Prison Reform and the Class Struggle.


Owing, partly at least, to the large but not surprising increase of crime which has, followed the close of the war, much interest has of recent months been shown in prison treatment and punishment generally, and a fine opportunity has been afforded to reformers to prove that the present penal system has failed to reform the criminal or check the growth of crime. Their humanitarian demand for a new method has gained the more attention, because of the demonstrable failure of the old.

Retired military officers, deprived of the twin joys of bullying their subordinates which their rank gave and of walking on “niggers,” which is the white man’s privilege in the outlying parts of “our” Empire, conspire equally sincerely with amiable old ladies of the upper class to clamour for the all round application of the lash as a cure for what appears to them to be lack of discipline.

The interest has been maintained by press stunts about the Home Secretary’s alleged discrimination between poor and wealthy prisoners, and by the publicity given to various persons (including the C.O.’s) of a type not previously well represented in jail; while the “Daily Herald,” without intentional humour, announces that it opposes capital punishment because ”vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay” (7th July, 1922). Also an informative report has been issued by a Committee of the Labour Research Department.

While extensive knowledge of the facts is certainly possessed by many who have helped in the agitation, there has been a noticeable ignoring of important economic and class aspects.

The case made out against the present prison system is, considered alone, overwhelming. Experience shows that a very large percentage of first offenders who are committed to prison return again and again and become “habitual criminals.” Yet in seeming paradox we have the testimony of many investigators that there is no special criminal type. Thomas Mott Osborne, prison reformer and sometime Governor of “Sing-Sing” and other American jails, writes that there is

no radical difference between the minds of men in prison and mine. We are all, I discovered, potential criminals” (Daily Herald, July 1st, 1922).

Conditions make criminals and while some respond to degrading influences more readily than others, habitual criminals are in the main those who through prison treatment and associations have been prevented from regaining their lost positions, poor though these may have been.

Prison reformers have to combat a popular misconception which holds twentieth century prisons to be havens of rest. Lack of knowledge and the equally important lack of sympathetic imagination, make it hard for the average person to believe that imprisonment can still be incredibly cruel. He has probably read of the state of order and cleanliness which prevails, and of the good and sufficient food supply. He knows too that actual physical discomfort, whether of corporal punishment or of living conditions, have been largely abolished as part consequence of the efforts of an earlier generation of penal reformers. What he does not know, and finds difficult to accept, is that the sufferings which now exist are no less real, though apparently less tangible, than those which have been removed. Incidentally it is a signal mark of the futility of philanthropy that Howard and others who gave their lives to the work of destroying various evils should themselves have been responsible for the creation of others equally outrageous. These people observed that in the old debtors’ jails the prisoners were herded together indiscriminately, with results far from beneficial to the less hardened and more impressionable. They agitated successfully for the institution of the cellular system which condemns each prisoner to the drab confinement of his own cell for by far the greater part of the day, never realising that severance from the friends and interests of the outside world was the most intolerable of the burdens prison imposed, and that for those who were in a position of helplessness and hopelessness the company of fellow prisoners did at least create an illusion of comradeship and help to make the isolation less galling. A writer in the Manchester Guardian” (30th June, 1922) remarks that the

” physical filth and barbarity that characterised our gaols little more than a century ago have been replaced by a system that, in its mental and moral effects upon the prisoner, constitutes but a more refined form of cruelty ” ;

and Dr. Starkie, a police doctor, who has suffered imprisonment (he alleges innocently) and who has written on his experiences, describes prison with a strong journalistic flavour, but not inaccurately, as a “Living Tomb.”

Another writer reviewing the above mentioned report, says : —

“Even a few months of imprisonment appears to be sufficient in many, if not most, cases to produce an effect upon memory, concentration, and the power of will. In the case of the long sentence prisoner, this process of deterioration may lead to premature senility, or a childish weakness of mind which renders him almost incapable of resuming normal life in any efficient capacity.” (Reynolds, July 2nd, 1922.)

Perhaps it is unfair to say that the prison authorities do nothing to help their charges. After lack of education, bad surroundings, poverty and insecurity of livelihood have combined to produce the criminal; and after confinement, the denial of recreation for the mind, and the brain-numbing prison tasks imposed, have reduced him to a state of acute mental anguish or stupidity, harmful busybodies are permitted to provide him with the pestilential literature of some religious tract society in an endeavour to reclaim his soul for the Lord.

