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Corrections: Part IV – Reformation As An End In Prison Discipline

Reformation as an End in Prison Discipline: Report of The Standing Committee

By F. H. Wines, Chairman

A Presentation at the Fifteenth Annual Session of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction Held In Buffalo, N.Y. July 5-11, 1888

Ed. Note: In the history of the criminal justice system of the United States there is considerable evidence that social welfare reformers and progressives helped improve the conditions of local jails, reformatories and prisons and the treatment of prisoners. For example, presentations and reports of standing committees at the annual meetings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction during the late 19th century reveal that social welfare leaders and progressives were actively involved in efforts to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.  It was at these annual meetings where leaders of state boards and experts in penology gave presentations and reports describing conditions in prisons and jails and offering proposals for improving them.

The founding fathers of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (1874 – 1898) were governor-appointed secretaries or executives of a State Board of Charities, and therefor responsible for oversight and reporting on the conditions of public institutions, including prisons. As a result, conditions of state and local correctional facilities and the treatment of both juvenile and adult felons were among some of the most important topics presented at the early meetings of the National Conference.  The presentation below from the 1904 Conference is an excellent example.


Ed. Note (2)
Frederick Howard Wines was the son of Enoch C. Wines (1806-1879), who, as secretary of the New York Prison Association, wrote two of the earliest American books on prisons and reformatories.  In 1869, his son, Frederick, was appointed as the first secretary of the Illinois Board of Public Charities.  His service in that position enabled him to become one of the Founding Fathers of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections and its tenth president in 1883.  Wines also served as secretary of the National Prison Association from 1887 to 1889. The  report presented here is from the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Correction.

Your Committee has but a few words to say on the subject of the present report. We desire to call attention to the wording of the title of the Committee, ” Reformation as an End “- not the only end, nor even the chief end, but an end – “in Prison Discipline.” It is asking very little of prison officers, of legislatures, and of the public, when they are called upon to admit that one object of the imprisonment of offenders against the criminal law is the purpose to secure their amendment and rehabilitation, if possible; and that prisons should be organized and conducted with this end in view. We do not claim, and no sensible person will ever claim, that all prisoners can be reformed. The influences of heredity, of early associations and training, and of acquired habits, are, in very many instances, too strong to encourage any reasonable expectation that they can be successfully counteracted and overcome in prison. Nor do we pretend to assert that it is possible to know in advance how many of them are susceptible of reformation by any system of prison control and training yet devised. We do contend, however, that the experience of prison officers does not warrant the assertion that efforts for their reformation are hopeless. Officers who have earnestly and persistently made any effort in this direction have seen the result in the restoration of forfeited manhood, the awakening of the conscience, and a sincere determination to enter upon a new life of obedience to law, both human and divine. The opinion of such prison officials as have put forth no intelligent and practical effort for the restoration of the prisoners intrusted to their keeping is not worthy of any consideration. But the best and most gifted men who have held the position of warden of a prison will be the first to acknowledge that they have accomplished less than they attempted, and that their failure has been partly due, not to anything in themselves or in their prisoners, but to a vicious public sentiment, crystallized into laws and customs, which is antagonistic to the introduction into our prisons of a really reformatory prison discipline.

It is to this public opinion that we direct the following observations. The lowest view of legal penalty is that which sees in it nothing but retribution, the satisfaction of ideal justice, an attempted adjustment of suffering to guilt or evil desert, which cannot succeed, for the simple and obvious reason that we have no accurate measure of guilt on the one hand or of suffering on the other. We cannot read the human heart. We cannot solve the riddle of mixed motives. We cannot estimate the weight which should be given to the extenuating or aggravating circumstances which surround a criminal act and give it its actual character. In saying this, we do not deny that wrongdoing merits punishment, nor do we propose to enter into the profound mystery of physiological and psychological responsibility for acts which are prejudicial to public order and security. But the criminal law is not, and certainly it ought not to be, founded on the single basis of retribution. Wherever it is administered with no higher aim than this, it works injury to the prisoner and to society in proportion to the degree to which its loftier and ulterior purpose is ignored.

