Who's Who

Churchill as Home Secretary: Prison Reform

Accounts of Winston Churchill's conduct of this office in 1910-11 generally underline those incidents of public disorder rioting coal miners in Tonypandy; besieged revolutionaries in Sidney Street. Victor Bailey asserts they reveal Churchill as an illiberal, sabre-rattler, eager for armed conflict between soldiers and workers.

An analysis of Churchill's administrative and legislative efforts in the realm of prison reform uncovers a rather different Home Secretary: one keenly concerned to balance the claim of social defence against crime with that of justice for the individual offender. 'The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals', Churchill advised the House of Commons, in an oft-quoted line, 'is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.'

Shortly after becoming Liberal Home Secretary in 1910, at the age of thirty-five, Winston Churchill embarked upon an ambitious reform of the English prison system. His opening gambit was audacious by the standards of any former or subsequent Home Secretary: 'to arrange matters so that next year there will be 50,000 fewer people sent to prison than this year'. Once this massive reduction in the number of committals for petty offences was achieved, Churchill envisaged a radical reorganisation of the penal system. As he stated in a minute to his officials:

Instead of having a lot of prisons of substantially the same type... scattered about all over the country, we should have a regular series of scientifically graded institutions which would gradually and increasingly become adapted to the treatment of every variety of human weakness.

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