Wolfred Nelson Report - 1852

Juvenile delinquents

Wolfred Nelson (1791-1863) is an interesting character. An English-speaking doctor in Lower Canada (as the province of Quebec was then called), he became a leader in the Rebellion of 1837 for responsible government. From 1827 to 1830 he served as a member of Lower Canada's Legislative Assembly.

Nelson was a strong and vocal critic of the government. He agitated for reforms that would give the French-speaking majority some real power in the affairs of Lower Canada. When the British blocked these efforts, Nelson decided that the government would have to be changed by force. Thus, in the fall of 1837, he became a leading speaker at political meetings in urging the people to take action.

During the open rebellion that soon followed, Nelson organized the defence of the village of Saint-Denis, where on 23 November 1837 he led a group of rebels in repelling a far larger force of professional British soldiers. The victory of the insurgents was significant, but the only one they achieved. For the rebellion was quickly put down, and Nelson was arrested. After seven months in prison, he was banished to Bermuda in 1838. His confinement there soon ended, however, for he was released in the same year. In 1843 he took advantage of an amnesty to return to Canada and resumed his medical practice in Montreal. From 1844 to 1851 he sat in the Legislative Assembly. In 1851 he withdrew from active political life and took a government position as an inspector of prisons. His interests in social issues continued, however, for in this new capacity he released a report in 1852 on the state of prisons in Quebec. The report was wide ranging and dealt in part with the treatment of juvenile delinquents. As this section provides insights into the prevailing ideas of the time on the proper treatment of minors, it is presented here, both to facilitate comparisons with current approaches to the question and for the sake of its own interest as a document of social history.

The subject of juvenile delinquency has as yet scarcely engaged the attention of the public in Canada; it is consequently fortunate that we can find elsewhere information and precedent by which to be guided in the formation and adoption of laws for the punishment and correction of such as so early in life offend against the laws of their country, and threaten to become its very worst subjects and enemies. It is therefore with pleasure that reference can be made to such high authority in these matters, as Lieutenant-Colonel Jebb, in England, who is perhaps the very first authority in these matters. In the second Report on Prisons, in 1847, he uses this language while treating on youthful criminals: "There is great difficulty in maintaining a really effective discipline suitable for juveniles in almost all prisons, in consequence of the small number of prisoners justifying the expense of an adequate staff for their special instruction and management;" but he states, in another place, "in most of the new prisons, there is a ward specially designed for juveniles" - an example it would seem deserving of notice in Canada; it is, however, to be hoped that but little expense will be incurred in repairing and making additions to old gaols, or in the purchase of old houses or buildings to be converted into prisons for this class of offenders; but where it is required, and can be done at comparatively small cost, a few cells could be made in some of the present goals that would answer all the ends of justice for some time to come, more particularly if the suggestions about to be made are deemed worthy of notice and are carried into effect. Lest the additions alluded to should be carried into operation, it may not be out of place to give a few details for the better construction of the cells. They should not be more than three feet wide nor more than eight feet long, and should connect with a room sufficiently spacious to serve as a school room and workshop, where the utmost silence should be observed, and where they should be always under the surveillance of their keeper, who should also act as schoolmaster, and, as soon as the tasks and teaching are over, the children should be taken back to their cells, which should be their dormitories, as well as a place of confinement during the day, when disobedient or vicious. It should ever be kept in mind, that, in the majority of instances, it is impossible to succeed in taming these perverse juveniles, except by subjecting them to silence and seclusion; a fact of which Messieurs DeBeaumont and DeTocqueville were well persuaded, and who thus express their conviction in their "Système Pénitentiaire." -

"La séparation individuelle des prisonniers dans les maisons d'arrêt, est le point de départ de tout bon régime d'emprisonnement;" and, a little further, we find these words: "L'isolement, qui comme moyen préservatif de la corruption est un si grand bienfait pour les détenus eux-mêmes, est aussi de toutes les mesures de discipline, celle qui leur fait sentir le plus vivement toute l'étendue de leur peine."

