It is the Prison Board, with the system that it carries out, that is the primary source of the cruelty that is exercised on a child in prison. The people who uphold the system have excellent intentions. Those who carry it out are humane in intention also. Responsibility is shifted on to the disciplinary regulations. It is supposed that because a thing is the rule it is right.
The present treatment of children is terrible, primarily from people not understanding the peculiar psychology of a child’s nature. A child cannot understand a punishment inflicted by society. It cannot realise what society is. With grown up people it is, of course, the reverse. Those of us who are either in prison, or have been sent there, can understand, and do understand, what that collective force called society means, and whatever we may think of its methods or claims, we can force ourselves to accept it.[…]
A child is utterly contaminated by prison life. But the contaminating influence is not that of the prisoners. It is that of the whole prison system — of the governor, the chaplain, the warders, the lonely cell, the isolation, the revolting food, the rules of the Prison Commissioners, the mode of discipline as it is termed, of the life.
Oscar Wilde (1898) Children in Prison and Other Cruelties of Prison Life London: Murdoch & Co., pp.
The entire letter was reproduced in Slate (2018) “Should We Be Putting Migrant Children in Detention Centers? Let’s Ask Oscar Wilde!” Slate [16 June 2018].