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Lessons for Mr Gove from a Victorian “Reform” Prison

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Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the Justice Secretary Michael Grove has claimed that the prison reforms announced in the Queen Speech will bring about “a transformation in how we run prisons in this country”. The objective of the reforms for Grove is “more effective rehabilitation” which is to be achieved by investment in training and education and the introduction of ‘reform prisons’ based on his belief that “giving greater autonomy to managers on the front line generates innovation”. The idea of a reform prison is not new.  In 1849 Birmingham completed the building of its new prison at Winson Green. Four years earlier at the laying of its foundation stone the Recorder of Birmingham, Matthew Davenport Hill, expressed the desire that the building would become ‘a moral hospital’ focused on ‘the reformation of the offender’. These aspirations were not forgotten when the local magistrates met to discuss appointing a governor. They unanimously agreed to approach the leading prison reformer Alexander Maconochie, famous for inventing the ‘mark system’ of reformatory penal discipline. Maconochie rejected the Benthamite idea that deterrence was the principal purpose of punishment and instead argued that the criminal’s reformation should become its primary aim. Central to achieving this reformation was the role of work, it was through useful and productive labour that the convict was to be reformed.

Despite Maconochie’s credentials and the high hopes of his theoretical aspirations his two years at Birmingham were largely a failure. Work for prisoners was impossible to provide leaving the older males and all the females largely idle. For the boys under 16 he was however able to provide crank mills and shot drill, neither of which were productive. Maconochie also struggled to recruit suitable warders and often his innovations were sabotaged. Throughout his time Maconochie found himself briefed against by members of his staff, leading to rumours of corruption, leniency and over indulgence. His efforts to involve members of the community in his reformative work inside the prison were consistently frustrated. His attempts to establish a committee of ladies to visit the female prisoners and promote their reformation were felt by the Deputy Governor and other prison staff to be disruptive and they successfully lobbied the magistrates to have the visitors excluded.

In addition to failure other serious consequences flowed from the experiment. Firstly, Maconochie’s reformative mission earned him a degree of autonomy which he saw as putting him above the law. Indeed, when questioned about prison law Maconochie was blunt, he ‘did not attach so very much importance to the letter’ of the law.  This disregard for law was to have serious consequences when the reformation he saw as inevitable failed to occur.  Faced by prisoners’ reluctance to reform Maconochie’s frustration led to him regularly restraining women for days on end in straitjackets and handcuffs, delaying prisoners release after the expiry of their sentences, illegally administering floggings and routinely depriving prisoners of any food beyond bread and water. Writing in his journal that 14 year old Joseph Newman was guilty of being ‘contumacious’ Maconochie recorded that, despite having no legal power to do so, ‘I have taken the liberty of acting on my own judgement in regard to him, and having given him six lashes at once, shall continue this at intervals till he is thoroughly subdued’. In the case of a woman whom he strapped in a straitjacket to the ‘railing in the centre hall’ Maconochie sought again to blame his illegal abuse on his victims unwillingness to show the required submission. For Maconochie his commitment to reformation was the end that always justified the means.

Secondly, by stressing that Birmingham prison was (at least in theory) a place of reformation sentencers were encouraged to send more people to prison and to send them for much longer. Prison sentences at this time were very short, with those deemed to require more severe punishments sentenced primarily to transportation and very occasionally to death. In 1851 100,433 people were sentenced to prison in England and Wales. Of these 48% were for less than a month, 82% for less than 3 months and only just over 2% for periods of one year or more. However, in Birmingham the average sentence of the 252 convicted prisoners held on 3rd November 1851 was 305 days. Although the prisoners in Birmingham represented less than a quarter of one percent of the total prison population of England and Wales they accounted for 6% of those sentenced to a year or over and 9% those sentenced to two years or over nationally.  The rehabilitation revolution advocated by Recorder Hill and Governor Maconochie meant that those convicted in Birmingham could expect, for their own reformative good, much longer terms of imprisonment.

The history of prison reform is often characterised by good intentions followed by failure. But what is the harm in trying? Victorian Birmingham prison tells us that whilst it may be attractive to give reform minded governors more autonomy and allow them to innovate it is not without risks. Such well-intentioned reforms can lead to abuses. Maconochie’s reformative regime also warns us of the potential that even when reforms fail reformative rhetoric can encourage sentencers to send more people to prison and for longer. With current overcrowding, record levels of violence and continuing high levels of re-offending the biggest danger is not that the reforms will fail but that they will make a bad situation worse. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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