British Deliberation on Suppressing Prisoners’ Communication

face of a prisoner

British authorities strongly supported suppressing prisoners’ communication. British official William Crawford visited penitentiaries in the U.S. in the early 1830s. In his 1835 report to the British government, Crawford urged that prisoners be confined separately and not be allowed to communicate with each other. For prisoners convicted of an offense, Crawford also suggested, “All letters, as well as visits and messages from friends, should be strictly prohibited, under a penalty.”^ Later that year, the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Gaols and Houses of Corrections heard testimony from judicial and prison officials. The witnesses generally endorsed suppressing communication among prisoners by keeping prisoners separate and silent. Under leading questions from the Select Committee, witnesses agreed that prisoners’ communication with family and friends “take up the Time of the Officers of the Prison,” “interfere very much with the Discipline of the Prison,” and “unhinge the Prisoner’s Mind.” A judicial official described family and friends visiting prisoners as highly injurious:

it completely neutralizes the Instructions of a good Chaplain; it takes away from the necessary Severity that was intended by the Imprisonment and by the Sentence, and is a constant Irritation.^

The Select Committee’s resolutions included:

  • That entire Separation, except during the Hours of Labour and of Religious Worship and Instruction, is absolutely necessary for preventing Contamination, and for securing a proper system of Prison Discipline.
  • That Silence be enforced, so as to prevent all Communication between Prisoners both before and after Trial.
  • That convicted Prisoners be not permitted to receive Visits or Letters from their Friends during the first Six Months of their Imprisonment, unless under peculiar and pressing Circumstances.^

In suggesting restricting prisoners’ communication with family and friends, the Select Committee remarked:

It is obvious that nothing could more tend to lighten the Weight of Imprisonment, as well as to unsettle the Minds of Prisoners, and thereby to diminish the Efficacy of Punishment, than frequent Visits from Friends, and frequent Communication by Letter.^

The phrase “it is obvious” often covers for lack of analysis. Contemporary debate, as well as subsequent experience, raised serious questions about effects on prisoners of depriving them of communication.

Officials associated with the Millbank Penitentiary argued in favor of prisoners’ communication with family and friends. Employing cost-benefit analysis with attention to deterrence incentives, the Chaplain of the Millbank Penitentiary strongly advocated allowing prisoners’ to communicate with family and friends:

As this Communication with their Friends and the World is no Doubt a considerable Solace both to the Prisoners and to their Friends, I admit that it takes away somewhat from the Rigor of the Imprisonment, and its Tendency to deter from Crime, yet the Advantages gained are, in my Opinion, so much greater than the Injury resulting from it, that I must strongly advocate the Continuance of this Indulgence. …Cut away the last Tie which connects the Convict with his family, and you remove One of the strongest Inducements to Reformation. And many of the prisoners have respectable Connexions, with whom it is most important they should be reconciled, and ultimately be reunited. I have frequently seen the greatest Advantage resulting from this Indulgence: offended Relations have been reconciled; an Interest with valuable Friends has been kept up; a Home and Employment, previous to Discharge from this Institution, have been provided. One Part of the Penitentiary System, the Reformation of the Offender, has thus been materially aided, without much Interference with the other, the deterring from Crime.^

The Governor of the Millbank Penitentiary supported the Chaplain’s position. The Governor emphasized to the Select Committee the importance of a prisoners’ communication with family and friends in securing employment for the prisoner upon discharge. He also asserted that a prisoner’s links with his wife and children should not be completely severed. By limiting the proposed ban on convicted prisoners’ communication with family and friends to the first six months of imprisonment, the Select Committee may have implicitly acknowledged some concern.

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