Wolfred Nelson Report - 1852

A Few Observations on the Subject of Asylums for Chidren

It was expected that great service would be rendered to society in establishing houses of refuge for vagrant children, or such as commit offences against propriety or sound morals. It can affirm from a full, lengthened and conscientious investigation, which the experience of eight years has enabled me to make, a period during which several of these establishments were placed under my direction, that a more fatal gift, I am convinced, legislators cannot bestow upon society, than the establishing such retreats. In fact these asylums, instead of being adapted to the purpose of education and correction, are only places of corruption, where a generation of thieves is reared, and all sorts of vices imaginable prevail. I look upon a child that is thrust into such a house as irretrievably lost.

Youths continually brought into contact for a number of years with others more depraved than they are themselves, acquire such vicious habits that vice no longer can make them blush; on the contrary, they would be ashamed to practise virtuous actions; occupied from morning till night in evading the vigilance of their guardians, they become hypocritical, deceitful, and impious. Accustomed as they are to a system that never leaves them in want of anything, but being ever supplied with the necessaries of life, they acquire the habit of providing or caring for nothing; and, when they get out of these houses, as they no longer have anyone to furnish them with what they need, they take it where they can find it; nay, they soon even regret being out of the house where they were kept, looking upon it as their own, and will enter a prison with as much pleasure as would a son entering his father's house after a voyage; they, besides, can find no sympathy but among the inmates of like places, and feel well nowhere else; I have seen youths enter a penitentiary as cheerfully as if going to a wedding.

It is in vain that legislators expect to train them to order, or to work, or to make them learn a trade. If order be attained, it will only be through coercion or enslavement, a species of order which is calculated to degrade man, but never to bring him to any good; that order alone, which springs from love, can lead mankind to virtue. If there be any labor, this also must be effected by compulsion, and they will work only as slaves do, with the sole view of escaping punishment, and perform as little labor as possible, and that without application or taste.

But, it is said, they will be taught a trade, in order that, on their going out they may have some resource. I can affirm that, out of a hundred, not one will leave that knows any trade whatever. Contractors for work will go to them to gain money, not at all to show them any trade. Their object is to have their work done as cheap as possible, that they may dispose of it on advantageous terms, and procure a market; this is all they aim at. They will only show a part to each, in order to have the greatest possible amount of work produced, and it must be acknowledged that it would be very difficult for them to act otherwise. Let us suppose, however, that these youths do learn a trade, it must be such a trade as can be exercised only in cities, where lies the cause of perdition of the best educated youths, operating therefore with greater effect in regard to youths who own no family, and are taught to blush at nothing. Thus, even in the above supposed case, an injury is inflicted both on these youths and on society. This conclusion is derived from experience.

It is in these establishments, and nowhere else, that is to be found the reason of the increase of the number of crimes on the old continent, whether in France or in England; and what is more lamentable, the truth has never reached the ears of the legislators, for they have never been able to investigate results but through false and deceptive reports, made by interested parties, who strive to make themselves appear useful, and are afraid of losing their situation. I could make such statements on this subject as would not be credited.

There is but one way, that I am aware of, in which these asylums can be rendered useful to society, and that would be, by converting them into model farms; that would provide men fit for agriculture, which is the only means of making a country grow rich and prosperous. Model farms could be established at very little expense, and, after two or three years' time, would be able to support themselves; but to arrive at this result, and secure success, they must be placed under the direction of men more practical than theoretical, whose deeds will tell, and who do not like to write or make reports; men who do good for the sake of good, and await their reward from God alone, faring like settlers, unprovided with large salaries, and who will take these children and look upon them as their own. Without these conditions success could not be obtained. This also is from experience.

When men are placed at the head of public establishments who love fame, can write, or address the public through the medium of the newspaper press, who wish to make themselves a name, or obtain preferment, all their occupation consists in finding a way to deceive the public, and especially the legislators, which is a thing easily done by publishing theories, that fail afterwards only through the inattention of their subordinates, never through theirs: what they care for, is their fortunes, not the good of the country. Let us not forget that these men must be guided by a religious feeling, and that it is only in this spirit that good can be effected in a firm and durable way.

It is above all of importance in the beginning that we lay down the basis of a rigid discipline, both in the moral and religious point of view, for if ever corruption creep into the establishment, all will be lost - to reform it would be impossible. Corruption in an institution is like an infectious disease, it will attach itself to its walls, and all attempts at remedying the evil will only palliate, but never entirely root it out.

If new countries wish to guard against the misfortunes of the old, they must avoid falling into their errors; this would be a very dangerous mistake, which, if added to the one that has already been committed in establishing so many small colleges, would very soon be the ruin of the country. It were much better to give a good primary education and instruction adapted to the wants of the country, than to create institutions that would tend to nothing but to draw away the people from the labours of the field, and make of them lawyers and notaries, often without any talent, their only merit consisting in labouring to make humanity more wretched. A good primary education is not attended with this defect, it never draws men from their station but makes good workmen, that are intelligent, laborious, economical, of good morals and who are polite, but it never teaches man to be proud and scornful towards his fellow-beings.

The following is the number of children that attend the Friars' schools in Canada and the United States: Montreal, 1869, children at the other stations, 2508, total, 4377. In the United States, in 9 different houses, 4211; making a total, 8588."

The Inspector will not disguise the fact, that he derived much satisfaction when he found that sentiments which he had cherished for many years, had met with such complete confirmation from a quarter so thoroughly unbiassed and deserving of every confidence and respect, and the Inspector hesitates not to assert that the noble efforts of the teachers of the "école chrétienne," would on every consideration be deserving of the countenance and favor of the government, as the most efficient auxiliary it could possibly have in the instruction and education of youth, thereby fostering good habits, and consequently the best safeguard against crime and its sad and multifarious consequences.

In addition to the opinion entertained by the Inspector, and hereinbefore expressed, that the present state of the country and its population, taken into consideration, no immediate necessity apparently exists for the establishment of houses of refuge for youthful offenders; if, indeed, such a contingency should ever occur, it may with no little plausibility be urged, that the child who has passed several years in one of these retreats becomes habituated to it, and acclimatised as it were, it loses in his sight the character of a prison, and he becomes attached to it as to a home; the plasticity of his young mind leads him readily to assimilate his ideas with all that surrounds him, the very restraint he is placed under loses its irksomeness, and becomes congenial with his feelings, and thus ultimately and insensibly he cherishes his abode, nor, is it at all singular that it should be so, for he is well fed, comfortably clad and lodged, kindly treated and little worked; and during sickness he receives every necessary attention and comfort.

Under such influences is it at all marvellous, that he should ere long entertain a desire to return to a place in which he has passed his happiest years, and where he had been saved from the privations and miseries he had been subjected to from the unkindness of his, perhaps, vicious parents.

It is of no avail that he is told that he has escaped from a prison, for his most intimate convictions impress indelibly upon him, that there he has been humanely treated, sheltered and protected; hence it would be no punishment for him to be remanded to his old quarters, and asylum he would be disposed, and would most readily seek, should he suffer any privation or ill treatment from his parents or from some harsh and cruel master; so that the remark is true, that "prisons are more dreaded by those who have never been inmates of them, than by those who have."

Besides the above mentioned attractions, which should militate against the establishment of such institutions, there is yet another very manifest objection to them, and this is, that it has been abundantly proved that reformation seldom or never results from a sojourn in anyone of these asylums; on the contrary, the bad are usually made worse, and the well disposed are sure to be corrupted; the association even, with spirits of so kindred a nature, may be another inducement for them to return to their former abode. The pernicious influence which throughout pervades such institutions, is well depicted by the Good Friar, in the valuable document, of which a transcript and translation has just been given, the original whereof, in the vernacular tongue, will be found in the appendix to the report of the Inspector, by which it is clearly shown, that it is next to an utter impossibility to reform youth, that are congregated together in large numbers, notwithstanding the best devised means for preventing contamination, and truly has the worthy superior said, "that the moral atmosphere of the place is tainted and poisoned by the very presence of its inmates." It is also recorded, that the benevolent Harriet B. Stowe, stated that, "the subtle atmosphere of opinion maketh itself felt without words."

The impudent leer, the independent strut, and the swaggering gait, exercise a singular influence, and it is to such a demeanor, which can neither be controlled nor corrected, that may be attributed in a great measure, all the evils resulting from the association of a number of ill bred children, who are continually in each others company, although silence may, even at all times, be enjoined.

The excitement incident to the labors of the field, the constant change of position and occupation, the separation from each other while engaged in these field labors, and the physical efforts that are continually made by them, exhaust as it were the superabundant mental action resulting from a vigorous bodily frame, hence is attained a quiet, placid, and contented disposition.

If there be aught of truth, or even vraisemblance, in the above allegation, it should lead to deep reflection before determining on any public institution for juvenile delinquents and vagrants.

It is very true the example of England, France, other European nations, and even the United States, may be considered as definitive on this subject, and it may be deemed presumption on the part of any private individual to suggest any objection to the following such example; still, the Inspector feels so thoroughly convinced of the correctness of the position he has assumed, on this really momentous subject, that he scruples not to subject himself to any remarks, however harsh, that may be made respecting his hazarding an opinion opposed to dogmas so generally received. Another very cogent reason could be adduced against such institutions, even if they were not subjected to the objections above stated, and that is, that the trades taught there are only such as generally can be exercised in towns and cities, the very hotbed of vice and corruption, and this is so much the case, that the same population in a city, sends twenty culprits to gaol, for one that is sent from a rural population of equal number; nor must it be forgotten, that the unfortunate inmates of the house of correction were, in the first instance, contaminated in a large and close population, and after having suffered the penalty for faults, which in the majority of cases, did not originate in themselves, they are sent back again, older in years, but quite as corrupt as when they left the scene of their former vices, having greater bodily strength, more intelligence, less dread of a gaol, and ready to enter anew upon their sad career of crime, pests to society and burdens to themselves.

Now, if this picture has any resemblance to reality, would it not be a duty incumbent on the legislature to prevent results which experience proves, are as much to be anticipated as dreaded.

The Inspector may, perchance, be accused of enthusiasm in this matter, that he magnifies dangers and sees results beyond the ken of other men - it may be so; yet, seeing that model farms are about to be established in divers parts of this province, it might be prudent to test their use as places of correction and instruction for the poor child of degraded parents; there he will be taught an avocation that can alone be followed up at a distance from the allurements and corruption of the city; and, there he will learn to eschew vice, cherish industry, and at last become a valuable member of that society, of which he might, under other circumstances, have become the bane and the terror.

Wolfred Nelson
Montreal, 8th September, 1852

Note: This text is an excerpt from the following document.

Report of Dr. Wolfred Nelson, one of the Inspectors of the Provincial Penitentiary, on the present state, discipline, management and expenditure of the district and other prisons in Canada East Quebec, John Lovell, 1852

Obvious spelling or typographical errors have been corrected.

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