Penal Reform


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    What mean and cruel things men do for the love of God
    W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), A Writer's Notebook


    During the whole period of 1,500 years or so that the Church enjoyed absolute power the concept of penal reform was unknown. Prisons in 1800 were as insanitary, cramped, infested and dangerous as they had been when the Roman Empire first adopted Christianity. Prisoners had virtually no rights, were subjected to violence and arbitrary punishment, could expect little or no medical assistance, and were likely to die of disease or starvation before their release. The prime purposes of gaol were punishment and retribution.

    Bishop's gaols were no better than others, and were frequently worse. They provided a source of funds to their owners. In the Bishop of Ely's prison, men were chained to the floor, with heavy iron bars across their legs and spiked collars around their necks. They lived and often died like this unless they were prepared to pay a fee for "easement of irons". The Prince Bishop of Durham owned the county gaol at Durham, which was for centuries a profitable enterprise, and other bishops around the country, indeed throughout Christendom, supplemented their fortunes from the suffering of their prisoners. Food, if any, was often limited to bread and water: "the bread and water of affliction" (1 Kings 22:27). Such a diet guaranteed death sooner or later, usually within months.

    In Christian times flogging was commonplace. Victims included monks and nuns, children, soldiers and sailers, the mentally ill, penitants, criminals, servants and slaves, prisoners and those who offended the Church, including noblemen and kings.

    The Bishop of Winchester's prison on the South bank of the Thames, the original "Clink", has given its name to a slang term for all prisons*. As it was near to the Thames the lower cells tended to flood at high tide, so prisoners unable to provide the requisite bribes could be done away with effortlessly by drowning. Otherwise the Clink was much like other bishops" prisons. Men, women and children were held, often illegally without charge. They lived without light, sanitary facilities, medical attention, bedding, heating, clothes, or proper food, and survived either by bribery or begging.


    For some crimes the Church favoured public humiliation - being forced to wear absurd masks, being stripped and flogged, or restrained while having things thrown at them. One formalised sentence was the Amende honorable. The Amende honorable was a form of punishment used within Christendom from the middle ages up to the eighteenth century. It was a Church sponsored form of public humiliation. In the middle ages the Church imposed it on people without any form of judicial trial. Later it became a sentence imposed by courts following a form of trial, generally conducted in Church courts, they it was also imposed under Civil Law. The condemned man or woman was stripped naked or sometimes allowed a shift or breaches for modesty. Like other penitents they carried a large candle in their hands, which were sometimes bound. The condemned was led to the church door or even into the church, wearing a noose around their neck by which they were pulled along, usually by the public executioner. (The amende honourable was sometimes though not always a part of capital punishment. It was for example incorporated into larger rituals of capital punishment such as the French version of drawing and quartering for treason). Barefoot, the condemned had to walk or crawl before a judge, bishop or other assembled clergy at the altar, admit their supposed error and beg for pardon. Sometimes they would also be publically scourged. In France a pardon granted by the church was binding on the state, regardless of the severity of the crime. Humiliation and submission to God and the Church were the principle features of the procedure. An accurate depiction of the amende honourable features in the film Le Retour de Martin Guerre.

    Alphonse Legros (1837-1911), Une amende honorable, salon de 1868
    Amende honorable was part of the punishment under the French blasphemy law
    passed in 1825 under the Restoration

    Cristian tortures took many forms. People were restrained by irons and fetters, sometimes locked into agonising positions with neck, wrists and ankles held within inches of each other. After a short time in this position they were permanently disabled. Alternatively prisoners could be racked, beaten, flogged or otherwise abused. One method was to keep their feet in water until they rotted.

    Corruption was rife, so that it was possible for example to establish brothels inside prisons. Money was extorted for anything and everything. Prisoners were even charged for lodging, for the chains that restrained them and for the torture inflicted on them. In 1194 sixpence was charged for fitting a ferramente, an iron collar. This was the equivalent of thousands of pounds today. Those with wealthy relatives could avoid the worst suffering and indignities. Money would buy privileges such as food and drink, better cells, a bed, a chamber pot, candles, relief from irons, conjugal visits, and so on. Money would also allow privileged prisoners to avoid the whipping post, the cucking stool, and other tortures and indignities*. The Church accepted all this. God had no objection to it — Churchmen pointed out that if he had disapproved, he would have said so in the Bible.

    Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (1431–1476), was also known by his patronymic name: Dracula. He was posthumously dubbed Vlad the Impaler. A Catholic convert, he was famed for his cruelty, persecuting Romanies and impaling his enemies, including prisoners of war. He was regarded as a hero by the Catholic Church, and provided a model for Bram Stoker's Dracula.


    The pioneer of modern penology was an Italian rationalist, the Marquis Cesare Beccaria-Bonesana, who published Dei Delitti e delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments) in 1764, claiming that the prevention of crime, not punishment, should be the prime aim of an enlightened society, and that crime was deterred by the likelihood of detection rather than the severity of punishment. The Inquisition condemned his ideas. For the Churches the prime purpose was punishment and retribution, as affirmed by the Bible, not rehabilitation, which was not mentioned in the Bible.

    Detail of "Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave." John Gabriel Stedman, Narrative, of a Five Years' Expedition, against the revolted Negroes of Surinam . . . from the year 1772, to 1777 (London, 1796), vol. 1, facing p. 326. (Copy in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University). Stedman witnessed this event in 1774. The victim was an eighteen-year old girl who was given 200 lashes for having refused to have intercourse with an overseer - a demand sanctioned by the Bible.


    The movementfor penal reform in England was led by Jeremy Bentham, who was influenced by Beccaria. Bentham, a Utilitarian philosopher, was roundly condemned by churchmen as an atheist with unrealistic dreams. He was the impetus behind many reforms including those implemented by Lord Brougham in 1832. He even designed the first modern prison (the Panopticon ). Atheists like Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, Quakers like Elizabeth Fry , and other nonconformists like John Howard supported reform. Fry formed a reform association in 1817, and Howard gave his name to one founded at a Quaker meeting in 1866. People like these opposed contemporary prison practices such as the treadmill, hard labour and corporal punishment.

    Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant held the revolutionary view that prisons should be "moral Hospitals"*. The idea that gaols should be primarily for rehabilitation was entirely a secular one. So were the beliefs that prisoners had rights; that they were entitled to basic sanitation, and freedom from flogging, torture and mutilation; and that they should receive access to medical attention, adequate nutrition, and education. The sole contribution of the Church was to ensure that attendance at chapel was made obligatory.

    Prisoners at the whipping post in Delaware 1907
    Whipping posts and stocks were both part of the USA's Christian heritage from Europe.
    B oth were abolished only after secular oppinion came to predominate, later in the twentieth century.

    All advances in penal reform were made as secular forces wrested power from the Churches. In Britain, the Howard League for Penal Reform, named after John Howard, is the successor to a number of humanist organisations, and its executive is still largely humanist. Their successes include the acceptance of rehabilitation in penal theory, and the abolition of capital and corporal punishment.





    Flagellation and the Flagellants, by the Rev William Cooper, London, 1869


    Flogging, caning, birching and the tawse were all common in religious institutions well into the twentieth century - abbeys, monasteries, convents, nunaries, seminaries and Church schools. We have no idea how many deaths resulted because the cause of death was often not recorded, or if it was it could easily be mis-stated.



    For well over a millenium Christians practiced torture, until Enlighment ideas superceded traditional Christian morality, and torture began to be slowly eradicated from Christendom.

    As we have already seen, some jurisdictions had rejected the practice of torture but the Church had insisted that Church Law must take precedence, and Church Law not only permitted torture, but required it in certain circumstances. On one famous occasion a pope wrote to a king of England insisting that Knights Templars be tortured, even though it was contrary to the Law of the land.

    The torture practiced in bishops' prisons and Inuisitions was as inhumane as that practiced in any castle dungeon. The Bishop of Winchester's prison in Southwark, the original Clink, was a notable example for many centuries.