The expense of juvenile retreats is such, that Colonel Jebb makes the following suggestion: - "It would be advisable to facilitate the union of counties and boroughs, for the purpose of building and maintaining prisons or houses of detention, expressly for juvenile offenders under the age of fifteen years." It may be well to cite, as a proof of the expense attending such institutions in England, that the cost of keeping each boy in Packhurst prison, one of the best managed in the Kingdom, is one shilling and three pence per diem, or twenty-two pounds annually. Now, if in England, where the appliances are so abundant for the economical direction of such places, the above expenditure is incurred, certainly in Canada it can scarcely be less, where there exists fewer means of employing the culprits profitably. It should also be kept in mind, with reference to the expense, that the population is comparatively small, and is scattered over a vast extent of territory, with few large towns and places for the resort of the vicious; and it is to be hoped that for very many years to come the pauper population will not be so dense as to necessitate the building of establishments solely for the detention of vicious and vagrant children; and it is not to be presumed, that any idea is entertained which may afford facilities, or hold out inducement to the poor, idle and immoral, to cast their ill-bred offspring on the State for support and sustenance.

It must be admitted, that the outlay attending similar institutions in the United States is sometimes less considerable; still, the lowest average, it is believed, is never under fifty dollars per head, and, if the writer's memory serves him, at the admirable institution at South Boston, which he lately visited, the cost is double that sum. It may be remarked, by the way, and it will be only doing justice to the Charlestown Penitentiary, South Boston House of Correction and the juvenile retreat there, to state that these institutions appear to be conducted in the most praiseworthy manner, and whilst a rigid discipline is observed, the treatment and diet are quite unexceptionable, and though all are kept closely at work, none are overtasked, and all have a healthy, and, it may be added, a contented countenance.

The cost for a suitable building for this class of prisons cannot be much under twelve thousand pounds; even the little State of New Jersey has appropriated the sum of forty-five thousand dollars for one, and it is thought that a pretty large addition will be required to complete it.

As already observed, it does not appear that the population, as yet, require the establishment of such an institution; besides which, to the imperishable honor of an institution lately established in Canada, there is every reason to believe that the rising generation here will furnish a far less number of juvenile delinquents than perhaps at any other place in the wide world, and for this, thanks are due to that noble and benevolent Society, the "Christian Brothers," who educate gratis not only the poorer class of children, but also the children of the wealthy; and these excellent schools are not confined to the catholics alone, but are open to all who feel disposed to profit by the admirable system of education which they pursue, a purely secular system of education; during school hours religious topics are never broached. Catholic children regularly attend divine service in the parish church, nor would it inflict much injury on protestant children if they were compelled more strictly to attend their churches.

The philanthropist and the friend of order cannot but witness with infinite delight, hundreds of children marching in a long line to and from the school, in a most decent, modest manner, with a little fellow, decorated with a medal, at certain distances, marching on one side, seeing that order is kept. No racing, no pulling nor bad language, but all decent and peaceable; and although the great majority is poorly clad, yet there is an aspect of tidiness about them that at once conveys the conviction that notwithstanding that the parents were in humble condition, they are yet fully alive to the vast advantage their offspring derive from these matchless charity schools, and make every effort that they may benefit by them. Such schools are indeed the best guardians of public order, honor and prosperity, and confer benefits a hundred fold greater than can be derived from prisons and penitentiaries; one costs nothing to the State, but confers upon it a name and a character, whereas the others are attended with immense expense, and reflect little credit on the land; one will prevent crime and foster virtue, while the other punishes crime, and but too frequently only makes the bad worse.

Instead of paying tens of thousands for the retreats which have above been alluded to, let a few scores of pounds be appropriated for the purchase of elementary books, to be distributed to the children of the more destitute, for it has come to the knowledge of the Inspector that many children have not been sent to school, in consequence of the want of means to purchase a few books, paper, and a slate.

It should in all reason be deemed sufficient that these public benefactors devote their whole existence to the education of the poor, neither asking nor expecting fee or reward in this world, without compelling them as it were to provide stationery, at an expense far beyond their means.

