Book Review: An Account Of The Manner In Which Sentences Of Penal Servitude Are Carried Out In England

An Account of the Manner in Which Sentences of Penal Servitude Are Carried Out in England, by Edmund F. Du Cane

I must admit that when I read this book I had never heard of Edmund F. Du Cane before.  Although I have an interest in penalogy which may surprise many people [1], it is rare when a book falls into my hands that deals with prison in such a delightful manner.  At least, I should say, it is a delightful book when viewed from a certain perspective, assuming that one does not face the threat of imprisonment.  As a general within the Royal Engineers and an experienced prison administrator, this book bears all the hallmarks of someone who knows prisons well and who also has the approach of an engineer, which is perhaps why I found this to be such a congenial read and found its analytical and clinical approach to be so winsome when compared with the sort of heated rhetoric one often hears about prison from the advocates of the criminal class.  This is the work of someone who has no personal hostility to those he guards, but has a high sense of duty about the nobility of his office as jailer, and that sort of espirit d’corps is not something that often comes out in writings about prison.

This book is a relatively short one at only about 140 pages, and it shows all the marks of being written by an engineer.  For one, the book is full of statistics, about the death rates of prisoners, about the numbers of people imprisoned over a series of years to the rates of literacy among the prison population.  For another, the book is organized in a very precise way, with chapters on such matters as the system of payment for prisoners and some sixteen appendices at the end of the book that take up nearly half of the book’s contents.  The book includes the author’s accounts of how the English sought to prevent the development of a criminal class within the nation through the transportation of criminals (including at least one of my own ancestors) and sought to balance some complex aims within prisons, including spiritual rehabilitation, the discouragement of crime as an option, and the provision of education and encouragement so that people could avoid being stuck in cycles of imprisonment.  Although this book was written and published in the late 19th century, its discussion of the goals of imprisonment and the tangled mix between economic, moral, and educational matters is no less relevant for our own age.

To be sure, there are plenty of criticisms that can be made of this book.  The number of years used for the study are too few to get a sense of the reasons for the declining crime during the time selected, as there are generational cycles of crime that require a look at a much longer duration of time.  Not all readers will view with the same degree of equanimity the way the writer spends a lot of time talking about the need for prisons to recoup their investments and provide only the minimum acceptable amount of food so as to keep prison from being a lure to those making honest efforts at work on the outside.  The author deserves a considerable amount of credit for having thought of some of the larger repercussions of imprisonment and the factors that tend to lead to the development and fostering of a criminal class, and the author’s lack of rancor with regards to prisoners and his desire for genuine rehabilitation and improvement speak highly as to his honor.  To be sure, though, the author’s notes as to the rules of prison (which include substantial fines for “loud talking”) make it clear that prison is not a place anyone ought to desire to be, and that some of us would fare badly in even the most enlightened prison regimes.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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