Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/September 1893/Reformatory Prisons and Lombroso's Theories



IN no branch of social science has so much progress been made of recent years as in the treatment of the criminal. Mankind in general has at last come to recognize what Sir Thomas Moore knew long ago, that the end of punishment is "nothing else but the destruction of vices and the saving of men." The prison has become, and rightly, a moral hospital. Whether, however, we are not now inclining to err a little too much on the other side in our latter methods of prison treatment is a question that is exercising the general public as well as criminal anthropologists and professors of legal medicine. Are we not perhaps encouraging rather than deterring crime by our present tendency to prison philanthropy? Do we not tend to make prison too pleasant a place, so that those who have been there are apt to sing in an irreverent spirit the words of the hymn that telleth—

"I have been there, and fain would go;
It is a little heaven below"?

Is it no longer good, as the gospel teaches, that the transgressor's way be made hard lest a worse evil befall?

On all these points there is unquestionably no greater authority in the world to consult than Prof. Cesare Lombroso, Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Turin, who may be regarded as the inaugurator of the modern science of criminal anthropology, the thinker whose work on Criminal Man (L'Uomo Delinquente) had, on its appearance in 1889, an influence as decisive as had in its day the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. In the vexed question that is now waging as to the treatment of criminals, in which we find ranged on one side men like W. Z. Brockway, of the Elmira Reformatory, and on the other an authority such as Mr. William Tallack, of the Howard Association, a society that bears the name of the great English prison philanthropist and exists for the purpose of alleviating the malefactor's pain, it is well to go to the fountain head and hear what Lombroso has to say on the point.

Now, Lombroso starts from the premise that a reason must exist why certain men are impelled by their very nature to commit crimes, and that hence there must be a difference in their very organism sufficiently marked to distinguish normal men from those morally or mentally mad. In the various medical clinics numerous and minute psychiatric observations, calculations of the most insignificant abnormities in the eurythmia of the human body, confrontation and establishment of mathematical data, have all combined to advance the science of criminal anthropology, so that it has become possible to divide mankind into three great principal classes—normal men, criminal men, and madmen. Now, Prof. Lombroso, from his own experience and that of the scholars who work under his direction—many of whom, like Prof. Enrico Ferri, have become almost as prominent as himself—had come some while ago to the conclusion that an absolute reform is required in the old methods of criminal punishment, and the first thing to do was to distinguish with great care the congenital criminal from the madman. The professor condemns rigorously the carelessness with which the legal tribunals pronounce sentences, and points out with much acumen that inconvenience, not to say irreparable harm, is thus done, mischief that always accrues to the detriment of those who perform their duty, and who surely have a right to be protected by the state. Hence, says Lombroso, it is above all others the magistrate who should pursue the study of criminal anthropology, because while every one of those who have had contact with malefactors, such as the members of their own family and prison directors, regard them as men different from others—that is, persons of weak mind or almost insane, and never, or at least hardly ever, susceptible of improvement; while the psychiatrist finds it impossible in most cases to distinguish clearly between madness and guilt, the legislator, on his part, rarely gives heed to the acute criticisms of the alienist, to the timid objections of the prison officials. As a rule. magistrates hold that the cases are rare, nay, indeed exceptional, in which the criminal is subject to distorted volition, and but too frequently deem a jurist's highest earthly mission to consist in laying down his legal judgments, which start from hard and fast rules and admit of no gradations between the sane, the alienated, and the criminal mind. Hence this type of lawgiver has one sole idea, one single starting point, in assigning his verdicts. He has but one régime of punishment to bestow on each individual crime, and this is pronounced without preoccupying himself concerning the divergences of climate, region, and habit whence the crime has sprung. He judges the minds of others by his own, which has probably been nourished on the most sublime speculations of human wisdom. Hence, legal philosophers and legislators will not, and perchance can not, descend from the proud heights of metaphysics to the humble and arid territory of penal establishments. Their opinions on these points are, therefore, almost valueless.