In summing up, the “Manchester Guardian” writer quoted above, holds prisons utterly condemned by their

“depressing bareness, their perpetual silence, their monotonous uniformity, and the obtrusive and military discipline,”

and affirms of imprisonment that

“if conceived with the express object of unfitting a man for subsequent freedom, it could not have been more cunningly devised.”

Yet it must be emphasised that while these charges are hardly capable of serious question, they do not go to the root of the matter.

The others who would make prison life more nearly what it was in the “good old days” are equally wide of the mark. Those who would reform the criminal by kindness and those who would flog him into virtue alike fail to understand the problem.

The truth is that neither of these groups has sought to explain the origin and existence of crime. Dr. Starkie says :—

“as a doctor, I know that the cures for crime are the same as the remedies for all social disorders,”

and he correctly adds that the problem, which has to be solved, of removing bad living conditions and providing proper education, makes the subject really a political one. Again, T. M. Osborne admits that

“anything done to improve social conditions will reduce crime,”

and it is a fairly widely recognised and easily understood phenomenon, that unemployment and distress are always accompanied by numerous crimes, especially by robbery.

Let us briefly examine the nature of the various things gathered under the one word crime.

The human race has inherited from its animal ancestors, and has acquired during its early condition of perpetual struggle with nature, certain fundamental characteristics or instincts. The continuance and development of the race depended on these and they have persisted with little real modification under conditions of civilisation. These impulses, such as self-preservation, the need for food and for protection against the elements, have taken different forms under widely varying conditions, and, given a long period of prosperity and comparative peace, it may have seemed that the cultivation of the arts of civilisation had altered man’s savage nature. But let passions be stirred by war, fear be roused ‘by disaster, and the threat of hunger or death and it is soon seen how little man has changed in this respect.

Other important characteristics have also been acquired. Men are by nature gregarious ; it is natural for them to associate in communities. They have developed cooperation in production to its present far advanced stage, and in periods and empires of comparative stability, truly wonderful cultural edifices have been built on this foundation. In those primitive societies where social co-operation in production obtained, and the means of living, simple though they were, were held in common, this social solidarity and the human need for food and shelter were in conformity ; but this condition long since ceased to be. The means of wealth production have become privately owned; and slave and slave owner, feudal proprietor and serf, and finally wage-worker and capitalist have faced each other in conflict. The savage and his tribe, self-interest and the loyalty of kinship, were one; individual interests and thoughts of isolated existence were alike impossible. The various classes which have been dominant have had interests in opposition to those of their subject class, and their interests, their ideas, their codes of morality and ethics have prevailed throughout the particular society. The sense of social solidarity still shared by the oppressed has formed a useful buttress for their own oppression and at the same time has hidden the force on which ultimately it rested.

Not the community, but the capitalist class now owns the machinery of wealth production. This class lives on the proceeds of the robbery of the workers who, by their property-less condition, are compelled to operate that machinery for its owners, in return for doing which they receive as wages only part of the product. The capitalists, as a prime need, require to be maintained in possession, and that need is met by the State which controls the forces of society. Now crime consists roughly of two kinds of acts. Firstly those which are anti-social in the sense that they would conflict with the smooth working of any society, such, for instance, as murder and other attacks on persons; and secondly the more numerous and at present more important crimes which are actions detrimental to the interests and stability of the dominant class.

It has to be recognised that crime is a matter of definition in written law, or of the interpretation of custom, and not a questioning of the breach of some external and everlasting moral standard. The law itself arises directly out of, or has been adapted to, the needs of the ruling body. Vengeance is, in fact, not the Lord’s, but the prerogative of the capitalist class.

This should not be confused with improper and prejudiced administration. While some Judges may, more or less, consciously allow their opinions to influence their decisions, this is probably rare and matters but little. It is the law, not its administration, which reflects its class origin. As Anatole France says :—

“the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.’ “

But the millionaire just doesn’t need to, because his living is assured by the robbery of workers whom he pauperises.

Those who do not look below the surface are struck by the apparent inconsistency of the law. They point to the fact that men are hanged in peace time for killing their fellows, but that C.O.’s were imprisoned and threatened with death for refusing to kill; again, that there is only a difference of degree between ordinary robbery and the brigandish exploits of every civilised Empire against the territory and property of its civilised neighbours, or preferably, because it is safer, against the backward races. We, however, realising the supreme need for the ruling class to maintain their dominance, recognise that they can consistently, and in fact must, do all these things. Class government rests on force, and no government can or dare tolerate defiance from a minority, or even from one single individual, when such defiance threatens their supremacy. This is a rule to which there is no exception. No government can ignore it with impunity. The natural desire for food in hunger clashes with the property rights of the owners of the land and other means of food production. Thus it is easy to see how crimes against property have a direct economic basis and motive; but that is not the whole of the result of private ownership.

