Saturday, 14 June 2008

Separate and Silent

Colonial opposition to transportation built up in the 1830s and 1840s and this paralleled the emerging dominance of slightly different concepts of prison discipline from Westminster.

The Separate System

It was widely believed in the mid-nineteenth century that criminals were bad because they had been open to wicked influenced. If you could expose them only to good influences, and this meant Christianity in particular, then they will change fore the better. It was possible to reform criminals or rehabilitate them. This was the basic idea behind the separate system. A different group of experts, notably William Crawford a leading figure in the Prison Discipline Society and Reverend Whitworth Russell formerly chaplain at Millbank, advocated the separate system. Lord John Russell, somewhat hesitantly, authorised the construction of a new national prison in London and Captain Joshua Jebb, subsequently appointed Surveyor-General of Prisons and favourably disposed to the separate system, was entrusted with the design. The result was the opening of Pentonville in 1842.

  1. The inmates were kept in solitary cells. At exercise time each prisoner held on to a knot on a rope; the knots were 4.5 metres apart so that prisoners were too far apart to talk.
  2. They wore a mask, the 'beak', when they were moved around the building so that anonymity was preserved.
  3. At the required church services each convict was confined to a separate box so that communication with fellow inmates was all but impossible.
  4. The plan was for the solitary confinement and anonymity of Pentonville to last for 18 months before a man was transported.
  5. It was believed that, thrown in upon themselves, in the quiet, contemplative state of the solitary cell, convicts, assisted by their Bibles and the ministrations of the chaplain, would come to a realisation and repentance of their wrong doing. The problem was that not every convict was quite so malleable; some assaulted warders, other developed serious psychological disorders or attempted suicide. Between 1842 and 1850 rr prisoners in Pentonville went mad, 26 had nervous breakdowns and three committed suicide. By the end of the 1840s even the annual reports of the prison's commissioners were compelled to admit that there were problems with the system.

The initial, optimistic logic of the separate system, together with pressure form the Home Office for national uniformity led some local authorities to establish the system in existing or purpose-built prisons. But, as with policing, developments in provincial gaols were limited by cost. Bedfordshire justices originally ruled out reform of Bedford gaol on the grounds of cost and when they did decide to rebuild they faced vociferous protests from ratepayers.

Crawford and Whitworth Russell both died in 1847 removing the two most ardent advocates of the separate system. It had never been implemented across the country with the uniformity and rigour that they had wished and within ten years the debate on prisons had shifted significantly. The issue was now not whether the system should be silent or separate but whether the whole penal system was sufficiently severe.

The Silent System

The Select Committee of the House of Lords whose report, in 1835, recommended the appointment of a prison Inspectorate, also advocated a common system of discipline in all prisons based on silence. Wakefield Gaol and Coldbath Fields had adopted a silent system the previous year.  By the 1850s many people believed that there was a ‘criminal type’. If this was the case, then reform was impossible and punishment and deterrence were more important. Many people believed that prisoners should be broken by a tough regime and that this would be cheaper than the separate system. It was particularly associated with the 1865 Prisons Act and the new Assistant Director of Prisons, Sir Edmund du Cane, appointed in 1863 who enforced it.

The ‘silent system’ operated in the following way. Prisoners were still confined to their cells for most of the first nine months and they were forbidden from communicating with other prisoners. Prisoners who committed an offence could be put on a diet of bread and water, or chained up or whipped.  The main elements of the regime were ‘hard labour, hard fare and a hard board’.

  1. Hard labour. Gone was any idea about useful or saleable work. Hard labour was intended to be hard and deliberately pointless. There were various kinds of hard labour. The treadmill on which prisoners did ten minutes on and five minutes off for several hours. Oakum-picking involved separating out the fibres of old ships’ ropes so they could be re-used. The crank was usually in the prisoner’s cell. The warder could see how many revolutions the prisoner had made. Finally shot-drill was where heavy cannon-balls were passed from one to another down a long line of prisoners.
  2. Hard fare. The food was deliberately monotonous.
  3. Hard board. Hard beds replaced hammocks.

1863 can be singled out as a key year for the increasing severity of the penal system, though largely through coincidence. Joshua Jebb died. Jebb had become Director of Convict Prisons and had been coming under attack for being too soft on dangerous men. He was eventually to be replaced by Edmund Du Cane, a firm disciplinarian, who became Assistant Director in 1863. Finally, a Select Committee of the House of Lords presented its report on Gaol Discipline. This Carnarvon Committee stressed the importance of punishment over reformation and many of its recommendations were incorporated in the Penal Servitude Act 1864. The 1865 Prisons Act abolished the distinction between prisons and houses of correction. 80 smaller prisons were closed, leaving only 113 prisons under local control.

It was, however, not until the 1877 Prisons Act that all prisons were brought under central control run by a three-man Prison Commission. 53 smaller prisons were closed. During the central period of the nineteenth century, prison conditions had become on the whole harsher and more inflexible. Liberalisation did not begin until the Herbert Gladstone Committee of 1894-5.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi, just wanted to say thanks for the infomation you've put on this page, it really helped with my History homework :)

Jenna Myatt said...

Same here, helped with my revision!