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The Criminal and the Community
Part III - Chapter II - The Prison System


BEFORE the year 1877 all the Scottish prisons, with the exception of the Penitentiary at Perth, were under the control and management of the local authorities. One result was that there were many standards of treatment, and Parliament decided that as the prevailing methods were unsatisfactory the treatment of prisoners and the management of prisons should be vested in a central Board.

The changes made by the Prison Commission have been many, and the prison of to-day is widely different from that of forty years ago; but before attributing all improvements to the new system it is fair to take into account the progress made in local administration during that time. The true comparison is not between the prison of forty years ago and that of to-day, but between the prison and the local institutions of to-day. Centra] management is likely to result in uniformity of routine and treatment in all prisons; but it is questionable whether that is a gain. It may tend to more economical administration if the test is one of expenditure of money, but it makes experiment in the way of reform very difficult. Not only are no two men alike, but no two districts are alike ; and methods of dealing with people belonging to one part of Scotland are not necessarily the best to apply to the inhabitants of another part. It is not a good thing to bring prisoners from outlying districts to centres; there is always a danger of their remaining there after their liberation and obtaining introductions that will not be likely to help them except in the way of wrongdoing. The large institution may cost less money, but it can never have such intimate supervision as the small one.

The Prison Commission for Scotland consists of two ex-officio and two paid members. The ex-officio members are the Crown Agent and the Sheriff of Perthshire. The Crown Agent goes out with the Government of the day, but he is not usually a Member of Parliament. The Sheriff of Perthshire in virtue of his office had a place on the board which managed the old Penitentiary at Perth; that is probably the reason why he is a Commissioner of Prisons under the Act of 1877. It is certainly not because Perthshire is a county which contributes many criminals from its Courts to the prison population.

There are thus two lawyers on the Board, one being a judge and the other being the solicitor in whose office public prosecutions are directed. The other Commissioners are permanent civil servants, appointed by the Secretary for Scotland.

At first there were also two Inspectors who gave their whole time to the work of visiting the various prisons and reporting on their condition and management to the Secretary of State, but in process of time there has been a change, and now the Secretary of the Commission is the only Inspector.

The Commissioners themselves visit the prisons and inspect them; but as they are responsible for the management, the arrangement is open to the criticism that they report on their own work, without independent inspection.

The Secretary of State is the head of the Board, and is responsible to Parliament for the work of the department; but his sole means of knowing that work is the reports he receives from the Commission. Whether on all boards Members of Parliament should not have a place and power, just as members of a town council form the supervising authority over the work of its departments, is a question that will bear discussion. At present the Member of Parliament can only make himself a nuisance by asking questions; that is what it amounts to, since no matter what the answer may be, it leaves him very much where he was. He is usually as ignorant at the end as he was when he began. Some aggrieved constituent having more faith than knowledge has made an ex-parte statement to his representative, who puts a question to the Minister, who passes it on to the department concerned, which transmits to him the answer given by the person complained of, which shows that there is no ground for the complaint. It may be uncomfortable for someone, but it is not business. If the complaints are too frequent or the complainers too influential to be disregarded, the Minister forms a committee of enquiry which turns things up for a time, censures somebody who is too small to cause trouble, makes a few apologetic suggestions for alterations, whitewashes with liberality those who most need it, and presents another report for the waste-paper basket.

Spasmodic enquiries can never make up for systematic neglect, and their effect is seldom to cause as much improvement as irritation. The danger to the public service is not from corruption, but from the official mind getting out of touch with the spirit of the time and the needs of the public.

Rules for the government of prisons are laid down by the Secretary for Scotland, and these rules become statutory after they have been laid on the table of the House of Commons for a period. They define the duties of the various officials, lay down regulations for the treatment of the prisoners, and deal in detail with the management of the prisons.

