As regards the class last mentioned, that is to say, those
members who have at present made no very desperate acquaintance with crime and
its punishment, I believe that if they were but judiciously dealt with a very
large number would be but too glad to escape from their present life of misery.
“Many a thief,” says a writer, whose able remarks are the more valuable,
because they are founded on actual experience and conversation with the people
he treats of; “many a thief is kept in reluctant bondage to crime from the
difficulties he finds in obtaining honest employment, and earning honest
bread. Many thieves are fond of their criminal calling. They will tell you
plainly that they do not intend to work hard for a pound a week, when they can
easily earn five times as much by thieving in less time and live like gentlemen.
But others of them are utterly weary of the hazard, disgrace, and suffering
attaching to their mode of life. Some of them were once pure, honest, and
industrious, and when they are sick, or in prison, they are frequently filled
with bitter remorse, and make the strongest vows to have done with a guilty
“Suppose a man of this sort in prison. His eyes are opened, and he sees before him the gulf of remediless ruin into which he will soon be plunged. He knows well enough that the money earned by thieving goes as fast as it comes, and that there is no prospect of his ever being able to retire on his ill-gotten gains. He comes out of prisons determined to reform. But where is he to go? What is he to do? How is he to live? Whatever may have been done for him in prison is of little or no avail, if as soon as he leaves the gaol he must go into the world branded with crime, unprotected and unhelped. The discharged prisoner must be friendly with some one, and he must live. His criminal friends will entertain him on the understood condition that they are repaid from the booty of his next depredation. Thus the first food he eats, and the first friendly chat he has, becomes the half necessitating initiative of future crime. Frequently the newly discharged prisoner passes through a round of riot and drunkenness immediately on his release from a long incarceration, as any other man would do in similar circumstances, and who has no fixed principles to sustain him. And so by reason of the rebound of newly acquired liberty, and the influence of the old set, the man is again demoralized. The discharged prisoner leaves gaol with good resolves, but the moment he enters the world, there rises before him the dark and spectral danger of being hunted down by the police, and being recognised and insulted, of being shunned and despised by his fellow workmen, of being everywhere contemned and forsaken.”
There can be no doubt that to this utter want of friends of the right sort at the moment of leaving prison, may be attributed a very large percentage of the persistence in a career of crime by those who have once made a false step. In this respect we treat our criminals of comparatively a mild character with greater harshness and severity than those whose repeated offences have led to their receiving the severest sentences of the law. The convict who is discharged after serving a term of five years at Portland, receives ere he quits the gates of Millbank prison a money gratuity, varying in amount according to the character that was returned with him from the convict establishment. Nor do the chances that are afforded him of quitting his old course of life and becoming an honest man end here. There is the Prisoner’s Aid Society, where he may obtain a little more money and a suit of working clothes, and if he really shows an inclination to reform, he may be even recommended to a situation. But for the poor wretch who has given Society much less offence, who has become a petty thief, probably not from choice, but from hard necessity, and who bitterly repents of his offences, there is no one to take him by the hand and give or lend him so much as an honest half-crown to make a fair start with. It may be said that the convict is most in want of help because he is a convict, because he is a man with whom robberies and violence have become so familiar, that it is needful to provide him with some substantial encouragement lest he slide back into the old groove. Further, because he is a man so plainly branded that the most inexperienced policeman may know at a glance what he is; whereas, the man who has been but once convicted may, if he have the inclination, push his way amongst honest men, and not one of them be the wiser as to the slip he has made. And that would be all very well if he were assisted in rejoining the ranks of honest bread-winners, but what is his plight when the prison door shuts behind him? It was his poverty that urged him to commit the theft that consigned him to gaol, and now he is turned out of it poorer than ever, crushed and spirit-broken, and with all his manliness withered within him. He feels ashamed and disgraced, and for the first few hours of his liberty he would willingly shrink back for hiding, even to his prison, because, as he thinks, people look at him so. A little timely help would save him, but nothing is so likely as desperate “don’t care” to spring out of this consciousness of guilt, and the suspicion of being shunned and avoided; and the army of twenty thousand gains another recruit.
This undoubtedly is frequently the case with the criminal guilty of but a “first offence.” Be he man or lad, however, he will be subject to no such painful embarrassment on his leaving prison after a second or third conviction. By that time he will have made friends. He will have found a companion or two to “work with,” and they will keep careful reckoning of the date of his incarceration as well as of the duration of his term of durance. Make no doubt that they will be on the spot to rejoice with him on his release. They know the exact hour when the prison gate will open and he will come forth, and there they are ready to shake hands with him. Ready to “stand treat.” Ready to provide him with that pipe of tobacco for which he has experienced such frequent longing, and to set before him the foaming pot of beer. “Come along, old pal!” say they, “we thought that you’d be glad of a drink and a bit of bacca, and we’ve got a jolly lot of beef over some baked taters at home!”
What becomes of all his good resolutions—of the chaplain’s wholesome counsel now! “Shut your eyes resolutely to the temptations your old companions may hold out to you,” were the parting words of that good man; “if they threaten you, bid them defiance. Let it be the first test of your good resolves to tell them plainly and boldly that you have done with them and will have no more to do with them!” Most excellent advice truly! but how is the emancipated one to act on it? How can he find it in his heart to dash with cold ingratitude such warmth of generosity and good nature? What claim has he on them that they should treat him so? They owe him nothing, and can have no ulterior and selfish object in thus expending their time and their money on his comfort. All that they expect in return is, that should either of them fall into trouble similar to his, he will exert himself for him in the same manner, and surely that is little enough to ask. Perhaps with the chaplain’s good advice still ringing in his ears, a sigh of lingering remorse is blended with the outpuffing of that first delicious pipe, but it is promptly swallowed down in the draught of free beer, with the grim reflection, perhaps, that if those professing to be his friends came to his timely assistance as promptly and substantially as did those his enemies, he might have been saved the ignominy of entering anew on the old crimeful path.
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James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869