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Peter Oliver. “Terror to Evil Doers” Prisons and Punishment in Nineteenth Century Ontario. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. 575 pp., $45.00, paper, $75.00 cloth.

Terror to Evil Doers is a largely atheoretical historical account of prisons and punishment in nineteenth-century Ontario. The book offers a narrative and interpretive account of a wide range of primary sources on topics ranging from the decline of corporal punishment, to the rise of the penitentiaries and reformatories in Ontario, to alternative sanctions. Similar to other social histories of punishment, Oliver is investigating the transition from corporal (“old shaming”) punishments to a new modern regime of punishment that focuses on imprisonment. Rather than stressing the experience of imprisonment, Oliver is interested in the carceral politics of the state, the challenges of institutional governance, administrative imperatives, and the contestation of power between central and local governmental powers. The book includes a series of roughly chronological essays, which Oliver suggests can be read independently of each other.

Substantively the book covers a wide range of topics (the decline of corporal punishment, sanctions for women, men and juveniles, alternative sanctions, the rise of the penitentiary, penal reform, and federal and provincial institutional practices) with precious few attempts to link the empirical data to relevant socio-historical debates, which are ongoing and well-documented. In the introduction, Oliver cogently notes that “the most difficult challenge of criminal justice history is to relate a society’s penal practices to its social structure and political culture” (xxiii). Unfortunately, such an account is not forthcoming. Oliver provides a detailed, but atheoretical historical description of official documents. He does not examine the social and cultural elements of penality nor does he sufficiently locate Ontario in a wider national or international context. Readers are not shown how punishment in Ontario evolves differently from elsewhere in Canada, England and the United States. For example, Oliver argues that in Ontario there was a haphazard shift from the use of “shaming punishments” (i.e. whipping, pillory ) to “alternative carceral approaches”, but he does not convincingly show how the shift which occurred in nineteen century Ontario is different from or similar to like transitions in Europe and the United States. No effort is made to theorise these changes or to contextualise this shift by engaging with popular debates and the plethora of analysis of this transition in Europe and North America (Foucault, 1977; Ignatieff, 1978; Scull, 1979; Rothman, 1980; 1990; Spierenburg, 1984; Garland, 1985;1990). Consequently, Oliver missed a important opportunity to make a significant contribution to the genealogy of Canadian penality and its particular socio-cultural context at different historical junctures.

Terror to Evil Doers also fails to acknowledge or advance our knowledge of the gendered and racialised aspects of upper middle class conceptions of penality. For the most part, Oliver uncritically and somewhat selectively documents the discourses of state reformers and administrators. There is little analysis of who becomes a target of punishment and how gender, race and class shape the views and objectives of administrators and the perceived suitability of certain interventions. This limitation is most evident in his narrow juxtaposition of men’s and women’s penality. Midway through the book, he argues that the Mercer Reformatory for Women established a regime that “governed with kindness” as opposed to the regime of terror in the Central Prison for men, which was entirely punitive. He further notes that the results of the Mercer’s regime of “kindness” and its incumbent penal culture were far more positive than life in a male facility (p. 401). This comparison fails to recognize, analyse or even mention the gendered aspects of social control and how penality in both the present and the past is shaped by various socio-cultural and historical constructions of femininity (Rafter, 1992; Strange, 1983; 1985; Zedner, 1991; Hannah-Moffat, 1997) and masculinity (Sim, 1994).

