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The Criminal and the Community
Part III - Chapter V - The Prisoner on Liberation


WHILE in prison a man has been cut off from the life of the world. He has had no visits from his friends save once in three months, and as there is no newspaper which he is permitted to see, he is ignorant of any changes that may have occurred during the time of his incarceration. Those who have at any time been confined to the house by sickness may dimly appreciate his condition. Although they may have been visited by their friends; kept in touch with social movements in which they were interested; and generally helped to a knowledge of passing events of interest; they must have found something strange in the aspect of things when they were first allowed out.

Even after a holiday it takes a man some little time to get the hang of his work. In the case of the liberated prisoner the difficulty is greatly aggravated. He may find that during his seclusion friends have died or have left the district, and if a first offender who feels the degradation he has brought on himself, he is likely to be sensitive as to the bearing of others towards him. He needs help; he dreads rebuff; and he does not know where to seek assistance. He may readily misinterpret the attitude of others towards him and imagine that men whom he has known are giving him the cold shoulder, when, in fact, they have not seen him. He has been shut off from the company of others, and he feels the need of fellowship with someone. He can always have that from those who, like himself, have been through the mill; and he may be led by them into further mischief.

Our interference with the offender results in his removal, for a time, from the associations and habits to which he has been accustomed; to that extent the power over him of these associations and habits may be weakened; but no matter where we put him, we cannot hinder him from learning new habits, and these may or may not be useful to him on his liberation. The more powerful the influence of his later interests the less likely lie is to seek to return to his old pursuits. The thing which no man can do without is fellowship or comradeship of some sort. He will seek it even although in the process he may be injured thereby; and it is because drink makes the company of some men more tolerable to each other that so many take it. It is not so much that they wish to get drunk; they could do that alone; and at first, at any rate, the drink isjnot taken merely to intoxicate, but largely to stimulate sociability. The person who has been pent up in an institution for a prolonged period has not learned habits of a sociable character, but quite the contrary; and when he gets out he knows that he will more easily become a part of good company if he takes drink, for thereby he will be set free from the feeling^of restraint to which he has been subjected.

There has been a great deal of talk about police persecution of liberated prisoners. In some cases the official zeal of a policeman may cause him to act towards an ex-prisoner with a harshness he does not intend, but in most cases the persecution only exists in the imagination of its subject. Few of us see all things as they are. We are influenced by our beliefs quite apart from their foundation in fact, and this is shown in all our actions. We see men believing in others in spite of evidence which we think ought to undeceive them; and people have been known to get married under a quite mistaken estimate of each other’s character.

So long as the discharged prisoner believes that the world is against him, that the hand of the representative of the law is raised to oppress him, his actions will be influenced by that belief; and he may be driven to despair as a consequence. I do not think that policemen generalty have any ill-feeling towards offenders; but officially there is no encouragement for any personal feeling on their part, good or bad. Theirs is an unenviable position.

We make no real attempt to investigate the cause of wrongdoing and to prevent crime by a rational method. Should a policeman interfere before an offence has been committed, the motive of his interference will as often as not be misinterpreted and he will be denounced as a busybody. In practice we encourage him to believe that it is his main duty to arrest offenders and he does his best to discharge this duty. It is too much to expect that between him and those whom he is set to hunt there can be any likelihood of mutual regard. As enemies each may have a respect for the other, but friendship and friendly help are out of the question, Unfortunately this fact has been left out of account in some recent proposals for the prevention of crime and the reformation of the offender.

In connection with all the prisons there are discharged prisoners’ aid societies, which seek to help those whose sentences have expired. The number of these societies is increasing; but in Glasgow, praiseworthy as are their efforts, they are quite unable to undertake the work that requires to be done. In practice the societies mainly consist of their officials, and these are few and hardworking. They try to get situations for discharged prisoners and to influence them towards a better way of living. Sometimes their efforts meet with success, but they have far too much to do. Their resources are small, and they are hampered by want of funds, but more by want of helpers. They struggle on valiantly in spite of discouragement, and do what lies in their power to prevent those with whom they come in contact from becoming worse than they otherwise would be.

