Back to the Future? 21st Century Prison Reform in Historical Context

In the 2016-17 Queen’s Speech, the conservative government has promised ‘the biggest reform of our prisons since Victorian times’, to ensure prisons are places of rehabilitation and not just punishment. Three key measures are proposed: to increase the powers of prison governors over the management of their prisons; to overhaul education, health and training programmes; and to impose new performance measures to assess the effectiveness of each institution. But just how novel are these suggestions and what level of success can be expected? Penal history in Britain may provide some clues.

First, it is noteworthy that the Ministry of Justice has evoked the image of the Victorian prison as a background against which to outline their policies. Since the conservatives came to power as part of the coalition government, the Victorian prison has featured regularly in discussions of penal reform. Kenneth Clarke, as the new Justice Minister in 2010, concluded his case for penal reform with an increased focus on the rehabilitation of offenders with the comment, ‘after all, just banging up more and more people for longer without actively seeking to change them is, in my opinion, what you would expect of Victorian England’. More recently, Chancellor George Osborne argued the case for closing several nineteenth-century prisons by describing them as outdated relics from Victorian times unsuited for the rehabilitation of inmates. In other words, the Victorian penal regime has been used as a powerful symbol of inhumanity and stasis, inherited elements of which desperately need confining to the historical dustbin in our new, civilised age. Moreover, it is an image especially palatable to a British public regularly exposed to descriptions of harsh nineteenth-century criminal justice on television and online.

Although this characterisation contains elements of truth – Victorian prisons were often dark and cold places where many inmates were subjected to cruel treatment in the form of largely unproductive labour – it is too easy to focus on the Victorian desire to punish offenders and deter others who might be tempted into lives of crime, by creating institutions of ‘hard labour, hard board and hard fare’. But the Victorians were also deeply concerned with the rehabilitation of inmates. And they were enthusiastic penal reformers. The Victorian penal regime was far from straightforward; but that is precisely why it is instructive for reformers today.

Take, for example, the proposal to devolve greater responsibility to prison governors. The government wants to allow governors ‘to run their jail in the way they see fit’, with the freedom to ‘find  better ways of improving education, healthcare and security’. The idea of ‘Reform Prisons’ are also mentioned, presumably institutions where management practice is so good that they will serve as models for other institutions.

For much of the nineteenth century, the penal system was neither homogenous nor controlled by a central authority. Most prisons were local gaols, supported by local taxation, supervised by local magistrates, in which senior officers – namely governors and chaplains – enjoyed a substantial degree of autonomy. This, combined with the growing use of prison as the predominant punishment for crime, encouraged a high degree of experimentalism in all areas of prison management, from discipline and routine, to health care and rehabilitation programmes. On the one hand, such a system gave rise to a new dialogue on penal practice by a new class of experts – practioners on the ground who attended national and even international conferences to share their experiences. On the other hand, it was messy: experimental programmes were tied to committed individuals, meaning they were short-lived in some institutions, and non-existent in others. Funding proved to be a perennial problem: providing separate cells for all prisoners required extensive renovation if not reconstruction; literacy programmes and apprenticeships were not always popular with a public in which many did not enjoy these opportunities.

Most of all, experimentalism and autonomy created conflict, sometimes at the local level between senior officers and local magistrates, but mostly at the national level between local penal authorities and the Home Office. Because success and best practice were not always obvious; objective assessment was difficult, as the criteria were regularly disputed and comparisons between institutions following different programmes almost impossible. In this climate, ‘model prisons’ used by the Home Office to promote their view of best practice failed because they too, subject to the whims of individuals, lacked stability. Thus the story of the nineteenth-century penal regime is one of eroding autonomy, and eventual centralisation.

Nor was centralisation an entirely negative outcome. Although it could stifle innovation, centralisation dealt with the most complacent of senior prison officers as well as potentially dangerous mavericks, meant that penal statistics could be more effectively used to measure the success of penal policies and individual institutions, and hence created new possibilities for penal reform. Prison education demonstrates the nature of the compromise achieved. Centralisation meant that by the early 1880s a strict criteria of eligibility (based on ability, age, sentence length, and offending history) was applied which meant that some prisoners, who would have previously been offered some education were excluded and programmes offered in a small number of institutions curtailed. However, it also meant that education was introduced in institutions were it previously did not exist, education became less dependent on the commitment of individuals, and overall expenditure on prison education increased. While far from perfect, in the right climate more stable foundations for prison education programmes had been created.

In the event, the government needs to beware that their desire to discard the perceived Victorian penal inheritance doesn’t put penal reform, which is desperately needed, in jeopardy. What the government is offering is a half-way house, neither immediate measures to tackle overcrowding and violence in prisons, nor a total rethink of the role and character of imprisonment in society. As such, they need to be especially careful of avoiding a ‘back to the future’ scenario.

Back to the Future?

Great Expectations for Prison Education

Conference on Defining Prison Education, June 2016

What is ‘prison education’?

‘Educating Criminals’ Site Goes Live

The Prison and Literacy in 19th Century England

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