Between the years 1800 and 1840 criminal offences rose from around 5,000 per year to well over 20,000. Victorians were firm believers that all criminals must be punished, but with so many people now committing offences and breaking the law, there was debate over the punishment for these citizens. At the time there were few prisons to house all these criminals and many were being transported to other counties such as Australia and America. Many criminals were also being sentenced to the death penalty. Many offences would often carry the death penalty as the form of punishment.
The Victorians were starting to have doubts about the amount of executions being carried out and transportation of prisoners to other countries was becoming very unpopular. The option left and agreed upon was to create far more prisons and rejuvenate and extend the current ones. It was clear to the Victorians what the prisons must be like for criminals, a place to ultimately deter the criminal from committing crimes after their time inside. They tried to achieve this by making the prison a very unpleasant place to live, where they would be kept in silence, carry out hard, boring jobs such as separating strands of rope and walking tread wheels.
Old, Damp Prisons
Many of the existing prisons at this time were very old buildings which were damp and insanitary, making them very unhealthy for the prisons population. They were overcrowded and mixed with men, women and children in the same prisons. Many of the prisons had no segregation between the types of criminals so you would also face the prospect of being mixed in with some of the most serious criminals and the insane.
All prisons were run by a “Gaoler” to his own rules. They were often corrupt and for prisoners that could afford it, they could pay the Gaoler for privileges such as their own room, pets, letters, books, more visits and better quality food! For those that did not have the money you faced a grim existence. You were even required to pay the Gaoler to be let out once your sentence had finished.
People wanted the prisons to be reformed and were starting to feel that even criminals should be treated in a decent way. Many wanted prison to become not only a place of punishment, but as a way of reforming people and making them become better people and citizens so that they could live a normal and honest life on their release. Many of the current prisons were either killing the prisoners through disease or they were leaving as worse criminals than when they entered.
In the 1840s a system called “The Separate System” was brought into place, based on the idea that criminals needed to face up to themselves in order to be “cured”. They were kept in their cells most of the time and when let out to visit the exercise rooms or chapel they were sat in special seating or masked so they could not see or talk. This drove many of the prisoners insane and did not have the desired effect. By the 1860s people were starting to believe that a criminal could not be changed or cured, instead deciding that prisoners needed to be scared enough of prison to never want to be put inside again.