« Une société se juge à l’état de ses prisons »

Dostoyevsky Misprisioned: “The House of the Dead” and American Prison Literature (LA Review of Books) – by Ilya Vinitsky

[…] I have recently become intrigued by a quotation that has been attributed to Dostoyevsky for decades. Until the late 1990s, it was known only in English, and consisted of 14 words: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” It has been quoted, very often as an epigraph or a closing remark, by numerous American and British activists, lawyers, senators, judges (including Justice Anthony Kennedy), writers, journalists and scholars (but, tellingly, not by Dostoyevsky experts). Writing in The Globe and Mail in 2017, Patrick White wryly observed that one can hear this Dostoyevsky quote “at correctional conferences with nauseating regularity”: “It’s ubiquitous because it’s good.” Indeed, it’s even good enough for Hollywood, appearing on the silver screen as the opening quote in the trailer for Con Air (1997).

The Library of Congress dictionary of quotations Respectfully Quoted comments on its origins: “Attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky. Unverified.” Other American dictionaries of quotations and Wikiquote indicate that its source is Dostoyevsky’s semi-autobiographical prison novel The House of the Dead (1862). Some American publications even refer to page 76 of the 1957 Grove edition of Constance Garnett’s translation.Yet this is all untrue, because (a) there is no such quote in Dostoyevsky’s original text (or in any other work written by him) and (b) there is no such quote in Garnett’s translation. […]

Moreover, Dostoyevsky could not possibly have uttered these words since they had nothing to do with his actual (and, to be sure, paradoxical) views of prison as expressed in the novel. Dostoyevsky, who had spent four years in chains, from 1849 to 1854, at a prison camp (katorga) in Siberia, was immensely interested in Western penal theories and literature on punishment and the prison experience; as a matter of fact, in 1861, the journal co-edited by Dostoyevsky and his brother published a Russian translation of Giacomo Casanova’s prison memoirs, Histoire de ma fuite des prisons de la République de Venise qu’on appelle les Plombs. He should have been familiar, as Anna Schur suggests in Wages of Evil: Dostoevsky and Punishment (2012), with the Western idea that punishment is a product of a nation’s degree of “civilization” — a view that had been known to educated Russians since Catherine the Great’s enlightened “Instruction” (1767) and was “frequently aired on the pages of Russian periodicals” in the age of the great legal reforms of Alexander II.

However, the writer’s religious views of punishment and prisons strikingly differ from the secular ideas of Cesare Beccaria, the founding father of Western penology, Catherine, or 19th-century Russian philanthropists and legal scholars. Although The House of the Dead does portray the corruption, fundamental injustice, and total ineffectiveness of the Russian penitentiary system, it does not question, Schur notes, “the need for the existence of punishment” and never calls for prison reform per se. The novel’s protagonist, the disgraced nobleman and wife-murderer Goryanchikov, perceives the horrifying institution as a test of his own spirit, rather than as a test of civilization (a foreign word that had negative connotations for Dostoyevsky). Dostoyevsky’s focus is on the painful resurrection of the fallen man, both as an individual soul and as the embodiment of Russia’s folk spirit, not on the improvement of physical conditions.

Unsurprisingly, Dostoyevsky portrays prison as “a dead thing.” It is what it is: hell — more precisely, “the hell of suffering to spiritual salvation,” as Robert Louis Jackson puts it in The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes (1981). The prison in and of itself does not attract hatred; instead, it forces Goryanchikov to judge his past, reevaluate his secular beliefs, and eventually bless the fate that enabled his Christian revival. […]

It’s clear, then, that the quote that graced the screen in Con Air is a con, fundamentally alien to Dostoyevsky’s beliefs. It is a curious product of cultural misreading, or, in Harold Bloom’s terminology, “creative misprision” and myth-making. In what follows, I will try to reconstruct the history of this misprision. I must warn the reader in advance that this essay, to paraphrase famous words traditionally (and wrongly) attributed to Emperor Joseph II, has an awful lot of quotes. But rest assured: they are all real and documented.

As I discovered, the English quotation has been in circulation since the late 1960s and evolved, in the late 20th century, into a longer, less commonly used, version: “A society should be judged not by the way it treats its outstanding citizens, but by the way it treats its criminals.” The initial version shows up not only in newspaper articles, public speeches, and court hearings, but also on activists’ shirts and posters and the drawings of inmates. What, then, was its source?

In 1964, the Canadian playwright and ex-inmate John Herbert wrote a sensational prison play that bore the Shakespearean title Fortune and Men’s Eyes and focused on a first-time convict’s entry into “an isolated, desperate, all-male society in which homosexual acts are the institutionalized basis of the political and social structure.” In interviews, Herbert constantly cited Dostoyevsky’s words about prisons and civilization as a kind of epigraph to his play, without any reference to their actual source[1] First presented in New York City by the Broadway impresario David Rothenberg in 1967, Herbert’s play has subsequently been produced more than 400 times in over 100 countries, including a 1969 show directed by James Baldwin in Istanbul. In 1971, a film based on the play was released.

