History of Prisons
Page last modified 17/5/2020
See also Crimes and Punishment
See also Capital Punishment
For changes in the legal prosecution and punishment of minors, see Morals
2013, Reading gaol, Berkshire, closed.
2000, The Maze Prison, Northern Ireland, closed. It had formerly been an RAF base, named after a nearby village. The Maze housed mainly IRA and other Irish Republican prisoners, who were treated as political prisoners until 1975 and allowed to wear their own clothes. The prison was also known locally as the H Blocks, or Long Kesh. From 1975 the Maze inmates’ classification as ‘political’ began to be phased out, which required them to wear prison uniforms. This gave rise to protests in which the priusoners refused to wear prison unoiforms, instead modifying blankets and wearing those instead. They also started the ‘dirty protest’ after allegations that prison warders were beating them during slopping out. This meant the prisoners urinated on the floor and smeared faeces on the walls. Two days after newly-elected Northern Irish MP Bobby Sands died during a protest hunger strike in 1981, the incoming Northern Irish Secretary James Prior announced that all paramilitary prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes.
15/2/2000, The US prison population passed the 2 million mark. The USA had 6 to 10 times the incarceration rate of other developed countries.
1998, Lowdham Grange Prison, Nottinghamshire, opened.
1996, Whatton Prison, Nottinghamshire, opened.
31/3/1996, Crumlin Road Prison, Belfast, closed.
1995, Wealstun Prison, Wetherby, opened; an amalgamation of Thorp Arch and Rudgate Prisons.
1994, Doncaster Marshgate Prison opened.
1993, The UK’s Prison Service was formed.
1992, Elmley Prison, Sheerness, Kent, opened.
1992, Kirklevington Prison, Yorkshire, opened.
1991, Brinsford Young Offenders Institute, north of Wolverhampton, opened.
1991, Belmarsh Prison in S E London opened.
10/1988, Garth Prison, Lancashire, opened.
1987, Full Sutton Prison,Yorkshire, opened.
1987, Maghaberry high security prison, Northern Ireland, opened.
1985, Wayland Prison, Thetford, Norfolk, opened.
1985, Lindholme prison, Yorkshire, opened on a former MoD site.
1979, Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Institute, Belfast, opened.
1979, Wymott Prison, Leyland,Lancashire, opened.
1976, Featherstone Prison, north of Wolverhampton, opened.
1975, Cornton Vale Prison, Stirling opened. It ios cotland’s only all-women prison.
7/1974, Channings Wood Prison, Newton Abbot, Devon, opened.
1972, Acklington Prison, near Morpeth, Northumberland, opened.
1971, Long Lartin Prison, near Evesham, opened.
1/8/1963, The minimum age for prison in the UK was raised to 17.
1962, Kirkham Prison, Lancashire, was opened.
1960, Ford Open Prison, Sussex, was opened.
1958, Wetherby Young Offenders Institute opened, on the site of a former naval base.
1958, Everthorpe Prison, near Beverley, Yorkshire, opened as a Borstal. It became a Category C prison in 1991.
1955, Lancaster Castle Prison opened.
1954, Blantyre House, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, became a prison. It had previously been a children’s home.
1950, Erlestoke Prison, Wiltshire, opened.
1950, Standford Hill Prison, Sheerness, Kent, first opened (reconstructed 1986).
1948, In British prisons, hard labour was abolished. The Criminal Justice Act set a model for all UK prisons.
1947, Askham Grange Prison, Yorkshire, was opened as Britain’s first women’s open prison.
1946, Hewell Grange Prison, Worcestershire, was opened, originally as a Borstal, but since 1991 a Category D prison.
27/5/1936. The first open prison in Britain was opened at New Hall, near Wakefield, Yorkshire.
1933, New Hall Prison, Wakefield,opened as a men’s open prison.
1927, Camp Hill Prison, Newport, Isle of Wight, was opened by Sir Winston Churchill.
1919, Edinburgh Prison opened.
1916, Ruthin gaol, Wales, closed.
1908, In the UK, the Children Act abolished the practice of sending children aged under 14 to prison.
5/1/1908, Serious prisoner mutiny at Dartmoor Prison; several warders injured.
