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Buildings and Purpose

Changes in the 19th Century

Pentonville Chapel - Separation
Pentonville Chapel - Separation

The early and mid 19th century, saw a spate of prison building to cope with the increasing numbers of prisoners needing confinement. Although conditions were dreadful they were an improvement on those at the start of the 19th century, when prisons were overcrowded filthy hovels.

At this time prisons were often housed in old buildings, unsuited to long term confinement, with prisoners massed together. The buildings were damp, unhealthy, insanitary and over-crowded. There was no privacy or protection from others. All kinds of prisoners were held together, -men, women, children, the insane, serious criminals, petty criminals, people awaiting trial.

In the late 18th century John Howard visited all prisons in England and Wales and his report was scathing. One major result of the Howard report was the change of emphasis from simple punishment to the idea of punishment and rehabilitation. A criminal had to be shown the value of working for a living and to have time alone to contemplate the error of their ways. In addition they should have to opportunity to benefit from moral guidance and education.

In 1780 Sir George Onesiphorus Paul built a model new prison at Gloucester based on the ideas of John Howard. It was secure, well-built and separated men, women and children. The rules ensured that prisoners wore uniform, were taught to read and write, were reasonably fed and their health monitored. This became a model for many prisons. The gaol had a house of correction for minor offenders, a gaol for prisoners on remand awaiting trial, and a penitentiary for those who had committed serious offences. This building design and system were copied all over the country, including Bedford.

The separating of prisoners into different categories also became common. Minor offenders' were placed in Houses of Correction, those on remand awaiting trial and serious offenders' in the County Goals (although overcrowding meant there was often overlap, with prisoners going where space could be made available). Prisoners awaiting transportation or serving penal servitude were sent to convict gaols.

Other philosophers, such as, Jeremiah Bentham also had an influence on prison design. Bethan put forward a prison design (the panopticon) based around observation and surveillance. The idea was that prisoners could be observed at all times without them knowing when they were being watched. The aim was an omnipresent 'big brother' type of surveillance placing more power over the minds of the prisoners in the hands of the gaoler. Another influencial idea was separation Under this separate system (based on Cherry Hill Prison in Pennsylvania, USA) prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, in order to think about their life and crimes.

New prisons incorporated these ideas. Two examples were the Convict gaols of Millbank and Pentonville (originally built to house convicts awaiting transportation). Millbank was based on the 'Benthamite' principles (as was Cambridge County Gaol) and Pentonville modelled on separation. These prisons became models for other gaols, including the local county and borough prisons. The new Bedford County Gaol, finished in 1849 as an extension to the house of correction, for example, followed the pattern of Pentonville as well as Gloucester.

In most gaols prisoners carried out some from of work or labour, exercised in silence and attended services in the chapel, where they also sat apart from each other, facing the preacher.

In 1877 prisons were further brought into line when they were all taken out of local control and put under the government, through the Home Office. Old, small prisons were shut down. By this time the normal sentence was one year in solitary confinement, followed by three years hard labour.