Keep your eyes on that broken pipe, gov,” a prisoner warned me – and, moments later, a large rat appeared a couple of feet from my face, looked at me without fear and shuffled off to dig out more food from the piles of rubbish outside the cell.
I was looking out of a barred window in a lower-ground-floor cell on B wing at HMP Wandsworth, a prison built in 1851 to house the growing number of criminals emerging from the slums of our expanding industrial cities. It was opened by enlightened Victorians who thought that solitary confinement and muscular Christianity were better alternatives to the death penalty or transportation. Prisoners were to be housed in single cells, kept apart from the bad influence of their peers and given repetitive tasks such as unpicking ropes to pass the time while being encouraged to attend weekly chapel services to mend their ways.
It is a testament to the quality of design and construction of that age that so many of the Victorian prisons remain. Built of solid bricks and stone rather than aerated concrete, almost every city in the country still has a large 19th-century jail. After the Second World War, when crime began to increase, new generations of prisons were built. This accelerated in the 1990s, as the tough-on-crime policies of successive governments led to a doubling of the prison population in the following 20 years.
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