Louis-René Villermé 1820

On Prisons as They Are and as They Should Be

Source: Des prisons telles qu'elles sont et telles qu'elles devraient etre. Paris, Mequignon-Marvis, 1820;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2014;
Translator’s note: This translation is dedicated to the memory of Lambert King, MD, PhD, physician and fighter for the right of all to the best health care.

The Number and size of prisons, considered in relation to the number of individuals imprisoned there.

Is there a sufficiently large number of prisons, and are those that exist large enough to receive all those who laws and governments want imprisoned? The answer to this question will be different for each country, and even for each jurisdiction, but in general it must be negative. As proof of this it would perhaps suffice to recall that many prisons are full of detainees who incommode each other, hinder each other in their movements, and mutually poison the air they breathe. Without even leaving the department of the Seine I could cite Sainte-Pélagie, Bicêtre, the maison de répression of Saint Denis, the jail of the prefecture of police, etc. And without leaving France we have all the penal colonies where the prisoners are accumulated to the point where soon no more will be able to enter if the number of condemnations doesn’t soon decrease; most of the penitentiaries which, due to lack of room, cannot receive the nearly 10,000 persons who encumber the departmental prisons; the prison of Roane in Lyon, which is one of the most horrible; most of the prisons of the department of the Indre; the house of justice of Bourg-en-Bresse; that of Limoges, etc, which were so over-crowded a few years ago (they still are or at least almost all of them are) that the accused, the condemned, the young, the old, men, and women were placed together in most of them without our being able to observe the separations that justice and morality demand and that the law commands.

In Paris it was necessary that the buildings serving as prisons be at least a third larger than they are and the courtyards twice as large. Finally, and to cite but one example, in 1817 in the detention center of Remiremont, where the sections serving to house the prisoners are made up of but three cells which are each three meters by four, and of two chambers four and a half meters by four and a half meters, there were never less than thirty people, and the number of prisoners reached as high as ninety-seven.

Nevertheless, however small our prisons are for the number of those imprisoned, those of England are far from being proportionally as spacious. This has been abundantly proven in the work that Mr. Thomas Fowell Buxton just published, as well as by several facts that I shall cite elsewhere. Many insalubrious prisons, and principally those we see in Germany in most military sites and elsewhere are also too narrow, however vast they are thought to be, since prisoners should not be housed in either dark underground spaces or in filthy and humid places. Add to this consideration that there are circumstances during which the number of prisoners can considerably increase, as we have often seen in the case of political reactions. We have seen that at those times, in the name of humanity and the country, victims are piled on top of each other in places where they could possibly quickly succumb to the infections that develop there.

Conditions that should exist in the buildings serving as prisons:

They should all be related to security, comfort, good morals and salubriousness. I shall indicate those relative to the latter.

Dry and well-aired spots should be chosen for the placement of prisons, and they should be close to a river, a stream, or a fountain that furnishes water both healthy and in a quantity sufficient for all needs; should running water be lacking it could be abundantly supplied by means of wells.

A prison must be vast. The fault of almost all of them is that of not being enough so. Outside of his lodging a free man has as much space as he wants, but for the prisoner...the walls of his prison are the limits that neither his steps nor his sight can pass and that his imagination makes even more narrow. Since the population of prisons is variable, all of them must be large enough to contain, without causing harm to health or service, a third more individuals than the number it is supposed to hold.

The first condition for the improvement of prisons, the condition without which all others would miss their goal, is to sufficiently multiply the buildings so that there can be established in them all the separations necessary, not only between the different classes of prisoners, but also among the ill and those in good health and between the sleeping quarters and those where the prisoners work or pass the day.

The courtyards, large, well paved, partially planted with trees, offering a slight slope and having large buildings for walks when it rains, should give those who can only pass through them the means to take healthy exercise.

The prisoners should only be placed in places that are dry , well lighted, and ventilated. This is why arcades under the buildings will always be preferable to the large buildings of which I just spoke. I will add to the reasons of humanity that render this an obligation that it is by doing this that much will be saved on the cost of treatment of many illnesses. Following the remarks of J. Howard, security is principally found in arcades, for those who escape from prison ordinarily do so by digging out of their chambers or cells.

