Although the Penitentiary Act authorized the building of two new national
prisons, actual construction never took place. However, the Penitentiary
Act was to have a profound influence as a model for discipline in the
wave of institutional renewal in the years following.
Howard's ideas as embodied in the Penitentiary Act came at a critical
time in English penal history. The outbreak of the American War of Independence
in 1775 resulted in a sudden halt in transportation to the thirteen colonies.
Almost overnight imprisonment was transformed from an occasional punishment
for a felony to a sentence of first resort for all minor property crimes.
Although the government sought to provide the necessary institutional
facilities by refitting retired warships and mooring these 'hulks' on
the Thames, it was not able to cope with the crime wave that swept England
in the 1780s, caused by demobilization and accompanied by a trade depression
following the loss of the colonial market. Prison reformers interpreted
the situation in apocalyptic terms as evidence of a breakdown in the moral
discipline among the poor. To men who conceived crime as a part of a wider
pattern of insubordination among the poor, there was a compelling fascination
in the idea of an institution that would give them total control over
the bodies, labour, and minds of the poor. 'The penitentiary, in other
words, was more than a functional response to a civic institutional crisis.
It exerted a hold on men's imagination because it represented, in microcosm,
the hierarchical, obedient and godly social order which they felt was
coming apart around them.'34
Of the new institutions built following the suspension of transportation
to the American colonies, the prisons of Gloucestershire represented the
embodiment of the penitentiary ideal. These prisons were the work of Sir
George Paul who, next to Howard, was the most influential reformer of
his generation. After a decade of rising crime rates and institutional
overcrowding, Paul had to demonstrate to the Gloucestershire magistrates
that reformed institutions could effectively reconcile 'terror' with 'humanity';
and that it was possible to increase the severity of the punishment without
compromising its legitimacy in the eyes of the offender and the public.
In the old institutions, where inmates depended on their families and
friends for food, the county had been obliged to allow free access to
the prisons. At Gloucester the provision by the county of a set diet permitted
the authorities to isolate the prisoner from the outside world. That isolation
was enhanced by the construction of an eighteen-foot fence. This separation
of the deviant from the law-abiding was part of the grand design of the
penitentiary ideal, as was the regime of solitary confinement.
This quarantine was seen as the first precondition
for moral re-education. It severed prisoners from the peer group support
of the criminal milieu outside the walls. The other precondition for reform
was solitude. Solitary confinement was designed to wrest the governance
of prisons out of the hands of the inmate subculture. It restored the
state's control over the criminal's conscience. It divided convicts so
that they would be more efficiently subjugated, so that they would lose
the capacity to resist both in thought and action.35
Penitentiary prisoners in Gloucester not only slept in solitary cells,
but also worked in solitary day cells adjacent to their night quarters.
They were allowed out for exercise once a day. Howard himself had never
advocated the regime of solitary confinement as it was implemented at
Gloucester and some of the other county penitentiaries. He believed that
solitude should be broken by labour in association and by communal exercise.
He feared that unbroken solitude would break the spirit of prisoners and
lead them to 'insensibility or despair .'36
In fact, the full regime of solitude at Gloucester could not be maintained
against the pressure of overcrowding. The prisoners were required to share
cells, and labour in association was introduced in place of solitary work
in the cells. Even while it was in force, the solitary regime, although'
presented as humane and reformative, was not readily acceded to by the
prisoners. At Gloucester there were frequent disturbances in which prisoners
refused to work, and in 1815 there was a full-scale riot.37
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