Sunday, 7 February 2010

Victorian Prisons

A Victorian Prison
Why were Victorian Prisons so tough?

Photograph, courtyard of Wormwood Scrubs Prison, groups of prisoners pulling carts.

Victorians were worried about the rising crime rate: offences went up from about 5,000 per year in 1800 to about 20,000 per year in 1840. They were firm believers in punishment for criminals, but faced a problem: what should the punishment be?
There were prisons, but they were mostly small, old and badly-run. Common punishments included transportation - sending the offender to America, Australia or Van Diemens Land (Tasmania), or execution - hundreds of offences carried the death penalty.
By the 1830s people were having doubts about both these punishments. The answer was prison: lots of new prisons were built and old ones extended.
The Victorians also had clear ideas about what these prisons should be like. They should be unpleasant places, so as to deter people from committing crimes. Once inside, prisoners had to be made to face up to their own faults, by keeping them in silence and making them do hard, boring work. Walking a treadwheel or picking oakum (separating strands of rope) were the most common forms of hard labour.