Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Prisons, Victorians and leaks

click photo to enlarge
I'ts often said that you can judge the level of civilization of a society by the way in which it treats animals. There's some truth in this. However, I think how prisoners are treated is a better indicator. One of the difficult things for a democracy to do is achieve an effective balance between deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation. Too often politicians, anxious for re-election, ignore what works and veer towards the populism of harsh retribution. There are cases where this kind of approach is necessary, but when it is used as a broad brush throughout the penal system it invariably fails. Prisoner numbers soar, gaols become schools of crime, re-offending rates are high and the cost of so many locked up people results in early release schemes to keep budgets under control. Supporters of this approach characterise prison education, training and supervision within the community as "soft" and ineffective: it isn't, and should be an integral part of any penal system that aims to keep society safe and reduce offending.

I was thinking about this when I visited the historic old prison in Lincoln Castle recently. This building was begun in 1785. Half of it remains, the rest having been knocked down to make way for a newer block of 1847-8 built on the more costly American "Separate" system with prisoners kept apart in individual cells. Prisoners were confined to their cells for 22 hours a day, working on menial tasks for at least 12 of those. Misbehaviour was punished by having to turn a crank or screw for hours on end, receiving food only when the machine's counter reached the required number of turns. When the prisoners were allowed out of their cells for exercise or to attend chapel they were made to wear a mask so that they couldn't recognise each other. In the chapel each seat had doors at either side so that conversation and sight of those nearby was impossible.

Reading about the harsh, probably illegal, and certainly inhumane treatment of the U.S. soldier who is alleged to have given classified information to Wikileaks it seemed to me that some politicians in our supposedly enlightened democracies (and I include the UK in that group) pine for the systems and treatment that their Victorian predecessors sanctioned. Thankfully, as we saw this week, we still have public officials who are prepared to stand up and describe this latter day barbarism for what it is.

My photograph of the cell shows the spartan nature of the Victorian accomodation (the loudspeakers played a commentary for visitors). The other two images show the chapel: the first was taken from the pulpit where the chaplain would have stood to preach, the second from the prisoners' point of view looking towards the pulpit. In both shots hooded models represent the prisoners.

photographs and text (c) T. Boughen

Photo 1
Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 19mm
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/50
ISO: 2500
Exposure Compensation: -0.33 EV
Image Stabilisation: On