Victorian Prisons

BBC Adam Hart Davies on the Victorian prison system
Adam Hart-Davis from 'What the Victorians Did For Us' shows us how the Victorians developed the prison system and introduced the world's first professional police force.
BBC Adam Hart Davies on the Victorian prison system
H.M. Prison Warder, Gloucester 1879
Bexhill Crouch Prison
The Victorianist
1896 - A Cell in Newgate Prison
Victorian London - Publications
Galleries of the dismal prison in the Old Bailey
Victorian London - Publications

How the Victorians justified sending criminals to prison

There are a number of reasons why the Victorians regarded prison terms as a suitable response to criminal behaviour. Not least among these reasons was the need to remove those they regarded as dangerous and unsavoury to a place out of harm’s way. Many people today still see imprisonment under secure conditions as the safest way of protecting the rest of society. However, there are further justifications for the use of imprisonment

‘Let the punishment fit the crime’

It is a commonly held belief that we all end up at some time or other paying for our sins. This idea goes back thousands of years and it appears that law-abiding citizens generally like to see sinners receive their comeuppance. A term in prison under unpleasant, painful conditions is the price thieves and murderers should pay. It is a punishment, and by definition a punishment must be unpleasant, as otherwise it wouldn’t be a punishment. The more heinous the crime the harsher the punishment. If nothing else, this appeals to our sense of fairness. Unfortunately, it also appeals to the far less laudable desire for of vengance. In short, simple retribution.

‘If you can’t do the time don’t do the crime’

There is a strong sense amongst the public and politicians that punishing offenders will deter them from reoffending and by example discourage others from committing similar offences. Unfortunately many criminals regard punishment as an ‘occupational hazard’ and consider the rewards of crime well worth the risk, especially if they believe deep down that they won’t be caught. This attitude fuels demands for longer sentences, harsher punishments and ultimately the death penalty for murder. What greater deterrent can there possibly be? It also encourages judges to deliver harsh sentences for relatively minor offences in order to deter others. Whether deterrents work or not is debatable, however what is certain is that it is manifestly unfair to make an example of one person in order to deter another.

‘Every man is illuminated by the divine light’

This notion presupposes that everyone can lead a good life once they see the error of their ways and reform their behaviour. In this case imprisonment is seen as a necessary evil that helps to reform the criminal and prepare him or her for a return to society as a useful member of the community. Usually this will involve some form of re-education, hard work and reflection. Unfortunately, there is no standard, generally accepted method of criminal reform and simple incarceration is also far cheaper.

When more than one aim is pursued at the same time there is every possibility that they will conflict with each other.

‘I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived’

‘I gotta social disease’

Whatever view of imprisonment is held it presupposes some theory or understanding of what drives people to commit crime. Such theories changed over the course of the 19th. century and attitudes to both the provision of prisons and the regimes within them changed accordingly. Many Victorians saw the poverty and squalor of the sprawling urban slums as the primary cause of crime. Once they had identified the cause of crime they soon developed the idea of a criminal class, and this generally consisted of the poor and the ignorant masses.Soon  this class was regarded as being not only beyond redemption but, because of background and breeding, genetically disposed to lawbreaking. In short, they were born criminals and if they couldn’t help themselves there was no cure.

Separate and Silent Systems

The early Victorian system employed two approaches to the reformation of prisoners, the separate and the silent systems. Under the separate system prisoners were kept in solitary confinement for all or most of their sentence. Under the silent system prisoners, whilst confined to cells at night, were allowed to mix with each other for work and exercise, although the guards tried to maintain silence. Both systems had supposed benefits but the debate about which to employ raged throughout the century. The separatists were criticised for being too optimistic about the ability to improve human behaviour, and it was eagerly pointed out by their opponents that on release most prisoners simply returned to their old lives of crime. Long periods in solitary confinement also had adverse effects on many prisoners. In 1842 The Times described the system as ‘this maniac-making system’. Although it was easier to control prisoners it was also very expensive to run, with each individual requiring a separate cell. The silent system also had serious flaws, for example the impossibility of  preventing communication between prisoners. Ultimately the rules were relaxed in the 1920s and finally abolished in the 1950s.

‘Laws should be like clothes. They should be made to fit the people they serve.’

Clarence Darrow

Maybe prisons should be like clothes?

Thanks Ian Swift

Victorian Police and Prisons

Adam Hart Davies on the Victorian prison system