When a prisoner is liberated it is not always an easy matter for him to find work. The fact of his having been in prison is not a recommendation to anyone who would employ him. When work is found for him by the agents of one of the societies which help discharged prisoners, his position may be a somewhat difficult one. It is not every place where he can be employed without objection on the part of his fellow-workers. As men they recognise the need for charity and tolerance towards their neighbours, but prison has such an evil sound to them that they are prejudiced against the person who has been there. When this prejudice is overcome there is usually a reaction in the ex-prisoner’s favour, resulting in conduct towards him that may be as embarrassing in its way as any springing from the prejudice against him. At the best he is liable to be placed in an atmosphere of suspicion that does not help him to do well. The consciousness that he has been degraded is harmful to his sense of self-respect, and altogether it is not easy for him to find suitable companionship. Wisdom would counsel him to avoid the company of those who have been associated with him in the conduct that led to his fall, but the counsels of wisdom are not always easy to follow.

There are very many who are willing to give assistance to a man who seeks to turn over a new leaf, but they expect to direct him as to what shall be written on the next page. If censure and avoidance may irritate and hurt a man who has been convicted of wrongdoing, patronage may raise a spirit of opposition in him. He does not want to be looked down upon, whether with contempt or with compassion. Of course, he ought to be chastened by his affliction; he ought to be repentant and submissive; he ought to do what he is told; but it is not what ought to be that requires consideration if we would help him to do better, but what is. In spite of their vicious acts, it is never an evidence of wisdom to assume that vicious people are greater fools than others. That they behave foolishly, from the standpoint of their own and our interest, is quite true, and so apparent that it needs no emphasis. The question is, Do we, who are so much wiser than they, show that wisdom in our treatment of them? and the answer, evidenced by the result of our attitude towards them, furnishes no strong testimony in our favour.

When a man has gone wrong it may be generally assumed that there is something in him that has made him unfit to resist the temptations incident to his position. If this assumption be correct it follows that we are not warranted in expecting from him the same power of resistance as others have shown. We are not justified in assuming that with proper assistance his character and powers may not improve but it is hardly reasonable to expect conduct from him that would be more saintly than our own; and a great many disappointments are suffered by earnest people who seek to lift up the fallen, simply because they have expected too much. When efforts to help a man result in failure it is a safe working rule to assume that the fault is at least as much in the nature of the means employed as in the man. They may have been very good means, but they have not been applicable in the case; which is just to say that the result is the test of their suitability. This is all so obvious that in practice it is disregarded, and we persist in the foolish assumption that people on whom our patent pills fail to act are incorrigible; though the fact is that the offender is no more incorrigible than the reformer, and is sometimes not so stupid.

The position of the man who has been in prison is not so bad as that of the woman who has been there. There can be no question that women less frequently break the laws than men. This may or may not be evidence of superior virtue on the part of women, but the fact itself makes the position of the woman who has fallen more difficult to retrieve. She is more conspicuous than the male offender, if only because there are fewer of her kind, and the attitude of women towards her is less tolerant than the attitude of men, either towards her or towards those of their own sex who have offended. Accordingly, when a woman once loses her reputation she is more liable than a man to accept the position and to sink under her disgrace ; so that the fallen woman is regarded by many as the most degraded of beings, and her rescue has a fascination for those who seek to aid the worst. This conception is absurd, as everyone knows who has studied the subject with open eyes, but the question is one that cannot be faithfully dealt with here. The economic position of the woman who has broken away from the standards set by the law need not be, and often is not, worse than that she held before her revolt. It all depends on what she was and how she has rebelled. Vice as little as virtue determines the economic position of those who are subject to it. The transgressor by her transgression is cut off from her class, and she is in danger of failing to gain a footing in any other. She may, and in the majority of cases does, glide out of her folly as she has slipped into it; but when she is publicly branded her chances of recovery are less than those of a man. The attitude of men towards her may be insolent, but it is rarely so brutal as that of women; and it is no uncommon thing to find that the most effective help towards the restoration of a woman has been given by those among her male friends whose character would least bear scrutiny by a censor of morals.

