Devils that private prisons may release

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The Independent Online
AT University College London, the great 'radical reformer and philanthropist' Jeremy Bentham is preserved: a sinister 'auto-icon' (as he called it), dressed in his own clothes, with features of wax and holding his favourite walking stick. It recalls the tomb of Lenin.

'There is a division in labour, even in vice,' wrote Hazlitt. 'Some people addict themselves to the speculation only, others to the practice.' Lenin addicted himself, with spectacular results, to both. Poor old Bentham was confined by opposing forces, George III conspicuous among them, to speculation alone.

'How he (George III) hated me,' raved Bentham. 'But for him, all the paupers in the country, as well as all the prisoners, would have been in my hands.' He did not mean this figuratively. He meant literally in his power, in his panopticons and industry houses. These were much the same, treating criminals as paupers and paupers as criminals, the latter held without charge or trial.

I use the words here interchangeably. Both were private enterprises, run for gain. Together they were to incarcerate about a million paupers and criminals and their children, not far off one-tenth of the then population. The figure was to grow perpetually, by plentiful arbitrary additions and by natural increase among a population largely enslaved from birth for life. Bentham, like some Southern slave owner, hoped to make a profit from early and prolific breeding among his victims.

With private prisons all the rage again and prisoners gleefully escaping from unpractised hands, my mind flew back to the late war, so productive of misery and mirth alike. It flew back to Corporal Sparks who, charged with escorting a prisoner through Birmingham's busy old Snow Hill station, bade his ward to stand precisely on that spot - 'Don't move an inch' - while he fetched mugs of char. Glancing back from the tea queue, Sparks espied the prisoner then a hundred yards away and gathering evasive speed. Down on one knee, Sparks winged him with a sensational rifle shot to the thigh. He was duly busted.

How has old Bentham been reacting to all these new tidings? Did a triumphant smirk light his waxen features? 'Goody, goody, private prison] George III must be dead at last] My hour has come]' Or did a sneer reveal his disgust at the escapes?

He himself favoured distinctive uniforms of sacking and 'chemical washes' on prisoners' faces to discourage self-liberation. Did Bentham's blood miraculously liquefy, like that of St Januarius at Naples? Did he call for a pen, to apply formally for control of all these private prisons? Reports from University College would be welcome.

Most people know little about Bentham's weird and evil panopticon and industry house projects. Where they are not vaguely commended, they are ignored or brushed aside by his admirers (who include practically all the lefty socialist and radical establishment) as the benign or harmless whims of a mind otherwise 'humble, rational and humanitarian'. Lionel Robbins's words: no lefty economist he. Discuss]

One who does know about panopticon and the industry houses is Gertrude Himmelfarb, in private life Mrs Irving Kristol, to whose two masterly essays on the subject I am indebted. They are reprinted in her Victorian Minds (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1968) and Marriage and Morals among the Victorians (Faber, 1986). Miss Himmelfarb has, in effect, served some long time in Bentham's private dungeons. She has emerged from these haunted houses as she went in: sane, humane and still shockable. No mean feat.

'I do not like to look among the panopticon papers,' wrote Bentham himself. 'It is like opening a drawer where devils are locked up - it is breaking into a haunted house.' He referred presumably not to the grisly nature of the contents, but to the haunting fact that what he urged had never been put into effect.

The structural principle of the panopticon, as of the industry houses, is familiar enough. A circular prison, with cells on the circumference and a central tower for the keeper. From this, unseen, he could, like God, see all. Bentham, an atheist, for once quoted the Psalms: 'Thou art about my paths and about my bed, and spiest out all my ways.'

Yes, though 'ways' and 'paths' cannot have been familiar to prisoners held in perpetual solitary confinement, gagged if obstreperous, unable even to attend Sunday worship except by distant observation and through speaking tubes to make the chaplain audible. Searching always for greater and greater economies, Bentham abandoned solitude: the dividing walls were too expensive. Several prisoners in one cell, moreover, could be more cheaply lit, warmed and slopped out than one.

Absolute power over this hell was vested for life in a private governor or contractor, ie, so Bentham hoped, in himself. His overriding purpose would be to make a profit. Yes, purpose: Bentham utterly mistrusted altruism as a motive. He scorned it as subversive of the rational motivation on which society is based. He preferred always self-interest, without any of the moral and legal restraints on which we rely to turn it to good ends.

The governor presumably derived his profit from milking the official subsistence allowance for each prisoner, from absorbing the surplus from the prisoners' forced labour and from selling little comforts to them, booze excepted, to supplement a grim prison diet (potatoes only, at one point).

The higher the profit he could derive, as a monopoly supplier, the better in all ways. Prisoners had to buy their release. The smaller their savings, the later that release. A short sentence could thus mean life. Any external commutation of sentence could be resisted by the contractor as a breach of the government's contract with him.

As Bentham explained in his pauper-management papers, everybody could be gainfully employed. 'Not the motion of a finger, not a step, not a wink, not a whisper' but could be turned to profit. The bedridden could inspect, the blind could knit, even the insane could work under direction. Children could be rocked in the crib by 'the slight exertion of a feeble hand', or aired in one carriage drawn by an ass or older child.

By such exertions and economies Bentham expected to make a lot of money - probably wrongly, since forced labour is commonly unproductive. Panopticons were to beget panopticons. They were to be models for 'workhouses, manufactories, madhouses, lazarettos, hospitals and schools' panopticons. (Bentham himself was educated at Westminster.)

Who cannot see here a grim foreshadowing of various forms of socialism, abhorrent forms, some may plead, perfected forms, others may argue? There are devils locked up in Bentham's haunted house. Pray God private prisons do not release them.