Alexander Paterson (penologist)

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Sir Alexander (Alec) Henry Paterson MC (20 November 1884 – 7 November 1947) was a British penologist who, as Commissioner of Prisons, introduced reforms that would provide a humane regime in penal institutions and encourage rehabilitation among inmates.

Paterson was born in Bowdon, near Altrincham, Cheshire. He attended school in Manchester and later studied at University College, Oxford where he obtained an honours degree in Greats.[1] During his time at Oxford, he joined the Church of England, which he preferred to his former denomination, Unitarianism. Not long after he graduated, Paterson went to work with the Oxford Medical Mission, a Christian charity which dealt with underprivileged youth in Bermondsey, South London.[1] He recounted his experiences there in his 1911 book, Across the Bridges. Later, he became the first chairman of the charity, Toc H.[1]

Paterson served in the East Surrey Regiment during World War I, reaching the rank of Captain and receiving a Military Cross.[1] In 1922, he was appointed Commissioner of Prisons and Director of Convict Prisons, a position he held until his retirement in 1946.[1]

During his period as Commissioner of Prisons, Paterson used Wakefield Prison as a testing ground for his reforms, such as establishing a farm within the prison in which inmates could learn agricultural skills. Prisoners were also allowed to earn small sums working, attend training courses and participate in games. In his view, the security of a prison's system was very important but it should not be dehumanizing. Among his initiatives to improve the prison system, he pointed out the problem of isolating prisoners, imposing the use of prison uniforms, and not monitoring prisoners after their release.[2] In his views, the prison system should not dehumanize:

It should further provide such humanising and socialising influences as may be introduced from the normal world outside, and so far as is compatible with discipline and control, allow each man to develop along the lines of his own personality. To seek the production of a uniform type is to war against God who made men different, and to deprive a human being of that personality which should be his cherished possession. When the dangers of imprisonment have been averted, or at any rate mitigated, the administration is unlikely to rest content. It cannot be content merely to remit to society after an appropriate period a felon who is just the same in heart and character as when he lost his freedom. Nor indeed is it credible that any man should endure such an experience without any change. The prison authorities aim a little higher, and try to make their regime such that in all cases where an improvement can be effected within the circumscribed limits of prison life, a man shall receive some definite training in habit and character.

— Paterson's The Prison Problem of America[3]

Paterson was knighted in 1947[1] and died shortly afterwards in London at the age of 62.


  1. ^ a b c d e f article on Sir Alexander Paterson
  2. ^ Sir Alexander Paterson (1951). Paterson on Prisons: Being the Collected Papers of Sir Alexander Paterson. F. Muller, p. 26
  3. ^ Sir Alexander Paterson (193?). The Prison Problem of America: (with admiration for those who face it). Printed at H.M. Prison, for private circulation. p. 12

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