Oscar Wilde on the cruelty of prison authorities to children

The incredible cruelty and sheer viciousness in the way that the Trump administration, through its justice department and homeland security agencies like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), has treated the children of undocumented immigrants, ripping them away from their parents and sending them off to distant places where it is hard to reach them, is enough to make you sick. Back in 1897 Oscar Wilde, just prior to his own release from prison, observed similar senseless, unfeeling cruelty towards children in prison, especially one incident in which a prison guard was dismissed for a small act of kindness towards an inmate child.

After his release, Wilde wrote a letter to the editor of The Daily Chronicle newspaper describing what he saw. Written with the eloquence that only someone like Wilde can summon, what he describes is an example of the banality of evil, and is applicable to the actions of ICE in the US now. I give below an extract but it is worth reading in full. (Note: What Wilde calls ‘sweet biscuits’ are what are referred to as cookies in the US and a ‘warder’ is a prison guard.)


I learn with great regret, through an extract from the columns of your paper, that the warder Martin, of Reading Prison, has been dismissed by the Prison Commissioners for having given some sweet biscuits to a little hungry child. I saw the three children myself on the Monday preceding my release. They had just been convicted, and were standing in a row in the central hall in their prison dress, carrying their sheets under the arms previous to their being sent to the cells allotted to them. I happened to be passing along one of the galleries on my way to the reception room, where I was to have an interview with a friend. They were quite small children, the youngest—the one to whom the warder gave the biscuits—being a tiny little chap, for whom they had evidently been unable to find clothes small enough to fit.

I need not say how utterly distressed I was to see these children at Reading, for I knew the treatment in store for them. The cruelty that is practised by day and night on children in English prisons is incredible, except to those who 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 medieval passion, and connect it with the race of men like Eccelin da Romano, and others, to whom the deliberate infliction of pain gave a real madness of pleasure. But men of the stamp of Eccelin are merely abnormal types of perverted individualism. Ordinary cruelty is simply stupidity. It comes from the entire want of imagination. It is the result in our days of stereotyped systems, of hard-and-fast rules, of centralisation, of officialism, and of irresponsible authority. Wherever there is centralisation there is stupidity. What is inhuman in modern life is officialism.

The present treatment of children is terrible, primarily from people not understanding 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. With grown people it is, of course, the reverse. Those of us who are either in prison or have been sent there, can understand, and do understand, what that collective force called Society means, and whatever we may think of its methods or claims, we can force ourselves to accept it. Punishment inflicted on us by an individual, on the other hand, is a thing that no grown person endures or is expected to endure.

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 mute appeal 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.

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.

The inhuman treatment by Society is to the child the more terrible because there is no appeal. A parent or guardian can be moved, and let out a child from the dark lonely room in which it is confined. But a warder cannot. Most warders are very fond of children. But the system prohibits them from rendering the child any assistance. Should they do so, as Warder Martin did, they are dismissed.

I know Martin extremely well, and I was under his charge for the last seven weeks of my imprisonment. On his appointment at Reading he had charge of Gallery C, in which I was confined, so I saw him constantly. I was struck by the singular kindness and humanity of the way in which he spoke to me and to the other prisoners. Kind words are much in prison, and a pleasant “Good morning” or “Good evening” will make one as happy as one can be in solitary confinement. He was always gentle and considerate. I happen to know another case in which he showed great kindness to one of the prisoners, and I have no hesitation in mentioning it. One of the most horrible things in prison is the badness of the sanitary arrangements. No prisoner is allowed under any circumstances to leave his cell after half-past five p.m. If, consequently, he is suffering from diarrhœa, he has to use his cell as a latrine, and pass the night in a most fetid and unwholesome atmosphere. Some days before my release Martin was going the rounds at half-past seven with one of the senior warders for the purpose of collecting the oakum and tools of the prisoners. A man just convicted, and suffering from violent diarrhœa in consequence of the food, as is always the case, asked this senior warder to allow him to empty the slops in his cell on account of the horrible odour of the cell and the possibility of illness again in the night. The senior warder refused absolutely; it was against the rules. The man, as far as he was concerned, had to pass the night in this dreadful condition. Martin, however, rather than see this wretched man in such a loathsome predicament, said he would empty the man’s slops himself, and did so. A warder emptying a prisoner’s slops is, of course, against the rules, but Martin did this act of kindness to the man out of the simple humanity of his nature, and the man was naturally most grateful.