    The Catholic Church has carefully sanitised it's own torture chambers. They disappeared from popular tourist trails in late Victorian times, but not until secular prison reformers had noted their content and recorded their practices. Below are a few reminders of practices that were so long considered consonant with Christian morality:

    Hand Crusher.


    Brand with the name of Jesus. IHS is the so called Christogram, representing the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, iota-eta-sigma,


    Many Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, Inquisitors and saints (including Saint Thomas Beckets and Saint Thomas Moore) were branders and torturers. As well as the Christogram churchmen branded people with crosses and with letters: A for Adulterer, B for Blasphemer, etc, Sometimes in the forehead, sometimes in the cheek, sometimes on the chin.


    Hand brand, for use on felons or deserters, England, 1642-1649


    The Inquisition generally ensured that their instruments of torture were blessed
    and sprinkled with holy water


    a Shrew's Fiddle


    A reproduction Shrew's Fiddle, showing how it was used


    An iron shrew's fiddle - many instruments of humiliation-torture were furnished with bells to amuse onlookers.


    Neck Crusher


    The Scavenger's Daughter, invented at the Tower of London.
    The victim was trapped in a cramped position for extended periods.


    The Spanish Donkey, or Wooden Horse, also known as the Crib. Victims were forced to sit on the spikes for extended periods, often with weights attached to their feet.


    The Spanish Donkey, or Wooden Horse, or Crib, showing how it was used.


    Prisoners were often chained to an immovable object, or to a heavy ovject. The object was not only to immobilize the victim, but also to cause pain: note the spikes on the inside of the iron ring.


    Witch's Spider


    Spanish Ticklers


    Torture Chair, Prague Castle, Czech Republic


    Torture Chair, sometimes called a witches' chair


    The strapado was the favourite method of tortureadopted by the Inquisition


    A third of Nazis were Protestant. The other two thirds were Catholic, so it is no surprise that traditional Catholic torture methods were readily adopted by the Nazis.


    Iron shoe. A screw mechanism allows the torturer to crush the victims foot. The bell is presumably fitted for entertainment purposes. Museum of Tortures, Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia


    One of several varieties of Spanish Boot


    The British Library, ms. Roy.10.E.IV f.187.


    The execusion of Jan Hus, condemned to be burned as a heretic by the Council of Constance, 1415, after having been promised safe conduct.


    Mask of Shame. Wrought Iron. German. Circa 1650
    Irom masks were used for many purposes: to disguise executioners, to conceal the identity of prisoners, to humiliate and to torture.


    This is a Branks. Bystanders could attach various items to the hooks provided for that purpose.


    The Scold's Bridle. In the foreground are various imouth-pieces that can be fitted to restrict speach and cause acute pain.


    Torture mask, popular for slaves owned by Christians.
    Note the piece that projects into the mouth, depressing the victim's tongue.


    Shame mask. Pig's snouts and donkey's ears were both common features of shame masks.


    Shame mask with lolling tongue


    17th -18th century iron executioner's mask, Tower of London exhibit.


    The Iron Maiden was a late arrival - possibly based on the earlier coffin torture which was similar, but lacked the spikes. The first reference to an execution with the Maiden that has yet come to light stems from 1515, although the instrument had been in use for several decades by then. According to Wolfgang Schild, Die Eiserne Jungfrau, 2002 on 14 August, 1515 a forger of coins was placed inside an Iron Maiden, and the doors shut “slowly, so that the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died”


    Virgin of Nuremberg


    Tongue Tearer - Used to remove the tongues of blasphemers and others who made observations that the Church did not approve of.











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    §. The Clink prison, in London, belonging to the Bishop of Winchester, was sited near to the modern Clink Street south of the Thames opposite the City of London. There is now a museum on the site.

    §. For these and other details concerning the history of the Clink, see E. J. Burford, A Short History of the Clink Prison ( London, 1989), available at 1 Clink Street, London SE1 9DG.

    §. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, The Ethics of Punishment ( London, 1889).

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