Hammersmith Socialist Record, Number 19, April 1893

[Untitled] Notes on the Prison System


A little while ago a man brought up before the magistrates at Woolwich and committed for burglary, put forward an unanswerable plea rather for his section of habitual criminals that himself; asking what he was to do, and who was to give a jail-bird employment. People unconvicted of crime, said he, found it hard enough in these times to get employment; and was it likely that he could get it. So it is clear that he contemplated a career of from prison to crime and from crime to prison. The Daily News, in commenting on this speech, heaves a sigh, and says, in effect: How true! How sad! But at least nobody is to blame. Well, shall we not rather say "everybody" rather than nobody; not forgetting the saw that says everybody's business is nobody's.

Singular confession of the helplessness of Capitalist-Society. We have given up the idea (or profess to have done so) that legal penalties are revenge for the transgression of divine laws; we say that punishments are intended to be deterrent and remedial: and then we confess that our jails are nothing else than nurseries of crime. And all the while we know perfectly well the kind of system our prison-system should be—to wit, that the prisoners, those, that is, who for the time have put themselves out of society, [should?] have a chance of regaining their place in it, by paying the due penalty and purging themselves thereby of their crimes; by working hard and usefully in prison, and finding themselves when they come out of it ready for reception into the ranks of useful labour outside. This kind of prison life is the only real alternative to the mediæval idea of divine revenge on sin made manifest in open crime, which, as above, we profess to have discarded. But mark this! It cannot be done under our present system, because the prisoners with hope before them would be in a better position than a vast part of our labouring population not in prison, and with no hope before them; so that the jail would have no terror for that part of our people who are likely to be tempted to qualify themselves for going there. I make, of course, an exception in the matter of educated and well-bred legal thieves. Though, indeed, they may well say: Yes, we are thieves, certainly; we have crossed that rather slender line on the other side of which you who sit in judgment on us are at present keeping yourselves.

So there it is. Our society is so mixed up with dishonesty, is so entirely founded on it from a legal point of view, that real ethics, real matters of right and wrong, have become ideals on which some exalted men may act, and not, as they should be, habits on which everyone would act without effort.