Friday, 16 March 2018

Model Prisons by Thomas Carlyle

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Latter Day Pamphlets

The nature of the pamphlet is of the button-holing order of rhetoric. You are stopped and searched and perhaps arrested by its inflammatory style of delivery. There is no subtle exegesis, nothing tentative in this downright shout. It comes within the general category of ‘awake ye sleepers for the day is at hand’. So it is with No.II in Latter Day Pamphlets entitled Model Prisons by Thomas Carlyle. 1850 as now in 2018 was an age of cant. We call it political correctness but it emerges from the same miserable psychic reticule. One particular paragraph that has been objected to is Carlyle’s depiction of the prisoners in what was probably Pentonville (London, England) which was generally referred to as ‘the model prison’. Strict panopticon Benthamite principles along with segregation,silence and the treadwheel were applied with an introductory several months of solitary confinement. A sure way of driving men insane. Charles Dickens in David Copperfield has his hero visit this prison now run by the sadistic ex-principal of the school he attended. That particular episode was written some months after his friend Carlyle’s publication.

In fact it was too clear, this excellent man had got a field for his faculties which, in several respects, was by no means the suitable one. To drill twelve hundred scoundrels by "the method of kindness," and of abolishing your very tread-wheel,—how could any commander rejoice to have such a work cut out for him? You had but to look in the faces of these twelve hundred, and despair, for most part, of ever "commanding" them at all. Miserable distorted blockheads, the generality; ape-faces, imp-faces, angry dog-faces, heavy sullen ox-faces; degraded underfoot perverse creatures, sons of indocility, greedy mutinous darkness, and in one word, of STUPIDITY, which is the general mother of such. 
.......These abject, ape, wolf, ox, imp and other diabolic-animal specimens of humanity, who of the very gods could ever have commanded them by love? A collar round the neck, and a cart-whip flourished over the back; these, in a just and steady human hand, were what the gods would have appointed them; and now when, by long misconduct and neglect, they had sworn themselves into the Devil's regiments of the line, and got the seal of Chaos impressed on their visage, it was very doubtful whether even these would be of avail for the unfortunate commander of twelve hundred men! By "love," without hope except of peaceably teasing oakum, or fear except of a temporary loss of dinner, he was to guide these men, and wisely constrain them,—whitherward? 

Here Carlyle is being led by the physiognomical theories of the 17th. century painter Charles Le Brun of whom the Wikipedia article states:

Charles Le Brun

The nature of his emphatic and pompous talent was in harmony with the taste of the king (Louis XIV)

A catalogue of his drawings on the topic of animal features in the types of human physiognomy can be seen at

The second half of the above citation might be termed ‘the Abu-Grahib’ model to which is added in the Homeland the threat of buggery.

It is very hard to arrive at a penology which can reconcile making the punishment fit the crime and at the same time rehabilitate the criminal. The Danes seem to be on the right track and the Americans on precisely the wrong one. (‘Cant except in the matter of money making’ as Carlyle remarked applies to the latter.) Other systems of incarceration fall between those two extremes. Taking away a man’s liberty ought to be enough to make him reconsider his direction in life.

What is the feng shui of those postal districts which supply most of the criminals in any city. It must be inauspicious.
Who you gonna call:

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