To say, as some do, that the primary purpose of legal penalty is the protection of society is a far more accurate statement. Those who assume this position argue that imprisonment affords the.protection sought: first, by the expulsion of the prisoner and depriving him of the opportunity to commit crime, so long as he remains in a state of incarceration; second, by impressing him with the conviction that crime is dangerous and unprofitable, the effect of which is to deter him from the repetition of the criminal act of which he was convicted; and, third, by making of him an example and a warning to others who may be disposed to yield to a similar criminal impulse. But the experience of mankind has taught us that none of these plausible expectations are fully realized. Under our existing penal systems, prisons constitute a very partial and inadequate barrier against the perpetually rising flood of crime. It is admitted on all hands that our minor prisons – our lock-ups and county jails – exert practically no deterrent influence upon their inmates; and that, owing to the freedom of association of those confined in them, the absence of useful employment, and above all the want of proper classification of  prisoners in them, they are schools of vice and crime rather than of morality. Our higher prisons do exert some restraining influence against crime, but less than most persons, unfamiliar with the question, probably suppose that they do. The spectacle of the suffering endured by those who are confined in them does not vividly impress the imagination of those outside; and even the ex-convict, on his release from the penitentiary, is too often disposed to seek the earliest opportunity to repeat his offence, in the hope that he may avoid detection and punishment, or in the spirit of brutal defiance of law and willingness to accept the consequences of such defiance. The truth on this subject is that remote contingencies influence the mind far less than present, active passions and wants; and that a predisposition to crime, especially when strengthened and confirmed by habitual indulgence of vicious impulses, is not so easily overcome as to yield readily to the fear of prison walls. It is as idle to expect too much from measures of simple impression as from mere retribution. Crime is not expiated by taking vengeance upon the criminal; neither can it be extirpated by severity. Severity, when pushed beyond its natural and lawful limits, induces a reaction: it hardens the criminal, it hardens the public conscience, and it fails to command popular approval. The effect of undue severity is to bring the law into contempt by the failure to enforce it; and crime increases, under its influence, rather than diminishes.

But, if the reformation of the prisoner is made an end in prison discipline, the difficulties which surround both the theory of retribution and that of repression largely disappear. Society is best protected against crime when the criminal himself ceases to be such, when he is converted from an enemy into a friend of social order. And, so far as concerns the criminal, when he voluntarily renounces a life of crime, punishment has achieved in him its perfect work, and the necessity for the infliction of further suffering upon him for the purpose of expiation no longer exists.

At this point, we call attention again to the title given to this committee, “Reformation as an End,”-not of the criminal code, nor of the administration of justice by the courts, but ” as an End in Prison Discipline.” It is important to distinguish between (1) the law, which authorizes the courts to seize and convict the violator of law, and pronounce against him the penalty prescribed in the code; (2) the courts which, after giving him a fair trial and a just sentence, deliver him into the hands of the prison authorities; and (3) the prison in which he undergoes his sentence in accordance with the order  of the judge. The law is the enemy of crime; the courts occupy a position of stern and unrelenting antagonism to the convicted criminal. But the prison officer is not the enemy of the prisoner: he may be, and he ought to be, his best and truest friend. The moment that the prisoner passes the portal of the prison, he should be made to feel that the law and the courts have done their worst. He has been smitten: in the prison, he is, if possible, to be healed; and nothing which may avail for his healing will be left undone by a prison officer who rightly comprehends his position, responsibilities, and obligations. The prison officer distinguishes between the offence and the offender: he does not confound the two; and, while his moral attitude toward the offence is the same as that of the law and the courts, his relation to the offender is wholly different, and may be even sympathetic and tender. He regards him as a physician might a patient. It may be impossible to restore him to moral health; the case may be beyond human help, however skilful. But, at least, the prisoner is entitled to appropriate restorative treatment; and it is the business of the officer in charge of him to administer the remedies, while he has him in custody, which have proved successful in the case of others like him, and may, with the blessing of God, prove successful in his case also.

We assert, therefore, that there can be no recognition of reformation as an end in prison discipline in any prison where the warden or superintendent is not, by his education, habits of thought, personal character, and conviction of duty, qualified to administer to convicts the moral treatment which they require. To appoint or retain as the warden of a prison, for merely political or pecuniary reasons, or for any reason whatever, any man not so qualified, is itself a criminal act. It is cruelty to the prisoner and a wrong done to the public, and it should always be denounced and never forgiven. But the successful warden must be more than qualified for the discharge of this delicate duty: he requires to have a vocation for it, and to be sustained in it by the enthusiasm of humanity and a pride in and love for his professional calling. He needs to be a man capable of a personal love for prisoners as his brethren, the children of the same infinite Father, and of a self-sacrificing, disinterested devotion to the task of rescuing them, one by one, from the foul pit into which they have fallen, and where they lie, unable to extricate themselves until some one reaches down to them a helping hand, draws them out, and sets them upon their feet. One reason why so few prisoners are in fact reformed while in prison is that so few wardens have this conception of their duty or the disposition and capacity for the task which they have, without due consideration of its difficulty, rashly undertaken.

