Friday, 25 November 2011


Sorry that this piece is so long but I'm having trouble getting a signal here in the Philippine backwoods. I'm trying to blog twice a week but it's not always easy.


What is the purpose of prison? This question continues to agitate the minds our politicians? Punishment? Retribution? Reformation? Or is it simply to move anti-social characters from our streets either temporarily or permanently for the public benefit? Prison works, some say. But even the harshest regimes have not managed to cut rising crime rates. Look how they've tried.

In 1824 the treadmill at Maidstone prison was completed under the superintendence of William Cubitt, the inventor of this form of prison discipline. Newspaper reports suggest that the machine at Maidstone was ‘the most perfect building of its kind in the country.’ Perhaps similar approval was given to gas chambers.

The machine cost £3,000, equivalent to £200,000 today. There were eight distinct shafts, all connected to the great central wheel. Standing side by side men had 18 inches of elbow room as they ceaselessly climbed, step by step. This mill was capable of holding about 100 persons at the same time. It was built to dress corn and ground 12 bushels an hour.

What a bestial invention. Men fell off the endless ladder or became entangled in the revolving machinery. And there is no evidence that even these nightmare contraptions acted as a deterrent even though those employed, the frail and unfit as well as the robust and sturdy, are estimated to have walked up the equivalent of 12,000 feet each day in winter. In summer, with longer hours for this work, they climbed as much as 18,000 feet. The treadmills were eventually abandoned but whether for humanitarian reasons or for the fact that they produced no positive benefits is uncertain.

In 1867, as part of a national survey, the Court of General Session heard reports from the governors and surgeons of Maidstone and Canterbury gaols on the effects of the Government dietary which had been in force for nine months.

Mr Joy, the Maidstone surgeon, said that the new diet was insufficient to keep prisoners healthy enough to be able to work the scheduled nine hours on the treadmill. There had been, he reported, an unusual amount of sickness and diarrhoea and in consequence he had had to increase the diet of many prisoners. The governor, Major Bannister, claimed that weakness and hunger were visible on the faces of the convicts within a week of their arrival. He had difficulty in preventing them from picking up raw potatoes and potato peelings.

While the Canterbury surgeon, Mr Reed, had observed no serious deterioration in the health of prisoners, he, like Mr Joy, felt that the diet was not compatible with continuous hard labour at the treadmill. He was also of the opinion that released prisoners could not go out into the world and straightaway earn a living after three months on the machine. The treadmill was producing physically broken men.

There were alternative sanctions. In 1867 punishment at Maidstone gaol was inflicted 2,406 times on males and 83 times on females.

Males Females
Whipping 11 -
Irons or handcuffs 1 -
Solitary or dark cells 820 83
Stoppage of diet 1,574 -
In several gaols male prisoners were given shot drill as a punishment. In this form of hard labour, groups of up to 32 men responded to warders’ orders. They had to stoop down and without bending the knees, pick up a cannon ball. The ball was raised up to the chest and when the order was given, the men took three steps sideways and then replaced the ball on the ground. They were then ordered to take three steps backwards and the procedure commenced all over again.

Stone breaking, beating rope, picking oakum and pumping water were other mind-numbing and body-breaking tasks to be performed. Work continued throughout daylight hours in winter and in summer from 6.30am until 6pm.

Oakum picking was carriedout by women as well as men. The purpose of this hateful job was to separate strands of old, tarred rope into thin thread. Constant working at this task, day after day, made the fingers painful, raw and bloody. The reconstituted threads were sold on to make string or mattress stuffing – ‘money for old rope.’

The Report on the Prisons of Great Britain indicates that on the day of the Inspectors’ visit to Canterbury in 1867 the male prisoners were employed as follows:

Treadmill 50
Beating rope and oakum 2
Oakum picking (3lb daily) 17
Shoemaking 1
Cleaning 2
In punishment 1

These days we learn that prisoners can elect not to work during their sentences – a complete turn-about. How do we sort this out? The purpose of prison in a democratic society remains unanswered.

Don't forget these Snippets of the Past are intended not simply for mild historical interest. I do hope that writers of historical fiction may gain some useful background.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy your snippets of the past and learn something new each time I visit. I’ve often used the word ‘treadmill’ when bemoaning my lot – I won’t be using it again.