Voices from Solitary: Oscar Wilde on the Cruelty of Children in Prison

by | May 20, 2012

During and after his own two-year incarceration for “gross indecency,” Oscar Wilde wrote several works on the cruelty and degradation of prison life. Among them is a lengthy letter to the editor of the London Daily Chronicle, written in 1897 shortly after his release from Reading Gaol and self-exile to France. It concerns the treatment of children in Britain’s prisons, including their solitary confinement. Wilde does not specify the ages of the children in question, but at one point he argues that children under the age of fourteen should not be put in prison at all–so it is safe to assume that the children he refers to were younger still. 

What follows is an excerpt from Wilde’s letter, highlighting those practices that have changed relatively little since his day. Today, children as young as ten can be locked up in the UK, though they are placed in juvenile facilities rather than adult prisons, and solitary confinement is rare. In the United States, on the other hand, an estimated 10,000 juveniles are in adult prisons and jails. There, they are far more likely than adults to be beaten by guards, sexually assaulted, or end up in solitary confinement. They are also 36 times more likely to commit suicide than children in juvenile facilities.  –Jean Casella

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The cruelty that is practised by day and night on children in English prisons is incredible, except to those that have witnessed it and are aware of the brutality of the system. People nowadays do not understand what cruelty is. They regard it as a sort of terrible mediæval passion…[But]ordinary cruelty is simply stupidity. It is the entire want of imagination. It is the result in our days of stereotyped systems, of hard-and-fast rules, and of stupidity…Authority is as destructive to those who exercise it as it is to those on whom it is exercised. It is the Prison Board, and the system that it carries out, that is the primary source of the cruelty that is exercised on a child in prison…

The present treatment of children is terrible, primarily from people not under standing the peculiar psychology of a child’s nature. A child can understand a punishment inflicted by an individual, such as a parent or guardian, and bear it with a certain amount of acquiescence. What it cannot understand is a punishment inflicted by society. It cannot realise what society is…

The child consequently, being taken away from its parents by people whom it has never seen, and of whom it knows nothing, and finding itself in a lonely and unfamiliar cell, waited on by strange faces, and ordered about and punished by the representatives of a system that it cannot understand, becomes an immediate prey to the first and most prominent emotion produced by modern prison life — the emotion of terror. The terror of a child in prison is quite limitless.

I remember once in Reading, as I was going out to exercise, seeing in the dimly lit cell right opposite my own a small boy. Two warders — not unkindly men — were talking to him, with some sternness apparently, or perhaps giving him some useful advice about his conduct. One was in the cell with him, the other was standing outside. The child’s face was like a white wedge of sheer terror. There was in his eyes the terror of a hunted animal. The next morning I heard him at breakfast-time crying, and calling to be let out. His cry was for his parents. From time to time I could hear the deep voice of the warder on duty telling him to keep quiet.

Yet he was not even convicted of whatever little offence he had been charged with. He was simply on remand. That I knew by his wearing his own clothes, which seemed neat enough. He was, however, wearing prison socks and shoes. This showed that he was a very poor boy, whose own shoes, if he had any, were in a bad state. Justices and magistrates, an entirely ignorant class as a rule, often remand children for a week, and then perhaps remit whatever sentence they are entitled to pass. They call this “not sending a child to prison.” It is, of course, a stupid view on their part. To a little child, whether he is in prison on remand or after conviction is not a subtlety of social position he can comprehend. To him the horrible thing is to be there at all. In the eyes of humanity it should be a horrible thing for him to be there at all.

This terror that seizes and dominates the child, as it seizes the grown man also, is of course intensified beyond power of expression by the solitary cellular system of our prisons. Every child is confined to its cell for twenty-three hours out of the twenty-four. This is the appalling thing. To shut up a child in a dimly lit cell, for twenty-three hours out of the twenty-four, is an example of the cruelty of stupidity.

If an individual, parent or guardian, did this to a child, he would be severely punished. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children would take the matter up at once. There would be on all hands the utmost detestation of whomsoever had been guilty of such cruelty. A heavy sentence would, undoubtedly, follow conviction. But our own actual society does worse itself, and to the child to be so treated by a strange abstract force, of whose claims it has no cognisance, is much worse than it would be to receive the same treatment from its father or mother, or some one it knew…

As regards the children, a great deal has been talked and written lately about the contaminating influence of prison on young children. What is said is quite true. A child is utterly contaminated by prison life. But the contaminating influence is not that of the prisoners. It is that of the whole prison system — of the governor, the chaplain, the warders, the lonely cell, the isolation, the revolting food, the rules of the Prison Commissioners, the mode of discipline as it is termed, of the life…In this, as in all other things, philanthropists and people of that kind are astray. It is not the prisoners who need reformation. It is the prisons…


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