The attitude of her sex towards the woman who is down is generally one of hostility. Whether something of the instinct of self-preservation inspires this need not be here discussed; but it is abundantly clear that the woman whose fall has been publicly recognised cannot hope to resume anything like her old place, even if she were willing to seek it. Her recognition as a respectable woman is too frequently made contingent on her acceptance of a form of religion that enables her past to be always referred to, and herself held up as a brand plucked from the burning. In her attitude towards women she is affected by this knowledge, and their appeal to her loses in effect because of it. There is nothing more difficult than the treatment of these women. The prejudice against them is so strong that it is only here and there a family is willing to take in and look after one of them.

Attempts are made to influence and direct such women as have no friends, by placing them in homes. No doubt the inmates are much better there than they would be if turned on the streets or living in common lodging-houses; but they do not commend themselves to those whom it is sought to rescue; for the majority of them will say quite frankly that it is “not good enough.” They prefer to struggle along as best they may rather than submit to the life offered them. It always appears ungracious to criticise the work of those who are earnestly engaged in trying to help others, but it is fair that the view of those they seek to help should be presented. Their view may be a wrong one, but until it is altered it will affect their conduct; and it cannot be too emphatically insisted on that the opinions of those whom we seek to help should be considered, and when possible acted upon, if it is hoped to render effective aid. The first objection a girl makes to entering a rescue home is that she must bind herself to remain there for a prolonged period. She does not regard the home as a desirable place of residence, but as a step towards restoration to a decent position in the community. She objects to give her work for twelve months, say, getting no other pay than her board, clothing, and lodging, unless she remains in the institution for that time. She claims that she might as well be in prison. The girl is not concerned with the question whether the home pays others or not; she is concerned with the fact that it does not pay her.

Loss of reputation hinders a girl from getting a situation, even when she is willing to drop her way of living and revert to steady work. People who pay well quite naturally prefer not to make an experiment and seek to have their money’s worth, which implies not only an efficient, but a steady and reliable worker. The situations open to the penitent, therefore, are those which are worst paid. When she gains a character she may obtain more remunerative occupation elsewhere. She recognises that on account of her bad reputation she has to do more work for less money, but she does not so readily admit that it is just that it should be so. She thinks that it is one thing for an ordinary person to take advantage of her needs and to underpay her, while it is quite another thing for a Christian institution to keep her working for insufficient wages. In the home she has as hard work and almost as little liberty as she would have were she in prison. Her associates are girls like herself, with whom she can converse on a basis of equality and discourse on life from a similar standpoint. On the other hand, she is preached to, patronised by visitors, entertained in a very proper manner, and taught in a thousand indirect ways that she is different from them. If her associates do not help her to forget her past, neither do her teachers. They want to be kind, and try to be considerate ; the effort is obvious. In a gentle way they may tell the girls what they think of them and how much need there is for their reformation, and they do not seem to see that they would come more closely in contact with those they seek to help if they would assume the things they express by word and attitude, and try to draw the girls out. The defect in the teacher is too often a habit of talking at his pupils. The girls are there to learn; the visitors to teach. Are they? What do the girls learn, and what do the visitors teach? That we are all sinners and our position a perilous one; that some of us have been found out and that the penalty should be accepted humbly as being for our good, and so on. If the formula is somewhat stereotyped that is not my fault. The girls who appear to submit most patiently are naturally regarded as most hopeful. What they think about it all does not appear to be considered of much importance. They are wrong or they would not be there; and yet a girl may make a mess of her life in one direction, and be none the less qualified to give a shrewd and useful opinion on the causes of her failure. If those who seek to teach them had less faith in their own doctrine and more desire to learn, they would become less ignorant and would teach to better purpose. Here and there some know this, and acting on the knowledge, are more successful than others who are equally pious, equally well-intentioned, but less well-informed.