The means to be employed for the reformation of the prisoner are three: labor, education, and religion, — the same agencies which develop and strengthen the characters of men who have not been convicted of crime. Whether these are to be applied to prisoners in isolation or in association is a question which it is not essential here to consider. The problem which presents itself to a faithful prison officer is how to proportion them to each other so that they may have their due effect, and by what methods to secure their reception by the prisoner himself. Force has been greatly relied upon by many in the past, as a means of accomplishing the desired result, who now see their error and understand the truth of the saying, in its application to prisoners, that “you may bring a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” The co-operation of the prisoner himself in the effort to accomplish his moral renovation is indispensable to success, and no method of securing this co-operation has yet been invented or discovered comparable to the so-called “indeterminate” sentence and conditional liberation in its influence upon the prisoner’s mind and will. It puts the key of his cell, as has been said, into his own hand. It makes him master of his fate. It appeals to his strongest desire,- the wish for personal freedom. It keeps hope alive within his breast. It disposes him to do anything and everything that the keeper of the prison may suggest or require which can by any possibility hasten the hour of his final liberation. It follows him beyond the prison gates, enables him to find honorable and useful employment outside, and steadies him during the period of transition from the”status of a convicted felon to that of a rehabilitated and trusted citizen of the Commonwealth.

But, even where the principle of conditional liberation has not yet been grafted into the criminal code, by the judicious use of labor, a thorough system of intellectual culture, and the sweet influences of pure and genuine religion, many criminals may be cured of their propensity to crime. The attack upon prison labor now popular in certain quarters, to which weak and cheap men have yielded from no higher motives than those which appeal to the heart of a demagogue, is as senseless as it is wicked. That any prison should be without a prison school is an amazing and disgraceful fact. The whole process of restoration of the criminal is essentially an educational process. It consists in drawing out the faculties which require development, in order to give him the proper balance to maintain his social equilibrium, and in putting into his mind those primary notions of right and wrong in which he is lacking, possibly because he has never been instructed in them. And the omission of right religious training in any prison is a fatal error. If the prisoner is an immortal being, who must give account hereafter to the Judge of the quick and the dead, it is a very small thing to qualify him for living in the world without subjecting himself afresh to the penalties of human law. In the higher sense of the word, his reformation is incomplete so long as his conscience is not reached and quickened into healthy activity. To be honest from selfish motives is not to be truly honest. And nothing less than religion can lift him into that higher life, to which he has the same right and of which he has the same need as any other man.

We are happy to be able to report that great progress has been made of late years in the inculcation and acceptance of the thoughts and beliefs to which we have here given expression. The labors of the Conference of Charities, of the National Prison Association, and of other kindred organizations have borne fruit, and give promise of an abundant harvest hereafter. The character of prison officials is much higher than it once was; the tenure of their office is not quite so insecure; the methods of prison discipline have greatly improved; very many more persons manifest an interest in the subject; legislators, governors, and judges are far more open to suggestions from those who have given it special attention. The indeterminate sentence, at least for first offenders of youthful age, has been adopted in several States; and the outlook for the future is most encouraging and hopeful. What those of us who are leading this movement most need is recognition, sympathy, and moral support from-the churches; and for this we here make an earnest plea. The work of preventing and repressing crime and of reforming criminals, whether undertaken by the Church, the ‘State, or by voluntary agencies, is one work. There is no essential difference between a criminal and any other sinner. The means and methods of restoration are the same for both. The same principles and aims underlie our work as those upon which the Church itself is based. We therefore believe that the Church should give us its blessing, co-operate with us heartily and cheerfully, and use its powerful influence in the formation of public opinion in favor of every effort for the amelioration of prisons and the recovery of those incarcerated within them, in obedience to Him whose highest and final commendation of the righteous will be in the words, “I was in prison, and ye visited me.”

Source: Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction At The Fifteenth Annual Session Held In Buffalo, N.Y. July 5-Ii, I888 . pp. 193-198.

Social Welfare History Archives National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings (1874-1982)  digital collection created by the University of Michigan: http://www.hti.umich.edu/n/ncosw/

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Wines, F.H. (1888, July). Reformation as an end in prison discipline: Report of the standing committee. Presentation at the Fifteenth Annual Session of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction, Buffalo, NY.

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