In a letter recently addressed to me, in reply to my query of how he would treat the criminal, and what he thought of the Elmira system. Prof. Lombroso replied:

"To put it briefly, my idea is that so far all we have done is mistaken, not excluding from this condemnation the American reformatories. I hold that for women, for instance, except in quite a few cases (perhaps twenty or thirty, speaking of Italy), there is no need for prisons. A species of convent would suffice. For young men it is necessary first of all to distinguish the congenital criminals from those who are sons of parents affected by syphilis, or alcohol, or typhus. Then, accordingly, they should be submitted to treatment, but not a commonplace one like that of Elmira, but be dosed with homœopathic sulphur, nux vomica, or submitted to electricity. If, after such a cure, they show no signs of improvement, then detain them for life in wide islands, where, with the exception of bread and water, if they would not die, they must gain the rest of their fare by working. If, after this, they transgress repeatedly, sentence them to death. The educational reformatories, with all those precautions practiced at Elmira, I would reserve exclusively for young criminals guilty of crimes of occasion or of passion, and to these I would accord conditional liberty. The suspension of punishment, the study of the individual character, will help us to know them as much as the history of their case. Adults under judgment I would keep in prison cells whenever life in common does not facilitate the reciprocal tale-bearing which renders detection easy. But here, too, if the crime be one of occasion or passion, I would favor short-term punishments, fines, floggings, fasts, douches, etc. If, instead, the delinquency is instinctive, or recidivist, I would mostly inflict perpetual punishment or even death, or, if the criminal be mad or a mattoid, put him into the criminal lunatic asylum. If his offense be political or religious, his punishment must last as long as public opinion is opposed to this form of crime."

Such, in a nutshell, are the theories which Prof. Lombroso has spent his life in expounding in writing and in speech, for whenever a specially complex case is brought before the law courts of Italy he is called in to give his scientific opinion, and his acute, shrewd, original, and penetrating judgments would, if collected, form a volume of most interesting and instructive reading, that should cause many a judge, and many a private person too, to hesitate ere pronouncing judgment. Not unfrequently he has found those to be innocent who to all appearances seemed guilty, and those to be guilty who seemed the flower of virtue. His theories are deduced from the most careful and minute observations of criminals and madmen, and it is only by studying these attentively and analyzing them that we can discover how and why Prof. Lombroso is convinced of the defects met with in all reformatories and penal houses, and by what process of selection he has arrived at his conclusions with regard to the evil and its remedies. Unfortunately, the professor, while a lucid and brilliant speaker, is a somewhat involved and arid writer, and it is no easy task to disentangle his ideas from among his voluminous and multifarious writings. Still, the study of criminal therapeutics is too interesting and too important to be neglected.

Now, Lombroso's cardinal point is, that rather than study crime when it is already mature, we should try to forestall it, if not by removing the cause, which might be impossible, at least by lessening its influence. Of course, we can not minimize such influences as the action of warm climates, the result of race, but we must adapt our laws so as to mitigate their effects by various methods, such as the more careful regulation of prostitution; the more speedy execution of justice, so that it may better impose on impressionable minds which are apt to forget the cause of the punishment if it follows the deed only after a long lapse of time; the care not to extend northward the laws which are proper to the south, and vice versa, and this latter especially in regard to all offenses committed against persons. Where conditions are still savage these can be much diminished by thinning the forests, the natural houses and fortresses of malefactors, by the opening up of roads, by the founding of cities and villages on sites of ill fame, as has been done in Italy to extirpate the brigands that infested certain districts; by dissolving all such societies as tend to be secret and are usually nurseries of crime (witness some of the Irish-American so-called patriotic associations), and by helping and encouraging the denunciation of evil-doers. Prof. Lombroso also condemns very strongly and very properly the foolish habit that obtains on the European continent of extending full pardons to prisoners because a private event has taken place in a royal family, such as the birth of an heir, or the marriage of a prince. Punishment must be steady, equal, and not liable to such accidents on which the criminal, generally a fatalist, is apt to count. Further, it is always well, if it can be hindered, that a released prisoner should not return to his native place or habitual abode. A most special watch ought to be kept over the houses of receivers of stolen goods. These persons, who might be called the capitalists of crime, almost always go unpunished, and it is just they who should be smitten. The professor has great praise to bestow on the American vigilance committee, an institution he regards as wise in the extreme. He also lauds the English detection system and the Austrian Vertraute, who render splendid services by giving such persevering chase to criminals. He also proposes the alliance of all nations for the arrest of delinquents, as well as the sequestration of a person who boasts that he has committed a crime.

Alcoholism is a fruitful source of evil-doing. It is therefore desirable to prevent by all available means the diffusion of the liquor trade, either by exorbitant taxes or by a limitation in production. The statistics of Switzerland, Sweden, Holland, and certain parts of the United States and England show a very sensible diminution of crime since severe laws were enacted against the manufacture and sale of intoxicating drinks. Feasts, fairs, and markets should be diminished, when they are not called for by special and real commercial reasons. The mass should be educated not only by means of the alphabet, but should be taught elevated ideas with regard to work and personal dignity. Prizes should be instituted for the virtuous, and every aid should be given to extend the helpful labor of postal banks and co-operative stores. Yet another powerful incitement to crime is the public spectacle afforded by courts of justice. Entrance to these should be limited to well-known persons, and the mass be rigorously excluded. The modern tendency, fostered by the press, to make of a malefactor a hero, is greatly to be deprecated, and leads to crimes due to pure imitation, from a desire for notoriety, no matter at what cost. There should positively be forbidden those extended judicial reports in the newspapers, fruitful sources of eventual crime, which the people read with so much avidity. The State ought to promote and protect work in every way it can, for only by work can idleness be conquered, that too potent counselor of crime.

Lombroso holds that there are certain establishments where the notion of evil is first inculcated, and these, according to him. are above all to be found in reformatories, to be commended in initial idea but to be condemned in the manner this idea is usually executed. Here, he holds, the young get to know vagabonds and idlers, whom they are drawn to copy by that instinct for imitation that exists in the youthful mind. The children associated in such places are often foundlings or the offspring of immoral families, or of parents incapable or unable to educate them. When these are brought together with children of good, honest families the latter are too frequently pushed into vice by bad example, by acquaintances made in undesirable places. It is undoubtedly our duty to care for the orphan and the foundling, but we must be careful above all to prevent their being dragged into guilt as well as to lift up those that may have fallen into it. It is from this very aim, as Lombroso knows, that has arisen the idea of reformatories and houses of custody for the young, which in France receive annually 7,685, in Italy 3,770, in Belgium 1,473, in Holland 161, and in America 2,400 individuals. But their utility, the professor holds, is not apparent. They have been founded in a frame of mind more benevolent than well informed as to the criminal nature. Too many and too complex are the causes, multiplied by mutual contact, of the evil they would cure, and this too at an age not tender enough to model, yet young enough to be expansive and inclined to imitation, especially of evil.

The over-agglomeration for economical reasons of individuals, and the admission into public reformatories of the worst subjects expelled from private establishments, annul every attempt at reform. Statistics show but too plainly the falling back into evil courses of the inmates of such institutions. The diminution in England of twenty-six per cent, which is attributed to the one hundred and seventy-two reformatories which she owns, Lombroso would assign instead rather to the diffusion of the twenty-three thousand so-called "ragged schools" that take care of millions of young people during the most dangerous age. In Italy, says Lombroso, it is too easy for fathers and guardians to place sons and wards in reformatories under pretext that they are wicked; and certainly it is not there that they will amend, since in such places there can not be carried into effect the nightly cellular system and the enforced silence which are an absolute necessity for rigid discipline, and to counteract the worst vices of the young criminal. From his own observations Prof. Lombroso is convinced that even in the so-called best-managed reformatories there prevail the worst sexual vices, not to mention theft, the camorra, such as is carried on in the penal hulks, the learning of the criminal jargon, the tricks of the trade, tattooing, and all other distinctive vices of criminal men. What remedy lies to hand? Prof. Lombroso writes, in his Uomo Delinquente, "Charity, or rather foresight, must assume new forms, leave the ways of alms and the violence of prisons, and substitute spontaneous asylums and industrial schools."

Lombroso explains in detail what admirable work the New York "Society for the Reform of Youth" has done since 1853, by founding industrial schools and lodging houses; implanting the love for work in bad boys, giving them the knowledge of personal liberty, and the healthy desire to better their state by employing them in factories and workshops. He holds that Italy might advantageously copy and imitate such a reform, particularly in Piedmont, Sardinia, and the Valtellina, where sheep-tending utilizes the children.

