Prisons As Schools of Crime

face of a prisoner

That prisons served as “seats,” “schools,” and “seminaries” of vice and crime was a central concern in discussions of penal policy in eighteenth-century England.^ ^ ^ ^ ^ Mixing of debtors and felons was a particularly common concern. In 1725, the philosopher Bernard Mandeville describes prisoners as spending “serious Hours…reading Lectures on some Branch or other of their {criminal} Profession.”^ Mandeville’s image of criminal development is much different from that of modern literary scholars, who celebrate in theory much less formal educational practices.^ The issue, however, was not just particular communicative practices. A physician who cared for prisoners’ health in London prisons about 1776 declared:

Congregating prisoners together is the rock upon which many souls are shipwrecked. No communication can be so bad for a petty thief as a great one, therefore the petty criminal should be guarded with the utmost care from the poisonous breath of wretches more abandoned than himself. For what sort of conversation can there be amongst such people? Such communication trains up many to the gallows, and lets loose a multitude of thieves more more completely versed in the art of thieving than they were at their first commitment. By such means they form into companies and become more formidable to society.^

In 1777, prison reformer John Howard, agreeing that prisons are schools of vice, concluded: “But it may be said, enough of the declamatory kind has been written by others” on that topic.^

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