Saturday, May 21, 2011

#265: Breaking The Law

Future hard-core criminal
God, I love this stuff.  Back in the mid 1930s a study was undertaken to ascertain why kids became criminals.  The results were finally published in 1940 and they make for, well, more than hilarious reading.  The Making Of A Criminal was written by F. Oswald Barnett, who believed in housing, God and slums.  Not that he promoted the slums, but being the social reformer that he was, Fred put his money where his mouth was and, realising that slums in Victoria often lead to generational poverty and crime, decided to do something positive, and radical for the time, and pressured the current government of the day to form the Housing Commission of Victoria, which supplied public housing at the time and is still active today.  For that I applaud Fred, he set the template that every other state followed.  A charted accountant and housing expert is the last person you'd expect to write a book about why kids turn to crime, but that didn't stop him. 

Fred's methods were basic and straightforward - he simply supplied a questionnaire to the Court to be completed when a child was brought up on charges for two months in 1933.  It really was as easy as that.   Once he had the findings, he wrote the book, and they offer a great insight into Australian life, and poverty, during the Depression years.  Focusing on children from the suburbs of Victoria, he found 277 kids to study.  Their ages ranged from seven to twenty (kids were kids for longer back then), with over 3/5 of them being under the age of fifteen.  Most of the kids were sent to the Castlemaine Reformatory Gaol, which housed both adults and children and which saw ten executions during it's time.  Built in 1861, the executions all took place in the 1860s and 1870s, but it was a depressing place to be at any point, and was eventually shut down in 1990, although it stopped being a gaol for young people in 1953.  According to the Annual Report Penal Establishments, Gaols and Reformatory Prisons 1933 Annual Report, Castlemaine was used for, "the psychiatrically ill, neglected children and juvenile offenders; and particular gaols tended to hold a high proportion of old and infirm poor who had been imprisoned for having no visible means of support."  The report goes on to state,
To meet the requirements of the Act the Castlemaine Gaol was proclaimed a reformatory prison for youthful offenders and a portion of the Pentridge Penal Establishment was set apart as a reformatory prison for prisoners of the habitual class.

At Castlemaine, in 1925, a schoolroom with modern equipment was built within the prison, and school instruction forms an important part of the curriculum. The school is under the supervision of the Education Department. Instruction is given in the use of tools, in woodwork and sheetmetal work, and in general education. On the farm, about 3 miles from the prison, there is accommodation for fourteen of the prison inmates, and there are houses there under the honour system.

So what did Fred find?  Most of the kids didn't bother going to school and when I say most Fred states that over 60% had given school the flick.  What were they doing?  Some worked, but the majority merely sat on their arses holding their heads in their hands, as evidenced by the brilliant stick figure image table shown here.  And the tables are what sets this book apart from others - nobody I can think of ever used stick figures with such effectiveness.  As a failed artist who couldn't master stick figures, resulting in my grade three art teacher telling me I was an idiot, I can fully appreciate this fine art.  As for the jobs, well around 15% had trades, the remaining 17% worked in Blind-Alley jobs, which I presume meant delivery jobs, running numbers or the like, again - I'm going on the little hat on the stick figure.  Either that or they were tram conductors.  Blind Alley jobs for the time were the McDonalds of today - employers who hired young people, paid them pittance, worked them like frigging dogs and then pissed them off into the world once they reach an adult age and thus were eligible for an adult wage.  Nice to know that hasn't changed since the 1800s.

The kids all hung around undesirables which presented a problem for 'State and Church'.  You see kids back then were less likely to be led astray if they belonged to a social club of some sort, a church group perhaps.  Otherwise bad company would surely follow, but the worst company for some of them were their own criminal parents.  Bastards and Fagins all.

There's more studies, in particular a great look at Delinquents.  Most Delinquents, if not put in gaol, would merely form a conga line and dance the night away, watched by the sad few who hung their heads in shame and were forced to live in a box.  And what made a Delinquent successful at Delinquency?  A lack of intelligence.  Fred determined that his Delinquents could be classified into the following levels of intelligence, via their rudimentary IQ tests:
0-69: feebleminded
70-79 - borderline
80-89 - backward
90-109 - normal
110-119 - bright
120-129 - very bright
130+ - very superior
Now I'm not sure about you, but I don't know what would be worse - being called backward or borderline.  It'd be a challenge.  Naturally with most kids dropping out of school to enter a life of crime, the bulk of them were, well, feeble-minded at worse, backwards at best.  However in the late 1930s, if you were classified as being on the 'borderline between sanity and mental derangement' then you were instantly classed as being psychopathic and thrown into the loony bin or put into solitary at Pentridge.  Instead of calling the kids psychopathic, Fred classed them as being either Good, medium, Poor or Bad, with one kid earning the classification of being a 'bad type, always seeking evil companions'.  Most of the other 'bad types' were 'dirty, irritable, sullen, lazy and resentful'.  I expect that, at the age of 15, if I was starving every day and got a good flogging and locked up by the plod for stealing food, I'd be fairly pissed off too.  It's only natural.

Being unemployed in the 1930s led to people adopting a pose akin to dropping a log
Where did these kids come from?  If they didn't have a British father then they were foreign, pure and simple.  Most were illegitimate, almost all had sole parents or were orphans.  Most fathers who had a skilled trade had kids who had a skilled trade, and vice-versa.  You know, people got paid for these types of studies.  Where the study becomes truly heartbreaking is when you read the cases themselves.  Most had broken childhoods and had been faring for themselves since a young age.  Most had been locked up theft and housebreaking, with one kid being locked up for stealing an overcoat in winter, a crime that saw him spend the better part of a year inside the big house.  Most of the parents are hopeless drunks who engage in both spousal and serious child abuse.  The link between domestic violence and kids acting out was made, but not the link between the kids possibly wanting to be locked up to get out of an abusive situation.  That link wouldn't be made for another sixty odd years or so.  Another disturbing trend from this book is the gender bias - every offender in this book is male.  Make of that what you will.

"We're outta gaol! LET'S CONGA!!"
What did Fred eventually find?  That the causes of crime included lack of parental control, bad companionship and unemployment and that, with the right guidance, care and education, child crime could be reduced, and repeat offending could all but be eliminated.  Oddly enough Fred's findings could be applied to today's little bastards, although I doubt that kids today dance in conga lines when they're discharged from the slot.  What Fred also found was that poverty = slums = crime and to make a difference Fred had to eliminate slums as he'd not be able to eliminate poverty.   And make a difference Fred did, by insisting that people write to the then Victorian Premier, Sir Albert Dunstan, which resulted in the Housing Commission, which went a long way to reducing slums.  I wonder what Fred would have made of the slums of today, those suburbs and areas where crime is now so rampant that even the authorities don't venture there at night - and the bulk of those slums are made up of public housing, containing people living in poverty and in broken homes.

In the country, you shoveled shit or you didn't work. The skilled laborer fixed the shovels
The more things change, the more they remain the same. And if you didn't think Fred was serious, check out some of these photos that he published, showcasing the slums of Melbourne in the early 1930s.

Yep, people lived like this back in the 1920s
 It wasn't all wine and roses.

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