Friday, 1 April 2011

Prison reform 1850-1877

Toward the mid-nineteenth century, some authors became interested in the actual conditions of prisons.[1]

Crime 23

Although such eighteenth-century authors as Daniel Defoe and John Gay had featured the image of the infamous Newgate Prison in their writings, Charles Dickens’s explorations of the criminal world took a somewhat darker tone. Novels including Oliver Twist (1838), Little Dorrit (1857) and Great Expectations (1861) feature extended scenes in prison.[2] Writings from prison also gained greater visibility as more individuals who were literate were incarcerated. Prison biography became a genre in itself, allowing inmates to express the horror of their condition to a wider public.[3] By the time Oscar Wilde began writing about his experiences in prison from 1895-1897, prison writing was much more realistic, gritty and sordid. Wilde’s De Profundis (1905), written during his prison term at Reading Gaol, reveals the witty Wilde completely altered by the utter humiliation and physical suffering of his punishment for ‘indecency’.[4] In other writings, he describes the prison as ‘built with bricks of shame’ where ‘only what is good in Man...wastes and withers there.’[5] The subject of prison reform also took to the stage in 1865 with Charles Reade’s drama It Is Never Too Late To Mend. Its première at the Princess’ Theatre on 4 October 1865 saw one of the most memorable disturbances in the nineteenth century theatre occurred when the drama critics, led by Frederick Guest Tomlins of the Morning Advertiser demanded that the play be halted because of its offensive subject matter and one particularly shocking scene of prison torture. As a result, it did not remain in the play after the first night.[6] Increasingly, writings about prison began to assert the rights of the criminal as a person with human dignity. The Howard Association was formed in 1866 with the intention of independently monitoring the prison system and the handling of convicts.[7]

The creation of the Directors of Convict Prisons and a Prisons Inspectorate in 1850 represented the beginnings of the later centralised service. Also in 1850, a Select Committee on Prison Discipline was established under Sir George Grey and is important because it examined the relative merits of the ‘separate’ and ‘silent’ systems. There had been intense arguments about these systems for thirty years and Grey’s Committee found that some local prisons were still very unsatisfactory and that in them neither separation nor reformation was possible. With the ending of transportation to Tasmania in 1852, a crisis slightly eased by the cooperation of Western Australia that agreed to taking convicts, it was clear that the prison system needed to develop resources to cope with all long-sentence prisoners in England.[8] The result was a shift in thinking away from reformation as a major aim of imprisonment towards a more draconian system.

Administrators believed that the mere denial of freedom was not punishment enough and thought up various ways of intensifying the pains of imprisonment. Their industriousness made the hand crank and the tread-wheel common features in prisons of the second half of the nineteenth century. 1863 can be singled out as a key year for the increasing severity of the penal system, though largely through coincidence. In 1862, London underwent a panic over the increased incidence of garrotting. Joshua Jebb, who had been under attack for being too soft on dangerous men, died. The ‘silent system’ was particularly associated with the new Assistant Director of Prisons, Sir Edmund Du Cane, a firm disciplinarian, appointed in 1863.[9] The result of growing concerns about the institutional breakdown of the penal system and a widespread, if overblown, panic about levels of crime was a Select Committee of the House of Lords chaired by Lord Carnarvon. It presented its Report on Gaol Discipline in July 1863 stressing the importance of punishment over reformation and many of its recommendations were incorporated in the Penal Servitude Act 1864.[10] Lord Chief Justice Cockburn told the Committee that the primary object of the treatment of prisoners should be

...deterrence, through suffering, inflicted punishment for crime, and the fear of the repetition of it.

The Select Committee also pointed out the deficiencies in the local operation of prisons. The Prisons Act 1865 aimed to enforce a strict, uniform regime of punishment in all 193 local prisons depriving county justices and municipal corporations of their independent authority over local gaols. The intention was not to try to reform prisoners through work or religion but to impose strict standards of discipline through ‘hard labour, hard fare and a hard board’. 13 English borough or liberty prisons were closed and either sold or, with the Home Secretary’s permission, used as police stations or lock-ups. Many smaller prison authorities gave up their gaols because of the expense of complying with the new regulations, leaving only 113 prisons under local control. The legislation made it possible for the grant from central government to the local authority to be withdrawn if the provisions of the Act were not implemented. Even this had little effect upon the urgent need to improve conditions of the local prisons and produce economy and efficiency in their management. [11]