When offenses in youths pass a certain limit so as to require heavier punishments, Lombroso contends that above all things the so frequent method of often-repeated and short-term imprisonments should be avoided with the greatest care. Instead, a graduated punishment should be substituted, like fasting, douches, forced labor, and isolation-in their domicile; or, if it is preferred, fines might be imposed, thereby lightening the cost of maintenance. A money fine has also the great advantage of touching the modern culprit in his most vulnerable point.

If the crime be serious, then, according to Lombroso, prison cells are necessary in order to isolate the culprit from his companions. But our chief and primal aim should ever be education. We should strive to inoculate the delinquent with more than mere alphabetical instruction, we should teach him the practical knowledge of useful trades, and instead of futile preaching and moral teaching we should give him good or bad marks; passing him into privileged categories where he would have the right, for example, to wear a beard, receive visits, work for his own benefit, and so on. Thus, through those very passions which left alone would lead him on to greater wickedness, we must seek to inspire him with the need of honesty. Ferri tells of a thief who became an honest man when the Sister of Charity, with that very end in view, intrusted him with the care of the prison wardrobe.

Overstrictness is always harmful. It is far better to tickle the vanity of the prisoners—a feature highly pronounced in the criminal type—by permitting them to elect among themselves wardens and teachers, as well as arbitrators who shall decide concerning the misdeeds of their companions. This would help to awaken a spirit of comradeship, which is always beneficial. Lombroso inclines somewhat to Despine's method of not inflicting punishment until a little time has elapsed after the committal of the offense, to allow passion to cool down, if the offense be due to this cause.

With regard to employment for prisoners, all outdoor work is to be preferred; next come the works in straw, cord-making, broom-binding, typography, tailoring, terra-cotta molding, then last of all shoemaking and carpentering. To be absolutely avoided, because they open the way to new crimes, are such trades as blacksmiths, photographers, lithographers, and such like, wherever iron implements or chemicals must be utilized. Work must be proportioned to the strength of the prisoner; prison work should on no account be farmed out to contractors et pour cause, because these would naturally always protect the ablest men and not the most morally deserving. "Never impose work," says Lombroso; "let it be desired. The delinquent should ask for it, and having obtained it, it should never become for him a pretext for receiving greater privileges." The Elmira Reformatory, of which Lombroso speaks in the letter I have quoted, has, we know, served as a pattern to all penitentiaries in the United States, and has modified their methods. Mr. Brock way, its founder, who states that he imbibed all his ideas from Lombroso's Uomo Delinquente, started from this premise that the introduction of indefinite and unlimited punishment is necessary as the basis of a logical and efficacious moral system; that it is not enough to separate the congenital criminal and the occasional, the passionate, and instinctive, that to each one must be applied the cure that best suits him, as in a hospital each patient is treated in a particular manner. The physical treatment is directed toward the development of muscle, by means of douches, massage, gymnastics, and good diet. In the moral it aims at the strengthening of the will, teaching the prisoner self-control, and thus enabling him to hasten on his own liberation, which is granted as soon as he has proved himself to be worthy. Mr. Brockway divides the prisoners into three classes—good, moderate, and perverse; but from the last they can pass into the first through good behavior, love of work, and respect for the guardians. The work taught in Elmira is practical; the prisoner, as soon as he is liberated—and this, according to statistics, is very soon—will always find lucrative occupations. Self-respect once born within him, will go on increasing, unless he is a delinquent born, and here it is that Lombroso departs from Mr. Brockway; in that case he insists that every remedy will be vain. The criminal will eventually fall back, and only complete exile or death can save society from his disastrous operations. But in spite of this objection Lombroso holds that Mr. Brockway's system, subject to a few modifications, which would take us too long to examine in detail, is useful as far as it goes in the present incomplete and chaotic state of equity in which scientific laws and legal justice do not correspond in their actions. He holds that it is particularly to be commended for juvenile delinquents, •whom a gentle, loving care will rehabilitate better than a severe prison régime conducted on the old lines. Lombroso is greatly in favor of the Irish graduated cellular system, by which the culprit regains little by little an almost complete liberty. In this wise there results to the state a sensible economy—a fact not to be despised, seeing the large cost to society of these useless members of the body politic. He also lauds the Danish system, another graduated method founded on repaid labor, and provisional and conditional liberty. Nor does he forget Saxony, where the system which ho calls "of individualization" has given such excellent results.

