17 JANUARY 1885, Page 14


MR. DAVITT ON IMPRISONMENT.* MR. DAVITT'S book consists of two volumes, one of which con tains his prison experiences, and the other a series of lectures on social subjects, delivered to a solitary hearer—a blackbird who for some months shared Mr. Davitt's cell, and after displaying unusual intelligence and affection, behaved as badly as a human being. Mr. Davitt in pity released him ; and the bird, with a sort of scream of delight, flew away for ever, without even a look of farewell, and doubtless by this time has forgotten that the prisoner existed. The lectures we do not propose to review. They are merely a repetition in a hundred forms of Mr. Davitt's well-known ideas upon land ; and as we do not in the least understand what he means by the central one of them,. it is useless for us to waste our readers' time. Mr. Davitt holds that all economic evils, and most social evils, proceed from private property in land,. He would, therefore, have the State absorb it all by depriving it of value. We dislike the suspicion of exaggerating extreme views, and therefore quotethe author's own words :

" It is the rush of the unemployed agricultural population to the towns which intensifies the struggle for existence, and thus enables employers to fix the rate of wages on the basis of the least they will give, viz , bare subsistence. If we can check that rush we shall reverse the position, and enable the workers to fix the rate of wages on the basis of the least they will take. Nor ought it to be very difficult to accomplish this. We have only to make the nation the proprietor of the land. Tax land in city, town, and country np to its full value, and no one would find it to his advantage to hold for higher prices, for he would simply be holding for a higher public tax. The millions of acres of land now lying waste in Great Britain would instantly come into cultivation. The State, from its abundant revenue, could advance large sums for the reclamation of the land, and the result would be that instead of there being, as now, an unemployed agricultural population, there would be a demand for labour so great that many generations must elapse before population could overtake subsistence. The mineral resources would be equally thrown open. It would be the interest of the State to impose conditions that would have the effect of encouraging instead of discouraging the development of these resources, and again in this field the demand for labour would far exceed the supply. And thus, instead of the competition being, as now, between workers seeking employers, it would be between employers seeking workers, and wages would rise all along the line."

We presume Mr. Davitt means by fall value, full value for letting purposes ; for if he means by full value all that land would produce, he would, by taking all, throw it out of cultiva tion, as has occasionally happened in the East. But then, if the State takes the full letting value—and less would not extinguish private proprietorship—how is the tenant's position changed He has to pay the highest possible rent to an all-powerful land lord, instead of a high rent to a weaker one. Mr. Davitt says elsewhere the State might fix the value as " bare "value,—that is, we suppose, value without improvements,— but in that case, why should proprietors who have made improvements give up their land ? We say nothing of confiscation, of the reluctance of half mankind to work on the soil, of the fact that in many countries where land can be had for the

asking the poverty of the population is deeper than in Ireland, and only point out that the method proposed will not work. The " State cannot obtain the land by taxation unless it takes the fall letting valve; and if it takes it, will be only a fresh landlord,

and a very bad one. Mr. Davitt is really, though he does not know it, proposing the Madras ryotwaree system for the United Kingdom. It has been tried, both there and in ancient Peru, to the most logical extent, and in both places with the result of extinguishing agricultural property, destroying agricultural energy, and increasing the permanent liability to periodical famines.

It is useless, in a literary review, to go over this old story, and we turn gladly to the first volume, which is full of practical

experience. It disappoints us a little, for Mr. Davitt is not aware how much of his information about the criminal classes, their ways, their characters, and their slang has been placed before the public long ago. It is interesting, but not new, to hear that the criminal classes hang loose to their religion, and

lcares from a Prison Diary. By Michael Daritt. London : Chapman and 113.11..

will turn Protestant, or Catholic, or Mahometan, as convenient, the only exception, it seems, being Presbyterian thieves ; but it

has been said before. And we read somewhere three years ago, in an official report, Mr. Davitt's statement that receivers pay

burglars and thieves only one-fifth the value of their plunder, and that receiving was consequently the most profitable of trades. Still, the book is interesting. Its author writes clearly and well, in spite of an occasional slip, such as the misuse of " contemptible " for " contemptuous ;" he is entirely free from the querulousness usually perceptible in political prisoners ; he can generalise with some boldness, and he has not lost, as most men do in imprisonment, the faculty of humour. His story of the thief who thought robbery demonstrably right till a convict stole his bread is excellent, and so is his account of the Scotchman who sorrowed so keenly over the woes of Ireland till an Irishman spat in his face, and thenceforward cursed all Irishmen ; but the following anecdote appeals to a wider audience, and is, in its way, quite perfect. Old Peter, a convict from Yorkshire, was rather slighted by the criminal aristocracy of Dartmoor, but one day mustered up courage to join a group who were laughiug over some experiences :

"A costermonger intruding into a Belgravia drawing-room could not be more promptly expelled than was poor Peter, who was indignantly asked What did the old gowk want there ?' Thus unfeelingly repelled, Peter walked slowly back to where I was standing, a witness of his humiliation, and, leaning upon his shovel as if in the agony of disgrace, he muttered, ' I'm a gowk ! Ov coorso I'm nowt, becose I donno cam fro Lannon Bud I'll tell thee wod ' (fiercely addressing me), '1 stowl watches forty yer sin—long afore them chaps wer born! Bud' (continued he sorrowfully, while resuming his work near me), 'that's nowt, becose —1 dunno come fro Lannon !' I have often thought that Old Peter's was as cruel an instance of unappreciated merit as any that came under my observation while studying the caste of crime."