16/10/1902. The first Borstal institution opened, at the village of Borstal near Rochester, Kent.
1/4/1902, The treadmill was abolished in British prisons. It was invented by Sir W Cubitt around 1818. The UK’s Prison Act 1865 specified that every male prisoner aged over 16 sentenced to hard labour should spemd at least 3 months of his sentence on ‘first class labour’ – that is, the treadmill, crank, capstan or stone-breaking. The Prisons Act 1877 reduced this period to one month. A day of such labour consisted of two 3-hour sessions, with a 3 minute break between 15 minutes of work.
1899, UK Prison Diet. In the UK, a departmental Committee recommended different classes of diet to be give to prisoners, according to length of sentence, age, sex and conduct. Class A diet was provided to prisoners serving not more than 7 days; it was designed to be wholesome but spartan enough not to be tempting to ‘loafers or mendicants’. It consisted of 8oz daily bread for breakfast (6oz for females and juveniles; i.e those aged under 16). (Note, 36 oz = approx. 1 kilogram) with 1 pint of gruel (Note 1.75 pints = approx. 1 litre). Juveniles also got 0.5 pints of milk. Dinner was 8 oz bread daily, and on 3 days of thr week, 8 oz of potatoes (for vegetables). Supper was breakfast fare, repeated. Note. dinner and supper, not lunch and dinner,
Prisoners serving between 7 and 14 days were given the Class A diet for the first 7 days, then Class B diet for the second week. Class B was also provided to prisoners on remand and debtors.
Class B diet comprised, breakfast, daily, same as Class A. Supper, same as breakfast, except that men got 1 pint of porridge instead of gruel, and juveniles recived 6 oz of bread and 1 pint of cocoa (no porridge or gruel). Dinner (midday meal) comprised 6oz bread daily for all, plus 8 oz potatoes daily for all, plus; Sunday, Thursday 4oz cooked meat (3 oz for females and juveniles); Monday 2 oz fat bacon (1 oz for females and juveniles) and 10 oz beans 98 oz females and juveniles); Tuesday, Friday, 1 pint of soup for all; Wednesday, Saturday, 10 oz suet pudding (8 oz for females and juveniles). Class C diet was a little more generous and was provided to prisoners sevring longer sentences. There was also a punishment diet, for prisoners breaching internal jail discipline rules, and not to be give for more than 3 days; this comprised, daily, 16 oz of bread and as much water as the prisoner wanted.
There was no difference between the food given to hard labour and non-hard labour prisoners.
In other countries; Sweden was more severe, with just 2 meals a day, at 12 noon and 7pm, both meals comprising mainly porridge or gruel. In France, inmates were provided with more cheese and vegetables, with additional such being purchasable by the prisoners with their wages. The USA prison diet was more generous/varied, including fresh fish, fruit and even coffee.
Source for UK Prison Diet; Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edn, 1910-11, Vol.8, pp.212-213.
By 1895 British prisons had 39 treadmills and 29 cranks, a number reduced to 13 and 5 respectively in 1901, just before abolition.
1896, In Britain, the 1896 Debtors Act brought an end to Debtor’s Prisons. Previously many debtors were imprisoned until their debts were paid and because of interest the debt might actually increase and they spend many years in there. Conversely, wealthier debtors could arrange for a range of priveliges to make their sentence les onerous, or even ‘serve’ their time outside, but nearby, the prison.
1891, Wormwood Scrubs prison, London, opened.
1890, Nottingham prison opened.
11/1890, Millbank Prison, London, closed.
1888, Peterhead Prison, Scotland, opened.
1887, Norwich Prison opened.
1881, Aberdeen Prison, opened. It was the site of Scotalnd’s last execution; Henry John Burnett was hanged in 1963 for the murder of merchant seaman Thomas Guyan.
31/12/1881, Newgate Prison, London, closed. Originally built above one of the City of London gates, it moved to a new location (now the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey) in 1770. The building was finally demolished in 1902 to make way for the Court.
