Historical Notes: `A machine to grind rogues honest'

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A REVOLUTION took place in the prisons of Europe and North America in the first half of the 19th century. Stung by charges of corruption against unreformed prisons like Newgate, and fired by the ambition of Enlightenment thought to apply reason to human affairs, states and jurisdictions across the industrialising world embarked on the great penitentiary experiment. Model prisons sprang up everywhere.

Separation and silence replaced the "promiscuous mingling" of the old wards; solitary confinement and the consolations of religion were to reform the new prisoners "A machine to grind rogues honest," is what Jeremy Bentham called the prison he planned to build on the bank of the Thames where the Tate Gallery now stands.

But, as flogging and hanging ceased to be public spectacles, and the experience of gaol disappeared behind high walls, so public curiosity grew about what went on inside them. This demand called forth a curious literary genre - the prison memoir. Some of its authors were gentlefolk; "One-who-has-endured-it", "One-who-has-tried-them", "One-who-has-suffered", were the discreet noms de plume of men who wrote about their experiences rather like anthropologists returning from a dark continent.

They were shocked by what they saw. Prisoners were baptised on arrival in baths of water that was not changed between bathers. Their hair was cropped "as close as the shears will go". They were issued with ill- fitting and sometimes dirty clothes that others had worn. They slept on hard boards in cold cells. They ate meagre food, which was sometimes reduced as part of "medical" experiments, so that some prisoners died. Hungry convicts ate candles rescued from the cesspit, poultices, worms, frogs and insects. They were forced to turn hand-cranks in their cells - so many turns against graded resistance to earn their breakfast, so many for lunch, so many for tea. Or they trod the endless staircase of the treadmill.

At Salford New Bailey prison in Manchester the daily ascent was set at 19,400ft, two-thirds the height of Mount Everest. And at Cold Bath Fields prison in London, according to the French prison inspector M Moreau-Christophe, one set of convicts on the treadmill turned the shaft in one direction with their feet, and another set used hand-cranks to turn it in the other - "une veritable humiliation", he wrote.

Released political prisoners also queued up to pass judgement on the penitentiary prison. The Chartist William Lovett, Fenians Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa and Michael Davitt, and suffragettes like Sylvia Pankhurst and Constance Lytton added their unashamed barbs to the movement for reform. We can even count Oscar Wilde as a political prisoner; De Profundis and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" have become classics of prison writing.

Almost from the moment they were opened the new penitentiaries proved unequal to the task of reforming people - solitary confinement and silence drove some prisoners mad, and were slowly abandoned in practice. Prison authors - including some members of staff - helped to speed this process but hardly any of them ever question the basic theory of the penitentiary. Only Dr Mary Gordon, the first woman inspector of prisons, spoke out against the whole idea of imprisonment - "It appears to me not to belong to this time or civilisation at all."

The latter part of the 20th century has seen a new rash of prison-building across the developed world - nearly two million people will be unlocked this morning in the United States. Ex-prisoners continue to publish critical texts but their suggestions for change still lack conviction. Two centuries are a long time for a human institution to remain intact - perhaps the next big idea in criminal justice is lying in wait just around the corner of history.

Philip Priestley is the author of `Victorian Prison Lives: English prison biography 1830-1914' (Pimlico, pounds 12.50)