One of the simplest, most effective, and least costly methods for making prisons salubrious is to multiply the windows, to place them opposite each other, and to have them measure, at least those facing the courtyard, the height they ordinarily have in our dwellings. The windows on the opposite side should have shutters when they open onto the public roads or onto a place that it is vital the prisoners not be able to look out on. At the bottom of these second windows, or when neither the one nor the other is low enough, fans can be set up at floor level. This is what was done in a quite happy fashion in several dormitories of the Saint Denis prison and what should be implemented in almost all prisons. We were astonished to read in J. Howard that there should be no glass in the windows of the guilty, but that these windows should be narrow and blocked with straw during the night. Despite the assertion of this so eminently philanthropic citizen, it is only in the most southern provinces or during the heat of summer that there is no need of glass in prison windows, and salubriousness demands that they never be blocked with straw. In any case, the windows should be disposed in such a way that there is no possibility for the prisoners in one chamber to converse with those in another.

The doors of dormitories, or rather those of the cells of the condemned (for all of these detainees should be separated from each other during the night) should always be simple grills through which the air is renewed and the guards, walking in the corridors, should be able to easily exercise their surveillance. If a grill should be lacking each door should have, as in Paris and in most cities, a window serving the same purpose.

The stairways, the corridors, the workshops, etc. should also contribute to the salubriousness of prisons. They should be at a distance from any other building. An exterior wall should always be separated from them by a large space serving as a path for rounds. This wall, which will completely encircle the establishment, will have the quadruple advantage of isolating it, of permitting without any inconvenience the complete ventilation of all parts, of facilitating its surveillance, and of rendering it more difficult to cross over its border.

As for the dungeons (dark prison, underground, secret, to hide[1] monuments of feudalism and barbarism that we still find everywhere, there should no longer be any, unless we call by this name the internal police chambers, as in Paris, which are normally as healthy or almost as healthy as the rest of the establishment. Nevertheless, the completely dark and damp and airless room that serves as a dungeon at Grande-Force and the current dungeons of Bicêtre should excite the indignation of every friend of humanity in the capital and at its gates.

In the beautiful and vast abbey of Loo near Lille that is today being converted into a prison, they began not only by walling in the lower part with cross bars, by tearing down walls to make larger sleeping chambers, but also by building cellars destined to serve as dungeons.

In order to prevent any underground imprisonment the authorities must fill in all those in prisons. This act would be one of the noblest titles to glory of the government that would order it, and posterity would place the name of the monarch under whom it had been done above the names of Titus and Trajan.

It is to the large size and layout of the prisons of Ghent and Saint Lazare in Paris that is owed their salubriousness and their ability to observe the regulations that rule them.

Jeremy Bentham had proposed for workhouses and houses of correction, under the name of Panopticon, a circular or polygonal edifice having a pavilion for the inspector or concierge at the center. The latter could easily exercise the assiduous surveillance that is necessary at all times in all parts of such a prison, but their courtyards would always be too small. Four vast courtyards, separated by buildings and walls disposed in the form of a cross, at the meeting point of which would be the inspection pavilion, would have the same advantage without any inconveniences.


1- Cells and Irons

It is not in order to secretly torment the guilty that justice should imprison him, but to put a stop to his career of crime and to frighten those who would be tempted to imitate him. Why then take prisoners down into the cellar? Why weigh them down with irons, attach them to a post, garotte them? Yet this is what is commonly done in Spain, in Portugal, in Italy, and in all the states of Germany. As for irons themselves, nothing is more capricious than their usage in England: in the prisons called Chelmsford and Newgate all those who are there for a crime punishable by death are put in chains; irons are not known in Bury and in Norwich irons; in Abingdon those who haven’t yet been judged have none. On the contrary, in Derby only the latter have them put on, and in Winchester it is all those who have not yet been judged and those condemned to deportation.

