Report on the Work of the Prisons Department,

Prisons were virtually non existent before the 1700s; prison was not considered a serious punishment for crime, and was seldom used. Instead, governments imprisoned people who were awaiting trial or punishment whereupon they would receive the more common capital or corporal types of punishment. Common punishments at that time included branding, imposing fines, whipping and the death penalty (capital punishment). The authorities punished most offenders in public in order to discourage people from breaking the law; this falls under the theory of deterrence. Some prisoners were punished by being made to row the oars on ships called galleys.


However, English and French rulers kept their political enemies imprisoned in such prisons as the Tower of London and the Bastille in Paris. In addition, people who owed money were held in debtors’ prisons. In many such cases, offenders’ families could stay with them and come and ago as they pleased. But the debtors had to stay in prison until their debts were settled. Despite these two exceptions, these ‘early prisons’ bore virtually no exception to the modern prison system.


During the 1700s, many people criticised the use of executions, mutilations and other harsh punishments. This was the beginning of the early prison reform. These critics included the British judge Sir William Blackstone. As a result, governments turned more and more to imprisonment as a serious form of punishment.


Early prisons were dark, dirty, unhygienic and overcrowded. They locked all types of prisoners together, including men, women and children, plus dangerous criminals, debtors and the clinically insane. During the late 1700s, the British reformer John Howard toured Europe to observe prison conditions. His book, the State of the Prisons in England and Wales influenced the passage of a law that led to the construction of the first British Prisons designed partly for reform. These prisons attempted to make their inmates feel penitent(sorry for doing wrong) and became known as penitentiaries; this is where the origins of the ‘theory of rehabilitation’ are found.


One form of imprisonment was transportation to a penal colony. During the 1700s, British Convicts were sent to North America to work in cotton fields. This ceased in 1776, when the United States achieved independence. After 1789, convicts were sent to Australia. The first convicts were sent to work as servants. If they misbehaved, the government took them back and put them in chain gangs to break stones and build roads. Eventually purpose built penal colonies were established, such as the one at Port Arthur, Van Diemens Land (now Tasmania), founded in 1833.


At the beginning of the 1800s, prison reformers began to emphasise the importance of keeping prisoners alone. It was thought that if they had time to reflect in solitary confinement, prisoners would see the error of their ways and become reformed. Prisons were built consisting of many tiny cells where the prisoners lived and worked alone. Each cell had its own exercise yard. Prisoners were separated even in church by tall screens to prevent them from seeing other inmates. By the 1850s, however, the separate system had been largely superseded by the silent system, mainly because of overcrowding. In the silent system, the prisoners worked and exercised with other inmates, but they were forbidden to talk to, even look at each other.


Later reformers introduced the idea of an indeterminate sentence, dependant on the prisonersbehaviour. Good conduct and hard work led to privileges and association with other inmates. These ideas were tried in Ireland, France and the English penal colony on Norfolk Island, off the coast of Australia. There, prisoners gained marks for good conduct and hard work, or lost them for bad behaviour. When they reached the required number of points, they could be released. Other reformers introduced the idea of a conditional release, whereby a prisoner was released before the end of his sentence provided he complied with certain conditions. If not, he was returned to prison. This led to the parole system, widely used today.


Reforms in the 1900s have led to further improvement of prisons. In the 1930s, for example, prisons began to develop rehabilitation programmes based on the background, personality and physical conditions of the inmate. This approach made rehabilitation programmes more meaningful. But despite such efforts, attempts to rehabilitate offenders had disappointing results. Many failed because of poorly trained staff, lack of funds, and ill defined goals.


By the 1960s, many people felt that criminals could be helped better outside prison. As a result, many countries began to set up community correctional centres and halfway houses. Offenders lived in these facilities just before the release and received counselling to help them adjust to life outside prison. The number of prison inmates declined, but community correction programmes also failed to meet expectations, and prisons again become the most preferred institution.