One quite recognises that it cannot be charged against the majority of these institutions that they make money by the girls. They are often carried on at a financial loss, for the cost is considerable; but reformatory work cannot be conducted on a commercial basis. It is in the nature of things that it should not pay its way in the narrow sense. The cost of adequate supervision prevents this. But to charge the cost of attempts at their reformation to the girls is to inflict at least an apparent injustice on them that is apt to rankle in their minds, and to drive away a number who would otherwise be helped—helped at a pecuniary loss to the home, but at a great benefit to the community. After all, they are earning their own living by their work. What they fail to do is to earn a living for those who govern them. In exchange for their work they are not permitted to spend their earnings as they please, but as it pleases those who have undertaken to look after them. There may be something to be said for the opinion that if one set of persons seek to direct the lives of another they should be prepared to pay for the privilege; but this subject of charity is one that needs examination. Some people have very quaint ideas regarding it. I remember a decent woman who rather prided herself on her goodness. Her husband had a small business, and she occasionally requisitioned the services of his younger apprentices for assistance at cleaning time. On such an afternoon a newsboy coming to the door, she got a Citizen from him, gave him a penny, and received back the halfpenny of change. When he had gone she remarked to one of the apprentices—a boy with a genius for saying the right thing in the wrong place—“Puir boy, I just take the paper from him for charity.” To which he replied, “Aye, but ye took the halfpenny back!” There was something to be said for both views, but the boy had the last word, and he soon found that his criticism had borne fruit; he was dismissed.

In the home there is more of a religious atmosphere and less mechanical routine than in prison ; but the religious atmosphere is as much objected to by many of the girls as the mechanical routine. Both may be good for them from the standpoint of the theorist, but neither seems to result in the effect desired. In the prison there are fewer lectures and fewer visits to the inmates than in the home, and the life is more monotonous, but in the prison there is less opportunity for contamination. In both places the old and degraded, the young and the ignorant, may be confined, but in the prison they are separated.

It is quite a mistake to imagine that the vice and degradation—that the state of morals—of a person can be estimated by her age and the number of her convictions. The old hand need not be so morally corrupt as the younger, though her experiences may have been more numerous and varied. A common statement of those who have been inmates of homes is that what they did not know when they went in they learned before they came out, and certainly they have opportunities of communicating their experiences and relating their adventures while they are in a home that they do not have while they are in prison. This is a thing that cannot be prevented so long as people live together. That many have been restored after passing through the homes is undoubtedly the case, but it does not follow that their restoration was due to their experience there. That many have not been improved, but have been the worse for their residence there, is not at all to be wondered at. Where a religious atmosphere has affected them favourably the disadvantages inherent to the establishment have been overcome. Where it has failed to effect a change in them for good the other associations tend to confirm them in evil.

What effect, then, has imprisonment on those who undergo it? It usually improves their health physically, but impairs their mental capacity. The simple life favours the former; separation and destruction of the sense of initiative favour the latter. Many do not return after a first experience, and it is assumed that they have been deterred from wrongdoing by it; but there is absolutely no ground for this assumption. It may be justified in some cases, but in others there is no reason to suppose that the offender would have repeated his offence, even though he had never been sent to prison for it. Imperfectly as probation of offenders is worked, it has shown this. Indeed, the very imperfection of the method has shown it the more strongly, for so far from the offender having been taken away from the conditions which incited him to commit his transgression, he has been sent back to them, and in many cases has not again offended.

It is not right to make assumptions when there is opportunity of examining the facts; and no enquiry has been made as to the effect of imprisonment in deterring those who have been in prison and have not returned for repeating their offence. A great many do return, and that is positive evidence that their imprisonment has not had a deterrent effect on them. Why do they return? In some cases they have found that prison is not such a horrible place after all, and that though the confinement is irksome the time passes; and at the expiry of their sentence they may do what they like. Many of them have to work hard and long to earn a living when outside, and they learn that they can pick up a living at less cost and have a better time, if they take the risk of being shut up now and again. They have been cut off from their habits, which may not have been a bad thing, and have acquired other habits which do not help them when they are liberated. They have been officially marked with disgrace, and to that extent rendered less able to secure employment and good company. They have been taught to be respectful and obedient, but they have lost, in a corresponding degree to their improvement in manners, their power to act for themselves. In some respects they are better, in others worse, than they were when they were taken in hand; and on the balance there is a distinct loss. Recent attempts at reformation have not taken into account the root causes of failure, and they fail to recognise that the longer a person is cut off from the main current of life in the community the less he is fitted to return to it.


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