BY JIM MUNVES
A hundred and twenty-one years ago, Oscar Wilde wrote a letter to the British newspaper, Daily Chronicle, concerning the dismissal of Warder Martin of Reading prison for giving sweet biscuits to a hungry child. He had observed the gift himself shortly before his own dismissal from the prison.
As he wrote, the children “had just been convicted, and were standing 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 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 who 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 . . . to whom the deliberate infliction of pain gave a real madness of pleasure. . . 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, 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 because a thing is the rule it is right. . . .
“To shut up a child in a dimly lit cell for twenty-three hours out of 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.
“The inhumane treatment of a child is always inhuman, by whomsoever it is inflicted. But inhumane treatment by society is to the child the more terrible because there can be no appeal. A parent or guardian can be moved, and let out a child from a 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.”
(The complete 1897 letter can be found in The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde, recently published by Harvard University Press.)
- Jim Munves, Charlottetown, was separated from his wife earlier this year after she was denied release from a nursing home she had entered on a temporary basis.