In France dungeons are still common but irons are rare. In this capital the latter are unknown, even for the worst criminals, or if they are sometimes employed it is only momentarily and to contain those who are in an enraged state and want to either destroy themselves or throw themselves upon others. It is regrettable that for this purpose we don’t use, as is the case in hospitals, strait jackets. As for dungeons... M. Alex. de la Borde saw, in the beggar’s jail of St Denis, a seventy year old man who'd been thrown into a room similar to one for a pig, where in the dead of winter he had been laying for twenty-four hours on a wood plank, without straw, in the midst of all kinds of filth. It is with great pain that in the central house of detention in Melun, a prison worthy of serving as a model for many reasons, we see serving as cells small wooden huts with a strong chain and an enormous iron collar that is put around the neck of those they want to punish. When these huts are opened one would think they were destined for the most fearsome of ferocious beasts.

2- Torture

Worthy of the times when the test of fire, when the test by arms were called God’s judgment, the horrible pains of torture are only still in use in countries where fanaticism, ignorance, and barbarism reign. Nevertheless, the passion for obtaining confessions has had us substitute a slow torture... We should also consider as a veritable torture the position of a man locked in a cellar where he is virtually crippled after one night, so great is the humidity; and that of another who is loaded down with heavy chains that excoriate his limbs, hinder and impede his movements, etc, etc.

3- Welcoming

In almost all places when an unfortunate enters prison he runs the risk of being mistreated if he refuses to pay what is called the “welcome.” In Lyon, in the horrible prison of Roanne, whoever arrives there without the 20 sous[2], which are drunk up in common, is stripped of his clothing, which is sold among the prisoners.

4 -Blows and other ill treatment

Will I speak of the blows that are so generally meted out to prisoners in Germany, in all of Northern Europe, and even the prisoners in our penal colonies? Of the insults addressed them everywhere? Will I say there are concierges or jailers who, speculating on the weakness and the state of dependence of prisoners and who, exploiting all the abuses to their profit, throw the unfortunates into the dungeon and attach them with bonds in order to make them pay later for freedom of movement for their bodies and less difficult sleep, and who even sell them the bread the state owes them? The profession of prison employees is too often converted into that of a vampire: they mercilessly suck out all the blood of the unfortunates who are confided to their keeping. Will I also say that they search from head foot those who enter prison; that sometimes suspenders, ties, pocket handkerchiefs, money, jewelry, papers, etc. are taken from them? I have also learned that in Paris they put iron handcuffs on a prisoner while he is being shaved.

When will we banish all these hardships that the law doesn’t order? That justly plunge the prisoner into despair and irritate him, and among their consequences cause the loss of health? In prisons everything should have a serious character; but every penalty, every privation, every useless severity is an insult to humanity.

5- Pistole

In prisons “pistole chambers,” or simply the “pistole” (the etymology is simple to grasp2) are rooms where prisoners are placed who pay to have better lodgings, to have better bedding than the others, and to be separated from the common run of prisoners . “Pistole chambers” can be defined as furnished rooms held by the concierges or jailers. Since it is those who inhabit them who provide the best revenue for the latter, everything that is good or less bad is for them. The filthiest rooms and revolting supplies are for those unfortunates whose great fault is that of having no money to give. I am far from condemning the humane usage of according to a prisoner the possibility of being as little uncomfortable as possible in prison: strictly speaking this is even just, especially for those who are only accused. The abuse lies in the fact that this is always done at the expense of others. While waiting for this to cease, the laborer or the poor artisan, unjustly accused, will lose his health in damp rooms, without air or light, as is the case in the terrible dormitories of the Conciergerie, which open directly onto the men’s courtyard, because an opulent rogue is often in the same prison as he. It is thus that in all prisons the purity of the air is sold to the rich as if it were not also the property of the poor, and they violate the right to equality guaranteed by the law. We will only see this enormous and scandalous difference disappear when all parts of the prisons will be equally salubrious, or when there will be, as we proposed, separate prisons for those who can pay completely maintained at the prisoners’ expense, and whose administration will have nothing in common with that of other prisons.


I don’t know if the point of public hygiene which I have treated of and which is intermingled with morality and political economy assumed the appropriate character under my pen. I wanted to make known the ordinary state of prisons and the ways in which they act upon health and morality. The interest, the importance of this subject demanded that I demonstrate the general lack of concern for the lot of prisoners. I thus thought it necessary to show how often they are murdered (and this is not in the least an hyperbole) by the prison regime, and that the governments themselves support with their authority the evil spirit that leads so many of these temples of justice. When such serious facts seem to be ignored it is only when one is armed with facts that they should be spoken.

