Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI.: IMPRISONMENT EXAMINED. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 1 (Principles of Morals and Legislation, Fragment on Government, Civil Code, Penal Law)
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CHAPTER VI.: IMPRISONMENT EXAMINED. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 1 (Principles of Morals and Legislation, Fragment on Government, Civil Code, Penal Law) 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 1.
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We now proceed to examine the degree in which imprisonment possesses the several properties desirable in a lot of punishment.
1. Imprisonment possesses the property of efficacy with respect to disablement in great perfection. The most dangerous offender, so long as his confinement continues, is deprived of the power of doing mischief out of doors; his vicious propensities may continue at their highest pitch, but he will have no opportunity of exercising them.
2. Imprisonment is generally exceptionable on the score of frugality; none of the inconveniences resulting from it being convertible to profit. It is also generally accompanied with expense, on account of the maintenance of the persons confined. In these calculations of expense, that loss ought not to be forgotten which results from the suspension of the lucrative labours of the prisoner, a loss which is often continued beyond the period of his imprisonment, owing to the habits of idleness it has induced.*
3. Imprisonment is objectionable in respect of equality. If we recur to the catalogue of privations of which it consists, it will be seen that the inequality is extreme, when one prisoner is sickly, and the other healthy; when one is the father of a family, and the other has no relations; when the one is rich, and accustomed to all the enjoyments of society, and the other poor, and his usual condition is one of misery.
One party may be deprived of his means of subsistence; another may be scarcely affected in this respect. It may be said, is not this loss merely temporary? may it not be considered as a forfeiture which forms a part of the punishment? If the individual belong to a profession, the exercise of which cannot be interrupted without great risk of its total loss, the consequence may be his absolute ruin. This is one of those cases in which a latitude may properly be left to the judge, of commuting this punishment for another. A pecuniary punishment may frequently, with propriety, be substituted. The greater number of offenders, however, are not in a condition to furnish this equivalent. It would therefore be necessary to have recourse to simply afflictive punishments. The degree of infamy attached to these punishments would, however, not be an objection in case the offender consented to the exchange; and this consent might be made a necessary condition.
Among the inconveniences which may be attached to imprisonment, there is one which is particularly inequable. Take away paper and ink from an author by profession, and you take away his means of amusement and support: you would punish other individuals, more or less, according as a written correspondence happened to be more or less necessary for their business or pleasure. A privation so heavy for those whom it affects, and at the same time so trifling for the greater number of individuals, ought not to be admitted in quality of a punishment. Why should an individual, who has received instruction in writing, be punished more than another. This circumstance ought rather to be a reason for indulgence: his sensibility has been augmented by education; and the instructed and cultivated man will suffer more from imprisonment than the ignorant and the clownish.
On the other hand, though the punishment of imprisonment is inequable, it should be observed, that it naturally produces an effect upon every one. There is no individual insensible to the privation of liberty—to the interruption of all his habits, and especially of all his social habits.
4. Imprisonment is eminently divisible, with respect to its duration. It is also very susceptible of different degrees of severity.
5. Under the present system, the exemplarity of imprisonment is reduced to the lowest term. In the Panopticon, the facility afforded to the admission of the public, adds much to this branch of its utility.
However, if the prisoners are not seen, the prison is visible. The appearance of this habitation of penitence may strike the imagination, and awaken a salutary terror. Buildings employed for this purpose ought therefore to have a character of seclusion and restraint, which should take away all hope of escape, and should say, “This is the dwelling-place of crime.”
6. Simplicity of Description.—Under this head there is nothing to be desired. This punishment is intelligible to all ages, and all capacities. Confinement is an evil of which every body can form an idea, and which all have, more or less, experienced. The name of a prison at once recalls the ideas of suffering as connected with it.
Let us here stop to examine three auxiliary punishments, that under special circumstances, and for a limited time only, may be usefully made to accompany afflictive imprisonment. These auxiliaries are solitude, darkness, and hard diet. Their distinguishing merit consists in their subserviency to reformation.