It is only a few years since these excellent schools have been established in Canada, and the number of children attending them may already be counted by thousands, and the numbers will increase annually; still beneficial as they are, it cannot be expected that all the youth in the country will be good and virtuous, but there is every reason to expect that the number of bad will be so small as to find accommodation in common gaols, without erecting expensive establishments expressly for them, for with comparatively little alteration our present gaols will suffice for their temporary detention, and for graver cases, while undergoing the probation that will precede their transmission to the provincial penitentiary, where the staff is very complete, and where there are appliances for their punishment, and their instruction in useful trades, and where their moral and their religious duties will be duly attended to. But by far the best mode of detaining, punishing and correcting these unfortunate subjects, would in the generality of cases be found in model farms, a certain number of which, there can be no doubt, will ere long be established in the province, if merely for the purpose of extending agricultural knowledge, where they would learn the best of all avocations, farming, where their instruction in every particular could be faithfully attended to, where they would acquire vigor of constitution and a love for rural pursuits, and which would not leave a stain or an opprobrious impression behind. In support of this position the following short extract is taken from the "Pennsylvania Journal of Philanthropy and Prison Discipline": - "Schools of reform, where outdoor or field labor has been the chief occupation of the pupils, have received advantages, avoided evils, and obtained results, which do not appear in the history of other institutions, from which land labor has necessarily been excluded;" and in another place it is stated, "we cannot avoid the conviction that a discipline is practicable for juvenile offenders, which should be more wholesome, appropriate and efficient, than that which now prevails with far less semblance of prison architecture, and far more appropriate employment for the inmates;" and again, a little further, it is said, "the indenture of boys to farmers leads to a life free from temptation, and far more friendly to virtuous habits than any other, and the taste should be cultivated at the earliest possible period."

In the Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Society for 1850, page 488, it is stated, that "the apprentices generally give satisfaction, and are a blessing to others as well as themselves," and again, page 489, "No person can spend a day at the State Farm without being convinced of the great blessings conferred upon the juvenile delinquents here assembled."

This is an important subject, and there is every reason to be convinced that, the head of the Agricultural Bureau will turn that new and interesting office to good account, even were it only in the matter of destitute and offending children; were it for this alone, the new department should be hailed with pleasure, and meet with universal approbation and support.

The farms alluded to, should be situated far away from the contaminating influence of large towns, and even of villages.

Besides the model farms, or in their absence, large numbers of vagrant children and petty offenders could be well provided for among the farmers in the country, where even small children are made to be serviceable, while at Fredericton, in New Brunswick, the Inspector was confirmed in the truth of this position, which accorded with his own ideas, as he was assured by the keeper of the Alms-house there, that there were daily applications made by respectable farmers for children, and that they were readily taken, even so young as at the age of four or five years, and that it was impossible to supply the demand.

At all events the hints here thrown out, may be deserving of some attention, and may possibly lead to the adoption of measures, whereby the community may rid itself of youthful beggars, lead these poor abandoned little creatures from a course of idleness, vice and infamy unto useful and industrious habits, and thus make of them at a future day, profitable and respectable members of society.

It is very probable that measures may be adopted by the legislature, with reference more especially to juvenile offenders; in that case, it ought to be advised, that the adoption of some means by which the authority of parents of bad and dissolute character should be superseded, be enacted, whereby their children might be apprenticed to farmers or tradesmen.

This practice obtains in several of the neighbouring States; the children of dissolute and vagrant parents are taken from them, and bound out to persons worthy of confidence and respect; the authority which a parent usually wields is taken from him, and his child is regularly indentured, but under articles which secure the child's safety against ill usage and oppression, together with good training, and a proper domestic education.

