I've drawn parallels here before between the political convulsions the developed world is undergoing and similar convulsions in the mid decades of the 19th century I do so with a degree of confidence that, just as we avoided 1848 in the UK, we will do so again. Serfdom didn't end in Austria until 1864 - around 350 years later than England - and its traces linger discernibly in the sparse alpine area in which I live. That's another post. This is about imprisonment.
There came a point in the 18th century when we cut down quite noticeably the number of people that were hanged for trivial offences. The idea of prisons hadn't really taken off, so at first we sent the minor offenders as convicts to America, but that nation's independence put an end to it from 1776. Then, between 1788 and 1868, we sent them to Australia instead. Or rather we didn't. The following is from Mayhew and Binney's Criminal Prisons of London (!.pdf)- available online and I recommend it to anyone interested in penal policy.
We sent 164,000 convicts to Australia. But between 1776 and 1868, for 92 years, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 a year died on the Woolwich hulks alone - so nationally I am quite sure that many more convicts died awaiting transportation than were ever delivered to Australia. Disease, starvation and overwork killed them just as certainly as the hemp rope, but left the public with a warm feeling of virtue.
Today we have as many people in prison as we had in the late 1970s. Our population now is somewhat greater, so one could argue that we have made some advance. But for 50 years, not much. 'Porridge' may have reflected life inside in the 1970s but does not do so now. Drugs, Islamism, violence, suicide, privatisation and the utter disdain of the Uber and Netflix generation (even the Guardian can't really be arsed) for the welfare of the prisoner have made our prisons as offensive as were the Hulks to reformist Victorians.
When the Inspector of Prisons has to instruct the Secretary of State for Justice to take action at a prison in which 10% of inmates are at risk of self-murder we have reached a low point. Gaulk may be more concerned at his imminent deselection for the betrayal of his party's election manifesto, but even he must now take action.
And we must all be concerned. And we must not forget our obligations in the Corporal Works of Mercy - to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to give shelter to travellers, to visit the sick, to comfort the imprisoned, and to bury the dead.
|The 'tump' at the upper left is marked by the twin masts in the engraving above|