That the three hardships, thus named, have a peculiar tendency to dispose an offender to penitence, seems to be the general persuasion of mankind. The fact seems to be pretty generally acknowledged; but the reasons are not altogether obvious, nor do they seem to be very explicitly developed in the minds of those who show themselves strenuously convinced of the fact. An imperfect theory might naturally enough induce one to deny it. “What is it,” it may be said, “that is to produce in the offender that aversion to his offence which is styled penitence? It is the pain which he experiences to be connected with it. The greater, then, that pain, the greater will be his aversion; but of what kind the pain be, or from what source it issues, are circumstances that make no difference. Solitude, darkness, and hard diet, in virtue of a certain quantity of pain thus produced, will produce a certain degree of aversion to the offence: be it so. But whipping, or any other mode of punishment that produced a greater pain, would produce a stronger aversion. Now, the pain of whipping may be carried to as high a pitch as the pain produced by this group of hardships altogether. In what respect, then, can these have a greater tendency to produce penitence, than whipping?”
The answer is, that the aversion to the offence depends, not merely upon the magnitude of the pain that is made to stand connected with it; but it depends likewise upon the strength of the connexion which is made to take place between those two incidents in the patient’s mind. Now, that solitude, darkness, and hard diet, have a greater tendency than any other kind of hardship to strengthen this connexion, I think, may be satisfactorily made out.
Acute punishment, such as whipping, at the time it is inflicted, leaves no leisure for reflection. The present sensation, with the circumstances that accompany it, is such as engrosses the whole attention. If any mental emotion mix itself with the bodily sensation, it will rather be that of resentment against the executioner, the judge, the prosecutor, or any person whose share in the production of the suffering happens to strike the sufferer most, than any other. The anguish is soon over; and as soon as it is over, the mind of the patient is occupied in the eager pursuit of objects that shall obliterate the recollection of the pain that he has endured; while all the objects by which he is surrounded contribute to repel those salutary reflections upon which his reformation depends. Indeed, as soon as the anguish is over, a new emotion presents itself—an emotion of joy which the patient feels at the reflection that his suffering is over.
The gradual and protracted scene of suffering produced by the combination of punishments we are now considering, is much more favourable to the establishment of the wished-for effect. By solitude, a man is abstracted from those emotions of friendship or enmity which society inspires; from the ideas of the objects their conversation is apt to bring to view; from the apprehension of the disagreeable situations their activity threatens to expose him to, or the pleasures in which they solicit him to engage. By confinement, he is abstracted from all external impressions but such as can be afforded him by the few and uninviting objects that constitute the boundaries, or compose the furniture of a chamber in a prison; and from all ideas which, by virtue of the principle of association, any other impressions are calculated to suggest.
By darkness, the number of the impressions he is open to is still further reduced, by the striking off all those which even the few objects in question are calculated to produce upon the sense of sight. The mind of the patient is, by this means, reduced, as it were, to a gloomy void; leaving him destitute of all support but from his own internal resources, and producing the most lively impression of his own weakness.
In this void, the punishment of hard diet comes and implants the slow but incessant and corroding pain of hunger; while the debility that attends the first stages of it (for the phrensy that is apt to accompany the last stages is to be always guarded against,) banishes any propensity which the patient might have left, to try such few means of activity as he is left undeprived of, to furnish himself with any of the few impressions he is still open to receive. Meantime, that pain and this debility, however irksome, are by no means so acute as to occupy his mind entirely, and prevent altogether its wandering in search of other ideas. On the contrary, he will be forcibly solicited to pay attention to any ideas which, in that extreme vacancy of employment, are disposed to present themselves to his view.
