Link back to main ROSSBRET websiteSelf Supporting Prisons


Link back to main ROSSBRET websiteSelf Supporting Prisons


Self-Supporting Prisons

There is a strange though unintentional perversity about the national treatment of criminals and paupers. In both cases the industrious rate-payers, while in too many instances overworked themselves, provide for able-bodied criminals and paupers, but especially for criminals, good food and lodging, with attendance, and nothing profitable to do. In the case of criminals, the utmost attention is paid to their sanitary welfare; and while their paymasters are stifling themselves and their families in stuffy back shops and unventilated underground bedrooms, lighted by dim `dips' they provide for - Bill Sykes, and his friends, well-aired and ventilated, clean, tidy, winter-warmed, snug, and cheerfully-lighted places of abode, where, if they sing "We've got no work to do" it must be with a wink of the eye, if it is not with the tongue in the cheek. And Bill may well think that donkeys his bread-winners are. How long is this ridiculous and absurd system to continue ?

Not only ought both criminals and paupers to labour while able for their own food and lodging, but criminals ought to make restitution for the wrongs they have done. If criminals knew that in prison they must earn their bread like honest working people, they would soon learn to prefer work with liberty, to work with imprisonment. 

If paupers were called upon to provide for themselves and their families in work houses, there would be fewer suicides and family murders on account of starvation, because there would be less disgrace in the name of a workhouse than there now is. It is shameful that such is the state of matters, that the name of a prison is not more disgraceful nor more repelling than the name of a workhouse, if so much, and that so much better is the treatment of villainous criminals than the treatment of honest but unfortunate paupers, that there is thus an evident temptation of the starving poor to steal and so prepare for a prison, rather than go to a workhouse. The nation is thus truly inculcating - teaching - crime. In this money worshipping age, to be poor is itself virtually a crime; and really, as bankrupt debtors used to be put into prison where criminals are put, it would be more consistent, and almost better, to do away with workhouses altogether, and send all paupers to prison. They might at least obtain treatment on a level with that of criminals, and not fare worse than they in all respects.

On the subject of self-supporting prisons, there is an able article in the - Christian Times - of 12th November 1869, from which we shall quote a few passages. :-

The State prison of Massachussetts returns a clear revenue of 5,000 per annum to the State, after paying all costs and salaries. Many French prisons are nearly self-supporting. Even in the distant Antipodes, the gaol of Dunedin with 789 inmates, pays all its charges by the profit of its prison labour, and returns a surplus of nearly 1,400. 

In France, the prisoners are provided with lodging, bread and water, by the State, what further is needed must be earned by their own hands, opportunity being given.

Why should it not be so here ?. Because the House of Lords Committee in 1863 reported against remunerative prison-labour, contrary to the evidence of the two experienced prison inspectors and many able officers. The 1865 Act carried into effect their lordships views. Will the rate-payers of Middlesex and other counties cheerfully permit their pockets to be thus lightened to support strong and lazy criminals, merely because such a system has once been agreed to by a Lords Committee ?

It is a question which materially affects the morals of the kingdom, the security of property, and the county rates. The chaplain of a self-supporting American gaol last year visited this country and inspected its prisons. On his return he published the result of his observations, and after remarking "I was greatly surprised in my visits to learn how very little the prisons in Great Britain generally yield to their own support" (about 1.5d per day per head.) he states that he was told that the present system was considered more deterrent. He adds, "I asked if this was the practical result of the course and was assured it was not; for that the number of recommitals was large - not less than 39 per-cent.

During the last three years the London Howard Association for the Diffusion of Information on Criminal Treatment, has widely aroused public attention to this question, and much progress has been made, considering the restrictions of the prison laws. At Wakefield Gaol the inmates earn about 8,000 per annum, chiefly by mats.

At Holloway nearly 1,000 have been received in one year for tailoring, (officers uniforms) done within the walls. 

At Bedford Prison, the inmates earn about 600 per annum. Manchester New Bailey, Preston, Durham, Newcastle, York, Birmingham, Hull, Petworth, Liverpool (borough), Deveonport, Leeds, Chester, and other prisons are also making much progress in this direction. 

It is found by experience that useful labour may be rendered quite as punitory and deterrent (by means of task work) as the hardest tread-wheel exercise; and, indeed, far more so.

The Governor of Devonport Gaol recently related to Mr. Tallack, the Secretary of the Howard Association, an incident which well illustrates the effect of requiring prisoners to contribute towards their own maintenance and punishment. A vagrant who had been confined for a fortnight was obliged to work at hard but useful labour in his cell; and on his discharge the governor informed him that his earnings during his imprisonment amounted to double the cost of his food `so that you have also contributed so much towards my salary' This was quite a new idea to the vagrant, who at once perceived that he was making a fool of himself by entering a gaol where he must compulsorily pay for his own punishment, in addition to his support. He replied - `Then you shall never see me here again' And he has kept his word. 

Nor is this by any means a solitary instance. Let this plan be more extensively adopted, a greater variety of prison industry enforced, (in lieu of the too general mat-making.) and a more practical prison legislation enacted, and the result, instead of increased prisons, will be not only diminished rates, but also a most gratifying reformation of criminals as a class.
Source: The Builder 1869 Vol XXVII pp1029, 25th December 1869
Submitted by Alan Longbottom.

Page updated March 12, 2008

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