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Roman Prisons by James Acland (The Times 1826)

August 2, 2009


As the subject of Gaol regulations has long been before the public, both in Parliament discussions and written argument, it may be matter of interest to see some of the prison rules of the Imperial law in the fourth century they beat marks of humanity and justice, which do credit to the age in which they were framed and carried into effect.


“Whenever a culprit is held in custody, whether upon the charge of an individual or a public prosecution he ought forthwith to be bought to trial, that the guilty may be punished and the innocent discharged. But if the prosecutor be absent, or it should be thought necessary to postpone the trial for the apprehension of accomplices, care should be taken to expedite the business as quickly as possible, and in the meantime the prisoner ought not to be so severely hand-cuffed, as to have his wrists pinched and lacerated by the iron; his chains should have that degree of looseness (supposing his crime to be of such a nature as to require the severity of irons besides confinement) as will be sufficient to secure his body without putting it to torture; neither should he be made to suffer the darkness of a dungeon, but should be permitted to enjoy the blessing and benefit of light; and when at nightfall it becomes necessary to adopt additional precautions to secure his person, he should be put into a wholesome cell or sleeping room, and upon the return of day, at sun-rise, he should be immediately restored to the light of heaven, that his prison may not be made a place of punishment, and his life be taken away before trial. A proceeding that would be as cruel to the innocent as it is known to be insufficient as a punishment to the guilty.”

“It must also be observed, that gaolers and their servants are not to sell their cruelty to prosecutors; they are not to consign innocent men to death within the walls of the prison, or wear them out by the wasting anxiety of a protracted trial. The judges of our Courts will be in danger, not only of our displeasure, but also of the pains and penalties, should it be proved that any gaoler hath, unlawfully, extended the term of the prisoner’s confinement, or worn him out by hunger or any other privation, and that the judge hath not inflicted some heavy punishment upon such gaolers and his assistance. Given at our Court at Sardica, the last day of June, A.D. 353.”

“Since one and the same apartment in gaols is used for the confinement of prisoners of both sexes, we ordain, that although for the same sort of offences there must be no difference in the punishment, there must nevertheless be separate enclosures and wards in each prison for prisoners of different sexes.”

The following shows that the Emperor was aware how much public opinion is the safeguard of the liberty of the subject, and a check to the arbitrary power of Magistrates:-

“If any man should be detected in a crime or misdemeanour worthy of the confinement and dissolution of a Gaol, let him have a hearing in a public Court, and, after sufficient evidence hath been taken upon such crime or misdemeanour, let him be made to endure the pain of imprisonment, and then let him be brought up a second time for trial at the acts. By these means the public will, as it were, become witnesses of the whole transaction, and the crime committed, will become a matter of commemoration; and thus, if in any instance the judge should suffer his indignation to subdue his judgement, he will be checked by the salutary control of public opinion.”

James Acland
The Times 30th August 1826

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