Shades of the Prison House

We are delighted to publish this enthralling history of imprisonment. It may not be the cheeriest subject, but prisons are an inescapable (pun intended, thank you) fact of life. How they and the nature and terms of imprisonment have changed over centuries tells us a great deal about developments in the law and the extent of state responsibilities. And perhaps most importantly, they indicate dramatic changes in society’s values and priorities.

A history of prisons perhaps but of imprisonment?
Has it changed over the centuries?

Most definitely.

In medieval times it was primarily for the detention of the accused pending trial or of debtors pending payment. They were places to be emptied (‘delivered’) not filled as today. With some minor exceptions they were not places of punishment. No penal philosophy undergirded them as their purpose was narrow and self-evident. In the early modern period we get the first instance of a reformatory drive in the conversion of the palace of Bridewell to a House of Correction and the growth of the ‘Bridewell system’ throughout the land. In the late eighteenth century with the demise of transportation of petty offenders to the Americas and in the early nineteenth with the curtailment of capital punishment, the need for ‘secondary punishments’ arose and prison provided the answer. Then there was the age of experimentation, of rival systems to best induce penitence and to deter. A prolonged period of pure punitiveness in the last three decades of the nineteenth century were followed by an ‘age of enlightenment’ when prisons were reformed and closed, borstal training as an alternative to imprisonment was developed and Britain became the front-runner in penal reform. Finally, since the 1960s security concerns have had a most deleterious effect, and coupled with longer sentences, have led to overcrowding in more Spartan conditions. This has culminated in what must be the worst penal crisis in our history when we outpace the rest of Europe not in reform but in the numbers imprisoned.

The Prospect of Bridewell from John Strype’s, An Accurate Edition of Stow’s Survey of London (1720)

But do we really need a weighty tome on the subject?

I rather hope so as that is what I have written. I have tried to make it as entertaining and accessible as possible, illustrating it throughout with chapters on specific people who have left accounts of their own imprisonment, from John Bunyan in Bedford gaol to Jimmy Boyle in the Barlinnie Special Unit, or who have contributed to the debates, from John Howard, Jeremy Bentham and Elizabeth Fry to Edmund Du Cane, Alexander Paterson and Lord Justice Wolff. In so doing I have tried to do justice to all the major carceral themes, philosophical debates on the nature and purpose of imprisonment, and reports on prison issues by parliamentary committees or individuals appointed to conduct inquiries. In all I hope I have made the history of incarceration intelligible as well as interesting. It is for others to judge whether I have succeeded.

This guest post was written by Harry Potter, a former fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge and a practising barrister specialising in criminal defence. Author of Law, Liberty and the Constitution: A Brief History of the Common Law (Boydell Press, 2015), he wrote and presented an award-winning series on the same subject for the BBC. Before being called to the Bar, he worked as a prison chaplain, largely with long-term and life-sentence prisoners.

Shades of the Prison House
A History of Incarceration in the British Isles
by Harry Potter
Hardback / 9781783273317 / £18.75 or $ 26.15

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