Neil Davie :”Emancipation behind bars? British prison reform and the chimera of reformative isolation, 1820-1865″

The period between 1820 and 1865 coincided with a vigorous – and sometimes heated – debate in Britain about the role of the prison in the country’s criminal justice system. It was during these years that incarceration emerged as the central response of the country’s legislators and policymakers to punish convicted criminals. The emergence of the prison did not go unchallenged, however; nor was there agreement among reformers on just what these new institutions should look like. Indeed, a considerable source of the heat noted above came from rivalry between different groups of reformers concerning how the new prisons should function. Today’s paper focuses on one of those rival factions within the prison reform movement, which favoured what was known as “the separate system”. For the supporters of separate confinement, many of them fired by evangelical Christianity, penal isolation – and the introspection seen as its concomitant – was a formidable tool of reform, allowing prisoners, in time, to be stripped of their delinquent propensities and re-shaped as useful, upright members of the community. In short, prison had the power to bring emancipation. A study of three leading “separators” of the period will reveal that while some remained blind to the mounting evidence of the mental and physical cost for prisoners of prolonged cellular isolation, others struggled to reconcile these dangers with the purported benefits. The results of these debates would have a profound impact on the experience of imprisonment in Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

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