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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 56

Irish Prisons' Commission

Irish Prisons' Commission.

Sir William Harcourt has shown considerable ability as Home Secretary, but has manifested a persistent sensitiveness as to public criticisms on his prison administration, which has led him into observations, especially on newspaper comments, singularly inappropriate. One of his favourite allusions is to irresponsible critics in the press. So far as the criticisms of the Howard Association are concerned, they have been decisively vindicated by its Chairman, Mr. Francis Peek, in the columns of the Contemporary Review for July, 1884.

But Sir William's high ground of official prison optimism is also cut from beneath his feet by the admissions made in the Report of the Royal Commission on Irish Prisons, issued in August, 1884. That body, of which Sir Richard Cross, the ex-Home Secretary, was Chairman, can certainly not be termed an irresponsible one. But its revelations are very damaging indeed page 16 to the character of the prison administration. Amongst other very objection-able features of the Irish Prison regime, the Commissioners state—
  • 1.—That the chiefs of the Prison Department have been on such bad terms with one another that "It is in evidence that there has been for some time an entire suspension of communication, except in writing, between the Chairman of the Board and the Inspector of the District!"(parag. 29). The Commissioners however comment on this strange state of things, and similar matters, in a tone of extremely mild expostulation. They further remark (parag. 56),"We have observed, with regret, that there is considerable friction in the relation of some Medical Officers with the Board."
  • 2.—That after seven years' entire control of the Irish Prisons by their present administrators, "many "of them "fail to fulfil the requirements of the present day,"and "only five "are up to the modern standard of arrangement (parag. 4).
  • 3.—That the cost, both of officers and prisoners, is excessive. For example, each convict at Lusk now costs the taxpayer "about £86 a-head "per annum! (parag. 119). [Under Sir Walter Crofton it was less than £30 per head.]
  • 4.—The Commissioners remark, "One of the most serious points which has been brought under our notice is the large number of prisoners certified to be insane in the Irish Convict Prisons!"(parag. 124).
  • 5.—And yet, whilst such is the case, it is also stated that "an excessive number of punishments appear to have been inflicted, but these were cases of refractory prisoners whose mental condition may be described as the borderland between sanity and insanity"(parags. 12 and. 127). [Is it just to punish such wretched creatures in an "excessive "proportion?]
  • 6.—That the presumed "inspection "or "visitation "of Irish convicts has for years past been mainly imaginary. For the Commissioners report, "The Lord-Lieutenant, in 1880, appointed certain gentlemen as Visitors of the several convict prisons; but we find that Mountjoy male prison [the chief establishment] was only visited by them once in 1880, that it was not visited at all in 1881, and only once in 1882; and that Mountjoy female prison was not visited at all in 1880 or 1881, and only once in 1882!!"(parag. 122).
  • 7.—That the Prison of Spike Island was not closed for several years after its strong condemnation by a previous Royal Commission (parag. 134).
  • 8.—That actually "in some cases circulars issued by the Board seem to vary the character, or meaning, of Rules made under Act of Parliament!"Here Sir R. Cross and his colleagues venture to add, "This should, of course, be carefully avoided in future!"(parag. 36). [Of course; but is such a past action to involve entire impunity?]

Various other serious revelations are also made. But the above are sufficient to prove the great deterioration in the administration of Irish Prisons since Sir Walter Crokton's rule, which elicited praise from all parts of the civilised world.

It is to be hoped that the Home Secretary, after such damaging revelations by a Royal Commission, not irresponsible persons, will in future manifest more accuracy and less apathy and incredulity as to public remonstrances about prisons, and as to the too often fictitious visitation and inspection of those establishments by nominees of the authorities, whether Visiting Justices or others.

The Royal Commissioners should certainly have more boldly suggested the needful reforms, and not have devolved the responsibility of both suggestion and action so exclusively upon the hitherto existing administration of the Prisons. They have been exceedingly gentle in their criticisms and in page 17 their suggested remedies (viz., one Inspector less and one Medical Officer more!) After such experiences as they have revealed, they might have boldly recommended the appointment of some one able to carry out all the necessary changes in Irish prisons, and endued with adequate powers for that purpose.

It may be remarked that many of the officers of Irish Prisons are men and women of much intelligence and good feeling.

But one of the chief causes of the very objectionable condition into which these prisons have been brought, consists in the peculiarly Irish misfortune of petty rivalries or jealousies connected with religion, or rather about mere religion-ism. It may surely be commended to the more serious consideration of the administrators of Irish Prisons and of their spiritual advisers, both Protestant and Catholic, that the grand fundamentals of the Christian faith upon which their Churches are agreed, are of incomparably more importance than any 011 which they differ; and also that their common homage to the supreme sovereignty and love of their one Divine Lord and Saviour should involve a more friendly mutual recognition as members of His human family.