Prisons today are very different. Severe overcrowding is now the major problem in most prisons. Cells originally built for one prisoner, now often house two or three men. Judges in the United States have ruled that many prisons are so crowded that they violate prisoners’ constitutional protection from ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. In the United Kingdom, conditions became so bad that prisoners were held in disused army barracks and police cells. Overcrowding was eased temporarily by releasing non serious offenders on parole.


Prisons face other problems as well. A lack of adequate funding had made improvements difficult. In addition, tensions among prisoners and between prisoners and the prison staff often run high and lead to brutal attacks. Such conditions, worsened by overcrowding, have contributed to a number of prison riots since the late 1960s. In a push to cut costs and improve efficiency, the British government began in 1993 to transfer the running of some prisons to private companies.


The current concern with crime and the problems of prisons have helped focus public attention on the continuing debate about the purposes and effectiveness of prisons. Studies have shown that even good rehabilitation programmes fail to reform many released prisoners. The apparent failure of such programmes has led many people to stress  imprisonment as punishment rather than as treatment. On the other hand, experts also have failed to prove that prisons reduce the crime rate either by incapacitating offenders or by discouraging people from breaking the law. For this reason, some experts believe that it would be cheaper, more humane, and more productive to keep all dangerous offenders in community correctional centres rather than in prisons. Some courts are experimenting with sentences that allow criminals to remain out of prison. Some of these sentences require criminals to repay the victims of their crimes, and others make offenders perform various public services in the community.


In 1785, the United States and Prussia signed the first treaty calling for fair treatment for Prisoners of war. The Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1929 and 1949 established international rules dealing with the treatment of prisoners of war. Nearly all nations have agreed to follow these rules. The Hague and Geneva conventions require that nations keep their prisoners of war in safe, sanitary camps. Representatives of nonfighting countries must be allowed to inspect the camps. These inspectors make certain the prisoners of war receive food, medical care, and payment for work. The conventions also rule that nations must permit their prisoners to send and receive mail. Another regulation requires that countries return captured military doctors and chaplains to their own forces. The conventions provide that a prisoner need not give the enemy any information except the prisoners name, rank, military serial number and age.


In spite of the Geneva and Hague regulations, much mistreatment of prisoners of war has occurred. During World War II, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union treated their prisoners harshly. Millions of them died of cold, starvation , or mistreatment. During the Korean War, United Nations (UN) forces accused the Chinese and North Koreans of brainwashing their prisoners. But most nations have respected the prisoner of war regulations. As a result, millions of prisoners have survived capture. By the end of the Vietnam War, 651 American and thousands of North Vietnamese prisoners of war returned to their own countries.


There are various types of institutions that confine convicted lawbreakers or persons awaiting trial. They may be known as penitentiaries, reformatories, or correctional centres, as well as the more commonly known ‘prisons’ or ‘jails’. In the United States, a jail generally refers to a local prison holding people convicted of less serious crimes or awaiting trial. Many people consider prisons to be only those institutions that confine adults convicted of major crimes. Institutions for young offenders include youth custody centres and detention centres. In addition, specially built remand centres, separate from prisons, hold people who are awaiting trial.


Women form a small proportion of all inmates in prisons. Most of them are held in prisons which house only women. Experts classify prisons by the degree of security or control they provide. The main types are (1) maximum security prisons, (2) medium security prisons, and (3) minimum security or open prisons.


Maximum security prisons generally hold prisoners serving long sentences. These prisoners have commited murder, robbery, kidnapping, treason, or over serious crimes. High stone walls or strong chain fences surround most maximum security prisons. Many of these barriers have electronic detection devices and powerful spotlights. Prisoners live in cells and eat either in their cells or in a dining hall. Prison officials limit the length and number of visits by family and friends. During such visits, thick glass or wire screens separate some prisons and visitors to prevent the exchange of such prohibited items as drugs and weapons. Other prisoners and visitors are allowed to be together. Some prisons use X ray devices to check visitors for hidden weapons.


Medium security prisons hold inmates who have commited less serious crimes, such as minor assaults and small thefts. The inmates in medium security prisons are generally less dangerous than those in maximum security prisons. Medium security prisons may be surrounded by fences with guard towers. Some have educational and athletic facilities similar to schools.


