THERE are a great many books about prison life, some of them of genuine literary distinction. Yet within this vast genre In Russian and French Prisons holds a special place. For, with Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, a companion volume in this series, it is the most eloquent statement of the libertarian viewpoint written from personal observation and experience.
Its author, Peter Kropotkin, a Russian revolutionary of princely birth, was from the late 1870s until his death in 1921 the foremost leader and theorist of the anarchist movement. His interest in prisons, however, dates back to the 1860s when, as a young officer in Siberia, he was assigned to investigate the penal system. What he found made an indelible impression. He saw the dilapidated lockups, the filthy, overcrowded cells, the brutality of the warders, the wretched, under-fed convicts, doomed to an early death from scurvy, typhus, or sheer exhaustion. Profoundly disturbed, he submitted a report that called for sweeping reforms, only to see it vanish in a bureaucratic maze, an experience that shattered his faith in the virtues of government and led him to shed his hopes that the state, whatever its form, could become a vehicle of social progress. “I began to appreciate the difference between acting on the principle of command and discipline and acting on the principle of common understanding,” he later recalled. “Although I did not then formulate my observations in terms borrowed from party struggles, I may say now that I lost in Siberia whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist…
“… Our prisons, said Kropotkin, are a reflection of our social system. American prisons today swallow a billion dollars a year, yet the crime rate is rising, and most offenses, as Kropotkin pointed out, are committed for social and economic reasons by the poor, the blacks, and other outcast elements of a society which has failed to relieve their distress. “Are our prisons worth the enormous outlay in human labour yearly devoted to them? Do they guarantee Society against the recurrence of the evils which they are supposed to combat?” Kropotkin’s answer was an emphatic no. And today, nearly a hundred years later, the answer has not changed.