What mean and cruel things men do for the love of God
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), A Writer's Notebook
During the whole period of 1500 years or so that the Church enjoyed
absolute power the concept of penal reform was unknown. Prisons
in 1800 were as insanitary, cramped, infested, and dangerous as
they had been when the Roman Empire first adopted Christianity.
Prisoners had virtually no rights, were subjected to violence and
arbitrary punishment, could expect little or no medical assistance,
and were likely to die of disease or starvation before their release.
The prime purposes of gaol were punishment and retribution.
Bishop's gaols were no better than others, and were frequently
worse. They provided a source of funds to their owners. In the Bishop
of Ely's prison men were chained to the floor, with heavy iron bars
across their legs and spiked collars around their necks. They lived
and often died like this unless they were prepared to pay a fee
for 'easement of irons'. The Prince Bishop of Durham owned the county
gaol at Durham which was for centuries a profitable enterprise,
and other bishops around the country, indeed throughout Christendom,
supplemented their fortunes from the suffering of their prisoners.
Food, if any, was often limited to bread and water: "the bread
of affliction and, the water of distress" (I Kings 22:27).
Such a diet guaranteed death sooner or later, usually within months.
The bishop of Winchester's prison on the South bank of the Thames,
the original "Clink", has given its name to a slang term
for all prisons . As it was near to the Thames the lower cells tended
to flood at high tide, so prisoners unable to provide the requisite
bribes could be done away with effortlessly by drowning. Otherwise
the Clink was much like other bishops' prisons. Men, women and children
were held, often illegally without charge. They lived without light,
sanitary facilities, medical attention, bedding, heating, clothes,
or proper food, and survived either by bribery or begging. Tortures
took many forms. People were retrained by irons and fetters, sometimes
locked into agonising positions with neck, wrists and ankles held
within inches of each other. After a short time in this position
they were permanently disabled. Alternatively prisoners could be
racked, beaten, flogged, or otherwise abused. One method was to
keep their feet in water until they rotted. Corruption was rife
so that it was possible for example to establish brothels inside
prisons. Money was extorted for anything and everything. Prisoners
were even charged for lodging, for the chains that restrained them
and for the torture inflicted on them. In 1194 sixpence was charged
for fitting a ferramente, an iron collar. This was the equivalent
of thousands of pounds today. Those with wealthy relatives could
avoid the worst suffering and indignities. Money would buy privileges
such as food and drink, better cells, a bed, a chamber pot, candles,
relief from irons, conjugal visits, and so on. Money would also
allow privileged prisoners to avoid to whipping post, the cucking
stool, and other tortures and indignities . All this was accepted
by the Church. God had no objection to it - if he had had then,
as Churchmen pointed out, he would have said so in the Bible.
The pioneer of modern penology was an Italian rationalist, the
Marquis Cesare Beccaria-Bonesana, who published Dei Delitti e
delle Pene, (On Crimes and Punishments) in 1764, claiming that
the prevention of crime, not punishment, should be the prime aim
of an enlightened society, and that crime was deterred by the likelihood
of detection rather than the severity of punishment. His ideas were
condemned by the Inquisition. For the Churches the prime purpose
was punishment and retribution, as affirmed by the bible, not rehabilitation
which was not mentioned in the bible.
The movement for penal reform in England was led by the Utilitarian
Jeremy Bentham, who was influenced by Beccaria. Bentham, a Utilitarian
philosopher, was roundly condemned by Churchmen as an atheist with
unrealistic dreams. He was the impetus behind many reforms including
those implemented by Lord Brougham in 1832. He even designed the
first modern prison (the Panopticon). Reform was supported by atheists
like Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, Quakers like Elizabeth
Fry, and other nonconformists like John Howard. Fry formed a reform
association in 1817, and Howard gave his name to one founded at
a Quaker meeting in 1866. People like these opposed contemporary
prison practices such as the treadmill, hard labour, and corporal
punishment, including the cat.
Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant held the revolutionary view
that prisons should be "moral Hospitals" . The idea that
gaol should be primarily for rehabilitation was entirely a secular
one. So were the beliefs that prisoners had rights; that they were
entitled to basic sanitation, freedom from flogging, torture and
mutilation; access to medical attention, adequate nutrition, and
education. The sole contribution of the Church was to ensure that
attendance at Chapel was made obligatory. All advances in penal
reform were made as secular forces wrested power from the Churches.
In Britain, the Howard League for Penal Reform, named after John
Howard, is the successor to a number of humanist organisations,
and its executive is still largely humanist. Their successes include
the acceptance of rehabilitation in penal theory, and the abolition
of capital and corporal punishment.