Minimum security or open prisons are the least restrictive prisons. Inmates of minimum security prisons are not considered dangerous and are unlikely to flee prison. Many of these inmates were convicted of such nonviolent crimes as business theft, forgery, obstruction of justice and perjury. They live in comfortable rooms and usually may move about within the prison as they please. Minimum security prisons range from large institutions to small farm or forestry camps.


Juvenile correctional centres generally hold offenders under the age of 18. The institutions keep young prisoners away from the bad influence of dangerous adult criminals. Remand centres hold young people who have been accused of commiting crimes and are awaiting trial. Detention centres, or youth custody centres, are institutions where convicted youths serve their sentences. Most of these sentences last about a year. The centres offer counselling, education, job training and recreation.


Prisons have four major purposes. These purposes are retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation. Retribution means punishment for crimes against society. Depriving criminals of their freedom is a way of making them pay a debt to society for their crimes. Incapacitation refers to the removal of criminals from society so that they can no longer harm innocent people. Deterrence means the prevention of future crime. It is hoped that prisons provide warnings to people thinking about commiting crimes, and that the possibility of going to prison will discourage people from breaking the law. Rehabilitation refers to activities designed to change criminals into law abiding citizens, and may include providing educational courses in prison, teaching job skills and offering counselling with a psychologist or social worker. The four major purposes of prisons have not been stressed equally through the years. As a result, prisons differ in the makeup of their staffs, the design of their buildings and their operations.


The prison staff is headed by a governor, who directs the operation of the prison. This official is held responsible if there are such problems as riots, escapes, prison mismanagement and brutality towards prisoners. Prison buildings vary greatly in design. Prisons built in the radial design resemble the hub and spokes of a wheel. The cells, dining hall and other facilities extend from the control centre at the hub. Warders at the control centre can observe all activity within the building. Some maximum security prisons use a different design consisting of a long corridor crossed by short corridors that hold the cells and other facilities. Prisoners must use the central corridor when they move from place to place This design allows close supervision by the warders. The high rise design is a vertical version of the corridor design. Prisoners move from floor to floor by lift. Juvenile institutions and open prisons often consist of a group of buildings surrounded by a central square. These buildings may include a library, chapel, dining hall or classrooms.


In my opinion, the modern prison system has been largely unsuccessful. Statistics show that prisons have failed to reduce the crime rate, and rehabilitation programmes have been mainly unsuccessful with many prisoners continuing to commit crimes. Also, the quality of life in prisons in the 90s is so high, that it can be seen as an incentive by people who are homeless, or poor; they may be encouraged to go out and commit non-serious crimes in an attempt to be imprisoned. Do we really want to ‘treat’ criminals instead of punishing them? It does seem that early capital and corporal punishments were much more effective at discouraging (and actually punishing) crime; perhaps it is time for a return of these two methods of punishment.


Even now, there are people campaigning to make prisons even more ‘humane’ – studies show that the theory of rehabilitation simply does not work, and more prison reform will not change this. With a rising crime rate, do we really want the quality of life in prisons improved? I believe the steps the government should take is: lowering unemployment levels so less people turn to crime when they cannot get a job, making the education keep pace with the highly technical job market that has evolved; If the middle class of the 1970s required several GCSE equivalents, and the middle class of 1990 requires several A levels then it should be just as easy for children of the 90s to get A levels as it was for children of the 70s to get GCSE equivalents. Although, my own personal opinion, is that a return of capital punishment would be most effective; this has been proven to work, and there was really no reason for it to change.





G.M. Trevelyan, History of England, 1985

Sir L. Woodward, The Age of Reform; 1815-1870, 1962

  1. Stone, Social Change and Revolution in England, 1965

James Walvin, Victorian Values, 1987

Microsoft, Encarta, 1998

Sydney Wood, Living in Victorian Times, 1985

Roy D. King, The Future of the Prison System, 1980

Kenneth O. Morgan, The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, 1984

Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1997

Home Office, Report on the Work of the Prison Department, -1977

Labour Party, The Labour Party Website:, 1998

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