- In Russian prisons
- Hard labour in Siberia: the “Massacre of Innocents”
- In French prisons
- Beginnings of criminology
- Solution to prisons: another society?
“In Russian and French prisons” is a sociological essay with political overtones written by the famous anarchist Piotr Kropotkin, originally published in London in 1887 by Ward and Downey. In “In Russian and French prisons”, Kropotkin first describes the state of prisons in Russia, then compares it with his experience in France, and explores why the current European system is unjust, counter-productive, can’t be improved, is a system founded on the vengeance of society against certain classes of individuals as retribution for their so-called crimes. Still, according to Kropotkin those crimes are the response to a much larger injustice; and that injustice is the product of a social structure. More than a pamphlet, more than a prison non-fiction, “In Russian and French jails” is one of the first essays dealing with criminology and one of the first reflections on prisons.
In Russian prisons
Even if, as Kropotkin says, “the principle of the lex talionis – of the right of the community to avenge itself on the criminal – is no longer admissible”, society’s behaviour seems to demonstrate the opposite. Young Prince Kropotkin, an army officer imbued with liberal ideas in great times for Russia, is sent to inspect prisons, subject he knows nothing about, but he discovers a situation he had not anticipated, and fails to convince his superiors to implement his recommendations. Whatever the efforts to reform it, the prison system in Russia remains an heritage of barbaric times characterised by its inhuman treatment of prisoners. To be fair to the prison system, the justice system is at least as rotten: prisoners are detained without trial, sometimes without the knowledge of their relatives, people are arrested for minor offences or no offences at all, ie “writers whose romances are considered dangerous; almost all persons accused of disobedience and turbulent character…those accused of verbal offences against the Sacred Person of his Majesty the Emperor”. And in addition, those prisons are not in good shape; dangerously overcrowded, they have become “permanent centers of infection”, and two thirds of them are “urgently in need of being rebuilt from top to bottom”. Kropotkin summarises the situation with those two memorable quotes: the first one, a declaration of intention by society, “The Central Prisons were instituted with the idea of inflicting a punishment of the severest type.”, and the second one, an incredible real life observation: “the Central Prisons are so many practical hells; the horrors of hard labour in Siberia have paled before them, and all those who have experience of them are unanimous in declaring that the day a prisoner starts for Siberia is the happiest of his life.”!!
Some of the gut-wrenching scenes that Kropotkin paints are unfortunately reminiscent of modern barbaric times such as Guantanamo’s: “In July 1878, the life of the prisoners at the Kharkoff prison had become so insupportable, that six of them resolved to starve themselves to death.”; therefore, as he says: “After the Central Prison, hard labour in Siberia looks like a paradise.”. And then Kropotkin concludes: “It is a fancy to imagine that anything could be reformed in our prisons. Our prisons are the reflection of the whole of our life under the present regime; and they will remain what they are now until the whole of our system of government and the whole of our life have undergone a thorough change.”. His description of the fortress of St Peter and St Paul is a morceau de bravoure, which frankly cannot be summarised, and a fantastic document about the true Russia of late Nineteenth century. After reading that chapter one cannot but muse: if this is the state of prisons in liberal Russia, what did it look like when Russia was not liberal?Got to top
Hard labour in Siberia: the “Massacre of Innocents”
Hard labour in Siberia is not prison. Siberia is not the New Caledonia of the French or the Australia of the British. Siberia is the place where society isolates those who are not to its liking: “all those whom Russia fears to keep in her towns and villages – murderers and simple vagrants, nonconformists and rebels; thieves and paupers who are unable to pay for a passport; serfs who have incurred the displeasure of their proprietors; and still later on, “free peasants”, who have incurred the disgrace of an ispravnik, or are unable to pay the ever-increasing taxes – all these are going to die in the marshy lowlands, in the thick forests, in the dark mines.”. Kropotkin calculates that 700, 000 people have been exiled to Siberia since the records have been established, back in 1828. Each year, thousands of men and women, accompanied by profiteering soldiers, are forced to march thousands of miles from Western Russia to Siberia, without any hope of ever coming back or seeing their relatives, and most of the time, that trip is done under terrible conditions. Very soon, one understands from Kropotkin’s description that katorga or “hard labour”, made famous by Stalin and the Soviet regime are first and foremost products of Tsarist history rather than communist inventions. As described in Londres’ Au bagne, dealing with the condition of French convicts, prisoners, once freed from hard labour, are to remain in Siberia for life. In total, according to Kropotkin’s calculations, “from 1754 to 1885 nearly 1,200,000 exiles had been transported to Siberia”. After listing the numerous writers who have told about hard labour life in Siberia, the author goes on examining more exotic jail conditions: the French prisons, of which he had another real-life experience, as he was incarcerated at the Clairveaux prison between 1883 and 1886.Got to top
In French prisons
Before staying a few years at Clairveaux, he spent the first three months of his incarceration in the St Paul prison at Lyons. He then goes on describing the French system, with its distinction between maisons centrales, prisons départementales…and he explains the specificities of the judicial system, reminiscent of such texts as Vidocq’s Considérations sommaires sur les prisons and Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. He admits that Clairveaux is one of the most modern prisons in France, and compares well versus any prison in Europe, and especially Russian ones. This admission makes his future assertion even more interesting. “If I were asked, what could be reformed in this and like prisons, provided they remain prisons, I could really only suggest improvements in detail, which certainly would not substantially ameliorate them…”. As discussed in On ne peut pas améliorer les prisons, written in French by the same Kropotkin, “forty-two to forty-five per cent of all assassins, seventy to seventy-two per cent of all thieves condemned each year are récidivistes”. Kropotkin then examines the reasons which push so many people towards crime each year, and finds out that at the root lies not only poverty, but also a strong sentiment of injustice as only the powerful seem to escape crime unpunished whilst the petty thieves get caught for stealing an apple, not unlike the modern harassment of small benefit-seekers and petty tax-avoiders by the fiscal authorities after thousands of bankers have pushed the country to the brink of bankruptcy for their personal benefit and now enjoy life in their luxury boats, hard earned thanks to the savings of indebted pensioners or naïve tax-payers, or when huge American multinationals happily avoid paying billions of sterling pounds in taxes without incurring any consequences but some public chastising.Got to top
Beginnings of criminology
Kropotkin recognises three great causes to crime: social, anthropological and cosmic causes. If cosmic causes (weather, crops…), although undeniable, are hard to grasp, anthropological causes (genetic and inherited) are much more important, and social causes are obviously those most of Kropotkin’s concern. He also reminds the reader that capital punishment was abolished in Russia in 1753 for common law offences, and has this comment about “legal assassination”: “If the practice of putting men to death is still in use, it is merely a result of craven fear, coupled of reminiscences of a lower degree of civilization when the tooth-for-a-tooth principle was preached by religion.”.Got to top
Solution to prisons: another society?
Let’s conclude with three quotes by Kropotkin which say everything. So, no need to paraphrase. First, he muses about the sustainability of the current social order: “I never cease to wonder at the deep-rootedness of social feelings in the humanity of the nineteenth century, at the goodness of heart which still prevails in the dirty streets, which are the causes that relatively so few of those who grow up in absolute neglect declare open war against our social institutions. These good feelings, this aversion to violence, this resignation which makes them accept their fate without hatred growing in their hearts, are the only real barrier which prevents them from openly breaking all social bonds, not the deterring influence of prisons.”. He then wonders about the evolution of our societies and has these thoughts, evocative of his nostalgia of twelfth century communities: “We live now in too much isolation. Everybody cares only for himself, or his nearest relatives. Egotistic that is, unintelligent individualism in material life has necessarily brought about an individualism as egotistic and as harmful in the mutual relations of human beings.”. And he then brings on what we consider to be a conclusion to this deep and rich essay: “Let us reorganise our society so as to assure to everybody the possibility of regular work for the benefit of the commonwealth and that means of course a thorough transformation of the present relations between work and capital; let us assure to every child a sound education and instruction, both in manual labour and science, so as to permit him to acquire, during the first twenty years of his life, the knowledge and habits of earnest work and we shall be in no more need of dungeons and jails, of judges and hangmen.”. It may sound idealistic, but it is as true today as it was in 1887.
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