1878, Britain’s Prison Commission, under Edmund Du Cane (1830-1903), closed 54 local prisons; more such prisons were phased out in succeeding years so that by 1894 only 54 local prisons were left operating. The prison staff were reorganised on military and meritocratic lines, replacing an earlier system of patronage. A strict rule book was enforced, with severe penalties for wardens who mistreated prisoners. Prisoners now had to wear uniforms, with a regime of ‘hard fare, hard bed, hard abour’. However this strict regime did not reduce crime or reoffending rates,
1874, Rochester Prison, Kent, opened, on a former military site. In 1902 it became a Borstal and now is used for holding males aged 21 and under.
1870, Hull Prison opened.
3/11/1870. In Britain, the photographing of every prisoner was made compulsory. A photograph had been successfully used on a ‘wanted’ poster in 1861.
25/6/1868, Strangeways Prison, Manchester, opened. It replaced the New Bailey Prison, Salford, which closed in 1868.
1865, Britain’s Prison Act emphasised retribution and deterrence over any reformint aspects of prison. Prison was made harsher, with separate cells for inmates. Hard labour was ‘first class’ (treadwheel, crank, stonebreaking) or ‘second class’ (any other hard physical exterion authorised by the Home Secretary). Prison Governores were authorised to impose up to three months solitary confinenment on bread and water. Visiting Justices of the Peace could impose a month in a ‘punishment cell’ or a flogging. Chains could also be authorised. However there were grants to aid newly-discharged prisoners, Small local prisons that could not afford to meet these measures were closed in the following years..
1863, Broadmoor, asylum for the criminally insane, was built.
1857, Britain ceased using ‘hulks’, old ships, as prisons.
1853, Lewes Prison, Sussex, opened.
1852, Holloway Prison, London, opened. It was mixed-sex until 1903, when it became Britain’s first women-only prison.
1849, Winson Green Prison, Birmingham, opened.
1849, Construction work on Wandsworth Prison began. Male prisoners were first admitted in 1851; female prisoners from 1852.
1848, Portland Prison, Dorset, opened. Originally for adults, it became a Borstal in 1921.
1846, Leeds Prison, Armley, opened. Executions took place there until 1860.
1845, Crumlin Road prison, Belfast, opened.
1844, Reading Prison, Berkshire, UK, opened as the County Gaol. From 1845 to 1913 public executions were carried out there.
1842, Pentonville Prison, north London, opened (closed 1996).
1842, London’s Fleet Prison, in use since the Norman Conquest and once used to house prisoners committed there by the King’s Star Chamber, and later used to hold debtors, closed, it was demolished two years later.
1840, Construction of the original Preston, Lancashire, prison began. It closed in 1931, was re-used by the military in 1939, and became a civilian prison again in 1946.
1828, Chelmsford Prison opened.
1823, The UK Jail Act was passed. Part of Robert Peel’s jail reforms, it provided for regular inspections of prisons by magistrates, at least three times every three months, jailers received a regular salary (so they did not extort money from prisoners), women prisoners were to be guarded by female warders, and all priusoners received some elementary education and regular visits from doctors and chaplains. However these reforms only applied to the larger prisons in London and 17 other cities; smaller provincial prisons and debtors prisons remained as before.
1821, Millbank Prison, London, opened.
1820, Brixton Prison opened, as the Surrey House of Correction.
1819, Maidstone Prison, Kent, opened.
1817, Elizabeth Fry, prison reformer, began her work.
1815, The UK Government started paying regular wages to jailers and began inspecting prison conditions.
1808, Canterbury county gaol, Kent, was built, just outside the city limits.
1806, Construction of Dartmoor Prison began. It opened in 1809, for PoWs from the Napoleonic Wars. It became a criminal prison in 1850.
1805, Parkhurst Prison, Isle of Wight, first opened as a military hospital. It became a prison, for females, from 1863 to 1869, and has since then been a male prison.
1794, Stafford gaol was opened.
1791, In the UK, Jeremy Bentham designed the ‘perfect prison’ a star shaped ‘panopticon’ in which prisoners never knew if or when they were being watched from a central point. The idea for the Panopticon came from the menagerie kept by King Louis XIV of France, which consisted of an octagonal room (the King’s salon) surrounded by seven cages where the animals were kept; the eight side was the entrance. Observation was seen by Louis XIV as a form of power, in the centralised French State, where the nobility were required to reside at Versailles where the monarch could keep an eye on them (Peter Wollen, ‘Government by Appearances’, (pp.91-106) in New Left Review, Vol.3, May/June 2000, p.91.