Oliver quickly dismisses and ignores feminist historical analysis of women’s imprisonment (Freedman, 1981; Rafter, 1992) and evidence (Strange, 1983; 1985; Berkovits, 1995, Hannah-Moffat, 1997) that contradicts his characterisation of the Mercer’s maternal regime as “enlightened’ and “humanizing”. With respect to the issue of whether this specific maternal project was an administrative success, feminist historians and Oliver make competing claims. They all agree that the Mercer provided an undisputable alternative to the neglectful treatment previously received by women in prison, but differ in their evaluations of the regime’s “administrative” success. For example, Strange (1983) notes that after a concentrated attempt to institute a regime of kind discipline, it became evident that maternalistic efforts could not fulfil the lofty and unrealistic goal of reform. The common opinion among feminist historians is that despite the best intentions of maternal reformers these icons of motherly discipline were undermined by the material reality of imprisonment. Feminist historical analyses illustrate the perpetuation of not only punitive and coercive disciplinary power, but also the reproduction of certain configurations of power among and between class, race and gender. Rafter (1992) notes that the reformatory model was in certain ways harsher and “less just” than previous custodial models that did not recognize gender, precisely because of the double standard it invoked.

Oliver’s account of the Mercer’s “success” assumes that discipline that occurs within a “context of kindness, friendship, and support” is less invasive and repressive than discipline in a more punitive setting. This assumption overlooks a vast literature on the regulatory and repressive aspects of therapeutic and benevolent regimes (Dobash, Dobash and Gutteridge, 1986; Garland, 1985). Most importantly, Oliver disregards evidence, which is revealed in institutional records, of riots, escapes, extreme punitive measures and assaults on staff (Berkovits, 1995; Strange 1983). While these incidents may have been less frequent and less severe than those that occurred in other institutions, they are clearly antithetical to the image of a “happy home”.

From a sociological perspective the reader is left with several unanswered questions about the programs of moral reform and penal control described by Oliver. While it is important to document the well-intentioned efforts of reformers and administrators, and their accomplishments as well as their failures, it is also essential to analyse the implications of such well intentioned initiatives and notions of “successful punishment”. Several scholars have shown that the “enlightened”, “humane” and “successful” interventions of one group can just as easily be interpreted and experienced as inhumane and oppressive by another (i.e. Mitford, 1973, Hannah-Moffat, 1997).

Works cited:

Berkovits, Joseph Gondor (1995). Maternal Influence: Inmate Culture in the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women, 1880-1915. Unpublished discussion paper, Department of History, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario.

Dobash, R.E., R.P. Dobash and S. Gutteridge (1986). The Imprisonment of Women. New York: Routledge.

Foucault, Michel (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage.

Freedman, Estelle (1981). Their Sisters Keepers: Women's Prison Reform in America, 1830- 1930. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Garland, David (1985). Punishment and Welfare: A History of Penal Strategies. Brookfield: Gower Publishing Company.

Garland, David (1990). Punishment and Modern Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hannah-Moffat, K. (1997) From Christian Maternalism to Risk Technologies: Penal Powers and Women’s Knowledges in the Governance of Female Prisons. Toronto: University of Toronto, Ph.D. thesis.

Ignatieff, Michael (1978). A Just Measure of Pain. London: Penguin Books.

Mitford, Jessica (1973). Kind and Unusual Punishment. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Sim, J. (1994) “Tougher than the Rest: Men in Prison” in T. Newburn and E.Stanko (eds.) Just Boys Doing Business: Men, Masculinities and Crime. London: Routledge.

Rafter, Nicole Hahn (1992). Partial Justice: Women, Prison, and Social Control (2nd ed.). New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Rothman, David (1980). Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and its Alternatives in Progressive America. London: Scott Foresman and Company.

Rothman, David (1990). The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (rev. ed.). Toronto: Little Boston and Co.

Scull, Andrew (1979). Museums of Madness: The Social Organization of Insanity in Nineteenth- Century England. London: Allen Lane.

Strange, Carolyn (1983). The Velvet Glove: Maternalists Reform at the Andrew Mercer Reformatory, 1872-1927. Unpublished Master's thesis, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario.

Strange, Carolyn (1985). "The Criminal and the Fallen of Their Sex: The Establishment of Canada's First Women's Prison, 1874-1901." Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 1: 79- 92.

Zedner, Lucia (1991). Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kelly Hannah-Moffat,
Department of Sociology
University of Toronto-Mississauga

June 1999
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