August 02, 2007

The Criminal Type


From Jessica Mitford's 1973 work Kind and Unusuals Punishment:

Discussing the importance of identifying the dangerous classes of 1870, a speaker at the American Prison Congress said: "The quality of being that constitutes a criminal cannot be clearly known, until observed as belonging to the class from which criminals come...A true prison system should take cognizance of criminal classes as such." His examination of 15 prison populations showed that 53,101 were born in foreign countries, 47,957 were native born, and of these "full 50 percent were born of foreign parents, making over 76 percent of the whole number of whose tastes and habits were those of such foreigners as emigrate to this country."

At the same meeting, J.B. Bittinger of Pennsylvania described the tastes and habits of these dissolute aliens: "First comes rum, to keep up spirits and energy for night work; then three fourths of their salaries are spent in theaters and barrooms...many go to low concert saloons only to kill time...they play billiards for drinks, go to the opera, to the theater, oyster suppers and worse...they have their peculiar literature: dime novels, sporting papers, illustrated papers, obscene prints and photographs." Commenting on the large numbers of foreign-born in prison, he added: "The figures here are so startling in their disproportions as to foster, and apparently to justify, a strong prejudice against our foreign population."

The criminal type of yesteryear was further elaborated on in 1907 by J. E. Brown, in an article entitled "The Increase of Crime in the United States.": "In poorer quarters of our great cities may be found huddled together the Italian bandit and the bloodthirsty Spaniard, the bad man from Sicily, the Hungarian, Croatian and the Pole, the Chinamana nd the Negro, the Cockney Englishman, the Russian and the Jew, with all the centuries of hereditary hate back of them."

In 1970 Edward G. Banfield, chairman of President Nixon's task force on the Model Cities Program, updated these descriptions of the lower-class slum-dweller in his book The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of the Ubran Crisis, an influential book that is required reading in innumerable college courses. Since it is reportedly also recommended reading in the White House, presumably it reflects the Administration's conception of the criminal classes as they exist today.

"A slum is not simply a district of low-quality housing," says Mr. Banfield. "Rather it is one in which the style of life is squalid and vicious." The lower-class individual is "incapable of conceptualizing the future or of controlling his impulses and is therefore obliged to live from moment to moment ... impulse governs his behavior ... he is therefore radically improvident; whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless. His bodily needs (especially for sex) and his taste for 'action' take precedence over everything else--and certainly over any work routine." Furthermore, he "has a feeble, attenuated sense of self...

"The lower-class individual lives in the slum and sees little or no reason to complain. He does not care how dirty and dilapidated his housing is either inside or out, nor does he mind the inadequacy of such public facilities as schools, parks, and libraries; indeed, where such things exist, he destroys them by acts of vandalism if he can. Features that make the slum repellent to others actually please him.

The brilliance of Mitford is her reliance on the words of those she studies, framed by her almost anthropological approach. She notes with some irony the self-congratulatory tone of prison reformers, one of whom announced that "we are entering our second century of reform."

Posted by Ideofact at August 2, 2007 11:56 PM


Bill, have you ever read C.S. Lewis on prison reform? I'd be interested to hear your comments.

One article,


Posted by: Mahsheed at August 3, 2007 06:39 AM

Has anyone read Ms. Mitford's "Kind and Usual Punishment"?

Posted by: Karen Leonard at August 5, 2007 03:41 PM

Mahsheed --

I'll give it a read, and let you know what I think. I've been a big fan of C.S. Lewis' "The Discarded Image."

Karen --

The above quote is from Kind and Usual Punishment, which I'm reading now. The book, sadly, is out of print. Not only should it be reissued, but someone should update it.

Posted by: Bill at August 5, 2007 09:48 PM