Prison used to be the place where you waited your turn to be drowned, decapitated, hung or burned. Jonathan Sale surveys the long, painful history of incarceration
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The Independent Culture
WHILE visiting a relative of mine in a West Country nick, I felt my heart go out to the prison officers. They were lumbered with a rude, aggressive, unco-operative, complaining bunch, some of whom were more than a little challenged in the sanity department. And that was just the visitors.

Prison does not exactly bring out the best in anyone. Given that serious crime is a growth area, the seams of the nation's prisons are saved from bursting only by the low clear-up rate. There is little chance of prisoners coming out reformed. A friend of mine wrote a lively book about his time in Parkhurst, only to have the copies nicked by the prisoners' self-help group which published it.

One good thing to emerge from centuries of incarceration is The Oxford History of Prison, a survey of banging-up from Biblical times to the modern day. We can only guess at how Norval Morris and David Rothman, the two American academics who edited the work, extracted from their different contributors such sober, informative and intelligible chapters. Possibly by placing them under house-arrest with an electronic tag on their word- processors.

In the wrong hands, such as those of the Michael Howard League for Penal Reform, this book could do a great deal of damage. It could remind a compassion- free Home Secretary that, for centuries, doing time was a piece of cake compared to the range of punishments on the menu. As Edward Peters relates in his wide-ranging first chapter on the "Dawn of Imprisonment", for much of Britain's history, punishments included the stocks, the ducking stool, drowning, decapitation, hanging, branding, burning and breaking on the wheel. There was also burial - alive.

The Greeks had lapidation (stoning) and precipitation (hurling from cliffs). Militant Muslims still favour the first but the second has fallen out of favour, especially in flat countries. For leading the youth of his time astray, Socrates was sentenced to compulsory suicide and forced to drink a bowl of hemlock. As well as throwing people to the lions, the Romans were wont to tie an offender in a sack with an ape, a dog and a serpent and dump him in the sea. (It couldn't happen these days; there would be a campaign insisting: "The snake is innocent OK.") The penalty for libellous song-writing was being clubbed to death, which was why no one started a magazine called Privatus Oculus in Ancient Rome.

In France in 1757, a man who merely attempted to kill Louis XV was lashed to four horses and torn apart, his limbs first weakened by incisions to make sure he came to bits. In Spain the courts could plump for snipping off noses or boiling in oil. One crime on the statute book was the erecting of new prisons without permission; presumably transgressors were locked up in their own illegal nicks. For a truly privatised system, Pieter Spierenburg's chapter takes us to Britain in the Middle Ages, when nobles could convert rooms in their own castles into mini-prisons for offenders they had personally convicted.

The church also had a legal franchise, with sentences including compulsory fancy dress, that is, offenders walking around barefoot in white sheets. It was allowed to to run its own "consistory" courts. It still is, although these days they are restricted to decisions on church planning and adulterous vicars. Even so, a few years ago an Independent photographer, who accidentally snapped one of these consistory courts in session, soon found himself in the dock on a contempt charge and was lucky to escape with his own shoes and clothes.

Prison was for a long time not the primary punishment but merely a place where the defendants waited for their trial and the guilty waited for their sentence - burning etc - to be carried out. In sixth-century France, the most common reason for incarceration was that your ransom had not yet been paid. In 1600, seven-eighths of all crimes against property in Cheshire were rewarded with the death sentence.

Another way of keeping down the prison population was to export it. The first ever crime, scrumping the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, led to the rounding-up of the obvious suspects: Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden. In the same way, as John Hirst points out in his chapter on Transportation, Australia between 1787 and 1870 was used as a vast open prison, eventually receiving 187,000 convicts. Three-quarters of the original population of New South Wales was made up of those who had been given compulsory one-way tickets by the British courts.

The Judge Dredds of the 19th century came to feel that being turned loose in the outback was a soft option, particularly when gold was discovered in Australia, and they looked for other parts of the globe in which to dump the criminal element. A boatload of convicts was despatched to South Africa but received such a hostile reception there that the captain was forced to take his human cargo Down Under as usual.

Until the War of Independence put paid to the scheme, America had been used as a depository for British cons. Nowadays, according to the chapter written by Norval Morris, there are around 1,750,000 prisoners in the US, held in anything from maximum security to open hostels; some will be doing time in their own homes, which legally can be counted as prisons. US Man is indeed in chains, literally so in the case of chain gangs.