1790, The New Bailey Prison, in Salford, Manchester, opened, It closed in 1868.
20/1/1790, John Howard, prison reformer, died.
1783, The North Riding House of Correction opened, near Northallerton. It is now a Young Offender Institute.
21/5/1780. Elizabeth Fry, prison reformer, was born in Norwich. She was the daughter of a Quaker banker, John Gurney.
2/9/1726, Birth of prison reformer John Howard. English campaigner for better conditions for prisoners and wages for gaolers.
1780, Armagh gaol, Northern Ireland,opened (main block); a new front was added in 1819. Public executions were held here until the 1860s; the last execution within the gaol took place in 1904. The gaol closed in 1986.
1779, In the UK, the Penitentiary Act introduced the concept of rehabilitation to British prisons.
1778, UK prison reformer John Howard established the principle of separate confinement for prisoners combined with work.
1777, John Howard’s book, The State of the Prisons, exposed the poor and corruptstate of Britain’s prison system.
1594, Wakefield House of Correction opened. The present day Wakefield Prison opened in 1847.
1218, Newgate Prison, London, opened.
1330, Hexham Old Gaol, Hexham, Northumberland, was built.
1166, In Britain, the Assize of Clarendon ordered jails to be constructed in all English counties and boroughs.
2000, Midlands Prison, Portlaoise, Ireland, opened.
1989, Pelican Bay Prison, California, opened as the first US Supermax Prison. By 2005 the US had over 40 Supermax prisons, where inmates had a regime of 23 hours solitary confinement each day. One hour was allowed each day for yard exercise and cafeteria meals.
1983, The US Supreme Court reaffirmed that people cannot be imprisoned for failing to repay debts.
1972, Canada finally ceased sterilising convicts in prison.
21/3/1963. Alcatraz, the notorious prison in San Francisco Bay, was closed. It had been a maximum-security prison since 1934.
1955, In the US, the closure of mental hospital institutions began. As overall State care for the mentally ill shrank, prisons took up much of the slack.
22/8/1953, The infamous French prison of Devils Island, depicted in the film Papillon, was closed after a century of operations.
1937, Nazi Germany had, by now, forcibly sterilised some 225,000 convicts in prison. An opinion poll in the US this year showed two-thirds of respondents supported this idea, and in the UK Churchill also privately supported the idea.
1935, Rikers Island Prison, New York, opened.
11/8/1934, The first batch of prisoners, classified ‘most dangerous’, arrived at the new Alcatraz high-security prison in San Francisco Bay.
1928, Alabama became the last US State to outlaw ‘convict leasing’.
1927, The first US Federal Women’s Prison opened in Alderson, West Virginia.
1924, Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, was closed. Opened in the 1790s, its last inmate was Eamon de Valera.
1902, (see also USA) Death of John Peter Atgeld (born 1847), who was a prison reformer ahead of his time. A German-born lawyer in Chicago, he was concerned about how the poor found it difficult to access justice. He was elected Governor of Illinois in 1892 and succeeded in passing laws regulating child labour and loosening the monopolies enjoyed by railways and tramways companies. He pardoned three anarchists imprisoned since 1886, and condemned President Cleveland for sending in troops to disrupt a railway strike. However he was then vilified by the press as a ‘Illinois Jacobin’ and was defeated when seeking re-election in 1896.
1899, The US State of Indiana began forcibly sterilising convicts in prison. By 1941, 36,000 criminals had been sterilised.
1866, In the USA the practice of ‘convict leasing’, hiring out usually Black male prisoners for private work, began.
1850, Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, Ireland, opened.
1838, In the USA, Federal Law abolished debtor’s prisons, replacing them with bankruptcy law.
1829, In the USA, Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia opened. It was the first ‘modern’ prison; solitary confinement was used, to give prisoners time for reflection and ‘penitence’. By 1890, major concerns were arising about the number of insane, suicidal, or catatonic prisoners resulting from prolonged solitary confinement.
200 AD, The Palestinian town of Tiberias was the site of one of the oldest prisons outside the region of Rome.
250 BCE, One of the first Roman prisons was erected, at Tullianum.