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