Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Christianity, Imprisonment and Penal Reform


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.