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Conditions in prisons, 1836

This is part of a letter written by Bisset Hawkins, a prison inspector, to Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary. He is describing the conditions of the prisons in the west of England.


London, 1 February, 1836

My Lord

I have the honour to transmit to your Lordship the results of my first visit to the Southern and Western District, embracing certain portions of the Counties of Dorset, Gloucester, Hants, Hereford Leicester, Northampton, Oxford, Salop [Shropshire], Somerset, Warwick and Worcester.

I have much gratification in stating to your Lordship the cordial reception which I have uniformly experienced on the part of the Visiting Magistrates, and, with scarcely an exception, from the officers of the prisons The former gentlemen, instead of construing our mission into a possible interference with their own province, sought opportunities of meeting me, and most liberally facilitated my inquiries. and the latter often voluntarily pointed out defects, inconveniences and bad usages, expressing, at the same time, their satisfaction in this additional occasion of subjecting the details of their establishment to examination.

In all the County Gaols which I have entered, a remarkable degree of cleanliness and neatness has reigned throughout, equalling that which is usually maintained among the middle classes in England. and largely surpassing the standard which generally prevails in the most splendid residences of Continental Europe. This observation will not be considered trivial by those who appreciate the influence which these two qualities daily exercise over the health of the body, and the discipline of the mind. Among the Borough and Town Gaols, and those placed under local jurisdiction, these characteristics are far less prominent, and sometimes, indeed, are scarcely visible; but these blemishes appear to me, in the various shades in which they exist, to be derived rather from the narrow space and unsuitableness of the building, from the limited funds, the scanty salaries, and the insufficient service, than from wilful neglect on the part of the keepers, who, indeed. are often sensible of evils which they do not possess the power of remedying.

From the recent introduction of silence into some prisons I have not yet been able to trace a single instance of mischievous consequences. My conversations with prisoners, officers, surgeons, chaplains and magistrates, have not led to the discovery of any case in %which disease, either of body or of mind. has been affirmed by any party to have grown out of this mode of discipline. The experiment, it is true, has not yet been practised for a long period; but I am bound to add. that all the persons most conversant with the interior of prisons, who have favoured me with their conclusions on this head. pronounce decidedly in its favour, and entertain an expectation of its probable efficacy in increasing the repugnance to incarceration.

In some few prisons I have noticed a scale of diet which has to me appeared insufficient. Such an opinion has not been forced upon me by any strong remonstrances on the part of the prisoners, nor by any symptoms of disease which seemed to be the result, nor by any alterations of physiognomy, but entirely by general considerations. A diet may be too small for the necessities of man, even although it does not produce a speedy and sensible change in the form and constitution: its effects may operate slowly and invisibly on his frame, and may reserve their complete development for a remote period of his life, entailing thus a future punishment which the well-intentioned advisers would be the last to desire or to anticipate.

The branch of my inquiries which has afforded me the most unmixed satisfaction is that which relates to the proportion of deaths which occurs in the principal gaols which I have visited. The rate of mortality is, in most of these abodes, so remarkably low, that I can confidently affirm, that in very few situations of life is an adult less likely to die than in a well-conducted English prison. A singular contrast is presented, in this respect, by the majority of foreign ones. In the prisons of Paris the annual mortality has been estimated at s in 23 annually; at the depot of Mendicity of St. Denis, at Paris, it has even amounted, according to Villerme, to nearly 1 in 23 annually. The yearly deaths in the principal prisons of the Netherlands were estimated, a few years since, by Quetelet, at 1 in 27. Similar facts might be cited from the prisons of Germany and of America.

Previously to any extension of the plan of confinement in separate cells during the day, it appears highly necessary to consider the various modes of warming the cells which may be most conveniently adopted in different prisons. This is a point which requires the immediate attention of those who may contemplate the introduction of any such system into the establishments which they superintend.

Several Magistrates have intimated to me their expectation that the Inspectors of Prisons will hereafter recommend certain general measures relating to the economy of prisons. So candid a disposition, on their part, to receive, renders it doubly incumbent that the utmost caution should be used in proposing; and I presume to offer my conviction, that it can only be after a far more extensive investigation, and after long and earnest deliberation, that an attempt can with safety be made to establish any general principles.


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