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The Criminal and the Community
Part I - Chapter V - The Study of the Criminal


ANY study of the criminal based on observations j \ made when he is in prison must of necessity be partial and misleading. It is like writing a Natural History from a study of caged birds. Parts will be right, but the whole will be wrong.

Advantage might be taken of his presence there to find out something of the antecedents of the prisoner. The opinions of experts may be of value with regard to him, but they are not nearly so useful as his own opinions on how he comes to be in prison, nor are they more reliable.

Prisoners are no more truthful than other people, but they are not generally purposeless liars. When a man is in trouble and is called on to give an account of himself he makes the best of his case; but people who have never been in prison have been known to make no disclaimer when praised for qualities they do not possess, preferring to let time correct any false impression that may be to their advantage. It is not reasonable to expect any higher standard of behaviour from a prisoner than we look for from others.

Much of what is harshly called lying on the part of prisoners is due to misapprehension on the part of their questioners. Most of them do not waste lies. If the truth will serve, it is easier to tell it, to put the matter at its lowest; but they are frequently worried with questions they do not understand, put by persons whom they distrust, with the result that they leave an impression of stupidity and untrustworthiness that is not deserved. I remember a gentleman who considered himself a very acute observer, informing me with regard to a certain prisoner whom he had been questioning, that the man was weak-minded. I had very good reason for holding another opinion, but wishing to find out how the visitor had arrived at this conclusion, I interviewed the prisoner, and after some talk approached the subject of his recent examination. A smile overspread his face as he explained that he had been asked all sorts of questions by the stranger and had not been allowed to answer in his own way, so he got tired and let the other have it as he wished. His opinion of his examiner I obtained as a personal favour, for as he put it, “It’s no for the like o’ me to say onything aboot the like o’ him—at least no here.” I cannot print his words, all of them. He said, “He’s a  of a flat.” Each had a poor opinion of the other, and how far each was right others may judge. The incident suggests several reflections.

It is not reasonable to expect that a prisoner will take the trouble to understand and answer the questions of a stranger whose object in quizzing him he does not know. Few of us would care to unbosom ourselves to the first visitor who chose to interest himself in our affairs. He might count himself lucky if he did not find himself violently expelled. The prisoner cannot throw an unwelcome visitor out, but sometimes he would like to; and the attitude of some who seek to do good is at times provocative. When the enquirer is known it is a different story. Get the name of being “all right” and you will learn, but you must first deserve confidence. Frankness begets frankness, and for my own part I have found very few prisoners who wilfully sought to deceive me when they knew why I sought information from them. It was either freely given, or withheld with the plain statement that they could not fairly give it. The information given has not always been accurate, but there are not so many people who are accurate in their statements—not through want of desire to be truthful, but because their perception, their memory, or both, are blurred.

But more than frankness is required; there must be some ability to see things from the standpoint of those who are questioned, and a sufficient knowledge of their language to understand an answer when it is given. There are very many people who think they know the English-language, and who do not seem to have realised the fact that a different significance is attached to words in different districts and among different classes. There are not merely slang words, but words used in a slang sense, and when these are taken literally the result is misunderstanding. Yet we are sometimes treated to the result of investigations by people who have had no training, and who in a marvellously short time can obtain voluminous and striking information; how much it is worth is another question. Try to get by question and answer a short record of the antecedents of any of your friends, and you will find that it cannot be done in a few minutes, that it will not be free from inaccuracies, and that it will require explanation before you understand it as they would like. To obtain such information from a stranger is a more difficult task.

In the case of the prisoner the advantages to be gained are worth the effort to overcome the difficulties. Having obtained his statement, it might form the basis of an enquiry into his case and an attempt to help him on his discharge. There are few men who have not some friends who are persons of goodwill. They may be relatives, or employers, or fellow-workmen ; but their will may be greater than their power. Their patience may have been tried to the limit of endurance or their interest may have become languid; but if they will not or cannot help, they can at least tell what they have done and prevent a repetition of the treatment that has failed. There are very many people who would never dream of joining a society for aiding prisoners, but who will willingly assist in helping a person whom they have known in his better days. The societies have their use, but that is no reason why a man’s fellows should not be enlisted in his aid; though they have no interest in the general question, they may take an interest in the special case. In the attempt it will be found that, even though the efforts made to help a given prisoner should fail, a knowledge has been gained of the existence of conditions that favour ill-doing.

Every official knows that in a great city there are occasions of misconduct which the ordinary citizen does not suspect. Such knowledge, so long as it is confined to officials, is comparatively sterile. They may speak, but some other matter distracts public attention before it has been focussed long enough on the subject to do any good. At most they may get further powers to do for the citizens things which the citizens could far better do for themselves. Talk of slums to a man who is comfortable is often only talk, but set him to live in them and the effect is different. In the same way, if you can, through his personal interest in a man, get another to examine into the causes of his wrongdoing ; to go over the ground for himself; to see the process and the means of his degradation ; that man will note how many occasions of offence exist that might be removed, and if only for the safety of his own family will give assistance in removing them. Incidentally and in process of time a large mass of information regarding the history of criminals and offenders would be collected, and some generalisations of importance might be made. At present those who generalise do so without any such careful study of the persons whom they deal with as that I recommend. For sixteen years I have been looking for the offender of the books and I have not met him. The offender familiar to me is not a type, but a man or a woman; and we shall never know nor deserve to know him till we are content to study him, not as the naturalist studies a beetle, but as a man studies his neighbour.


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