‘Prisons don’t work’ exclaimed author Will Self to the BBC in 2011 reflecting significant public concerns regarding issues such as cost, reoffending and overcrowding through to the perception of ‘gilded lifestyles’ led by inmates. In this module we will explore the period of English history in which the modern prison system emerged and consider the reasons behind this development. Set against a background of social tensions, rising crime rates and dissatisfaction with the alternative punishments such as execution and transportation we will begin our study in the late eighteenth century when the concept of the prison as a form of punishment (as opposed to purely holding criminals pre- and post-trial) was a new one in England. We will look at the work of contemporaries who identified the need to develop the role of the prison as a site of both discipline and reformation for criminals and how their influence led to the penitentiary emerging through the nineteenth century as the primary mode of punishment. We will question the motivations behind the emergence of the prison: was this driven by humanitarianism and an emphasis on the ability to reform or was the incarceration of criminals a form of social control? The spate of prison building and rebuilding across the nineteenth century saw the establishment of over 90 new establishments and we will be researching the planning and organisation of these structures with case studies such as Millbank and Pentonville (London), Bristol and Reading. From surveys of individual institutions we can uncover the regimes that were in place and how the makeup of prison populations related to social problems. We will explore the tensions that existed between prisoners, prison authorities and the government across the nineteenth century and how these ultimately led to the Prisons Act in 1898 taking all prisons out of private ownership and into central government’s control. You will have the opportunity to research one prison of your choice in detail as the basis for your essay and to consider how it evolved in light of the wider debates and reforms across our period.
Alongside the wider context of prison reforms we will undertake a close examination of the treatment of particular groups of criminals and the experiences of individual criminals. We will look at groups such as women, children and the insane to consider how philanthropic and medical developments influenced attitudes across the nineteenth century and the role played by particular individual reformers including Elizabeth Fry, Mary Carpenter and Joshua Jebb. In particular debates surrounding the establishment of specific institutions to house these ‘minority’ groups (e.g., Holloway, Parkhurst and Broadmoor) will be considered. We will then move to consider the experiences of the prisoners themselves through their surviving memoirs, letters and biographies and by the use of literature (e.g., Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1860)).
The module asks you to reflect critically on debates surrounding the intentions of modern forms of punishment by examining their historical roots. We will demonstrate how current debates surrounding the ‘effectiveness’ or ‘success’ of imprisonment are necessarily coloured by the motives of reformers across the long nineteenth century in England.