The Commissioners have the whole control in their hands, subject to the rules. They appoint all the inferior officers; transfer and promote them; or dismiss them if their conduct is unsatisfactory. They do not appoint the superior officers, but it is to be expected that their advice will be considered by the Secretary of State, with whom the nominations he. As a Commissioner cannot be in more than one place at a time, they cannot be expected to have any intimate knowledge of the capability of the men who depend for promotion on them; and their task in this matter alone is no easy one. As for knowledge of the prisoners at first hand, that is impossible; for prisoners are as hard to know as other people, and one person cannot know much of another as the result of an occasional short conversation. If they were liable to err they could not be criticised effectively; for any official who might be in a position to criticise would run the risk of not being in that position long; any prisoner might be looked upon as a prejudiced person; and no member of the public is able to offer criticism, for he does not know the facts. This is an unfortunate state of affairs; for even the ablest minds are the better for being brought in conflict with others and in contact with other ideas, and a system that discourages independent thought is not likely to lead to rapid progress. It has its advantages, however, for a knowledge of the rules and a habit of always carrying them out ensure to the prisoner, peace, and to the officer a good reputation and better prospects than he could ever hope for if he were foolish enough to set his brains to work.

In a private business, when a man gets a position, he cannot hold it unless by exercising his judgment in such a way as to satisfy his employer that he is worth his salt; when he fails in this he is liable to dismissal. In the public service the case is different. There is no question of bankruptcy for one thing, and there is security of tenure for another. You cannot depend on always having men of ability in the posts, but by the aid of rules you can teach a person of moderate talent to get through his work. To disregard the rules may be justifiable in a given case and so far as that case is concerned, but it is liable to knock the whole machine out of gear.

There are many able men in all branches of the civil service, and the fact is often referred to by Cabinet Ministers amid loud cheers from the public; but they recognise the need for routine and follow it. They would otherwise have less time for literary work, in which they can use their original powers to greater advantage. The public departments have produced more poets, novelists, critics, and playwrights than any other large businesses, as, for instance, the railways or the engineering trades. These also employ talented men, but their talents are deflected to business channels. If they had their work laid down for them in rules and regulations they also might add to the gaiety of nations.

Commissioners are always appointed from among men in a good position whose minds have not been warped by any previous association with prisons. They can thus approach their duties without prejudice; and officials and prisoners alike have the satisfaction of knowing that they are in the hands of gentlemen.

Each prison has its visiting committee, consisting of members nominated by various local authorities with the addition of ladies nominated by the Secretary of State. Under the rules for prisons it has considerable powers of criticism, but they are not much used. In Glasgow the committee meets once a year, when its members arrange to visit the prison in pairs once monthly. In practice this means that each member spends in the prison two or three hours on an average every year. How much the members can learn about the work of the prison in that time may be surmised. They go round the place and ask each prisoner if he has any complaints, and they seldom receive any. They see that the place and its inmates are kept clean; that the food is good; that the sick are being attended to ; and they may hear a complaint of breach of discipline and award a punishment therefor occasionally. They record their visits and make any suggestion that may occur to them. They may communicate direct with the Secretary of State if they choose.

They might perform a very useful part in the management of the prison if their powers were used to the full extent and their meetings were more frequent. They have no power to incur expenditure, but without doing so it is quite conceivable that by inviting the officials to explain matters and to direct their attention to special cases they might do a great deal to suggest improvements, with a view to prevent certain people from being sent to prison and to provide for others on their release.

They have the power to allow or to refuse certain privileges to untried prisoners. They are all agreed that the prison is an admirably managed institution, as free from faults as any place could be; but whether they have ever got the length of asking themselves what is the use of it is doubtful. It is clean—as it well may be ; it is orderly—which causes no surprise, although its inmates are there because they “cannot behave themselves”; there are no complaints, and at the end of a visit they know as much of the inmates as they might learn of natural history by a walk round the Zoo.

