I've been done everything to, pretty well-except hanged. I've been locked up as much as silver tea-kittle. I've been carted here and carted there, and put out of this town and put out of that town, and stuck in the stocks, and whipped and worried and drove. I've no notion where I was born than you have-if so much. I first became aware of myself down in Essex, a thieving turnips for my living. Summun had run away from me-a man-a tinker-and he'd took the fire with him and left me very cold. — Magwitch, from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations
The article entitled, “The Punishment of Convicts," published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1863 addresses the issue of how criminals were punished and how they should be punished. The author believed that reform in the treatment of criminals was desperately needed because, as it stood punishment was not decided based on the crime committed but instead was arbitrary and random. A fair retribution was never established because not enough time spent in analyzing the crime as well as the criminal. As a result men who have stolen a loaf of bread to feed their starving family are locked away with men who have murdered in cold blood.
Part of the problem, according to the author, was the fact that once the sentence was established and the prisoner left the court, the exact reason for his sentence was forgotten. The separation between the court system and the prison system inevitably led to punishments unrelated to the crime. Men, once sent away, were placed side by side in jail and subjected to the same treatment although their reasons for being there were completely unrelated.
The author divides crimes into three categories: political offenses, felonies, and misdemeanors. Murder, and arson fell under the category of felonies whereas less severe crimes, such as libel and riots were considered misdemeanors. Misdemeanors were punishable in the mildest of fashions with fines or short term imprisonment. Political offenses were punishable with fines as well, although much larger and more severe, and in the most serious of situations, with death. Those who committed felonies were almost always given the death sentence. Although the execution was hardly ever carried out. Instead they were either placed in various prisons, shipped to another part of the world, or forced to join the army. Magwitch was placed in jail several times under the charge of misdemeanor and eventually convicted for a felony for which he got life imprisonment.
Attempts at reform failed. The system somehow always managed to go to extremes by granting too harsh a punishment or one that wasn't severe enough. The author believes that within specific crimes, such as theft, there were different levels which had to be clearly distinguished when deciding the fate of the accused. “Burglary, for instance, includes not merely the breaking open of a carefully secured house by a gang of ruffians armed...with all sorts of deadly weapons...but also the breaking of a baker's window...by a hungry boy who wants to steal a penny loaf." (194)
The author divides crimes into three categories. The first group consists of crimes most harmful to others, depicting the most hateful qualities in those committing them, such as murder. The second group includes those crimes, such as theft, which are harmful to the victim but not representative of the most awful qualities in the criminal. Nobody was hurt but, things were stolen. The third category would be crimes illustrating extreme cruelty on part of the criminal, but which have no affect on the public. The author sites cruelty to animals as an example.
The punishment given to the accused should be to correct his behavior and prevent him from performing the same offense again. Different forms of punishment include: death, imprisonment, and torture. But the goal in all cases should be to deter these men, as well as others, from committing crimes in the future. One cannot totally restrict certain punishments to certain crimes. For example, if you decide to hang every thief what happens when you catch a young, starving boy stealing a loaf of bread? “The horror which murder excites is deepened by hanging murderers, because it has an independent source of its own; but if men were hung for obtaining goods by false pretenses, the law, and not the crime, would be the subject of horror." (198)
The writer concludes that we must not subject men, whose crimes are not equal in atrocity, to the same prison conditions and punishments. We should not be too harsh and we should not make the convict comfortable, but we should give him a punishment equal to the offense he committed. In the end of his article he proposes a solution for a system of punishment that would benefit all criminals no matter what the crime. Basically he advocates putting the convicts to work and having them earn wages and budget their expenses in an attempt to give them values and morals which they obviously lack.
Dickens's opinion regarding the punishment of convicts does not seem to differ too much with the author of this article. Dickens was strongly opposed to the death penalty. He believed that taking a person's life did nothing to prevent crime. He supported many reforms and had sympathy for the poor and the suffering. His feelings regarding criminals is evident in his portrayal of Magwitch in Great Expectations. He shows us the nasty and brutal side of Magwitch in the beginning of the novel and proves to us in the end that he really is honest, loving, and caring. He attempts to prove that not all criminals are innately bad, but that frequently society makes them this way. Magwitch grew up without parents who loved him and without a roof above his head. He was “took up, took up, took up to that extent that I reg'larly grow'd up took up." How could we expect him to turn out any better when ever since he could walk he's had to steal to survive? Magwitch turns out to be one of the most respectable characters in the book. He risks his life to help another in several situations and this, if you ask me, makes all his crimes forgivable. He has proved his worthiness and respectability, “For now my repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously towards me with great constancy through a series of years. “ (Great Expectations , Bantam Edition, 415)
- The Cornhill, Great Expectations , and The Convict System in Nineteenth-Century England
- Charles Dickens's “Philadelphia, and its Solitary Prison," Ch. 7 in American Notes (1842)
- Pentonville Prison (the silent system)
- Prisons in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit
Last modified 1996