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Changes in Prisons in Twentieth Century in Britain Essay

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In 20th century a lot of important changes was made in Britain prison system. A lot of crucial moves in this matter were made, which made changes to the system, and create the current system in prisons. A lot of reports and changes plans were made in this crucial for the matter period.

The beginning for this period was made in 1895 with Gladstone report, which was highly critical of the current penal policy. It criticised existing regimes for ‘crushing self respect’ and ‘starving all moral instinct’.

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The report argued that reformation should coexist with deterrence and that rehabilitation should be given priority. Victorians focused upon repression and punishment. They used inflexible and punitive methods of control. Gladstone felt these should be replaced with more scientific methods of ‘treatment’.

In addition, prison commissioners for the first time in 1898, defined the purpose of prison as the ‘humanisation of the individual’1. Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise insisted that ‘each man convicted of crime is to be regarded as an individual, as a separate entity of morality, who by the application of influences, of discipline, labour, education, moral and religious, backed up on discharge by a well organised system of patronage is capable of reinstatement in civic life’2.

Weiner (1990) stated, “It is now recognised that primitive measures alone are not corrective, and effective reformation of criminals can only be attained by making our prisons true schools and moral hospitals”. Forsythe (1991) argues that new projects often fell short of the claims made for them. He says that in particular, the local and convict prisons ‘clung tenaciously to the concepts of measured punishment, moral culpability, limited deterrence and uniformly administered discipline’. It is a fact that the process of reform was often slow and not al all easy to perceive.

From 1900 onwards a number of radical changes were made to the standard prison regime: 1) Unproductive labour was officially abandoned and replaced by prison industries and work considered ‘useful’, 2) The separate system was gradually eroded, allowing prisoners to work in association, 3) Education was increased and improved, 4) Internal discipline was maintained through a reward/punishment system related to the introduction of remission, 5) Specialists such as psychologists were appointed, 6) Prisoner categorisation was extended, 7) The Borstal system was introduced for juveniles, 8) A commitment to reformation became enshrined in the Prison Rule that stipulated that the purpose of imprisonment was to encourage prisoners to ‘lead a good and useful life’3, 9) During the 1930s the treadmill and arrows on convict uniforms were abolished.

According to Garland (1985) the most radical reforms of this era took place outside of the prison system: 1) The introduction of the probation service, 2) Alternatives to custody emerged, 3) Construction of specialist institutions4. Garland views these major transformations as the beginnings of our current practice. Garland prefers to talk of developments in a whole realm of penality rather than prison reform5.

Additionally, in 1908 Borstals6 were put on a statutory footing – implemented by Herbert Gladstone. The name Borstal comes from the village in Kent where the first Borstal scheme got its first full-scale trial. Borstals took English public schools as their model and their sentences were indeterminate. Criminals aged between 16 – 21 could be sent to Borstal for between one and three years. The prison Commission could release on licence at any time after six months (or three months for girls) and could also recall for misbehaviour. Borstal faltered after 1945 really because success rates were measured by reconviction rates. 1982 the administration of Margaret Thatcher formally abolished the Borstal and replaced it with the ‘Youth Custody Centre’ – with determinate sentences of imprisonment.

Paterson7 replaced military type training with delegated authority and encouragement of personal responsibility. Staffs wore civilian clothing and were encouraged to get to know the ‘lads’ personally – considered revolutionary in the 1920s. The Borstal notion of training prisoners through personal relations, trust and responsibility gradually had an impact on the prison system as a whole. Two borstal elements were transplanted into the adult system with long lasting effects:

1. 1936 the first minimum-security (open) prison was established at New Hall, near Wakefield.

2. The housemaster was renamed ‘assistant governor’.

The post war developments where about the Easier bail, Probation, Time to pay fines, a reduction in time to be served for a partial payment of fines, Reformatories for juveniles, Curtailment of imprisonment for debt and, More facilities for the insane and for habitual drunkards.

