History of the prison system

Prison is just one of a number of sanctions available to the courts to deal with those who commit criminal offences. Imprisonment today is the harshest sanction available, but this has not always been the case.

16th and 17th Centuries

Sanctions for criminal behaviour tended to be public events which were designed to shame the person and deter others; these included the ducking stool, the pillory, whipping, branding and the stocks. At the time the sentence for many other offences was death.

Prison tended to be a place where people were held before their trial or while awaiting punishment. It was very rarely used as a punishment in its own right. Men and women, boys and girls, debtors and murderers were all held together in local prisons.

Evidence suggests that the prisons of this period were badly maintained and often controlled by negligent prison warders. Many people died of diseases like gaol fever, which was a form of typhus.

The most important innovation of this period was the building of the prototype house of correction, the London Bridewell. Houses of correction were originally part of the machinery of the Poor Law, intended to instil habits of industry through prison labour. Most of those held in them were petty offenders, vagrants and the disorderly local poor. By the end of the 17th century they were absorbed into the prison system under the control of the local Justices of the Peace.

18th Century

Although the 18th century has been characterised as the era of the 'Bloody Code' there was growing opposition to the death penalty for all but the most serious crimes. Such severe punishment was counter-productive, as jurors were refusing to find thieves guilty of offences which would lead to their execution.

By the mid-18th century imprisonment, with hard labour, was beginning to been seen as a suitable sanction for petty offenders.

Transportation was a much-used method for disposing of convicted people. Convicts were shipped to the British colonies like America (until the end of the American War of Independence in 1776), Australia, and Van Diemenís Land (Tasmania).

Transportation was curtailed at the end of the 18th century. Other sanctions therefore had to be found. The two prominent alternatives were hard labour, and for those unable to do this, the house of correction. This practice lead to the use of prison hulks from 1776 until their phasing out in 1857.

Prison hulks were ships which were anchored in the Thames, and at Portsmouth and Plymouth. Those sent to them were employed in hard labour during the day and then loaded, in chains, onto the ship at night. The appalling conditions on the hulks, especially the lack of control and poor physical conditions, eventually led to the end of this practice. But the use of prison hulks did much to persuade public opinion that incarceration, with hard labour, was a viable penalty for crime.

In 1777, John Howard (namesake of the Howard League) condemned the prison system as disorganised, barbaric and filthy. He called for wide-ranging reforms including the installation of paid staff, outside inspection, a proper diet and other necessities for prisoners.

Jeremy Bentham, and other penal reformers of the time, believed that the prisoner should suffer a severe regime, but that it should not be detrimental to the prisoner's health. Penal reformers also ensured the separation of men and women and that sanitation was improved.

In 1791 Bentham designed the 'panopticon'. This prison design allowed a centrally placed observer to survey all the inmates, as prison wings radiated out from this central position. Benthamís panopticon became the model for prison building for the next half century.

In 1799 the Penitentiary Act specified that gaols should be built for one inmate per cell and operate on a silent system with continuous labour.

19th Century

The first half of the 19th century represented a watershed in the history of state punishment. Capital punishment was now regarded as an inappropriate sanction for many crimes. The shaming sanctions, like the stocks, were regarded as outdated. By mid-century, imprisonment had replaced capital punishment for most serious offences - except for that of murder.

Ideas relating to penal reform were becoming increasingly popular thanks to the work of a few energetic reformers. Many of these ideas were related to the rehabilitation of offenders. Religious groups like the Quakers and the Evangelicals were highly influential in promoting ideas of reform through personal redemption.

The 19th century saw the birth of the state prison. The first national penitentiary was completed at Millbank in London, in 1816. It held 860 prisoners, kept in separate cells, although association with other prisoners was allowed during the day. Work in prison was mainly centred around simple tasks such as picking 'coir' (tarred rope) and weaving.

In 1842 Pentonville prison was built using the panopticon design; this prison is still used today.

Pentonville was originally designed to hold 520 prisoners, each held in a cell measuring 13 feet long, 7 feet wide and 9 feet high. Pentonville operated the separate system, which was basically solitary confinement. In the next 6 years, 54 new prisons were built using this template.

In 1877 prisons were brought under the control of the Prison Commission. For the first time even local prisons were controlled centrally. At this time prison was seen primarily as a means to deter offending and reoffending. This was a movement away form the reforming ideals of the past.

The Prison Act 1898 reasserted reformation as the main role of prison regimes. This Act can be seen to set the penal-welfare context which underlies todayís prison policy. It led to a dilution of the separate system, the abolition of hard labour, and established the idea that prison labour should be productive, not least for the prisoners, who should be able to earn their livelihood on release.

20th Century

The development of the prison system continues. At the end of the 19th century there was recognition that young people should have separate prison establishments - thus the borstal system was introduced in the Prevention of Crime Act 1908. Borstal training involved a regime based on hard physical work, technical and educational instruction and a strong moral atmosphere. A young person in borstal would work through a series of grades, based on privileges, until release.

In 1933, the first open prison was built at New Hall Camp near Wakefield. The theory behind the open prison is summed up in the words of one penal reformer, Sir Alex Paterson: "You cannot train a man for freedom under conditions of captivity".

The Criminal Justice Act 1948 abolished penal servitude, hard labour and flogging. It also presented a comprehensive system for the punishment and treatment of offenders. Prison was still at the centre of the system, but the institutions took many different forms including remand centres, detention centres and borstal institutions.

In April 1993 the Prison Service became an Agency of government. This new status allows for greater autonomy in operational matters, while the government retains overall policy direction.

The 1990s have also seen the introduction of prisons which are designed, financed, built and run by private companies. Supporters of privatisation argue that it will lead to cheaper, more innovative prisons, while organisations like the Howard League argue that private prisons are flawed both in principle and in practice.