If those upon whom the lot of prisoners depended were to occasionally quit their gilded apartments to visit the prisons they would offer far fewer attacks on basic humanity. We would no longer see men, the innocent and the guilty, treated like chained beasts. It would not be enough to assure the health of the victims of vice: people would want to wrest vice itself from their hearts. Guided by this sentiment we would feel the need to house them, clothe them, to nourish them appropriately, to keep them occupied. We would never lose sight of the fact that they must again become citizens of the state, and we would consequently strive to inculcate healthy ideas in them by giving them good habits (since for most men morality resides in habit) by the simultaneous employment of all the means at our disposal. In a word, to render them useful to society. From this point on the latter would cease to demand that imprisonment almost never have an end. From this point on we would no longer see judges set the scandalous yet necessary example of sometimes leaving crime unpunished in order not to drag into a total and certain depravity guilty individuals who are capable of returning to the path of honor, or in order to avoid causing their death by sending them to prisons depopulated by a terrible and inevitable epidemic.

Nothing then is less impolitic or more absurd than the system of most prisons. All that is thought of is striking with an iron club. The prisoners themselves recognize this and say it along with us, while in Philadelphia the say and think the contrary. There are even cited cases where those who, permanently corrected in the prisons of that city, address inspectors upon their departure to say to them: pursue the plan you are following and which made an honest man of me; the result will be to make honest men of the others.

Given the facts I've reported, who can doubt that the law everywhere in Europe abandons prisoners to the whims and arbitrary power of prison directors? In truth there exist, at least in France, wise regulations on this point but, to use the expression of an eloquent writer, such is the ignorance of laws and the servility or morals that the very victims of the abuses consecrate and perpetuate them by their silence.

Those who listen less to reason and experience than they allow themselves to be led by the force of prejudice will perhaps speak of the madness of my projects and of my having spoken in paradoxes. But I would ask them if the general example of Europe allows us to take for anything but a fable what we know of the prisons in the United States of America? I could also cite Newgate prison in London where, thanks to a woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Fry, we saw an almost magical reform suddenly occur during the winter 1816-17.

Let us then hope that governments, listening to the interests of the country and humanity, adopt the measures most appropriate for the prisoners, for society, and for themselves. It appears that so noble an undertaking has just begun in Russia for the prisons of St Petersburg and Moscow. The example of the prisons of Philadelphia and the investigations of the London Society for the Improvement of Prisons and the Reform of Young Criminals ( a society whose like has just been established by the government in Paris) leaves no doubt as to the means to be put to use and the good results we would obtain from them.

In order to reach this necessary goal of prison reform, which is less difficult than we think, J. Howard proposed that each prison have unpaid inspectors charged with the honorable task of visiting them, of softening for the prisoners the often unjust severe measures exercised against them. I would ask that they should never be chosen from among the employees of the public ministry and that the Royal Society for the Improvement of Prisons should charge some of its members with visiting them often or naming one or several inspectors-general whose reports could be published in the “Moniteur” and other newspapers. It is in this way that we would force the local administrations, if not to replace contempt for the unfortunates with love of humanity, at least to render their position more in conformity with the laws of justice. The measure I am proposing should also be applied to the hospitals of many cities. It is in this way that harmful routine and so many homicidal vices would disappear from these important branches of the public service. I would like to think that through the progress of reason and enlightenment I will finally see in the south of our Europe that happy epoch where, as in the United States (a region where less than elsewhere liberty is a vain word and public happiness a pretext), prisons will become what they should be. This is what we should soon expect in France of the Royal Society for the Improvement of Prisons and of the spirit of a century which tends towards the perfecting of all institutions. Important improvements are already being carried out in the prisons of Paris and some departments.

May the work I presented in a few years offer nothing but a dark and unrecognizable picture of prisons! My satisfaction would then be great, especially if I could believe that I was not completely foreign to the happy reform that I call for with all my heart.


1. The French word for dungeon is cachot, and that for to hide is cacher.

2. An old form of French currency