The most natural of all will be to retrace the events of his past life; the bad advice he received; his first deviations from rectitude, which have led to the commission of the offence for which he is at the time undergoing punishment—a crime, all the pleasures derived from which have been already reaped, and of which all that remains is the melancholy suffering that he endures. He will recall to his recollection those days of innocence and security which were formerly his lot, and which, contrasted with his present wretchedness, will present themselves to his imagination with an increased and factitious degree of splendour. His penitent reflections will naturally be directed to the errors of which he has been guilty: if he have a wife, or children, or near relations, the affection that he once entertained for them may be renewed by the recollection of the misery that he has occasioned them.
Another advantage attendant on this situation is, that it is peculiarly fitted to dispose a man to listen with attention and humility to the admonitions and exhortations of religion. Left in this state of destitution in respect of all external pleasures, religious instructions are calculated to take the stronger hold of his mind. Oppressed by the state of wretchedness in which he finds himself, and by the unlooked-for or unknown events that have led to the detection of his crime, the more he reflects upon them, the more firmly will he be convinced of the existence of a providence which has watched over his actions, and defeated his best concerted contrivances. The same God that punishes him, may also save him; and thenceforward the promises of eternal bliss or torment will more anxiously engage his attention—promises of happiness in another state of being, in case of repentance, and denunciations of torments prepared for the guilty in the regions of eternal night, of which his present situation seems a prelude and a foretaste, will fix his regard. In a frame of mind such as this, to turn a deaf ear to the admonitions and consolations afforded by religion, a man must be very different from the ordinary caste of men. Darkness, too, has, in circumstances like this, a peculiar tendency to dispose men to conceive, and in a manner to feel, the presence of invisible agents. Whatever may be the reason, the fact is notorious and undisputed. When the external senses are restrained from action, the imagination is more active, and produces a numerous race of ideal beings. In a state of solitude, infantine superstitions, ghosts, and spectres, recur to the imagination. This, of itself, forms a sufficient reason for not prolonging this species of punishment, which may overthrow the powers of the mind, and produce incurable melancholy. The first impressions will, however, always be beneficial.
If, at such a time, a minister of religion, qualified to avail himself of these impressions, be introduced to the offender thus humiliated and cast down, the success of his endeavours will be almost certain, because in this state of abandonment he will appear as the friend of the unfortunate, and as his peculiar benefactor.
This course of punishment, thus consisting of solitude, darkness, and hard diet, is, as has been observed, when embodied, a sort of discipline too violent to be employed, except for short periods: if greatly prolonged, it would scarcely fail of producing madness, despair, or more commonly a stupid apathy. This is not, however, the place for fixing the duration of the punishment proper for each species of offence: it ought to vary according to the nature of the offence, the degree of obstinacy evinced by the offender, and the symptoms of repentance which he exhibits. What has been already said, is sufficient to show that the mass of punishments in question may be employed with the greatest advantage simultaneously: they mutually aid each other. In order to produce the desired effect most speedily, even the sort of food allowed may be rendered unpalatable as well as scanty, otherwise there would be danger lest to a young and robust person the constantly recurring gratification afforded to the palate, might render him insensible to the loss of all other pleasures.
If any punishment can in itself be popular, this, I think, promises to be so. It bears a stronger resemblance than any other to domestic discipline. The tendency which it has to lead the offender to acknowledge the evil of his offence and the justice of his sentence, is the same which an indulgent father desires his punishments to possess, when he inflicts them upon his children; and there is no aspect which it is more desirable the law should assume than this.
The effects produced by solitary confinement are not matters of mere conjecture: they have been ascertained by experience, and are reported upon the best authorities.
Speaking of the cells in Newgate, “I was told,” says Mr. Howard,* “by those who attended me, that criminals who had affected an air of boldness on their trial, and appeared quite unconcerned at the pronouncing sentence upon them, were struck with horror, and shed tears, when brought to these darksome, solitary abodes.”
“I remember an instance,” says Mr. Hanway,† “some years before the law for proceeding to sentence upon evidence, of a notorious malefactor, who would not plead. It was a question, whether he should be brought to the press; but the jailor privately recommended to the magistrates to try solitary confinement in prison. This produced the effect, for in less than twenty-four hours, the daring, artful felon chose to hold up his hand at the bar, and quietly submit to the laws, rather than remain in such a solitary state without hope.”
The same gentleman mentions* a set of cells, provided for the purpose of solitary confinement, in Clerkenwell Bridewell, by order of the Justices of the Peace for that division. One of those magistrates, he says, assured him, “That every person committed to those solitary apartments had been in a few days reformed to an amazing degree.” The apartments, though solitary, were not dark, nor is any thing said about the circumstance of diet.
Directly opposed to solitary imprisonment is the promiscuous association of prisoners. The suffering which results from this circumstance, is not the result of direct intention on the part of the magistrate. It is an evil acknowledged, and yet suffered still to exist to a very considerable extent. It is evidently not so much inflicted, as admitted, from the supposed inability of government to exclude it; the great and only objection to its exclusion being the expense of the arrangement necessary to the accomplishment of that purpose. The advantage by which it is recommended, is that of frugality; it is less expensive to shut up prisoners in one room, than to provide separate apartments for each one, or even to keep them divided into classes.†
This promiscuous assemblage of prisoners, considered as part of the punishment, has no penal effect upon the most audacious and the most perverse. On the contrary, with reference to them, it renders imprisonment less painful: the tumult with which it surrounds them, diverts them from the misery of their situation, and from the reproaches of their consciences. It is therefore an evil most severe for the prisoner of refinement and sensibility. It is an addition to the punishment of imprisonment, evidently unequable, unexemplary, and unprofitable, producing a variety of unknown sufferings, such that those only who have experienced them can be fully acquainted with their extent.
But the great and decisive objection to the promiscuous association of prisoners, considered as a punishment, is, that it is directly opposed to their reformation. Instead of rendering a delinquent better, its evident tendency is to make him worse. The ill effect which, in the instance of indelible infamy, is only problematical, is, in the instance of this species of hardship, certain; it obliterates the sense of shame in the mind of the sufferer; in other words, it produces insensibility to the force of the moral sanction.
This ill effect of the promiscuous association of prisoners is too obvious not to strike even the most superficial spectator. Criminals, confined together, are corrupted, it is said, by the society of each other: there are a thousand ways of diversifying the expression, and it is generally set off with great exuberance of metaphor. The word corruption, and the greater part of the terms that compose the moral vocabulary, are not calculated, of themselves, to convey any precise import, but serve rather to express the disapprobation which he who uses them happens to entertain of the practices in question, than the tendency to produce mischief, which is, or at least ought to be, the ground of it. In order, then, to form a precise idea of the phenomena in which this corruption displays itself, let us examine the mischievous habits produced by this promiscuous intercourse, and the way in which it tends to produce mischief in society.
The ill consequences of the association in question, may be comprised under the following heads:—
1. It strengthens, in the minds of all parties concerned, the motives which prompt to the commission of all sorts of crimes.
2. It diminishes the force of the considerations which tend to restrain them.
3. It increases their skill, and by that means the power, of carrying their obnoxious propensities into practice.
Crimes are the sort of acts here in question. Now, the names of crimes are words, for which precise ideas have, or might at least be found: they are evils of a certain description. The names of the motives that prompt a man to the commission of a crime, are also the names of pains and pleasures. In examining, therefore, the consequences of the association of delinquents, under the foregoing heads, we tread upon clear and palpable ground, unobscured by metaphor and declamation.
1. As to the motives by which men are prompted to the commission of crimes: These are the expectation of the pleasures which are the fruit of them. By far the greater number of the offences which bring men to a prison, are the offspring of rapacity. Crimes issuing from any other motive are so few as scarcely to demand in this view any separate notice. The bulk of offenders will be of the poorer sort; among them, the produce of a little plunder will go in the purchase of pleasure much beyond that which the ordinary produce of their labour would enable them to purchase; such as more food, more delicate liquors, in greater plenty and more delicious,—finer clothes, and more expensive pleasures. These things naturally form the subject of conversation among the prisoners, and an inexliaustible subject of boasting on the part of those who by their skill or good fortune have acquired the means of enjoying them. These recitals give a sort of superiority which those who possess it are fond from a principle of vanity, to display and magnify to the humble and admiring crowd of their less fortunate associates. They inflame the imagination of the hearers; and, in a word, their propensity to gratify their rapacity by all sorts of crimes, is increased by the prospect of the pleasures of which the means are furnished by these crimes. The more numerous the association, the more varied the exploits to be recounted; and what subject more naturally the subject of conversation, than the circumstances which have brought them together?
2. While, on the one hand, as has been just observed, all the vicious propensities are nourished and invigorated,—on the other hand, all considerations tending to restrain the commission of offences are repelled and enfeebled. These considerations belong to the one or the other of the three sanctions—the political, the moral, or the religious.
Those derived from the political sanction are the various punishments appointed by law: amongst these, that which they are actually undergoing, have undergone, or are about to undergo. Of these sufferings it will naturally be the study of them all to make as light as possible; to which end, the society of each other will afford them many powerful assistances. From pride, each man will endeavour to make his own sense of his own sufferings appear to others as slight as possible: he will undervalue the afflicting circumstances of his situation; he will magnify any little comforts which may attend it, and, as the common phrase is, will put as good a face upon the matter as he can. Thus the most intrepid and proud becomes a patron for all the others. The sensibilities of all are gradually elevated to the same pitch: it would be matter of shame to them not to bear their misfortunes with equanimity. Even from mere sympathy, many will derive a powerful motive to soothe the sufferings of their partners in affliction—to congratulate them on the termination of such as are past, to relieve them under such as are present, and to fortify them against such as may be to come. It may possibly be observed, that to ascribe to persons of the class in question any such benevolent affections, is to attribute to them virtues to which they are altogether strangers. But to suppose that men consist only of two classes, the altogether good, and the altogether bad, is a vulgar prejudice. The crime which subjects a man to the lash of the law may leave him possessed of a thousand good qualities, and more especially of sympathy for the misfortunes of others. Daily experience may convince us of this, and lead us to believe that the criminal are not always altogether vicious.
The considerations derived from the moral sanction are the various evils, positive and negative, apprehended from the ill-will of such persons with whom the person in question is in society. Whilst a man remains in general society, though his character may be the subject of general suspicion, he will be obliged to keep a guard upon his actions, that he may not too strongly confirm these suspicions and render himself altogether despicable. But in a prison the society is unmixed, having interests of its own, opposite to the former, governed by habits and principles opposite to those which are approved in general society. The habits and practices which were odious there, because they were mischievous there,—not being mischievous, are not odious here. Theft is not odious among thieves, who have nothing to be stolen. It is in vain for them to make pretensions to probity; they agree, therefore, by a tacit convention, to undervalue this virtue. The mixed qualities of patience, intrepidity, activity, ingenuity, and fidelity, which are beneficial or not according as they are subservient to the other, will be magnified, to the prejudice of the former. A man will be applauded for his patience, though it were exerted in lying in wait for a booty; for his intrepidity. though manifested in attacking the dwelling of a peaceable householder, or in defending himself against the ministers of justice; for his activity, though employed in seizing the unwary traveller; for his ingenuity, though displayed in working upon the sympathetic feelings of some deluded, compassionate benefactor; for his fidelity, though employed in screening his associates in some enterprise of mischief from the pursuit of the injured. These are qualities which enjoy the highest estimation in such society; and by their possession, that thirst for sympathy and applause is gratified, of which every man, in whatever situation he is placed, is desirous.
The probity which is held in honour, in such society, is not intended to be useful to mankind at large: its rules may be strictly observed in the society in which it is established, and disregarded to the prejudice of all persons not connected with that society. The Arabs, who live by plunder, are remarkable for their honesty towards the members of their own tribe. Thus also, that there is honour among thieves, has become proverbial.*
The considerations derived from the religious sanction, are the sufferings apprehended from the immediate will of the Deity, in some degree perhaps in the present, but chiefly in a future life. This displeasure is, under the Christian religion, and particularly the Protestant, invariably believed to be annexed, with few or no exceptions, to all those malpractices which bring men into prisons. The considerations, therefore, which that sanction affords, are to be numbered among the considerations which tend to restrain men from committing crimes. Now the force of this sanction, acting in opposition to that of the local moral sanction, which is generated and governs in a prison, will naturally have the whole force of this latter exerted against it to overthrow it. Not that a prison is the region of acute and scrupulous philosophy: the arguments there made use of, will be addressed to the passions, rather than the judgment. The being of a God, the authority of Revelation, will not be combated by reason. The force of this sanction will be eluded rather than opposed; the attention will be diverted from the idea of God’s displeasure, to the improbability of its being manifested. The authority of revelation will be combated by satires upon its ministers; and that man will be pronounced brave, who shall dare to deny the one, and despise the other. And arguments of this kind will be found to have most influence upon the members of such societies.
3. The third and last of the ways in which the association of malefactors in prisons contributes to corrupt them, is by increasing their skill, and by that means their power of carrying their mischievous propensities, whatever they may be, into practice.
That their conversation will naturally turn upon their criminal exploits, has been already observed. Each malefactor will naturally give a detail of the several feats of ingenuity which, in the course of those exploits, the occasion led him to practise. These facts will naturally be noted down, were it only on the score of curiosity. But as means of gratifying those propensities, which the situation in question has a strong tendency to strengthen and confirm, they will make a much more forcible impression. An ample mass of observations will be soon collected, drawn from the experience of the whole society, and each particular member of it will soon be wise with the wisdom of the whole. Prisons, therefore, have commonly and very properly been styled schools of vice. In these schools, however, the scholar has more powerful motives for, and more effectual means of, acquiring the sort of knowledge that is to be learnt there, than he has of acquiring the sort of knowledge that is taught in more professed schools. In the professed school, he is stimulated only by fear; he strives against his inclination: in these schools of vice, he is stimulated by hope, acting in concert with his natural inclination. In the first, the knowledge imparted is dispensed only by one person; the stock of knowledge proceeds from one person: in the others, each one contributes to the instruction of all the others. The stock of knowledge is the united contribution of all. In professed schools, the scholar has amusements more inviting to him than the professed occupations of the school: in these, he has no such amusements; the occupation in question is the chief of the few pleasures of which his situation admits.
To the most corrupt, this promiscuous association is mischievous. To those committed for a first offence, who have yielded to the temptations of indigence, or have been misled by evil example; who are yet young, and not hacknied in crimes; punishment, properly applied, might work reformation. This association can only render such more vicious; they will pass from pilfering to greater thefts, till they are guilty of highway robbery and murder. Such is the education yielded by promiscuous association of criminals in prison.
[* ]This objection to imprisonment is carefully removed in the plan of Panopticon Imprisonment, an account of which is given in Book V. ch. 3.
[* ]Page 152.
[† ]Page 75.
[* ]Page 74.
[† ]It must be acknowleged that this difficulty was very great before the invention of the plan of central inspection.
[* ]The influence of a man’s conduct on the happiness of the whole race of sensitive beings, must be taken into the account, before it can with propriety be termed virtuous or vicious, simply and without addition. The same conduct which is pernicious, and on that account is or ought to be disreputable in society at large, is beneficial to, and on that account held in honour by, a smaller society included within the former. The member of parliament who solicits or defends for his borough a privilege detrimental—the nation, is called a patriot in his borough. The man who devised the oath by which the candidates for degrees were to engage not to propagate, elsewhere than at Oxford and Cambridge, the seeds of what was thought useful learning, was probably thought a man of great merit in those Universities.