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A Brief History Of The English Prison System

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In early years Britain had little need, if any, for prisons. The normal sentence for those found guilty was death while those found innocent were simply set free. Dungeons were certainly used as prisons for ordinary soldiers in the middle ages. There is a carving on the wall of the dungeon at Warwick Castle demonstrating that one group of men were held there for four years.

As an alternative to death and execution in 1615, Thomas More's Utopia suggested a proposal for imprisonment as punishment. The suggestion was that thieves be locked away and reduced in status as slaves for a number of years, but as state prisons at the time did not exist there was no place to send them.

Up until the 17th Century prisoners were incarcerated mainly for debt; a senseless practice, as prisoners had to pay for board and lodging. Others had to wait their fate in county prisons, local prisons, private prisons and debtors prisons.


From the 17th Century onwards transportation provided an alternative to incarcerating offenders to prison. Those who avoided execution were shipped to the British colony of Virginia and set to work on the plantations, or to Jamaica or Barbados to be sold as slaves or indentured servants, until America's war of independence. This created a preference to ship offenders to Australia which developed a penal colony. Those not hanged still had to be placed. Therefore prison 'hulks', broken old ships, were used as floating prisons. (At this point it is interesting to note that the term 'shipped out' is still used in the modern prison service, as a description of moving from one prison to another). In these ships men and boys were shackled throughout their sentence, classifying groups of offenders into similar areas to alleviate crimes. These 'hulks' then became a last stop before Australia. (Captain Cooke's ship Discovery ended up as a prison ship 'hulk' at Deptford.)

London Prisons

At this time around half the prisons were privately owned and rented out to sub-contractors by landlords, the likes of The Bishop Of Ely or Leeds, or Dukes of Portland. Newgate prison in London, a notorious establishment dating from as early as 1130, and demolished in 1902 from the site we know as the Old Bailey today, was a commercial enterprise run by the Warden.

In 1779 the first state prison, Millbank was opened in London; the Tate Gallery now stands on part of the site. It had integral sanitation, although sub-standard drainage caused many deaths through contamination. Millbank was denounced by the then Government some 30 years later because of its foulness, overcrowding and crude conditions.

Australia by now began to resent its ordered intake of criminals. Because of this the Government then built Pentonville prison, which opened in 1842. Thus was invented the 'tread wheel', an item of work whereby prisoners turned a heavy handle inside their cell attached to a drum, which scooped sand up to a receptacle, but served no other purpose. The pressure could be adjusted by the Warders from outside using screws. Hence the term for Prison Officer's as screws! The amount of turns gave prisoners a chance to earn their food after nine hours. If they managed 10,000 rotations a day - a system open to abuse by sadistic Warders - they were fed. Some had to turn 2,000 rotations to earn breakfast. This prison still stands but there have been concerns over whether it is still fit for its purpose.

In 1877 prisons finally became a state-run service. Under its first commissioner, Du Cane, HMP Wormwood Scrubs was built. It still stands on Du Cane Road in Acton, London, and has portraits of himself and his wife in concrete on the main gate to the left and right of the main vehicle entrance. This prison was actually built by prisoners, starting with the RC Chapel which became their dormitory, and each wing faces north to south to ensure each cell has sunshine for at least part of the day. He also designed HMP Wakefield, Reading and Wandsworth prisons.

Du Cane was a strict man and a great believer in regimes of bread and water, solitary labour and religious instruction. Cells were purposefully built without integral sanitation, and those built in Pentonville with sink and toilet had the facilities removed. A cell call system was installed for emergency purposes (which exist today although usually as an electronic alarm), so that the staff could be contacted by the prisoners in an emergency. Under his rule, prisoners were expected to keep total silence, wear masks and walk with heads facing the wall when outside cells. This was the norm until 1922.

Changes to the System

Around 1991 things changed dramatically when the Criminal Justice Act 1991 was introduced. Integral sanitation was introduced for all prisoners in all England's prisons. The procedure of 'slop out' (emptying the overnight toilet bucket) was finished. All new prisons constructed were built with a toilet, and a sink for washing. The entitlement to a full shower exists as only one per week, as it is deemed enough that prisoners can have a strip wash at their convenience whenever. Those sharing a cell originally meant for one person, have a metal privacy partition, even when using the toilet, to allow them some privacy. Pressure for total privacy for these basic human functions, would undoubtedly cost the Government millions. In England we still send prisoners to buildings built over 150 to 200 years ago, spending hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to update antique accommodation for what was meant to be a small holding place. Thus a cell designed for one becomes a cell for two. With the introduction of sanitation, TV and electricity in cells, the failures and limitiations of these older buildings are further magnified.

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