An Overview of Separation and Silence
One of the reforms John Howard suggested in 1777 was that prisoners should have time alone in their own cell to think about their life and crime. However, early attempts to provide a system that allowed inmates time for reflection, free from the influence of others, often worked very badly because of overcrowding.
In Bedford, for example, after the end of war with France in 1815, men returning from the forces committed so many crimes that the prison, intended to hold 40 prisoners, in fact held 101. The problems that this caused to health and discipline resulted in the opening of a new House of Correction for minor offenders in 1820. Almost at once the same problem arose. Built for 37 minor offenders, by 1821 the House of Correction had 52 prisoners, sharing cells and beds. Bedford was typical of many gaols and in the 1820s many still operated on an informal basis.
As a result, the system became even stricter. Almost all new prisons were built so that the prisoners could be kept on what was known as ‘the separate system', which became the standard after an Act of Parliament in 1939, and was compulsory for all prisons after 1865.
What was the Separate system?
This system went much further than John Howard's recommendations for time alone. It was influenced by penal experiments in America where fears in the 1820 about the breakdown of society and family led to reforms. It was felt prisoners were a threat to a stable society and needed to be taught discipline.
The basic idea was to hold prisoners in solitude in order to protect them from the negative influence of other convicts. Being left in complete silence with only their own thoughts and the Bible was to bring about the spiritual renewal of the offender, who would see the error of their ways.
Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, in order to think about their life and crimes and face up to themselves. The Chaplain played an important part in this, encouraging inmates to turn to religion. The idea was that even when taking exercise, or in chapel, prisoners could not see or talk to each other. It was also felt a strict diet of work and military discipline would help to turn them into law-abiding citizens.
Pentonville, was the most severe and feared of the new English prisons. It was built in 1842, and was the gaol to which many Bedford convicts were sent to wait for transportation. Inmates were kept on their own in their cells most of the time. When they were let out, to go to chapel or for exercise, they sat in special seats or wore special masks so that they couldn't even see, let alone talk to, another prisoner. Not surprisingly, several prisoners went mad and three committed suicide.
The new Bedford Gaol, finished in 1849 as an extension to the house of correction, followed the pattern set by Pentonville. All prisoners had their own cell in which they worked all day, to keep them apart so that they could not talk to each other. They were allowed to leave their cells for exercise, but then they were separated by each being made to hold a knot in a rope held taut between prisoners. The knots were 15 feet (nearly 5 metres) apart. Prisoners also attended services in the chapel, where they also sat apart from each other, facing the preacher.
The Silent System
Although most prisons tried to enforce silence in the 1830's - 1850's, the Silent System was particuarly associated with the 1865 Prisons Act and the Assistant Director of Prisons, Sir Edmund du Cane, who promised the public that prisoners would get 'Hard Bed, Hard Board or Fare and Hard Labour'.
By the 1860s opinion had changed. It was now believed that many criminals were habitual criminals and nothing would change them. They just had to be scared enough by prison never to offend again. The purpose of the silent system was to break convicts' wills by being kept in total silence and segregation and by long, pointless hard labour.
Under this system, based on Auburn Prison, New York, USA, prisoners could work, but monotonous and pointless work, in total silence. The work was deliberately degrading: to break the prisoner's will and self-respect. The diet was monotonous, with exactly the same food on the same day each week.
How well did the systems work?
The systems often worked poorly for several reasons. Firstly it was not always possible to enforce separation or silence, especially in the early days.
Inspectors visiting Bedford Gaol in 1837 reported that although prisoners who spoke to each other were punished, the result was only that a very large proportion of the prisoners were under some form of punishment at any time. The bravest called out to each other from one area to another, e.g., the convicts shouted to the untried prisoners. Some sang loudly at night or shouted from cell to cell. Debtors in prison were allowed visitors who also spoke to the convicts. Most prisoners spoke to each other while taking exercise or going to chapel. If they did not speak, mutter or whisper, they made signals to each other by means such as coughing or waving. Where there was overcrowding some prisoners had to share cells even beds. Even in the strictest of regimes prisoners found ways to make contact with each other.
A report from Holloway Prison at the end of the Victorian era noted: "In principle, the rule of "strict separation" is enforced, but not solitary confinement.... Silence is sternly prescribed, but it cannot be invariably maintained. In chapel, especially, seated close together, it is easy to communicate. Conversation passes under cover of the hymns, which are sung with great heartiness; and, again, in the yards it is said that men can talk by the movement of their lips and without making audible sound. To see one another, to make signs, to speak together, although not, of course, freely, are so many sets-off against the irksome rule of separation imposed on them."*
Secondly it was very damaging to the health of prisoners. Several went mad under the strictest regimes of isolation and the reformers argued that the enforced meanigless labour embittered rather than reformed prisoners.
*George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902