Bentham on Punishment Through Dumont and Smith

face of a prisoner

Early in the nineteenth century, prisons around the world greatly restricted prisoners’ communication with family and friends. About a half century earlier, Jeremy Bentham extensively analyzed punishment and penal codes and became a founding figure of economic analysis. He, however, scarcely addressed prisoners’ communication with family and friends.

Bentham’s few statements on prisoners’ communication with family and friends exist in two published forms. According to Théorie des Peines et des Récompenses (1811), a French-language publication edited by Étienne Dumont, Bentham included among eight “negative evils, inseparable from imprisonment”:

5. Absence des sociétés particulières avec lesquelles on est dans l’habitude de vivre; perte des plaisirs domestiques, dans le case où un prisonnier a une femme, des enfans, des parens proches.^

(5. Absence of the specific society with which one usually lives, loss of domestic pleasures in the case where a prisoner has a wife, children, and close relatives.)

According to The Rationale of Punishment (1830), edited by Richard Smith, Bentham made a similar statement, but with an ending imperative about visiting prisoners:

5. Abridgement of the liberty of going out to enjoy agreeable society, as of relations, friends, or acquaintance, although they should be permitted to come to him.^

Among seven “accessory evils, commonly attendant on the condition of a prisoner,” Dumont’s edition of Bentham included:

4. L’exclusion totale de la société: ce genre de sévérité est au comble, lorsqu’on ne permet pas même au prisonnier de voir, à certains tours, ses amis, ses parens, sa femme, ses enfans.^

(4. Total exclusion from society: this type of severity is at its height, when the prisoner is not even permitted to see, during certain days, his friends, his parents, his wife, his children.)

Under the same heading and item, Smith’s edition of Bentham omits mention of limited days for visiting:

4. Total exclusion from society. This evil is carried to its height when a prisoner is not permitted to see his friends, his parents, his wife, or his children.^

Which edition more accurately conveys what Bentham actually wrote?

Smith’s The Rationale of Punishment more accurately conveys what Bentham wrote than does Dumont’s Théorie des Peines et des Récompenses. While Smith stated that he used Dumont’s volume as his “ground-work,” Smith did not translate Dumont’s volume from French into English and merely supplement the translation with material from Bentham’s manuscripts. Smith took directly from Bentham’s manuscripts material that Dumont had also translated into French. Smith’s edition also includes text apparently written by Bentham after 1810. Texts concerning ordinary communication with prisoners in Smith’s edition probably came directly from a manuscript folio that Bentham wrote about 1778.

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