It will be seen that a prison is very like any other place, and this is the substance of Mr. Davitt's observation. The convicts keep up grades like outsiders,_ those being highest who have

been most successful or most ambitious in their crimes. They have prejudices of their own, one being, we are glad to see, that blackmailers are, on the whole, the lowest criminals, unfit for criminal society ; they have their own morality, based principally on the notion of duty to each other as partakers of a

common lot ; and their own somewhat stern methods of giving that morality peremptory sanctions. They are " bad " and " good " like outsiders, badness and goodness being orderliness and disorderliness ; and, as outside, the good predominate, about three-fourths of all convicts being perfectly amenable to discipline, and never receiving bad marks. As in the world, too, the laws are made for the bad and not the good, and, therefore, seem severe; and also, as in the world, some laws are persistently evaded. For example, though conversation is forbidden, the communication among prisoners is complete. They have a way of whispering along a whole corridor, through the peep-holes made for the warders, as well as other contrivances. And finally, as in the world so in prison, excellent laws are sometimes badly administered, the main cause of such cruelty and insubordination as exist being the necessity of trusting power to warders who may be totally unfit to exercise it. Still, the immense majority obey the rules, which speaks in favour of rules and rulers; and Mr. Davitt's complaint that the minute and humiliating regulations, meant to restrain the disorderly, press upon all alike, is a little unreasonable. So do the laws of the universe and of the world: If the best man on earth breaks the rule which should keep his finger out of a flame, it will burn him ; and the criminal with good intent, if there be such a man, suffers from human law. Classification might possibly be improved, especially by isolating a few of the most abandoned, but it is arranged by men of vast ex

perience; and, short of solitary confinement, which is torture destroying the mind, it is impossible to prevent contamination wholly. You cannot do it outside prison walls. There is, we see, a special classification of convicts in Mr. Davitt's own mind which is not a little curious. He writes, of course, with a large tolerance, like a doctor about his patients ; but at heart he seems to have much of the feeling of an Irish peasant,—is lenient to the murderer, scorns the swindler, and has some-thing like hatred for the thief. He believes the latter to be the victim of a sort of irresistible propensity akin to that of the magpie, and to be utterly irreclaimable ; while of murderers he says this :— " I have conversed in prison with over twenty, and have been for years a close observer of several other murderers, without being able to trace a predilection to that greatest of all crimes, either in the conduct or facial expressions of these individuals. Murder might really be what De Quiucey has termed one of the fine arts for any. thing an observer of this portion of prison population could discern in the ordinary shaped heads, general observance of prison discipline, and personal behaviour of most murderers. The really hardened, irreclaimable criminal will never commit a murder. Neither will that nearest approach to Bill Sykes in style of dress and face, the bruiser. Robbery with violence these will commit, thrash a policeman, or give cruel ill-treatment to the wretched beings with whom they cohabit, brit they have too wholesome a dread of being topped' (hanged) to add murder to their list of other accomplishments. Murders occasionally occur in connection with robbery, it is true ; but they are, as a rule, accidental to the perpetration of the latter crime, and scarcely ever premeditated. The most heinous of all offences—murder deliberately intended and planned before ita commission—is, ordinarily, the offspring of the passions of revenge and jealousy, or the outcome of social or political wrongs ; and is more frequently the result of some derangement of the nobler instincts of human nature than traceable to its more debased orders or appetites. Temporary insanity, parental mania (as when mothers or fathers murder their whole family), and infanticide, add their quota to this class of crime ; but it stands in no relationship, in its ultimate motives, to the other numerous crimes which bring together in a convict establishment such a variety of criminal character."

One of the ablest of English Judges gave us once precisely the same opinion about thieves and swindlers, basing it first on

experience, and next on the passionless and deliberate character of all crimes against property ; but we suspect the human in, stinct is right, and that the thief is not the worst of mankindthough his crime involves more cruelty than is usually remembered. As to murder, Mr. Davitt's acquaintances were the respited. He did not know the hanged ; and he has— unconsciously, it may be—too faint a horror of the murderer for social reasons. Half the murderers hung in Europe are murderers for the sake of safe theft. His idea betrays, like his main proposal for the reform of criminal law, a defective feeling for society, though his feeling for morality is unimpeachable. He does not, we thick, quite see that murder is the most anti-social crime; or that society must occasionally make punishment terrible for its own protec

tion. He pities the men sentenced for long terms, would reintroduce transportation, and thinks seven years' penal servitude sufficient penalty for any mime whatever short of murder.

That may be, if, as he thinks, hard labour is so very terrible to all but labourers ; but would it also be sufficiently deterrent? Society has to think of that, as well as of a scientific proportion between offence and punishment, as Mr. Davitt will discover if he ever becomes Home Secretary in nn Irish Republic. The further view that Society is responsible for much of the crime among us, and especially for the growth of a criminal class, we need not discuss at any length. It is true in part, and in part nobody denies it ; but one of Society's efforts at prevention must be punishment. The diminution of poverty will do something, and education something more ; but they will not do all, as Mr. Davitt will find, if he will study the statistics of crime in America, where every man can have 160 acres for the asking, and in the City of Rome, where there is scarcely a man born iu the city who cannot read and write. He admits himself that many of his irreclaimable thieves are well educated, many of them well-read, and some of them clever talkers of evil in two or three languages. We do not, therefore, find in Mr. Davitt's experience many practical suggestions, the best, perhaps, being that part of the solitary confinement now

inflicted should be reserved for the end of the sentence. It would then break all prison associations, and let the man loose with a lively dread of an incident in his punishment which he has often, when be is released, forgotten. For the rest, Mr. Davitt's first volume is eminently readable, and gives us a favourable impression of its author ; but it is not quite as nutritious as when we opened it we had hoped.