In 1928 the then Home Secretary had described Dartmoor convict prison as ‘the cesspool of English humanity’ “I suppose there must be some residuum which no training or help will ever improve”8. Furthermore in 1948 Paterson and his colleagues framed Criminal justice Act. This was a highly influential piece of legislation.

Borstal had represented the opposite view and resurrected the possibility of reformatory prison. Borstals and Detention Centres began to lose favour: neither for deterrence or reform was the short sentence acceptable. This is one of the elements in the English prison-crowding crisis – which became acute in the 1970s and 1980s and with which the country is still wrestling.

Deterrence – Youth prisons known as Detention Centres were intended to subject boys (and half-heartedly, girls) who were thought to be on the verge of a custodial career to a last chance ‘short, sharp, shock’. Separate institutions for pre trial prisoners were planned but never created: these would be custodial but non-penal institutions. Due to the war, there were no funds and little sympathy for unconvinced detainees. McConville states that ‘thick skins and short purses ever since have ensured that English pre trial prisoners were treated worse than they were for virtually all of Victoria’s reign and much worse than their fellows who were convicted and sentenced’. The 1960s and early 1970s are seen as the beginning of the crisis years with British prisons.

At last we can refer to System of Concentration. Mountbatten referred to the obvious advantages of an island prison holding all prisoners who posed a threat. A new prison was to be built on the Isle of Wight. This was rejected and the dispersal system became the preferred way of housing inmates.

Since early 1966 new measurements of security have been implemented in selected prisons. Between 1969 and 1979 the prison service went through a number of riots. 70s and 80s dogged with accusations of brutality and violence directed at prisoners from the prison staff. Serious disturbances and riots had occurred in maximum-security prisons, which had led to reprisals against prisoners. British riots occurred within the new dispersal system: Parkhurst 1969, Albany 1971 & 1972, Gartree 1972, Hull 1976, and Gartree 1978.

Hull riot will go down in history, as it was the prison staff who were ultimately tried and convicted. Special control units were introduced after the Gartree riot of 1972 for troublemakers over and above the existing segregation units. 1970s represent the years when reform and treatment had dwindled away and the whole prison system ran on the notion that ‘nothing works’. By 1978 both the courts and the prisons were in danger of serious collapse. Industrial relations were poor with prison staff. May Committee 1979 reported as a response to the previous troubled decade. They explored the issues of what the aim of imprisonment was; they agreed that the rhetoric of treatment and training had had its day. Finally, King and Morgan proposed the term ‘humane containment’:

1. Minimum use of custody

2. Minimum use of security

3. Normalisation.

The current organisation of the prison system is heavily influenced by past practice. This has shaped the system that we now have today. So, it is difficult to assess progress of 20th Century. Harsh and punitive experience of prison overrides any idea of progressive treatment. Biggest rises can be seen from 1974 onwards. It is a fact that this matter is very important and serious for the society and has to be developed according to the needs of the society according to its progress at times.


1. Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums, Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Harmondsworth

2. Jones, K. (1993) Asylums and After: A Revised History of the Mental Health Services from the Early Eighteenth Century to the 1990’s.

3. Morris, N and Rothman, D.J (eds). (1995) The Oxford History of the Prison. Oxford University Press.

4. Porter, R. (2002) Madness: A Brief History. Oxford University Press.

1 Weiner, 1990.

2 Ruggles-Brise quoted in Garland 1985.

3 Prison Rule 6 in 1949 but Prison Rule 1 since 1964.

4 such as Borstal where principles of rehabilitation were initiated.

5 “the prison was decentred, shifted from its position as the central and predominant sanction to become one institution among many in an extended grid of penal sanctions. Of course it continued to be of major importance, but it was now deployed in a different manner, for a narrower section of the criminal population and often as a back up sanction for other institutions, rather than a place of first resort”.

6 The Borstal System.

7 Alexander Paterson.

8 Sir William Joynson-Hicks.

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