The Chronicles of Newgate: Volume 1

Chapman and Hall (limited)

Contains considerable information on prison reform efforts.
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Publisher
Chapman and Hall (limited)
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Published on
Dec 31, 1884
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Pages
542
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Language
English
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Content Protection
This content is DRM free.
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THE word prison connotes crime; a place of punishment and detention where misdeeds are expiated and penalties enforced. A certain sense of shame attaches to all who have been committed to durance; for according to the old law, the “natural inherent right of liberty cannot be surrendered or forfeited unless by the commission of some great or atrocious crime.” This doctrine was coeval in one country at least, England, with the foundation of the constitution. Yet the seclusion and detention of individuals who had done no wrong, was long the rule in most civilised countries, and many prisons, which are to all intents and purposes non-criminal, have existed and been constantly filled with unfortunate persons guilty of no real offence against the law.

Of these there have been two principal classes: The debtors—those who had become bound to others for the repayment of moneys lent or goods purchased—and the prisoners of war,—combatants captured in the field whom the conqueror was entitled to hold in diminution of his enemy’s strength while hostilities continued. In both cases the right exercised is that of the strongest and in neither is it defensible, nor has it been always carried out fairly or humanely. The full acceptance of the principle, however, has called many large prisons into being which have gained great notoriety, and a description of them and the methods pursued forms the contents of this volume.

The British, essentially a commercial people, sought very early to control the relations between debtor and creditor, and ancient practice greatly favoured the latter. Every assistance was given him for the recovery of what was due him. His right to it was so amply acknowledged that the law went farther and decreed that the debtor who could not pay in cash was liable in person, so his services were attached to work out the debt and he was adjudged a serf or slave to the master he could not otherwise satisfy. The principle was derived from the Mosaic law by which the defaulter might be sold into bondage with his family, his wife and his wage-earning children. It was the same in ancient Greece and Rome, where the creditor had a claim to the person of his debtor. Solon abrogated this procedure, but it long held in Rome under very barbarous conditions. When judgment was pronounced there against a debtor, he was allowed thirty days to liquidate, but if at the end of that period he was still unable to pay, he was handed over to his creditor, who might keep him in chains for sixty days and make public exposure of him proclaiming his failure, with permission finally to sell him or put him to death. There were no public prisons for debtors in old Rome and the creditor acted as his own gaoler until milder methods ruled that the right of private imprisonment was intolerable. Nor was it permissible in feudal times, when men were continually called upon to bear arms for their lord and their valid effective strength would have been reduced by locking them up in gaol.

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