The Theosophical Forum – September 1937

NATURE STUDIES: VI — H. Percy Leonard

The Penal Colony: A Swiss Experiment

An interesting experiment has been carried on during the last forty years at Witzil on the borders of Lake Neuchatel. Two thousand acres of land, mostly peat soil, were purchased and were drained by prison-labor, and vast quantities of vegetables have been produced. Asparagus has been grown extensively in a sandy tract by the lake, and fertilized by the street-sweepings of Berne; astonishing results have been obtained.

The penal colony is not only self-supporting, but the initial cost of rendering the soil fit for cultivation has been fully covered, the necessary workshops and farm buildings have been erected, and rent, taxes, and interest on loans have been regularly paid to the State. Besides all this, enough money has been earned to provide wages for the workers. During the year 1927 about $6,000 were paid out in this way.

Everything is done to help the men acquire fresh knowledge and to train their abilities, and in return many of them have placed their experience and skill at the disposal of the institution. To this hearty co-operation, the success of the experiment is largely due.

Released prisoners, unable to find work elsewhere, often return and are allowed to work at the same terms as any other free laborers. The director says that many men do very well if their lives are mapped out for them, but seem to be unable to fight the battle of life alone.

A royal commission from England paid a visit to Witzil twenty years ago and made a very favorable report, although the system has not as yet been adopted in that country. But it is evident that the good impression has been germinating, for a prominent statesman has recently declared that, if he had his way, he would make a clean sweep of the existing English prison-system and establish in its place penal colonies after the Swiss model.

The following suggestions made by a noted Theosophical Leader, many years ago, are of interest in this connexion:

In the institution I would build there should be neither cells nor prison-bars. In the beginning, so as to be reasonable and meet the public needs, and not encourage in the wrong direction those who have fallen too far to realize their responsibility and feel the sense of honor, I should have a wall built somewhere. But it would be so far away that you could hardly see it. I would give them room to breathe; I would bring them into healing contact with Nature; they should have the curative influence of gardens to work in, and flowers.

I would give them helpful discipline, and not indulgence; I would give them strict and wholesome discipline, but not the sense of degrading durance. There should be every kind of shop in which to practice their trades; I would help each one of them to feel his own energy and live his own life; and I would educate them.

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