In the case of the little child to whom Warder Martin gave the biscuits, the child was crying with hunger on Tuesday morning, and utterly unable to eat the bread and water served to it for its breakfast. Martin went out after the breakfasts had been served and bought the few sweet biscuits for the child rather than see it starving. It was a beautiful action on his part, and was so recognised by the child, who, utterly unconscious of the regulation of the Prison Board, told one of the senior warders how kind this junior warder had been to him. The result was, of course, a report and a dismissal

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.

There is not a single man in Reading Gaol that would not gladly have done the three children’s punishment for them. When I saw them last it was on the Tuesday following their conviction. I was taking exercise at half-past eleven with about twelve other men, as the three children passed near us, in charge of a warder, from the damp, dreary stone-yard in which they had been at their exercise. I saw the greatest pity and sympathy in the eyes of my companions as they looked at them. Prisoners are, as a class, extremely kind and sympathetic to each other. Suffering and the community of suffering makes people kind, and day after day as I tramped the yard I used to feel with pleasure and comfort what Carlyle calls somewhere “the silent rhythmic charm of human companionship.” 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.

Wilde’s comment about what happened to the kindly warder Martin is illustrative of why authoritarian systems like prions and police and military end up containing so many cruel and callous people. Those who are humane and decent either get drummed out or leave in disgust because of what they are expected to do to other human beings. This leaves just those who, as Wilde says, lack imagination and justify their actions by saying that they are merely enforcing rules made by others, however inhumane those rules may be, and those who actually enjoy enforcing the rules in the most inhumane way possible and even go beyond them.

We may have harbored the thought that the 19th century Dickensian horrors of debtor’s prisons and imprisonment of children went away in the 20th century. But they are both alive and well in 21st century America.


  1. DonDueed says

    I find it surprising that England was putting children in adult prisons as late as the turn of the century.

    Now I want to know what became of Martin and those kids. Did Wilde’s intervention have any effect?

  2. jrkrideau says

    OT, Mano how long did it take you to understand US politics. From a Canadian perspective it is total chaos.

    What the hell is a “primary”? I have had US civics teachers and others try to explain the concept to me and I remain baffled. Particularly when they try to discuss this at a municipal level. I can see a duel between competing candidates in a party but a “primary” that seems to use government resources? This seems obscene. Well no, it is obscene.

    There do not seem to be parties as we understand them in the Commonwealth but apparently one can officially “register” as one? What the ???

    The Proportional Representation Voting in Australia seems more logical and transparent and it is truly weird IMO. But not as weird as the US approach.

  3. Owlmirror says

    [*looks at title of post and first two comments*]
    [*looks at body of post and third comment*]

    Wait, what just happened?

  4. Owlmirror says

    [I just checked the google cache, and as of right now, it has the former post body about ICE, Oscar Wilde, and the Reading Gaol]

  5. Mano Singham says

    Sorry about that! I accidentally posted the text of a new post over the Oscar Wilde one. It is corrected.

  6. Mano Singham says

    jrkideau @#3,

    Your comment probably appeared here because I accidentally posted the wrong text under this title.

    Anyway, I cannot remember how long it took me to figure this out but it was long before I actually came to the US. The whole problem is that the parties are not entirely private but are mixed in with the state. The parties decide some issues but state governments run the elections, voting, and counting. The rules are set by the states but in Ohio at least, you do not need to sign a party membership application or pay dues or any of the normal things that party membership in other countries involves. You simply show up on primary election day and select a ballot according to your party choice and vote. By default, you are then considered a ‘member’ of that party until the next election.

    You are correct that this mixing of private and public is a mess.

  7. jrkrideau says

    @ mano
    I cannot remember how long it took me to figure this out but it was long before I actually came to the US.
    Amazing. I thought it was like learning Cricket. Or a life time job.


    The whole problem is that the parties are not entirely private but are mixed in with the state. The parties decide some issues but state governments run the elections, voting, and counting.

    Humm, I think that is the best explanation I have ever seen. Any idea why the states would have involved themselves,? From a Commonwealth point of view, the idea of government intervention in party matters is, well, unspeakable.
    I, literally, cannot grasp the US political process.

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