The play even lent its name to the influential prisoners’ rights group Fortune Society, led by Rothenberg (the group is still active in New York). As Rothenberg stated in October 1968, Dostoyevsky’s words became the slogan of the Society, whose goal was “to create a greater public awareness of the prison system in America today” and “to reveal complexities and problems faced by inmates during their incarceration.” Since its founding in 1969, the Society has been broadcasting its weekly radio program Both Sides of the Bars and publishing the monthly newsletter The Fortune News with the words attributed to Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead as its motto, which always appears on the front page in the upper right corner:

[…] Dostoyevsky’s supposed dictum, very much in keeping with the 1960s and ’70s Western progressive agenda epitomized by Foucault’s Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, was adopted by American activists as the motto for the prison reform movement.

My hypothesis is that we are dealing with a mystification, perhaps unintended, that originated in Herbert’s circle. Herbert may have thought (wrongly) that this statement summarized the Russian writer’s views of the subject, as expressed in his prison novel. It is possible that the Canadian playwright simply invoked, and attributed by association, a common idea that had circulated in various versions and in different languages for more than a century.

One can find similar declarations, without references to the Russian writer, in sources ranging from

Barthélemy Maurice’s 1840 Histoire politique et anecdotique des prisons de la Seine

« Voulez-vous apprécier le degré de moralité auquel un peuple est parvenu, mesurer, pour ainsi dire, sa civilisation? voyez comment ce peuple traite ses prisonniers”

– to Kenneth Ruck’s introduction to the 1929 Everyman edition of John Howard’s 1777 The State of the Prisons in England and Wales :

“the condition of its prisons and its prisoners is no bad indication of the development of any society and its degree of civilization”

– to Judge Walter V. Schaefer’s 1957 Oliver Wendell Holmes Lecture :

« The quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the methods it uses in the enforcement of its criminal law”

– to a 1958 essay by the prominent French lawyer and historian Maurice Garçon :

« On peut dire que, dans une certaine mesure, on apprécie la moralité et le degré de civilisation d’un peuple à la manière dont il traite ses prisonniers”

Historically, the sentiment under investigation originates in Montesquieu’s teaching of the degrees of civilization in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), which inspired Beccaria to write, in On Crimes and Punishments (1764) :

“If there were an exact and universal scale of crimes and punishments, we should have an approximate and common measure of the gradations of tyranny and liberty, and of the basic humanity and evil of the different nations.”


« Si les calculs exacts pouvaient s’appliquer à toutes les combinaisons obscures qui font agir les hommes, il faudrait chercher et fixer une progression de peines correspondante à la progression des crimes. Le tableau de ces deux progressions serait la mesure de la liberté ou de l’esclavage, de l’humanité ou de la méchanceté de chaque nation.« 

Beccaria’s words had a deep influence on 19th-century penal reform movements, including Russian ones, and by the mid-20th century had become a kind of “fatherless” absolute statement widely used in legal documents and manuals. For example, it opens the 1963 Minimum Jail Standards: Recommended Standards for Administration, Construction, Programs of the Californian prison system:

“The treatment of crime and criminals may some day be used by historians as one measure of the degree of civilization achieved by nations.”

By the time Herbert and the Fortune Society canonized and disseminated the quotation on prisons and civilization as belonging to Dostoyevsky, there was already an established tradition of using the Russian writer’s real words on the ineffectiveness of solitary confinement in American literature about prisons; for instance, Howard B. Gill’s article “Correctional Philosophy and Architecture” (1963), from The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, bears a famous Dostoyevskian epigraph: “It is acknowledged that neither convict prisons, nor the hulks, nor any system of hard labour ever cured a criminal.”

Tellingly, in 1960s publications, these words were often seconded by Winston Churchill’s dictum, dated 1910:

“The mood and temper of the public with regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.” [2]

One can speculate that in this context our quotation was the random result of ascribing Dostoyevsky’s name and aura to a popular old statement, associated with Churchill’s actual words.

But why Dostoyevsky? To be sure, plenty other candidates for the dictum’s authorship were named in various Western sources: Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Churchill, and Nelson Mandela. [3]

In the Italian tradition, it has regularly been attributed to Voltaire (“Non fatemi vedere i vostri palazzi ma le vostre carceri, poiché è da esse che si misura il grado di civiltà di una Nazione”), and in the French tradition, to Albert Camus (“Nous ne pouvons juger du degré de civilisation d’une nation qu’en visitant ses prisons”).

However, in the end, all these candidates have been passed over in favor of the Russian writer. […] The House of the Dead was read not only as a Russian story that severely criticized the tsarist prison system in exotic Siberia, but rather as a powerful statement against the inhumane treatment of inmates everywhere.

|…] Unsurprisingly, the quotation on prisons and civilization allegedly drawn from the powerful work of “a Russian giant” was widely used by African-American human rights activists, as evidenced, for instance, both by its role as an epigraph to the article “The Black Prisoner as Victim,” published by the noted lawyer and civil rights activist William Haywood Burns in The Black Law Journal (1971), and in this poster:

Although the first citation of Dostoyevsky’s alleged dictum in association with Herbert’s play and the Fortune Society group is dated August 3, 1968, the frequency of citation peaked in the years 1971–’72, following fierce public discussion of the bloody Attica prison riot. […] It would not be an exaggeration to say that David Rothenberg, his Fortune Society, and many other activists of the age considered the author of The House of the Dead to be a father figure for their own social and literary experiments. Starting in the early issues of The Fortune News, members of the group published and advertised literary works written by convicts and ex-convicts.