He strongly urges that on quitting prison the interest only of the capital he has acquired by his labor should be accorded to the prisoner. This will help to keep him straight, and retain him under a moral control. The professor is absolutely opposed to deportation to colonies. For the incorrigible delinquent, Lombroso counsels, as the only way of supplanting capital punishment, to which in extreme cases he is not opposed, a perpetual exile from society, into which the criminal will not be able to return unless he gives irrefutable proofs of amendment.

"No matter that their criminality springs from infirmity," he writes, "they are equally dangerous to themselves, to us, and to their offspring; and their rigid isolation is more useful and less unjust than that of lunatics."

And this brings him by a natural transition to the very important question of criminal lunatic asylums, institutions counseled by humanity as well as by social security. Among delinquents, and those believed to be so, there are many who are and always were demented, and whom to imprison would be to treat unjustly. In Italy such persons are as yet provided for only by half measures which violate both morality and security. In England they have attempted for a century, and for sixty years have almost succeeded, in settling this question by instituting criminal madhouses. In 1786 this species of lunatics were confined in a certain part of Bedlam; in 1844: the state undertook to maintain two hundred and thirty-five in a private establishment in Fisherton House, but as the sad bands of those unhapy ones grew it ended by erecting special madhouses. In 1850 one was opened in Dundrum for Ireland, followed by one in Perth for Scotland, and in Broadmoor for England. In these houses, regulated by suitable decrees, admission is given not only to those that have committed crime in an access of madness or who have become mad during their trial, but there are also shut up those that on account of lunacy or idiocy are incapable of undergoing prison discipline. In America this reform has already brought about the criminal asylums of Auburn, in Pennsylvania, and in Massachusetts. In Italy most of these unhappy creatures are held to be lazy, riotous, perverse, or deceitful, and when their lunacy is admitted it is difficult to obtain their admission into asylums, and this because this special class of lunatics are dangerous inmates for ordinary madhouses. They steadfastly resist all discipline, they permit themselves obscene and violent acts; they are discontented with everybody and they evince themselves indifferent to punishment; in a word, they carry into the madhouse the habits and vices of the immoral class from which they spring, and thus become apostles of sodomy, rebellion, robbery, and desertion, to the detriment of the establishment and of the other lunatics. Often, too often Prof. Lombroso says, such men are allowed to wander free in the midst of society, and are the more dangerous because under an apparent calmness and lucid intelligence they retain their diseased impulses, giving proof of this when least expected. The professor cites several examples, and holds that to men thus mentally afflicted are due the epidemical madnesses that show themselves in the form of Nihilism, Mormonism, Anabaptists, the incendiaries in Normandy of 1830, and the Parisian Commune.

He insists rigidly on the point that this institution of criminal lunatic asylums is not due to sentimental pity, but is a pure measure rather of social precaution than of humanity. And against the objection that might be raised that real madmen may be confounded with dissimulators, Lombroso sets the development of modern anthropologic studies, which rarely, when the diagnosia is carefully made, falls into error on this point. By the institution of criminal lunatic asylums we obviate the transmission of the disease to offspring, we hinder recidivism and its consequences, which at best lead to the heavy cost of a new trial for the criminal. And that the theory is proved by practice to be correct is evinced by the fact that gradually the objections of adversaries are being overcome, so that criminal madhouses, under different forms, are being established in Denmark, Sweden, and France, where, since 1876, there exists one at Gaillon annexed to the central prison. The other civilized peoples of Europe, if they have not real criminal madhouses, have certain laws and institutions that in part answer the same purpose, as in Belgium, at Berlin, Hamburg, Halle, and Bruchsal. In Italy not only are there no such special establishments, but there is not even a line in the codex admitting the possible necessity for any such institution. Prof. Lombroso invokes these salutary provisions in ardent terms. He writes: "The orbit of crime is too deeply engraved in the book of our destiny for us to delude ourselves that we can suppress its course. But if other undisputed laws do not fail us, like those concerning the selection of species, we may hope by such preventives to moderate the effects of crime and to hinder its widespread diffusion."

