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The 'separate system' in prisons

One of Jeremy Bentham's projects was in prison design: he planned the "panopticon" prison where the warders could see all round. Pentonville gaol was based on Bentham's plans and the régime these reflected the concept of the 'separate system'.

Pentonville Gaol

For an ariel view, click here

In 1821 Millbank Penitentiary had been completed on lines suggested by Jeremy Bentham. By the time Millbank was opened, plans for a number of other prisons had been approved. In the 1830s it was thought that humanitarian methods used in prisons had failed and what was needed instead was a tougher and uniformly enforced system of prison discipline. This was intended to reform the prisoner but also to be a proper deterrent and punishment A closely monitored daily routine of work was designed which included short breaks for meals, writing censored letters, taking silent exercise, worship and reading of an improving nature.

In 1842 Pentonville penitentiary was completed and by 1848, fifty-four other prisons had been built on the same plan. The prisons had rows of single cells arranged in tiers and in separate blocks radiating from a central hub like the spokes of a wheel. Pentonville had 520 small cells, each measuring thirteen feet by seven. Each cell had a small window on the outside wall and a door opening on to the narrow landings in the galleries. The cells were well ventilated and had the luxuries of a water-closet, though water-closets were later replaced by the communal, evil-smelling recesses because they were getting blocked constantly and their pipes were used as a means of communication.

The prisoners were forbidden to talk to each other and were stripped of their identity. They had to wear a cap called a 'peak' that covered each man's face when they were together and numbers not names were used. When they took exercise the prisoners walked in silent rows, holding a rope that had knots tied in it at five yard intervals to keep each man apart from the next.

In chapel, which they had to attend every day, they sat in little cubicles, their heads visible to the warder on duty but hidden from each other. Lincoln Prison's chapel is built to the same plan and is the only existing example of this type of chapel left in England. In chapel, the men sang loudly since this was the only time they were allowed to use their voices. They took the opportunity to talk to the man in the next cubicle while everyone else sang the hymns.

A 'separate system' chapel

Prison exercise: wearing the 'peak'

An official report admitted that for every 60,000 persons imprisoned at Pentonville there were 220 cases of insanity, 210 cases of delusions, and forty suicides.

The following information was sent to me by Ben Palmer, to whom I am grateful:

Port Arthur Silent prison in Tasmania has a good example of a separate prison chapel, much like Lincoln's. The Silent/Model prison and the chapel are well preserved, along with the chapel, and mental asylum that had to be added next to the Silent prison. One link to follow this through is at Port Arthur.

This extract comes from this site:

Across Settlement Creek and next to the Asylum is the building known as the Model Prison which was built in 1848 and reflects the thinking about penal institutions at the time. In the early 1840s a sense of radicalism had entered the building of gaols in England and famous institutions like Pentonville had been built with exercise yards and separate cells. There was a fashionable philosophy which basically argued that isolation and separation would produce reflectiveness. This, in turn, it was argued, would lead the prisoner to think about his crime and become repentant. There was also a component which said that a person unable to communicate to other human beings will be broken far more quickly by silence than by any other form of punishment.

The Model Prison, which was designed by the Royal Engineers and built with convict labour, is based on the model of Pentonville Gaol in London. The thinking behind the building is that of William Crawford and Joshua Jebb who argued that prisoners should be given separate cells, that they should be called by number and not by name, that total silence should be maintained, that head masks should be worn in the exercise yards and that when in church they should be separated by individual boxes. It is said that even the warders wore slippers and communicated by hand signals.

This site contains the following information:

Port Arthur is an ideal natural prison. In true 'Boy's Own' fashion, the water surrounding the peninsula is shark-infested and the narrow strip of land, known as Eaglehawk Neck, which links the isthmus to Forestier Peninsula and the mainland was secured by a 100 metre (320 ft) border of sentries ably assisted by ferocious guard dogs.

The Model Prison is a must see as it's where the prison regime tried out a new-fangled form of penal correction that abandoned physical punishment in favour of the silent treatment. The building also known as the 'Separate Prison' is modelled on London's Pentonville Prison and forms a shape resembling a bicycle wheel, complete with spokes. Prisoners where isolated in small individual cells and referred to by a number rather than by name. Talking was strictly forbidden whilst outside their cells they had to wear caps to hide their faces. Even at worship they were segregated.

Today's visitors to the chapel can see the wooden partitions that isolated the prisoners from their fellow inmates. The idea was that they would be given plenty of opportunity to consider their deeds and their fate. For those serving life sentences that could mean as long as a year in solitary confinement. Many went mad from the enforced silence and solitude. The settlement's asylum is another building which survives to the present day even serving in modern times, and who's to say how appropriately, as home to the local Tasman Council.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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