The organisation and control of Britain’s penal institutions had by 1865 been subjected to increasing centralisation and rationalisation through the mechanisms of State inspection in the 1835 Prison Act, regulation in Prison Acts in 1823 and 1844 and finance through the 1865 Prison Act. In essence, the 1865 Prisons Act sounded the death knell of the mainly privatised, locally administered prison system in England and Wales and the Prisons Act of 1877 put the finishing touches on the centralisation and unification of the prison system. The 1877 legislation transferred the powers and responsibilities from the local justices to the Home Secretary who also took over from local rate payers the cost of the system. The detailed administration of the system was delegated to the Prison Commission, a new body of up to five members, assisted by inspectors. Sir Edmund Du Cane, Chairman of the Prison Commission, faced a formidable task in organising an efficient and uniform system. Resources and needs required review, staffing had to be rationalised, and the regimes in the various prisons awaited inspection. When the 1877 Act came into operation on 1 April 1878, this work was sufficiently advanced to enable the Commissioners immediately to close 38 out of a total of 113 local prisons. Within ten years, a further 19 had been closed.

The regime which Du Cane imposed in the local prisons was based on the principle of separate confinement that was justified on the grounds that an offender was more likely to see the error of his ways if left to contemplate his crime alone. It also reflected the view that imprisonment was a punishment intended to deter the offender from further crime. For the first month the prisoner was required to sleep on a plank bed and to work alone in his cell. The work would be tedious, unpleasant and unconstructive; at this stage it would usually consist of picking oakum. Later, he might find himself working the crank or tread-wheel. Food was monotonous and unpalatable. No letters or visits were allowed for the first three months, and thereafter were permitted only at three monthly intervals. A convict was sentenced to penal servitude, not to imprisonment spent the first nine months of his sentence in solitary confinement.[12] The convict crop and the prison uniform, its colour depending on the prisoner’s classification) with its broad arrows were intentionally demeaning and unsightly and facilities for personal hygiene were minimal. Under the Penal Servitude Act 1857, a convict serving more than three years was allowed to earn remission amounting to a quarter of his sentence. Marks were awarded for good behaviour and the amount of remission depended on the number of marks earned.


[1] Alber, Jan and Lauterbach, Frank, (eds.), Stone of Law, Bricks of Shame: Narrating imprisonment in the Victorian Age, (University of Toronto Press), 2009.

[2] See. Paroissien, ‘Victims or Vermin?: Contradictions in Dickens’ Penal Philosophy’ and Grass, Sean C., ‘Great Expectations, Self-Narration and the Power of the Prison’, in ibid, Alber, Jan and Lauterbach, Frank, (eds.), Stone of Law, Bricks of Shame, pp. 25-45, 171-190.

[3] This was especially evident in the literature of Irish nationalism; see, for example, Mitchel, John, Jail Journal, or, Five years in British prisons, (Office of The Citizen), 1854 and Clarke, Thomas James, Glimpses of an Irish Felon’s Prison Life, (Maunsel & Roberts), 1922, pp. 1-41.

[4] Harris, Frank, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, 2 Vols. (The author), 1916, Vol. 2, pp. 223-250.

[5] Wilde, Oscar, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, (T.B. Mosher), 1907, initially published anonymously in 1897.

[6] Reade, Charles, It is Never Too Late To Mend or The Horrors of a Convict Prison, 1864. See, Barrett, Daniel, ‘It Is Never Too Late To Mend (1865) and Prison Conditions in Nineteenth-Century England’, Theatre Research International, Vol. 18, (1993), pp. 4-15.

[7] In 1921, it merged with the Prison Reform League to become the Howard League for Penal Reform. See, Rose, Gordon, The Struggle for Penal Reform: the Howard League and its Predecessors, (Stevens), 1961.

[8] Kerr, Margaret, ‘The British Parliament and transportation in the eighteen-fifties’, Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 6, (1953), pp. 29-44.

[9] Hasluck, Alexandra, Royal Engineer: a life of Sir Edmund Du Cane, (Angus and Robertson), 1973.

[10] See, Tomlinson, M. Heather, ‘Penal Servitude 1846-1865: a system in evolution’, in Bailey, V., (ed.), Policing and Punishment in Nineteenth Century Britain, (Croom Helm), 1981, pp. 126-149.

[11] Glen, William C., The Prison Act, 1865: with the other statutes and parts of statutes in force relating to goals and prisons, and an extensive index to the whole, (Shaw and Sons), 1865.

[12] All those held in prison were known as prisoners, but those who were sentenced to penal servitude (hard labour) or transportation were known as Convicts.

No comments: