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An Overview of Medical Provision and Hygiene

Medicine Chest
Medicine Chest

During the 19th century, medical care for inmates gradually improved along with the hygiene levels in prisons. In the early years prisons were ridden with disease. The prison hulks were particularly unhealthy with regular outbreaks of cholera and typhoid that spread rapidly between prisoners.

Medical Provision

By the Victorian period most gaols employed a surgeon, who examined the prisoners on arrival and was responsible for their health whilst in prison. Prison uniform was kept reasonably clean and the prisoners made to wash regularly. The surgeon's report formed part of the report presented at the Quarter Sessions to the Magistrates, who were responsible for the running of local County and Borough gaols before 1877.

The convict gaols such as Pentonville and Millbank also had surgeons to look after the physical well being of the prisoners. However medicine at this time was much less advanced that today. Epidemics were regular occurrences even under the separate system. Millbank was a particularly unhealthy prison as it took all its water from the nearby Thames. Understanding of the causes, transmission and prevention of diseases was only just becoming understood and the first antiseptics were only just being discovered.

The surgeons also had responsibility for assessing which inmates were fit to carryout hard labour on the treadmill or crank. At a national and international level medical and scientific committees were set up in the 1860s to determine the amount of labour that could be expected from the prisoners, and after a lot of deliberation the experts concluded that prisoners sentenced to hard labour on the treadmill were to ascend 8,640 feet per day.

The impact of medicine on beliefs about crime

During the Victorian period it became widely believed that criminals were born ‘bad'. These people could only be controlled by making prison so tough they would not reoffend or by permanently locking up those who were supposed to present a risk to the future health of the nation. It was also believed by some that a prisoner's character could be detected through their physiology (looks).

This was another reason why prisoners were photographed in some institutions as people looked for a scientific way of determining who was destined to offend again.