The UK has 150 jails with roughly a quarter old stock. HMP Shepton Mallet dated from 1625, Dartmoor 1809, Lincoln 1872, Pentonville 1842, Wandsworth 1851, Walton 1855, Strangeways 1868, Walton 1855. Prisoners are hidden from view and forgotten. Likewise, there is a landscape of prisons that only the convicted know to navigate.
“I was sentenced in Dover so went to Elmly. They say, you never get off the island, transferred to Stanford Hill to Swaleside. I done 18 months there before being transferred near my family” Tales of Sheppy island, Kent.
“Armly, Altcourse, then Walton” Lists of places I had never heard of, now become the path of lives. Some navigate by pubs, or Garmin, or stars but many see the UK as a series of moves from one barred window to another. Alehouse, Courthouse, jailhouse.
What is it like walking into prison for the first time? Walking into history. This in Ronnie Barker’s Porridge prison so let’s call it that: HMP Slade, a Victorian city centre hulk. HMP Slade is an old Victorian jail it could be Liverpool’s finest Walton or Manchester’s majestic Strangeways. All are dumps.
The incredible hulk
I should be thankful I’m on dry land. England loved to house prisoners at sea. The ‘goto’ convict of the British imagination, Abel Magwich, was on the run in 1812, in ‘Great Expectations’, from a ship moored on the Thames. Actually, ships at that time were on the nearby River Medway, so Dickens used artistic licence to move ship but the conditions he described were accurate: shackles and misery. The English had treated the American war of independence as a practice ground for killing people on hulks and perfected it during the Napoleonic wars. Clearly, the French and the proto-Americans were keen to exaggerate the numbers for propaganda but measured historical review puts mortality rates at around 10%.
A prison ship was used to transport prisoners to colonies. A non-seaworthy vessel is a hulk. A rotting ship with rotting residents, typhus outbreaks and riots. The first prison ship was privately owned, Tayloe, engaged by the home Office in 1775. This country is no stranger to privatising prisons indeed until the 19th Century all prisons were run privately for profit. As many as 30 hulks in service during the 1800’s. They were phased out as the Victorian prison building program began. Given the English love to detain the upstart colonists, HMS Argenta was purchased following the 1920 Bloody Sunday uprising and used to house Irish Republicans until it was scrapped in 1925.
HMS Maidstone, in Northern Ireland, was used in the 1970s to house suspected Nationalist Paramilitaries. Gerry Adams lived there in 1972. I doubt he called it home
So, when prison policy planning is out at sea the hulk returns. HMP Weare was used as a prison ship between 1997 and 2006 in Portland Harbour, Dorset. It was towed across the Atlantic in 2007 for our American Cousins to incarcerate their own.
We taught them well.