From a letter written in 1897 to the editor of the British newspaper the Daily Chronicle. The letter is included in The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde, published in May by Harvard University Press.
Sir,—I learn with great regret, through the columns of your paper, that the warder Martin, of Reading Prison, has been dismissed for having given sweet biscuits to a 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 their arms. 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. The cruelty that is practiced by day and night on children in English prisons is incredible, except to those that have witnessed it.
People nowadays do not understand what cruelty is. They regard it as a sort of 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 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.
Wherever there is centralization there is stupidity. What is inhuman in modern life is officialism. Authority is as destructive to those who exercise it as it is to those on whom it is exercised. The people who uphold the prison system have excellent intentions. Those who carry it out are humane in intention also. Responsibility is shifted onto the disciplinary regulations. It is supposed that because a thing is the rule it is right.
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 realize what society is.
The child, consequently, being taken away from its parents by people whom it has never seen, becomes an immediate prey to the first and most prominent emotion produced by modern prison life—the emotion of terror. 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. 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. There would be on all hands the utmost detestation of whosoever had been guilty of such cruelty. A heavy sentence would, undoubtedly, follow conviction.
The inhuman treatment of a child is always inhuman, by whomsoever it is inflicted. But 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. In the case of the child to whom Warder Martin gave the biscuits, the child was crying with hunger and utterly unable to eat the bread and water served to it for its breakfast. Martin went 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 recognized by the child, who 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.
The only really humanizing influence in prison is the influence of the prisoners. Their cheerfulness under terrible circumstances, their sympathy for each other, their gentleness, their pleasant smiles when they meet, their complete acquiescence in their punishments, are all quite wonderful. There is not a single man in Reading that would not gladly have done the three children’s punishment for them. Suffering and the community of suffering make 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.
I remain, Sir, your obedient servant,