Deterrents, preventions—these two words may be said to be the keynote to Lombroso's system. If he have a favorite proverb, it is certainly that "prevention is better than cure." On this account he would segregate from society the adult criminal, in order to deter him from exercising his pernicious instincts, and he would direct his chief and best energies to the rising generation.

Can we make it possible for a child that has criminal tendencies not to become a criminal? This is his chief problem, and this question he answers with a decided affirmative.

So long as the criminal acts are not repeated to excess, and when they are not accompanied by all the anthropometrical characteristics of criminality, there is hope to be found even in this dismal science. The evolution of good takes place in a sound man in spite of a bad education. Anticriminal education must, therefore, begin as soon as the first pernicious symptoms show themselves; on the other hand, excessive severity must be avoided, and more must not be asked of the child than it can do. The more gentle the corrections, the more efficacious will they prove. For example, if the child has spoiled a favorite object, buy it again at your own expense, but deprive him of some sweetmeat, some amusement. If he dirties the house with his games, let him repair this evil; never mind if it draws down on him some scalds and scratches; only let him have been advised beforehand to avoid the deed, and told what consequences would follow disobedience. When he does not obey orders, show him less sympathy, but never fall into a rage, for anger is as harmful to the parent or guardian as to the child. A useful reaction only follows when the punishment is given in a calm spirit. Above all, endeavor to get the child to correct itself rather than to depend on the violence of a monitor. One should prevent rather than encourage in children, as is done by the majority, the constant association of the idea of punishment with a bad action. In consequence, when the time has come to liberate him from the leading strings of master or parents, he is no longer afraid of committing offenses, thinking they will now cease to carry judgment in their train. This constantly happens to children of overstrict parents, who when grown up and independent are apt to commit great misdeeds and even crimes.

These reasons are doubly applicable to young criminals, who can not be properly watched and educated in reformatories on account of the large number of their inmates. The divisions and subdivisions admitted of in such places are not sufficient to cover all the varieties of bad tendencies a child with criminal instincts will develop. This is one of the most salient points of the problem. Lombroso cites an experiment made by a naturalist who placed together in an aquarium, divided only by a piece of glass, some carps and some of the little fishes they eat. At first the carps knocked violently against the glass to catch their prey, but after a while, seeing that their attempts were vain, they abandoned them, and when after a while the glass was removed they lived together in harmony. By habit they became innocuous if not innocent. So also the dog by custom and education ceases to steal. It is by such methods that Lombroso holds that congenital criminals must be cured, and not by baths and gymnastics or "collegiate prisons," which are powerless to affect moral habits.

These new theories and systems have ardent followers, but obviously also encounter violent opposition.

To Italy, to her honor be it said, belongs the due that she was the first in Europe to instigate and propagate the study of criminal anthropology. It may indeed be claimed for her that in that fair land the positive method is of ancient origin and that it sprang up in the Renaissance with Galileo. It attracted less attention as long as it was limited to the physical and natural sciences; but when it was carried into the moral and social field it awakened diffidence, and of this diffidence the effects were felt by men like Claude Bernard and Comte, in France; by Spencer, in England; by Lombroso and Garofalo, in Italy; and by Wundt, in Germany. But all the men, nevertheless, pursued their course undaunted. Indeed, most of them hold, and Lombroso above all others, that all this opposition on the part of their adversaries is desirable, as it spurs on to new exertions and helps to emphasize the deductions of the positive school, based as they are on minute anthropological researches.

Lombroso's firmness of purpose in the pursuit of his studies may best be estimated by quoting his own words with regard to his life's work:

". . . me rallier sans convictions au jugements du public moyen, en venir au moindre compromis pour l'amour de la paix,' m'arrêter un seul instant dans le travail incessant de renouvellement juridique et psychiatrique, auquel je me suis voué; ce serait non seulement m'avouer vaincu, mais ensevelir avec moi tout le travail de ma vie. Jusque-la n'irait pas meme l'abnégation. . . la plus chrétienne."

Surely he is a worthy successor and compatriot of Galileo. Even that great blind scientist spoke no prouder words when, tortured by rack and priests, he muttered, "Eppur si muove."