[…] In Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist (1989), Howard Bruce Franklin, distinguished two overlapping groups of prison writers that emerged during this period: “[T]he political activist thrust into prison, and the common criminal thrust into political activism.” Both groups were fascinated with Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead as searing defense of a prisoner’s human dignity and “the measure of our common humanity.”

[…] Dostoevski wrote a book of his prison experiences and titled it The House of the Dead. The title is still appropriate even though the Russian novelist was writing about conditions a century ago and in another culture. The physical environment of prison has changed perhaps for the better since then, from the dark, damp, stony dungeon to the electrically lit, waxed and buffed concrete cell with its own sink and flush toilet. At least this is the situation on the main line in most of the California prisons. But this is all a smokescreen. […] The truth is behind the smokescreen. The jailer with the whip and knout is still there but he has modern psychological weapons. Prison is still the house of the dead. Every day someone dies spiritually.

Yet some authors disagreed with this radical generalization and tried to “send” Dostoyevsky’s novel and the quotation on prisons and civilization back to Russia in order to vindicate the US penitentiary system. “It is ironic,” wrote criminologist Charles H. Logan in Private Prisons: Cons and Pros (1990), “that some critics of private prisons are fond of quoting Dostoevsky — that the degree of a nation’s civilization can be seen in the way it treats its prisoners — and wondering aloud what Dostoevsky would think of private prisons.” According to Logan, if Dostoyevsky had lived in the Soviet Union, “he would have been witness to one of the most brutal and lawless prison systems in history,” with political prisoners “jammed shoulder to shoulder into airless cells and box-cars and shipped to punitive slave camps where they were worked, starved, and frozen to death.” However, “if he visited contemporary American prisons, including private prisons, Dostoevsky would probably be impressed by the civil and human rights protections, the food and medical care, the standards of decency, even the space, he would generally find there, at least in comparison to the Soviet Gulag.” Overall, the quotation “would indeed say something about our civilization, but nothing that would discourage private sector involvement in the running of prisons.”

[..] The irony of history has also seen the Russian writer’s alleged dictum return to Russia. […] The attribution to Dostoyevsky entered Russian public discourse only in the late 1990s and early 2000s, likely first popularized by the Russian-American film director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, who used it in interviews and in his 2006 essay “Crimes and Punishments.” Another source for the quote’s “Russification” appears to be a Russian translation of the English review of oligarch and political dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s 2012 prison memoirs:

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” wrote Dostoevsky in The House of the Dead. Khodorkovsky’s testimony is that this is a corrupt system with little or no effort to do more than coop up the hopeless, the drug-addicted, the vicious — and the occasional visionary. [13]

[…] Today, Russian politicians, activists, and journalists frequently use Dostoyevsky’s alleged words to excoriate the Russian penal system. In turn, the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service adopted it as a kind of ideological décor. This “very fair statement,” as Yaroslav Nilov, a deputy of the State Duma, observes, hangs at the entrance of the women’s penal colony in Kolosovka in Kaliningrad Province. Another visitor of the colony suggested that “it is possibly due to this slogan that we are at 100% production capacity!”

Russian bloggers — as well, as their American, French, and German counterparts — have been searching for the source of the quotation in Dostoyevsky’s works for almost 10 years, to no avail.

[…] The aphorism, ideologically rooted in 18th-century Enlightenment thinking and falsely attributed to the author of The House of the Dead by American activists of the late 1960s, sums up the essence of US prison reform and protest movements, as well as the message of the era’s prison literature. Sanctified by the name and cultural aura of the great anti-Western writer and former inmate, the quotation lent a universal ethical dimension to a targeted critique of the North American prison-industrial complex.

Ilya Vinitsky is a professor of Russian literature at Princeton University. He is a 2019–2020 Guggenheim Fellow, working on the cultural biography and political imagination of Ivan Narodny, a Russian-Estonian-American “revolutionist,” arms dealer, journalist, writer, art critic, and promoter.

[1] See Dane Lanken, “Playwright John Herbert Stays on the Outside,” The Montreal Gazette,  November 7, 1970, and Frank Prosnitz, “The Fortune Society Offers Hope,” Asbury Park Press, August 3, 1968.

[2] See in “Dread, harsh orders not now heard in jails,” The Leader-Post, July 23, 1956. These words were rendered in Churchill’s 1951 book Closing the Ring as “[n]othing can be more abhorrent to democracy than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of civilization.”

[3] Mandela expanded upon the quotation in his memoirs: “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones — and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.”

[12] The Shinborn Star, July 5, 2019.

[13] Financial Times, April 11, 2014; see the Russian text here.

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