Introduction to prisons
• In early years Britain had little need, if any, for prisons. The
normal sentence for those found guilty was death while those
found innocent were simply set free. Dungeons were certainly
used as prisons for ordinary soldiers in the middle ages.
• As an alternative to death and execution in 1615, Thomas
More's Utopia suggested a proposal for imprisonment as
punishment. The suggestion was that thieves be locked away
and reduced in status as slaves for a number of years, but as
state prisons at the time did not exist there was no place to
The prison population grew by seventy per cent to 77,000 between 1993
The New Prison
• The new prison was founded with £2000 paid by Bishop Barrington Shute of
Durham who wanted to be rid of the existing gaol which he felt was a
• In 1808 Sir George Wood had commented on the poor state of the House
of Correction and County Gaol and so moves were made to build a new
prison to replace these.
• The new prison had 600 cells and was able to replace both the old House
of Correction and the County Gaol.
• Some prisoners have claimed that the new prison is haunted - saying they
have seen something in a cell where one inmate was allegedly stabbed to
death by another.
The new prison needed new rules which reflected the changes in attitude to punishment
and criminals. After 1819 male and female prisoners were kept apart, as were debtors
and felons. Rules forbade drinking, bad language, disobedience, quarrelling and
indecency. All prisoners were to be put to work with some being paid for their work when
they were discharged. The prisoners were classified and separated according to the
crimes they had committed and work was expected to help in reforming the character
of these people. Short term offenders had to take away rubbish, level ground, extend
gardens whilst longer term prisoners had to pick oakum, work in the workshops etc.
Considerable efforts were made to find suitable work for every prisoner but bad weather
sometimes made this difficult.
Punishments in prison
The prison operated a series of punishments for various
misdemeanours. This included fettering in irons, flogging, birching, the
treadmill and close confinement. The treadmill was introduced as a
punishment when a prisoner had severely broken the prison rules.
They were expected to turn the treadmill by walking on it. Each turn
was counted and 500 turns was considered a good day's effort.
However, as the prisoner became accustomed to the treadmill it
became easier for the prisoner to turn so a special screw was
introduced which the prison turnkeys could use to adjust the pressure
and make it more difficult to turn. This is why prison officers are still
known to this day as 'screws'.
• Back in the 1800’s crime was treated more harshly and most people were
accused and just thrown in cells.
There was a variety of types of cells, ranging from the pits to normal
cells, there was also inequality between men and women, as women cells
had beds in them (even though there were about 6 woman allocated to
one cell) and were just better than what the males got. If the males
wanted to be transferred to a better cell they would have to pay,
however the cell they would have gotten would have been packed it 12
other people who slept and did their business. This wouldn’t have been
much better as there was a much higher rate of illness.
The people that didn’t pay were automatically thrown into the pits.
Once the prisoners were convicted of a crime, most were sentenced to
death, in specific the gallows, on the way to gallows the carriage taking
the prisoner would stop and every pub and the landlord would give
them a free pint, this is so that the prisoner would be totally drunk
before he was killed and so that he wouldn’t notice.
However at the last pub, the prisoner was taken through an
underground passage to the gallows to avoid the public.
Types of cells.
The pits. This is one of the worst cells to be put in, there was no light, it
was underground and as many people couldn’t afford to be put in better
cells this cell would be more likely to be packed with more people.
Woman cells. These cells had beds and a chamber pot. Outside this cell
was a small room where they could roam about during the day time, and
usually there would be 6 women allocated to one room.
Another type of cell would have been a dark room with a bench, people
would have been shackled up and left in there until there time with the
jury would have come.
In one certain prison, all the cells went underground and at the lowest
level there was a chapel where the prisoners could have there last prayer.
This type of cell would
have had one person
allocated to one of the
slots. They would have
to stay there during the
day. And the conditions
would have been really
This is the last pub the criminal would
have seen before the gallows. The picture
above is also inside this building.
This would have been the last pub from
The chapel is on the
lowest level of the
prisons and would
have been the last
place for the criminals
These are pictures of recent/today’s prisons. As you can see, there have been
various changes. The major change would be the living conditions; now, the
criminals would be living in a clean environment and would have extra
facilities such as a TV for entertainment and more comfortable beds. In the old
cells, they would have to sleep on the floor or beds with no mattresses or in
their own excrete.