How the Victorians treated their prisoners

During the mid-1880s prison administration in Victorian Britain had reached something of a crossroads. In earlier times it had been far easier to deal with prisoners since even stealing a loaf of bread could condemn a man to the scaffold or transportation to a far away colony. The problem for the legal establishment was that the public's attitude was turning away from severe punishments and the Colonies were getting a little restless about being used as a dumping ground for the mother country's human refuse so new means of dealing with convicted criminals had to be found and the concept of depriving them of their liberty in large central prisons for long periods of time gained support. This was of course very similar to sending the criminal fraternity off to a university of crime and many means were tried to prevent communication between prisoners including the so-called silent and separate systems, in which prisoners were either forbidden to communicate in any way with each other or were kept strictly segregated from each other. Another approach was to keep the prisoners completely occupied for as long as possible and so work was provided for them; one popular imposition was picking oakum, which meant giving each prisoner a length of rope which had to be picked out to form a coarse wool - like mass of fibres which was used for pressing between the planks on the decks of a ship in order to help to waterproof them. It was very interesting to note however that when ingenious prisoners discovered primitive tools which could help them do this more quickly and efficiently they were taken away from them, which indicated very firmly that picking oakum was a punishment and not a useful job. The decline in demand for oakum fell as shipbuilders increasingly built their vessels from steel rather than wood but oakum picking continued for some time anyway, with men women and children labouring away for long hours in order to produce nothing of any great value.

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This was not really enough for some of the prison administrators and hard labour was introduced. This could at least have been argued to have a useful purpose in the cases, particularly, of the excavations for Chatham Dock and the sewing of mailbags but a lot of good honest tradesman were not very happy at the prospect of having to compete with unpaid prisoners so giving them other useful work proved problematical and in any case it was argued that the work should be a punishment rather than a means of giving the prisoners any productive trade. It became common for men to be marched off to carry out manual work at a dock only to simply move heavy baulks of timber from one place to another and then back again but unfortunately not every prison was close to a dock so other means had to be found of keeping the inmates busy; which is where the treadmill came in!

The original introduction of the treadmill, it was argued, had a useful purpose since the prisoners would be able to turn a wheel which could then be used to generate mechanical power which could be utilised profitably, such as by grinding corn or by turning machinery. This meritorious aim very quickly became an illusion, and prisoners, whether they were male or female or children, fit or disabled, were expected to put in their stints on the treadmill for long periods of time grinding nothing but fresh air! Some prison administrators decided that the expense of installing a wheel was not justified and instead they installed a hand crank which the prisoner had to turn a certain number of times; dampening mechanisms could make it more difficult or easy to turn as required and prisoners were expected to turn a handle several thousand times per day in order to avoid punishment. Once again turning the handle achieved precisely nothing whatsoever. To simplify matters even further some prisons require the inmates to carry out shot drill; this involved lifting heavy metal balls, carrying them to another location and then carrying them back again. A total waste of time and perspiration but deemed to be a suitable occupation to keep the prisoners out of mischief.

It can be argued that this type of punishment was of no great detriment to fit people who were used to labouring work but they had to carry this out on a very poor prison diet and the majority of prisoners were not strapping young men but there were large numbers who were undernourished, unused to labour, female or extremely young and who suffered considerably from their treatment. Medical care was available officially, but much of it was of a cursory standard and, let's face it, poor people (the majority of prisoners in those days came from what we would now call a severely deprived background) have never really mattered very much to politicians anyway.

Copyright 2009 John Barron, Ipswich England.