distemper, had at different periods of our history made frequent and dreadful ravages. About the middle of the sixteenth century, an assize was held at Oxford, which was afterwards denominated, from its consequences, “The Black Assize;" when, the disease being introduced into court, all who were present, consisting of the judge, the sheriff, and about 300 persons, died within forty hours; and Lord Bacon, in allusion to this event, observes, " that the most pernicious infection, next to the plaguè, is the smell of a gaol, where the prisoners have been long and closely kept; whereof we have bad, in our time, experience twice or thrice, when both the Judge that sat upon the bench, and a number who attended the business, or were present, sickened upon it and died.” Frequent occurrences of a like awful náture might be related ; and even so lately as in the middle of the last century the gaol fever was introduced into the court at the Old Bailey, when the Judges presiding, and a considerable number present, fell victims to this dreadful malady.
- Accustomed as we are, in the present day, on the discovery of a great public evil, to ascertain its causes, and apply a remedy, it cannot fail to appear extraordinary that feelings of humanity and regard for the safe administration of justice, should not, before the days of Howard, have led to the improvement of our prisons: but it seems that the legislature was content with providing upon emergent occasions,“ safe places for the removal of the sick."* No attempt was made to prevent the recurrence of the gaol distemper, until, in conformity with HOWARD's recommendation, a law was enacted, the effect of which has been to insure cleanliness and ventilation, and which has happily been instrumental in preventing the return of the calamity.
But although Howard accomplished much-and great was the sum of human misery which he did remove-he was obliged to bequeath to the succeeding generation the remedy of evils, which, if not tending to the immediate destruction of life, could not fail remotely to affect it, and to be productive of aggravated crime and lasting misery. The Committee advert to the general imperfection of our gaols, and especially to the moral consequences of imprisonment. Of these, HOWARD was fully sensible. He says, that “ if it were the aim and wish of Magistrates to effect the destruction, present and future, of young delinquents, they could not deýise a more effèctual method than to confine them so long in our prisons--those seats and seminaries of idleness and vice."-But these representations appear to have produced but little effect; for, at a period of twenty years subsequent to the death of HOWARD, when Mr. NIELD (a man worthy to tread in the footsteps of the great Philanthropist) personally inspected the prisons throughout the kingdom, it was his painful task to record many of the most prominent defects which his eminent predecessor had so faithfully exposed ;—and the Committee are compelled to add that there yet exist prisons in nearly the same condition as that in which HOWARD left them-monuments of the justice of his statements, and of the indifference with which his recommendations have been regarded.
* 19th Charles II, c. IV. s. 2.--And whereas sometimes by occasions of the plague, and otherwhiles by the great number of prisoners, great and infectious diseases have happened among the prisoners, whereby it hath come to pass, sometimes, that the judges, justices, and jurors, have, upon occasion of their attendance at the trial of prisoners been infected, and many of them died thereof, and sometimes such infection hath spread into the country: for some remedy therein, be it by the same authority enacted, that any sheriff of the respective counties, having the custody of the gaol, or such persons who have the custody of the gaol, with the advice and consent of three or more justices of the peace, whereof one to be of the quorum, may, if they shall upon inquiry, or information, find it needful, upon emergent occasions, in the respective counties, provide other safe places for the removal of sick, or other persons, from and out of the ordinary and usual gaols.
It has been reserved for that spirit of investigation and of active kindness which distinguishes the present age, to enter fully into the general condition, and especially the moral treatment, of the criminal. The evils of a defective mode of prison discipline have been thoroughly investigated and made known. In the person of the prisoner the claims of justice and humanity are recognized. The folly and the wickedness of that neglect of system has been exposed which confounds all distinctions of character—which corrupts the innocent-still further vitiates the criminal, and hardens the more guilty—which impairs the health while it debases the mind—and which restores to society an offender to. prey upon its property, pollute its morals, and disturb its peace. .
Of the progress of information and of public feeling, within these few years, on the subject of prison discipline, the former Reports of this Society bear ample testimony. Parliamentary interference, the exertions of the magistracy, and diligence of inquiry, have combined to bring the subject prominently before the