No prizes for guessing the predominant colour of the inmates. A racial survey for 1991 showed that on a typical day, 42 per cent of all black males aged 18-35 in Washington DC would be in the control of the criminal justice system: 15 per cent would be behind bars, 21 per cent on probation or parole and 6 per cent waiting for, or avoiding, their trial. Whatever the function of imprisonment, in the capital city of the world's most powerful nation its deterrent value is not great.

It's not because prisons are a soft option. Professor Morris includes the 24-hour diary of a white male in Stateville, a prison near Chicago containing 2,100 inmates. Life in his "House", or wing, is not a laugh a minute like Porridge, but then neither is it One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: 64 cages or cells are arranged in a circle, facing inwards. On top are another three tiers of cages. A guard in the middle of the circle can see into every cell. Lack of privacy is one problem, the noise level is another, boredom is a third.

Despite the constant threat of violence, prisoners here are not much more at risk than on the streets where the majority come from. The diarist finds the local news, watched on his in-cell TV, to be particularly depressing: "Most of it about the activities of people who are on their way here." And he doesn't mean as visitors. The idea of reforming prisoners is comparatively recent; it looks as if it is now being forgotten.

Stateville is at least a small advance on the 13th-century French nick known as an oubliette. Its name suggests that this is where they forgot about prisoners after locking them up and throwing away the key; in fact, the warders remembered them only too well, making an extortionate nightly charge, and there was neither key nor door, just a pit into which they were lowered.

British prisons followed this financial example. Not only were debtors imprisoned but ordinary prisoners, being charged for their meals, were not released until they had settled their bills, even if found innocent. A full-page woodcut illustrating Sen McConville's chapter on "Local Justice" shows an inmate allowed out briefly from the Fleet prison in London to beg from the passing gentry.

There was even a plan to harness the treadmill, which I once came across in a exhibition on early forms of transport. The idea was for prisoners to turn it pointlessly, like hamsters in a cage. The wheel was connected to a device that pumped casks full of compressed air. These were to be stored at intervals along trunk routes and used as the fuel for a new generation of air-powered vehicles. The sales of air would have rapidly put the entire prison service into profit. This environmentally correct device was never invented and the petrol engine came along instead.

Yet it would be foolish to laugh too hard at the private-enterprise prison system; Michael Howard is still at large, doubtless dreaming of the penal equivalent of the student loan, to be paid back on release. And watch out for the Harriet Harman prison, in which governors are allowed to select their intake.

If Robert Maxwell had not gone for his early morning dip, he would presumably be lording it over an open prison, buying up the phonecards of his fellow inmates and making a takeover bid for the cons' football team. Money talked even more loudly in the 19th-century prison, which in some ways was like a run-down hospital, without the medicine. The impoverished lived like tramps but the well-heeled inmate could book a decent cell and have gourmet meals and prostitutes sent in from outside. He could even wander round the nearby streets, if he paid for the services of an official minder.

As a young teenager, Charles Dickens was sent out to work during the day and returned in the evening to the bosom of his family, in the debtors' prison. This ghastly experience made for the strongest theme in Little Dorrit, with Mr Dickens Senior as the institution's most respected and venerable inmate. In Great Expectations the incredible "hulks", the prison ships moored off the Norfolk coast, cast a long shadow over the hero's childhood.

A "writers' wing" could be filled with wordsmiths who personally researched life behind bars. John Bunyan wrote Grace Abounding, and had the inspiration for The Pilgrim's Progress, while in Bedford gaol, one of the few nicks to be constructed on a bridge. Oscar Wilde became a graduate of Reading Gaol, e e cummings was interned in France in 1917 and Robert Lowell served five months on charges of draft evasion during WW2. When still a young man, Jean Genet was an old lag.

The literature of confinement is rich and rewarding, which is more than can be said for "The Literature of Confinement", W B Carnochan's chapter in the Oxford History. Metamorphosis and Waiting for Godot are not usually thought of as prison literature classics. Contributors of other sections have produced readable prose out of sometimes dry material; this one has plundered 2,500 years of creative work to no particular effect.

Otherwise, this book is good enough for me to want to send my copy to my relative in his West Country cell. Except that he's out now. By the time the court got round to trying and convicting him he had spent so long on remand that he had already served his sentence, which made his guilt or innocence rather academic. Still, at least he wasn't charged for his meals.

8 'The Oxford History of Prisons: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society', edited by Norval Morris and David Rothman, is published by Oxford Uuniversity Press at pounds 25