They might conceivably be set to find out on behalf of the local authorities they represent why the prisoners are there and why so many of them return ; whether it is not time we were seeking other means of dealing with them, and what means; whether nothing more and nothing else can be done than is done at present to help them on their fiberation. The Commissioners have enough to do ; and in the nature of things they are not so well qualified to deal with these subjects as the local authorities, for they cannot come so intimately in touch with local conditions. But the members of the visiting committees are usually busy men on the local Councils and have little time to spend on prison affairs, which may be a very good reason for the Councils nominating others who could find the time. So long as they merely see that the prisoner is not being ill-used outwith the rules, they are only looking after the interest of prisoners and public in a partial way. When they begin to examine matters from the standpoint of the public welfare—when they realise that the treatment of the criminal is as much a matter of public health as the treatment of the sick, and that it is to the interest of the community that it should be undertaken in such a way as to lead to his reformation—it will be better for everybody, including the prisoner.

I can imagine local committees making discoveries for themselves with regard to the causation of crime that would influence powerfully their whole administration ; bringing pressure to bear within the law where it is most required and relieving pressure where it is harmful; using the powers they have, instead of lamenting the want of power which there is no evidence they could use if it were given them; but it needs a beginning.

Each prison is in charge of a Governor who is in daily communication with the office in Edinburgh. He visits the prisoners once daily and hears any complaints by them or regarding them. He has the power to impose certain punishments for offences against discipline, but if they involve a decrease of diet they must be confirmed by the Medical Officer, who may refuse to allow them on medical grounds. He is responsible for the carrying out of the rules and his discretionary power is very small. No qualification has been laid down for the position, and this leaves the Secretary of State free to appoint anybody whom he considers most likely to perform the duties satisfactorily, and prevents the post becoming a preserve for the members of any profession. In Scotland military men have been appointed, and members of the clerical staff and warders have been promoted to governorships, but no professional man has ever been placed in such an important position. When the Governor is absent or on leave his place is taken by the head warder, who performs the duties of this important office in addition to his own.

Where there are a sufficient number of female prisoners there is a Matron in charge of them, who visits them in the same way as the Governor does the males and discharges similar duties towards them.

The Prison Chaplain must be an ordained minister, and in the larger prisons he holds services weekly and conducts prayers daily. He visits the prisoners in their cells and administers spiritual consolation and advice; and he does what he can to help them on their liberation. Prisoners who are Roman Catholics and those who are Episcopalians are visited by clergymen of those Churches in a similar way.

The Medical Officer must be a registered practitioner, and it is his duty to look after the health of the staff and of the prisoners. Of all the officials he has the freest hand, for it has not so far been practicable to direct the treatment of the sick from a central office; but his very freedom—such as it is—may lead him into trouble should he pay regard to differences of temperament among prisoners and go beyond a consideration of merely physical signs. If he confine his energies to carrying out the rules he need never fear death from work or worry. He may hope to become a highly respectable fossil and have a place in the esteem of everyone to whom he has caused no trouble. He can do much to help prisoners, not by indulging them, but by humanising the place to some extent and setting the tone. He need not be a better man than his colleagues, but he is less a part of the working machine, and that should make a difference in his attitude. He is not concerned with discipline, for the sick are free of it, so that in a sense it is his business to interfere with discipline. His work is to do the prisoners good in a way they can understand; and he has even an advantage over the Chaplain, whom they also recognise as a humanising influence, for men are usually a good deal more anxious about their bodies than about their souls. The Governor may be a better man than either the Doctor or the Chaplain, but his position as the head of a system that the prisoners do not regard as directed to their aid handicaps his influence on them.

At one time the clerical staff of the prisons was composed of clerks, but now men who join as warders are promoted to clerkships, serving part of the day in the prison and part in the office. All applicants for warderships have to pass a series of examinations and to serve on probation for twelve months before being finally admitted to the service. A rigid enquiry is made as to their antecedents; their health forms the subject of a careful enquiry; and they have to pass an examination in general education. After all this they receive a salary which is not large, to put it mildly. It is a steady job, and therefore sought after by those who prefer to take a small salary with security of tenure to risking the rough-and-tumble of industrial life. Female warders are paid better than men, as women’s wages go. Compared with the work done by them in other institutions they are well off, but there is not a rush for vacancies. Both male and female warders in Scottish prisons will compare favourably with any other body of officials; and the prevailing spirit shown by them towards prisoners is kindly and human.


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