This is an extract from a letter Oscar Wilde wrote to ‘The Daily Chronicle’ newspaper after his own release in 1897 from Reading prison. The letter, entitled: “The Case of Warder Martin: Some Cruelties of Prison Life”, shows his concern over the treatment of children in prisons.
To The Editor, The Daily Chronicle, Friday 28th May 1897.
Dear Sir, the present treatment of children is terrible, primarily from people not understanding the psychology of a child’s nature. A child cannot understand a punishment inflicted by society.
The child consequently, being taken away from its parents by people whom it has never seen before, and of whom it knows nothing, and finding itself in a lonely and unfamiliar cell, waited on by strange faces, and ordered about and punished by representatives of a prison system that it cannot understand, becomes an immediate prey to the first and most prominent emotion produced by modern prisons – the emotion of terror.
The terror of a child in prison is quite limitless. I remember once, in Reading prison, as I was going out to exercise, seeing in the dimly-lit cell right opposite my own, a small boy. Two warders — not unkindly men — were talking sternly to him, or perhaps giving him some useful advice about his behaviour. One was in the cell with him, the other was standing outside. The child’s face was like a white wedge of sheer terror. There was in his eyes the terror of a hunted animal.
The next morning I heard him at breakfast time crying and begging to be let out. His cry was for his parents. From time to time I could hear the deep voice of the warder on duty telling him to keep quiet. Yet he was not even convicted of whatever little offence he had been charged with. He was simply on remand. This I knew by his wearing of his own clothes, which seemed neat enough. He was, however, wearing prison socks and shoes. This showed that he was a very poor boy, whose own shoes, if he had any, were in a bad state. Justices and magistrates, an entirely ignorant class as a rule, often remand children for a week. They call this “not sending a child to prison”. It is, of course, a stupid view on their part. To a little child whether he is in prison on remand, or after conviction, is no different. To him, the horrible thing is to be there at all. In the eyes of humanity it should be a horrible thing for him to be there at all.