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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67 Responses to “Peter Hitchens: Bring back 19th-century prisons”

  1. Peter Hitchens

    Mr Koehler says :’please refrain from claiming that you have perused the scientific literature, if you have yourself just admitted to having been denied access to it. ‘
    I have made no such claim. I was careful not to do so. So I rather object to being upbraided for having done so.

    Perhaps Mr Koehler could summarise the alleged proof that ‘rehabilitation’ (whatever it is) works, since he is so familiar with it.

  2. Peter Hitchens

    By the way, it would be nice if the author of this site would admit that the original attack on me, which began this exchange, was wholly misleading. It ws in the hope of receiving such an acknowledgement that I wrote ehre in the first place.

  3. Peter Hitchens

    Mr Wolfson’s reference to his use of an ereader is the first he has made that I can see on this post(though he says ‘as I said’ when he informs us of this. Had this been his reason for not reading my book, why didn’t he say so in the first place?

  4. Shamik Das

    Dear Mr Hitchens, you were indeed calling for a return to 19th-century, Victorian prison conditions (from 1890 onwards) – though you did not call for the conditions of depravity described by Griffiths. Nonetheless, I dare say an 1890 prison would not have been a million miles from the squalor described – and is probably closer to those conditions than 2011 conditions – but maybe that’s the point.

    On rehabilitation, again, I must ask what is it you expect prisoners to do when inside – unless you plan to lock them up ever longer (or forever). Surely a prisoner who emerges from jail rehabilitated and no longer felonious is better than one who emerges and continues to commit crime?

    And on the death penalty, I cannot believe you would actually rather be wrongly hanged than wrongly imprisoned, I simply cannot believe it, nor can I understand your equating of the death penatly with abortion. I, for one, am glad we live in a society in which the latter is legal and the former illegal, rather than the other way around.

  5. Johann Koehler

    Mr. Hitchens,

    In Comment 11 you wrote: “I do not ‘believe in ‘ rehabilitation. Why should I? Why should anyone? It is not compulsory, and if you think about it, it is not specially attractive either. The concept , involving changing an adult person’s character, is totalitarian. And in any case there is *no evidence that it has ever taken place anywhere*. Deterrence, however, is highly effective and can eb shown to be so.” (emphasis added)

    When you claim that there has been *no evidence* of a phenomenon, it is not unreasonable to infer that you have in fact checked the available knowledge base.

    The summary of ‘alleged proof that rehabilitation works’ has been provided, at some length, in the link I provided to you in Comment 22. You may choose to disregard the evidence, but please don’t pretend it’s non-existent, and please don’t mis-represent it as saying that deterrence works better than rehabilitation. It’s scientifically inaccurate to do so. It’s also willfully negligent, now that I’ve brought it to your attention.

  6. Leon Wolfson

    No, Mr. Hitchens, it’s the second reference. I am dyslexic and find some sans-serif fonts (notably Myriad Pro) /considerably/ easier to read than the serif fonts typically used in printing.

    It’s a side issue, which I only brought up in reference to your library reference.

    Johann; Please, you’re wasting your time. In post 22, you gave a link which leads on to

    This isn’t about science. It’s not even about faith – the Anglican church took a stance against it at the 13th Lambeth conference. It’s a purely emotional stance, which cannot be rationally or philosophically argued with.

    Your well researched post 22 has simply been dismissed… (the “paywall” rebuttal is notable, in that the only one I saw there yielded to a general University login, that MP’s would not have that kind of database access is laughable)

  7. Alex W

    Shamik Das:

    “I simply cannot believe it, nor can I understand your equating of the death penatly with abortion. I, for one, am glad we live in a society in which the latter is legal and the former illegal, rather than the other way around.”

    So, firstly, let’s examine your wording here: you cannot believe or understand Hitchens’ opinion? Simply put, you cannot believe or understand that someone may hold an educated, informed (how many executions have you witnessed?) opinion that is different to yours? Thank-you for proving, once again, just how dangerous the British Left’s opinions are: how dare you disagree; it is illogical to disagree with us. I am afraid I am not of the same nightmarish opinion as you – that only one point of view may be held.

    Secondly, you are proud that Britain does not retain Capital Punishment but does permit abortion? Simply put, you despise the concept of a murderer, convicted by a jury of his or her peers (in line with the established laws laid down by an elected, accountable legislature), and with avenues of appeal, potentially facing execution. And yet, at the same time, you have absolutely no problem with human life being destroyed in the womb?

    As I said, I am not of the opinion that only one point of view may be held by society at large, but I personally find your moral gymnastics troubling.

  8. Peter Hitchens

    ‘you were indeed calling for a return to 19th-century, Victorian prison conditions (from 1890 onwards) – though you did not call for the conditions of depravity described by Griffiths.’

    So the whole premise of this post is totally wrong. Not that he really admits it, let alone apologises.

    I think I’m done here, thanks.

  9. Leon Wolfson


    So, in that case, given the Tory clear and present danger caused to the welfare of a massive amount of people, never anyone’s “opinions”, what strategy of deterrence should be employed against them? Please, gymnast THAT.

  10. Alex W

    I have no idea how on Earth you are seeking to link the two, but in that case the ‘strategy of deterrence’ to David Cameron’s party is a clear and self-evident one: pressure for a serious Opposition, rather than what we have in Parliament just now.

  11. Leon Wolfson

    No, what *criminal or civil* penalties, in accordance with deterrence strategies applied in the West should be used?

    See, I don’t believe that YOU believe in deterrence as-practiced at all.

  12. Peter Hitchens

    I am told ‘of ‘alleged proof that rehabilitation works’ has been provided, at some length, in the link I provided to you in Comment 22. ‘

    I don’t agree. A number of propaganda works by persons already committed to the concept of ‘rehabilitation’ have been cited. No definition of the phenomenon has been provided. Nor any proof of its existence.

  13. Peter Hitchens

    Meanwhile I still cannot find Mr Wolfson’s earlier reference to his ereader demands(ccan he point me to the posting?) In any case, if this is so decisive, why, as I said, didn’t he raise it from the start? If I went to the publishers and got them to e-mail him a personal electronic copy, I suspect he’d come up with another reason for not reading it. For his real reason for not reading it is that he doesn’t like reading books he disagrees with. It’s a common problem. Though, as i have said, not one to be proud of.

    As I said, I’m done here. I have my own weblog to conduct.

  14. Rory Gallivan

    I thought I would have another stab at a question I think I previously asked Mr Hitchens on his blog.

    I agree entirely that it is inconsistent to oppose the death penalty because an innocent person might be executed, while favouring wars such as the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia that will inevitably result in the deaths of innocents. However, what if one is against the killing of persons in captivity whether they are innocent or not? In this case, I think it is not inconsistent to oppose the death penalty but to support war in some circumstances, as long as it does not involve the killing of captives.

    I was mocked for saying war does not involve ‘deliberate killing’ but I think this was unfair, because I believe there are laws against not killing enemy combatants once they present no threat. Even shooting a soldier in the head is not necessarily deliberately killing him, because he then might be rescued and given mental attention.

  15. Rory Gallivan

    Sorry, I meant to say “medical attention” at the end.

  16. Leon Wolfson

    Mr. Hitchens;

    As I said *several* times, it’s a minor side issue.

    Your dismissal of an entire field of science simply because your, entirely personal, beliefs refuse to accept it is an absolute red flag for me. It’s no more and no less than fanaticism, which is the true enemy.

  17. Johann Koehler

    I’m at a loss for what evidence I need to provide, in order to convince Mr. Hitchens of an observed, empirical fact. I have provided a link to a book that provides adequate definition of the terms employed here. I have also provided a catalogue of high-quality, peer-reviewed, academic references in support of the claim that rehabilitation works, and that it does so far better than deterrence-based measures.

    My efforts have been dismissed as ‘ideological’, ‘propagandist’, and (this isn’t one I’ve ever come across before) ‘post-Christian’. Perhaps this comment thread was an inappropriate medium in which to conduct this kind of discourse. For want of a more propitious occasion on which to discuss these matters, I’m going to end my contributions here. Many thanks for allowing me to participate.

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