Peter Hitchens: Bring back 19th-century prisons

Far-right polemicist Peter Hitchens has said he'd like prisons to return to how they were in the 19th-century, and said he "doesn't believe" in rehabilitation.

With the left turning in on itself in a sea of self-flagellation and soul-searching over the merits of Johann Hari’s journalistic integrity and Ed Miliband’s stance on strikes, many stories will have slipped the net – one such is far-right firebrand Peter Hitchens’s scarcely believable views on crime and punishment, aired during a phone-in on BBC Radio Five Live on Wednesday.

He said he’d like prisons to return to how they were in the 19th-century, and said he “doesn’t believe” in rehabilitation. OK, so maybe it’s not news per se, given that it won’t have come as too big a shock, but its still quite shocking, that in 2011, someone can hold such views.

Needless to say, he’s also in favour of the death penalty.

So what would prison be like were Hitchens to have his way? Arthur George Frederick Griffiths’ “The World’s Famous Prisons: Chronicles of Newgate” notes:

“The life of a prisoner was very different from that of today’s prisons. The prisoners were treated as animals and considered less of a human because of their lawlessness.

“They were made to right the wrongs that they have committed either through ‘physical pain applied in degrading, often ferociously cruel ways, and endured mutilation, or was branded, tortured, put to death; he was mulcted in fines, deprived of liberty, or adjudged as a slave’.”

Even the infants of prisoners were degraded:

“I have lately been twice to Newgate to see after the poor prisoners who had poor little infants without clothing, or with very little and I think if you saw how small a piece of bread they are each allowed a day you would be very sorry.

“I could not help thinking, when there, what sorrow and trouble those who do wrong, and they have not the satisfaction and comfort of feeling among all their trials, that they have endeavoured to do their duty.”

Of course, life all round was grim, especially for the poor in the 19th-century, as Tristram Hunt so graphically illustrated in an article in the Mirror last October:

“Husbands were separated from wives; mothers from children.

“When Elizabeth Wyse on Christmas Day 1840 tried to spend the night with her daughter, the workhouse director dragged her from the room, locked her in the workhouse cage, and left her in solitary confinement with no coat, no bedding-straw, and no chamber pot for 24 hours.

“The following morning, she was served her fellow inmates’ cold gruel before being sent back to her soiled cage to clean it. With her hands…

“To the Victorians, the poor were deserving or unde-some to be helped, most to be condemned. This was the principle behind the workhouse – conditions had to be so appalling that the poor would put themselves through any indignity rather than seek assistance from the state.

“‘Kill me sooner than take me there,’ was what Charles Dickens’s character Betty Higden said of the workhouse. ‘Throw this pretty child under cart-horses feet and a loaded waggon, sooner than take him there. Come to us and find us all a-dying, and set a light to us all where we lie and let us all blaze away with the house into a heap of cinders sooner than move a corpse of us there!'”

Just remember who the real affront to journalism, politics and society is: not Hari, Hitchens.

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