Prisons and Houses of Correction
(see Gallery Punishment
1450-1750), had survived
from earlier centuries almost unchanged. They began to be
criticised in the late 18th century on a number of counts.
All kinds of people were dumped in them together: men, women,
children, lunatics, debtors and those simply awaiting trial.
They were often ancient and unhealthy places, with no fresh
water, or sewage disposal. What they called "gaol fever",
probably typhus, killed many inmates. Prisoners had to pay
fees to their gaolers, so better off prisoners could survive
quite well, while poor prisoners lived in squalor and rags.
Local control and local rules meant that there was no common
treatment policy across the country.
Several reformers, notably John Howard,
described all these abuses, pointing out that prison was meant
to be the punishment itself, not the sickness or death which
could result. However, change came only gradually. In 1815
gaolers began to be paid, instead of charging fees. Some new
prisons were built to new designs, so that prisoners could
be easily guarded, but lived in healthier conditions.
Not until the 1830s, with crime
on the increase, did the great debate begin on prisons and
how they should be run. As other punishments faded out of
use and transportation ended, (See Case
Study 1), prison became the normal
punishment for most serious offenders. But how should they
- The Separate system. Under this system,
based on Cherry Hill Prison in Pennsylvania, USA, prisoners
were kept in solitary confinement, in order to think about
their life and crimes. It was believed that they would then
come face to face with the error of their ways. Living conditions
were good, but convicts had nothing to do. Christian ideas
of repentance and judgement were emphasised. The Chaplain
played an important part in this. At Pentonville, a new
prison opened in 1842 under the separate system, several
prisoners went mad and three committed suicide.
- The Silent system. Under this system,
based on Auburn Prison, New York, USA, prisoners had to
work, but in total silence.
- Hard bed, hard board, hard labour.
In the last part of the 19th century prisons were made even
tougher, under a regime called "hard bed, hard board,
hard labour". Hard plank beds replaced hammocks, food
was deliberately boring and inmates had to work hard on
monotonous, even pointless tasks.
To further bring prisons into line, they
were all taken out of local control and put under the government,
through the Home Office, in 1877. By this time the usual sentence
was one year in solitary confinement, followed by three years
hard labour. Even time off for good behaviour was stopped.
(For more on Victorian prisons, see
Case Study 3)