It may likewise be expedient to constitute some tribunal, where summary and corporal punishment may be administered, and possibly regeneration may follow without leaving the indelible stain that ensues from imprisonment. This important subject has for many years been under deep consideration in England, and some of the most eminent legal authorities have advocated summary chastisement, a few of these, it may not be thought, irrelevant to cite here. Lord Mackenzie made the following statement among many others, before a committee of the House of Commons, in 1847: "Bodily pain being the great means by which nature deters man from what is to be avoided, I doubt if we can abandon whipping entirely in criminal justice, without a sacrifice of expediency." Sergeant Adams uses the following language before the committee: "We have substituted at Middlesex, whipping with a birch rod, and it is a singular but indubitable fact, that boys who laugh at being put into a dungeon, and at flogging with a cat, are upon their knees, blubbering and praying not be flogged with a birch rod. It deters more than anything else." Evidence to the same effect is borne by several persons, but more particularly by the governors of prisons in England, and Baron Alderson, who also gave evidence on the same occasion, makes the following addition to what he had before said in support of the necessity of flogging; he said: "I believe that the humanity which advocates a slight punishment for a first offence is real inhumanity; I am fully persuaded that a judicious plan of reform for juvenile offenders would be the most economical arrangement which could be made, the expense now incurred by repeated committals and trials, greatly exceed the probable cost of an attempt at an effectual reformation, and to cure this class of offenders, would be to cast off one most prolific source of adult crime." It is furthermore the opinion of the high individuals above named, as well as that of many judges in England, as far at least, as can be collected from the proceedings before the committee alluded to, that "magistrates should be empowered to decide, in a summary manner, many of the most ordinary offences of the common herd of young criminals; and it is recommended that there should be annexed to Police Courts, some place, where, for minor crimes, a sound but not cruel scourging, with a birch rod should be administered, after which to be dismissed to their homes," with this mark of what they will be exposed to if erring again, and they also be told that to this punishment would be added, a long sojourn either in a prison or in a penitentiary.

It would not, perhaps, be amiss to add a few more distinguished names, whose opinions corroborate the above views. Baron Rolfe, states: "I think it would be advantageous to give to magistrates a power of summarily convicting young offenders for petty thefts, and perhaps for some other crimes, and awarding the punishment of whipping either with or without imprisonment for some fixed period." And the Lord Justice General thus expresses his sentiments in this matter: "I have certainly sometimes had occasion to regret that a power to inflict moderate chastisement by whipping, was not sanctioned in regard to juvenile offenders as being entirely more calculated to deter from a repetition of the offence than the punishment of imprisonment alone. Let it be recollected that the fears of the criminal are the safeguards of society." - Crawford Russell.

The sentiments and opinions of such able and distinguished men, it is fair to suppose, will have due influence in this country; and that no ultra humane feelings will deter really benevolent and kind hearted men from putting to the test means that come so highly recommended, and that seem so well adapted for the suppression of crime, and through very fear, lead wayward youths into the paths of industry and propriety.

As the Inspector was about closing his report, it occurred to him, that he should visit the Friar's School for the purpose of acquiring all the information he could, in regard to the system of education followed there, as well as the benefits it was calculated to impart. This visit resulted in a manner far beyond his anticipations, for besides what he sought, he had the happiness of seeing, in the person of the head of that praiseworthy school, a gentleman of vast acquirements, who had consecrated uncommon talents and a long life to the most exalted of all occupations, that of striving to make the people better, or in the language of the motto of the institution, "Pour rendre le peuple meilleur," and who had been for eight years the chief director of a large juvenile penal establishment in France, where he had the most ample opportunity for studying the character of the inmates, the progress they were capable of making in secular and moral education, and how far they were influenced thereby. He stated, with tears in his eyes, that he feared greatly that more evil than good resulted, notwithstanding the unceasing efforts and vigilance of his brother Friars; duplicity and hypocrisy seemed to usurp the place of bold, reckless and manly daring. So perfectly unsuccessful had been their every effort, that it would appear as if the spirit of evil paraded every part, as if moral leprosy infected the very atmosphere of the place, and had fixed its vengeful arrows in every heart.

At the request of the Inspector, this estimable man undertook to commit to paper, in a concise manner, those views that he had entertained towards such institutions - views that are the result of great reading, extensive and patient observation, as well as from a vast amount of personal experience; and, two days after, the Inspector had the honor of receiving a visit from this true philanthropist, who put at his disposal a paper full of interest and information, and of which is subjoined a translation, and the original will be found in the Appendix, lettered E.f. It is a document well meriting record and the serious consideration of the government: