Attempting to write a balanced review of a book about “life behind bars”, two days before I am due to be released from a prison (Wandsworth) that features heavily in the very same volume, is a little like trying to control your runaway heartbeat in those few seconds in court just before the judge passes sentence. Still, at least I don’t find myself in the situation of those medieval criminals who would awake on the morning of their release, only to be presented with a bill from the prison-keeper for bed and board. If the bill wasn’t settled immediately, a further sentence had to be served across the exercise yard in the debtors’ wing of the same gaol.
Edward Marston’s utterly compelling carceral miscellany is full of such esoteric fare. Did you know, for instance, that the origins of such familiar phrases as “under pressure” or “hard-pressed” lie in a windowless dungeon in Newgate? Miscreants would be stretched out and sandwiched between two boards upon which progressively heavier weights were placed, until such time as the hapless victims had been squashed to death.
As an architectural historian, I have always admired Lewis Cubitt, whose twin train sheds for the Great Northern Railway at King’s Cross were completed in 1852, the same year as Wandsworth Prison opened for business. Imagine my disappointment, therefore, when I read that the same man had used his engineering
genius 30 years earlier to invent the treadwheel. This was a misguided attempt to alleviate the boredom of what inmates today refer to as “pure bang-up”.
The government that is planning new so-called Titan prisons would do well to consider some of the episodes discussed in Marston’s book. He points out, for example, that when Millbank Panopticon opened in 1821, its designated capacity of 600 had to be doubled almost immediately in order to cope with an initial population of a thousand.
Another controversial recent policy has been the attempt to transfer prisons into the private sector. Yet Marston describes how “franchise prisons” have been around since the 12th century, when the Assize of Clarendon legislated for the building of more prisons “at the King’s Expense”. The king couldn’t afford them, so this new batch of predominantly town and country gaols was bought and sold on the open market, like any other commercial property. The Duke of Beaufort still owned his own private prison in Swansea as late as 1851.
All else being equal, I shall be released on Monday, when I intend to drop off my work at the New Statesman and, with luck, receive my remuneration. But there are some in the Prison Service who would rather I didn’t receive any reward at all. An archaic internal prison rule preventing convicted felons from “running a business” while serving a sentence is occasionally dusted off in an attempt to shut me up. I believe the Prison Service is mistaken in its constant attempts to smother creative endeavour, and in my support I would cite Marston’s illuminating chapter on Elizabeth Fry, which discusses an experiment she carried out in the women’s ward of Newgate in 1818.
Giving evidence later to a parliamentary inquiry into the City of London prisons, she laid out to the then home secretary, Lord Sidmouth (apparently fed up with interference from such “do-gooders”), her plan for rehabilitating prisoners. First, she stressed the necessity of religious instruction; second, she argued that the men and women rotting away inside needed to be categorised according to the severity of their crimes; and third, and most importantly, she argued that there needed to be proper provision of employment to prepare prisoners to embark on more honest and productive lives once released.
During the ten months of Fry’s initiative, there was not a single instance of insubordination among the 80 women under her Quaker instruction. The group manufactured more than 20,000 items, including aprons, fancy goods, bags and rag dolls, which the women were allowed to sell for their own future profit. Yet, despite the project’s unprecedented success, the prophets of doom at the prisons commission closed her down. Most of the women in Fry’s charge were transported to Australia.
My fee for this review will help me to put a roof over my head (something that all the internal prison agencies have signally failed to manage). Our masters in Whitehall seem acquiescent enough when it comes to turning a blind eye to drug dealing, which is rife throughout the prison system. Why then should prisoners have to fight so bloody hard to earn an honest living? If Edward Marston wants an idea for his next book, he might try to find an answer to that question.