Not only does the starving man steal bread to allay his hunger, but through other disadvantages from which he as a worker suffers, his entire outlook on society may be distorted. The denial of proper education, decent living conditions, and opportunities of self-development produce indifference and actual hostility towards the restraints imposed by convention; and the consequent misdirection of instincts and desires denied proper outlet, gives rise to numerous other crimes, not themselves directly to be explained by the desire to live.

Most forms of crime then, other than those to which men are driven by poverty, owe their existence, or at least their aggravation to the numerous disadvantages suffered by the under dogs of society. The present crime wave is therefore an instance of the chaos which has followed the rise of class division in society and the resulting conflict between the human needs of one section and the economic interests of the other. In this conflict the dispossessed class has to meet not only the might of the possessors but also the force of the accepted social regulations which, while appearing to have universal validity, really serve one class only.

Much of the activity of any Government must be devoted to regulating the day-to-day intercourse between its own subjects,, for without such guarantee of security, trade and commerce would become impossible. Crimes against property by masses of striking workers or by individuals must be suppressed. This is true of democracies as of autocracies. It is imposed equally on the lately “rebel” Government of Ireland, as on the Bolsheviks; the Australian Labour Government has had to use State forces against strikers and maintain intact the prison system; and the Labour Party here, if it gets into power, must do the same or forfeit its right to govern. This necessity will remain while private property and consequent class government remain.

Faced then with the problem that many workers are seldom in a position of security or of employment at all, the Government must devise means of deterring them from turning to crime as a way out. They must make their places of detention for criminals worse than conditions outside. They have had fair success. Just as the military authorities undoubtedly succeeded in making military prisons and detention camps so hellish that few men would exchange the trenches for them, so the civil authorities have aimed at convincing the workers that semi-starvation is better than imprisonment.

Both the people who opposed the removal of the more barbaric army punishments and those who advocate greater severity in the-treatment of civilian prisoners, are logical; but the latter fail because their method is, now proving ineffective. The force of the conditions which induce to crime is so great that the old methods no longer serve. The war and the general loosening of restraints have had their effect. The ruling class must endeavour to solve this problem by changing the method; but most reformers forget that the problem they are considering is not the one which faces those who have the power to act. Not sympathy for the prisoners, but increased knowledge is behind the move of the capitalist class.

Mr. Osborne for instance ‘.—

“believes in sending men to prison for crimes. Society could not allow them to throw monkey wrenches into its machinery. . . . I’m just a hard-headed business man who can’t bear seeing good material going to waste anywhere. Society needs protection, and if society were protected by killing or putting prisoners in chains, I would advocate these methods. But it isn’t.”

Dean Inge puts his class position in a nutshell when he says :—

“With the exception of political criminals, whom I would treat with the utmost rigour, I advocate a determinist attitude towards crime. The treatment at first ought always to be curative.” (Daily Herald, July 14th, 1922).

In other words, political prisoners are men who deliberately attack the class privileges of Dean Inge and his kind, and must he beaten into submission. Ordinary criminals act blindly and may, many of them, be induced, if given the opportunity, to enter the “honest” occupation of providing profits for an employer. Reason dictates that a differentiation should be made, especially in view of the little result and high cost of maintaining prisons.

Experiments have shown that there is no need for the capitalist class to have to support a large “criminal” population. Many of those who have constantly returned to jail are there only because their record or their treatment has prevented them from entering the labour market on equal terms with other workers. Without therefore in any way lessening the deterrent nature of imprisonment, much of the great expense of keeping these misfits in prison can be got rid of if with proper training they can be made to starve submissively outside. This the capitalists can do, and in time will do. The Socialist does not concern himself with it because it is not an agitation the workers can usefully support. His unconcern proceeds not from lack of sympathy for the victims, but from the knowledge that while the capitalists remain in power they will solve their own problem in their own way, and that the wider problem they cannot touch. Property crimes can be removed only by the removal of private ownership of the means of life and the political question of providing the education and surroundings without which self-restraint and social loyalty are impossible, can also be solved only by the preliminary conquest of power which shall enable the organised workers to set about building a new class-less social order. The efforts of penal reformers are in the meantime not only futile for the end in view, but are also a hindrance to the Socialist propaganda which alone can remove the barriers to the very progress these reformers desire.


(Socialist Standard, September 1922)

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