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30 March 2023

Robert Jenrick and the return of prison hulks

The immigration minister is reopening a dark chapter in British history.

By Anna McKay

If the government goes ahead with proposals to detain asylum seekers on boats, it will be reopening a dark chapter in British history.

Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, announced plans yesterday (29 March) to house several thousand male asylum seekers in disused military bases in Essex, Lincolnshire and East Sussex. But what really caught the eye was Jenrick’s other announcement. He said that the government was exploring the possibility of housing migrants on vessels such as disused cruise ships or barges. Detainment on ships is a policy with deep historical roots, and is highly evocative of the repressive and punishing regimes of Georgian and Victorian-era prison hulks.

In 1776 British politicians brought in a temporary act that authorised the use of disused trading ships and naval vessels as floating prisons. Moored along the banks of the Thames and at Portsmouth and Plymouth, “hulks” would in fact be used for over 80 years. Through slipshod management and dangerous conditions, they became synonymous with the failings of the prison system.

[See also: Cooking, cushion covers and coffee roasting: a different sort of prison education]

Prison hulks housed male offenders between the ages of eight and eighty, who were put to work breaking stones, hauling wood and repairing dockyards as they awaited transportation to the Australian colonies. Sentences of transportation ranged from seven years to fourteen, or life, for crimes including stealing handkerchiefs and livestock, assault and murder. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries convicts were seen as dangerous to the public, and liable to corrupt morals. The prison system was also viewed as a drain on state resources, leading to a lack of investment that created more problems.

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Steven Knight’s new BBC production of Great Expectations, broadcast this week, gave viewers an idea of the grim conditions on board convict hulks at the turn of the nineteenth century. Like Abel Magwitch, prisoners lived in desperate conditions, with a lack of adequate clothing and food. In the early period the prisons were managed by private contractors who cut costs and lined their own pockets. Prisoners died at a rate of one in four.

The Home Office took control of the prison hulk system in 1815 and brought about a series of reforms, such as dividing the decks into cells and introducing mandatory schooling. Its intention was to reform prisoners and transform them into valuable members of society.

Prison hulks were used in England for so long because they were cheap and mobile – they could house up to 800 prisoners at any one time, could be towed from site to site, and were isolated from land much like islands. As a result they were difficult to manage and became highly dangerous, unstable places; many prisoners attempted escape, lashed out at each other and their overseers, and sexual abuse and gangs were rife. With little public sympathy, prisoners were at the mercy of a government that chose to ignore them.

[See also: A life behind bars]

Public criticism of the hulks grew. In 1848, in the wake of a series of public health scandals, the Daily News, founded by Charles Dickens and a favourite of leading reformist writers, argued that the hulks had “no redeeming feature”, and that the sole reason they continued to operate was that the government used convicts as a cheap source of labour.

When the prison hulk policy began, the emphasis was on punishing offenders. But the public slowly began to see that the problems with the prison system lay in the government itself, and that the high costs of the hulks could be allayed by investment in prisons. The policy finally ended in 1857 in England after the last hulk, the Defence, burnt down. They continued in the British colonies, such as Bermuda and Gibraltar, further removed from the public eye, until the 1870s.

[See also: Why reading books in prison can set you free]

Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, has said that “nothing is off the table” when it comes to reducing the use of hotels to house asylum seekers. But history shows us that when faced with a housing crisis, it is irresponsible to place vulnerable so-called “problem” groups in the hands of private contractors, and to house them in ships. Nineteenth-century hulks turned out to be far more expensive, and more politically unpopular, than investing in new prisons better equipped to rehabilitate prisoners.

Today we are on the brink of something similar. Immigration removal centres present real concerns for the mental health of inhabitants. Hotel bills for migrants are over £6m daily. Housing them on cruise ships and barges is another stop-gap solution that will eventually cost the government – and the taxpayer – more money because it will generate new costs. A far better approach would be to invest in immigration centres, making them safer, more efficient, and cost-effective.

The Home Office plans to use ships as detainment sites for migrants takes inspiration from a number of recent examples, notably the MS Galaxy and Silja Europa liners used in the Netherlands. In Scotland the MS Ambition, a cruise ship docked near Glasgow that held over a thousand Ukrainian refugees, is set to close down by the end of March

Yesterday the SNP MP Alison Thewliss challenged Jenrick’s comparison between the government’s proposal and the use of Ambition. It was offensive and misleading, she said – the Scottish government’s system was a temporary measure, and never intended to act as a deterrent to migration. Jenrick argued that human dignity is at the heart of the scheme. The ghost of Charles Dickens probably laughed when he heard that.

The history of prison hulks shows us that solutions can only come from sound policy. The appalling conditions and notoriety of hulks were designed to deter would-be criminals from offending. Housing people on ships is a practice we tend to associate with criminality due to these historical implications. This in turn promotes a certain way of thinking about asylum seekers – but they are not the enemy, and they certainly deserve better than this.

[See also: The UK is less racist than the left – and the right – think]

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