The Early Days of British Prisons

Today, inmates in the UK’s prisons have access to education, healthcare and visits and phone calls with their loved ones. This hasn’t always been the case, however. Early British prisons were brutal, with violent punishments and little or no attempt to rehabilitate inmates. Retribution was the main goal of custodial sentences, with no regard for inmates’ lives following their release.

 

Britain’s First Prisons

Before the creation of prisons, death was the commonest punishment, with hundreds of crimes punishable by hanging. In 1166, King Henry II commissioned the construction of Britain’s first prison and a new legal system. The first legal text book was published and juries were created to adjudicate on land disputes.

 

Foundations of Common Law

In 1215, the charter which became known as the Magna Carter was agreed to by King John of England. It laid the foundations of judicial rights, stating that a trial was necessary before anyone could be imprisoned.

“No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land,” reads Article 39 of the charter.

 

Primitive Conditions in Britain’s Early Jails

By the 1300s, people who refused to stand trial by jury were put in prison, where conditions were primitive. Inmates slept on the ground and were given bread and water every other day. Cells were dirty and prisoners were often chained to the wall to suffer and starve. Jailers profited from charging prisoners for everything, from food, blankets and fuel to the removal of the manacles they arrived in.

 

Whippings and Hard Labour in Houses of Correction

In the 1400s, Houses of Correction were created to control the growing number of homeless people on the streets. People – often recent migrants to London – were jailed for petty theft, prostitution or “loose, idle and disorderly conduct”. Almost all inmates, most of whom were women, were put to hard labour, including beating hemp. Most of them were whipped during their time in a House of Correction, and most were released within a week of their arrival.

 

Glimmers of Hope in Crowded, Dirty Prisons

During the 1400s, there was some improvement in conditions at a number of the original prisons built by King Henry II. Newgate Prison, in London, had deteriorated quickly and inmates were regularly dying as a result of close quarters, overcrowding, disease and poor hygiene. The situation was so dire that in 1419, the prison was temporarily shut. But following pressure from reformers, who learned that women at the prison lived in appalling conditions and had to walk through the men’s quarters to reach a bathroom, a new chamber and tower were built for women and soon after, the entire prison was renovated. Britain’s prisons remained dirty and dangerous, however, and it would be some time before conditions improved and rehabilitation started to be seen as one of the goals of time behind bars.

References

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4887704.stm

https://prisonwatchuk.com/2015/02/26/a-short-history-all-you-need-to-know-prisons-from-the-last-800-years/

http://www.prisonhistory.net/prison-history/prison-timeline/

https://www.londonlives.org/static/HousesOfCorrection.jsp

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