This text was taken from In Russian and French Prisons, London: Ward and Downey; 1887.

In Russian and French Prisons

by P. Kropotkin


   In our busy life, preoccupied as we are with the numberless petty affairs of everyday existence, we are all too much inclined to pass by, many great evils which affect Society without giving them the attention they really deserve. If sensational "revelations" about some dark side of our life occasionally find their way into the daily Press; if they succeed in shaking our indifference and awaken public attention, we may have in the papers, for a month or two, excellent articles and letters on the subject. Many well-meant things may then be said, the most humane feelings expressed. But the agitation soon subsides; and, after having asked for some new regulations or laws, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of regulations and laws already in force; after having made some microscopic attempts at combating by a few individual efforts a deep-rooted evil which ought to be combated by the combined efforts of Society at large, we soon return to our daily occupations without caring much about what has been done. It is good enough if, after all the noise, things have not gone from bad to worse.

    If this remark is true with regard to so many features of our public life, it is especially so with regard to prisons and prisoners.' To use Miss Linda Gilbert's--the American Mrs. Fry's--words, "After a man has been confined to a felon's cell, Society loses all interest in and care for him." Provided be has "bread to eat, water to drink, and plenty of work to do," Society considers itself as having fulfilled all its duties towards him. From time to time, somebody acquainted with prisons starts an agitation against the bad state of our jails and lock-ups. Society recognizes that something ought to be done to remedy the evil. But the efforts of the reformers are broken by the inertia of the organized system; they have to fight against the widely-spread prejudices against all those who have fallen under the ban of the law; and soon they are left to themselves in their struggle against an immense evil. Such was the fate of John Howard, and of how many others? A few kindhearted and energetic men and women continue, of course, amidst the general indifference, to do their work of improving the condition of prisoners, or rather of mitigating the bad effects of prisons on their inmates. But, guided as they are merely by philanthropic feeling, they seldom venture to criticize the principles of penal institutions; still less do they search for the causes which every year bring millions of human beings within the enclosure of prison walls. They try to mitigate the evil; they seldom attempt to grapple with it at its source.

    Every year something like a hundred thousand men, women, and children are locked up in the jails of Great Britain alone--very nearly one million in those of the whole of Europe. Nearly 1,200,000£. of public money are spent every year, in this country alone, for convict and local prisons; very nearly ten millions in Europe--not to speak of the expenses involved by the maintenance of the huge machinery which supplies prisons with inmates. But, apart from a few philanthropists and professional men, who cares about the results achieved at so heavy an expenditure? Are our prisons worth the enormous outlay in human labour yearly devoted to them? Do they Guarantee Society against the recurrence of the evils which they are supposed to combat?

    Having had in my life several opportunities of giving more than a passing attention to these great questions, I have thought that it would be useful to put together the observations which I have been enabled to make on prisons and the reflections they have suggested.

    My first acquaintance with prisons and exile was made in Siberia, in connection with a committee for the reform of the Russian penal system. There I had the opportunity of learning the state of things with regard both to exile in Siberia and to prisons in Russia, and then my attention was attracted first to the great question of crime and punishment. Later on, in 1874 to 1876, 1 was kept, awaiting trial, nearly two years in the fortress of Peter and Paul at St. Petersburg, and could appreciate the terrible effects of protracted cellular confinement upon my fellow-prisoners. Thence I was transferred to the newly-opened House of Detention, which is considered as a model prison for Russia, and thence again to a military prison at the St. Petersburg Military Hospital.

    When in this country, I was called upon, in 1881, to describe the treatment of political prisoners in Russia, in order to tell the truth in the face of the systematic misrepresentation of the matter by an admirer of the Russian Government. I did so in a paper on the Russian Revolutionary Party, which appeared in the Fortnightly Review, June, 1831. None of the facts revealed in this paper have been contradicted by the Russian agents. Attempts were, however, made to circulate in the English press accounts of Russian prisons, representing them under a somewhat smiling aspect. I was thus compelled to give a general description of prisons and exile in Russia and Siberia, and did so in a series of four papers, which appeared in the Nineteenth Century. Refraining as much as possible from complaints of the treatment undergone by our political friends in Russia, I preferred to give an idea of the general state of Russian prisons, of exile to Siberia, and of its results; and told the unutterable sufferings which scores of thousands of common-law prisoners are enduring in the jails throughout Russia, on their way to Siberia, and in the immense penal colony of the Russian Empire. In order to complete my own experience, which might have been out of date, I consulted the bulky Russian literature which has been devoted of late to the subject. The perusal of this literature convinced me that things have remained in very nearly the same state as they were five-and-twenty years ago; but I also learned from it that although the Russian prison authorities are very anxious to have mouthpieces in West Europe, in order to circulate embellished accounts of their humane endeavours, they do not conceal the truth either from the Russian Government or from the Russian reading public, and both in official reports and in the Press they represent the prisons as being in the most execrable condition. Some of these avowals will be found in the following pages.

    Later on, that is, in 1882 to 1886, I spent three years in French prisons; namely, in the Prison Départementale of Lyons, and the Maison Centrale of Clairvaux. The description of both has been given in a paper contributed last year to the Nineteenth Century. My sojourn of nearly three years at Clairvaux, in close neighbourhood with fourteen hundred common-law prisoners, has given me an opportunity of obtaining a personal insight into the results achieved by detention in this prison, one of the best in France, and, as far as my information goes in Europe. It induced me to treat the question as to the moral effects of prisons on prisoners from a more general point of view, in connection with modern views on crime and its causes. A portion of this inquiry formed the subject of an address delivered in December last, before the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution.

    While thus reprinting some review articles, I have completed them with more recent information and data, mostly taken from official Russian publications; and whilst eliminating from them the controversial element, I have also eliminated all that cannot be supported by documents which can be published now without causing harm to anybody of our friends in Russia. The newly-added chapter on exile to Sakhalin will complete the description of the Russian penal institutions. I take advantage of this opportunity to express my best thanks to the editor of the Nineteenth Century for his kind permission to reprint the articles published in his review.

Go to Chapter 1
Return to Table of Contents.
Return to Anarchy Archives.