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    Debtors languish and die in the stink, starvation and suffocation of world’s worst jails

    SOCIAL HISTORY: stories of life and times in Canada past

    Debtors in Upper Canada languished and died in the stink, starvation and suffocation of what was said to be the world’s worst jails in the early nineteenth century. Women were not sentenced to debtors’ jail, but if your family was destitute, they joined you. Men, women and children, crowded the jails. If death seemed preferable, it was hastened by lack of sanitation and ventilation, overcrowding, near starvation rations of sometimes-rotten food, illness, and disease. At Niagara, a man confined to windowless, unventilated prison cell, eight-foot-square, died of suffocation when the summer temperature hit 105 Fahrenheit (41 Celsius).

    Upper Canada’s jails might have been the world’s worst, but they were not much better anywhere in Canada, nor in Britain. Charles Dickens, whose father died in one, described life in Britain’s debtor jails in his novel Little Dorrit. Little Dorrit was born, raised, cared for her father, married, and spent her entire life in jail.

    Canada editors courageous enough to defy the authorities assailed jail conditions and the senseless imprisonment of debtors, which helped neither debtors nor creditors.

    Incubators of crime
    Perhaps the first Canadian editor to tackle the issue was Henry Chubb, whose New Brunswick Courier on February 2, 1822 did so by reprinting On the Imprisonment of Debtors, by Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century lexicographer, author and critic. It dealt with the issue in England—where 20,000 debtors out of a population of six million lingered in jail—but drew attention to the issue in Britain’s North American colonies.

    “When twenty thousand reasonable beings are heard all groaning in unnecessary misery by…. the mistake or negligence of policy, who can forbear to pity and lament, to wonder and abhor,” Johnson wrote.

    Johnson estimated the public cost of imprisoned debtors at £300,000 pounds a year, “in ten years to more than a sixth part of our circulating coin.”

    He saw the debtor-filled jails as incubators of spiralling crime and evil. “The misery of goals is not half their evil: they are filled with every corruption which poverty and wickedness can generate between them; with all the shameless and profligate enormities that can be produced by the impudence of ignominy, the rage of want, and the malignity of despair.”

    World’s most barbaric jails
    Reform editor Francis Collins was in York jail barely starting a prison term for libel against the authorities and members of the notorious Family Compact when he wrote the account of Canada’s treatment of insolvent debtors, published in the Canadian Freeman, December 11, 1828.

    Of all the countries on earth, we believe there is none in which insolvent debtors are so barbarously treated as in Canada—the laws respecting them are a disgrace to British Jurisprudence—sufficient to put humanity to the blush— and call aloud for wholesale amendment.

    In Canada, an unfortunate man who incurs a debt of a few dollars, without the means of liquidating it, is liable to be incarcerated, at the discretion of a merciless creditor, during his natural life! At home [i.e., England], no ordinary debt (except a fraud be proved) can deprive a man of his liberty longer than two or three months—in the U. States the term is still shorter, and they are threatening to abolish the practice altogether. In Canada, they are cooped up in a filthy apartment, for life, without bed, bedding, victuals, or any other thing to support nature, save the bare walls that surround them.

    Is this just? Is it honest? Is it Christian? Can Heathen persecution exceed it?

    We have at the moment above our heads twelve able-bodied stout men, committed to this goal for paltry debts, endeavouring to pass away dull time in playing marbles, like children—without even the consoling ray of hope ourselves enjoy, that at a given period, however distant, an end will be put to their sufferings.

    Death by suffocation
    York was not the only jail in Upper Canada where conditions were miserable. An inquest jury in Niagara in the summer of 1830 blamed conditions in the jail there on the death of one Isaac Hoff.

    Hoff had been convicted of assault. “A highly respectable and intelligent jury,” according to a local paper, Spirit of the Times, found that he “came by his death by suffocation, in consequence of being confined by the Magistrates in a cell not sufficiently ventilated.” Hoff had been confined to a jail “about 8 feet square, without the light of Heaven,” at a time when the ambient temperature in the shade rose to 105 Fahrenheit. In York, the Canadian Freeman claimed the jury would have been justified in charging the magistrates with murder. The reports were cited in Montreal’s Vindicator, July 7, 1830.

    In Brockville, when convicted murderer Henry Hamilton died in his prison cell three weeks before he was due to be hanged, an inquest jury concluded that it was a case of “Death by the visitation of God,” the Upper Canada Gazette reported on September 9, 1825.

    And the Bathurst Examiner, in October 1829, facetiously noted that “There is not one prisoner now confined to the Jail in the Bathurst District, and the mice are starving.”

    York’s starvation, stink and squalor
    A report of a committee of the Upper Canada House of Assembly, signed by William Lyon Mackenzie as chairman, describes a living hell in the jail at York. Excerpts from the Colonial Advocate, February 25, 1830.

    In the cells below the ground floor, your committee found three female lunatics confined. They are lodged in locked up cribs, on straw, two in one crib, and the other by herself. A gentleman confined for debt complained that the smell from the dungeon in which these poor lunatics are confined, which below the room was almost insupportable, and that their incessant howlings and groans were annoying in the extreme. Their confinement is severe beyond that of the most hardened criminal.

    Your Committee found 25 persons in this prison; twelve criminals on the ground floor, one criminal sick upstairs, one vagrant, three lunatics above mentioned, and nine debtors.

    Thomas McMahon, a criminal, complained that he had only a jail allowance of three half pence worth, one pound of bread, and water; that soap, sufficient to keep the prisoners clean, was not given; that some of the prisoners are several weeks together, without changes of linen; that he had enough bed clothes, but that they had not been washed, he believed, for six or eight months. The smell of his dungeon was very noisome.

    All the other prisoners in this ward complain of the scantiness of the jail allowance, only three half pence worth of bread per diem. Your Committee think that although a place of imprisonment is not intended to be a place of comfort, it should not be a place of starvation. This allowance is too small; it is less, your Committee understands, than the allowance in other Districts, and is especially hard towards those who have not friends to help them. The request of the prisoners is six pence a day, or its value in bread.

    The cell of James McMahon, and that of John Wilson, stink so as scarcely to be fit to breathe in. The jail itself is ill constructed; and the jail privy being stopped up adds to the unwholesomeness of the atmosphere, in a degree, that even in winter, is almost intolerable. The water closets ought to be taken away, and proper substitutes provided; the chloride of lime, or some other salt, ought to be used from time to time, to purify the apartments, and such other means used as would render a residence within these walls less grievous.

    The debtors are, with one exception, all on the upper floor, apart from the other prisoners. These are allowed no support from their creditors, and some of them say they are entirely without the means of subsistence. James Colquhoun is in jail for a debt of three pounds; the creditor has forgiven the debt, but the lawyer has not thought proper to forgive his fees. Colquhoun subsists entirely on the humanity of the jailer and other debtors. One Murphy told your Committee that he had nothing to eat and that both Colquhoun and himself had been for days together, without tasting a morsel.

    One debtor is in jail, together with his wife, and a family of five children.

    Abolition
    Imprisonment for debt was abolished throughout Canada at different times; in Quebec in 1849, New Brunswick in 1874, and in Ontario, one of the last, at the end of the nineteenth century. Some debtors, however, are still sent to prison, but not because of their debts. Those found guilty and sentenced for fraud are frequently also debtors. And “deadbeat dads,” who fail to comply with court orders for family support payments, can be jailed.

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