20 July 2009

Greatest Hits: Life in Victorian Prisons

By Jennifer Linforth

That last pint was not a good idea.

He stared at his unraveled cravat and the ruby stains marring his vest. Flexing his hand made the wounds on his swollen knuckles split and pour fresh blood.

Yes...he definitely regretted that last drink.

The doors of 'her majesty's carriage' slammed shut in his face. Within minutes it rumbled down the cobbled road, jostling its newest prisoner. There was nothing he could do now but reflect on his foolish temper. His life was pulled down the road toward inevitable change. And changed roared around him like a hungry lion the instant he set foot on the grounds of his new home.

Bathed in water not unlike mutton broth, the newest prisoner of Kirkwood Goal began his new life with humiliation. Where was his valet now, he wondered, as his privacy was raped by men scrutinizing his naked body for distinguishing marks. His anger flared when his hair, once tangled by a woman's fair fingers, was cut to the scalp. His bloody vest and cravat were removed and bundled up, his breeches and waistcoat replaced by ill-fitting uniforms. The boots he once took such pride in were sold to a dealer and replaced by ones heavier than lead. (He tried to guess the weight. 14 pounds seemed accurate.)

He caught his reflection in a dusty window. Who he had been before was of little importance. The markings on his uniform designated his standing in the hierarchy now. He was a convict. Gone were the days of climbing social ladders in salons and country balls. Here social isolation was his dance partner. All too often he would see the dark interior of separate confinement or be forced to adhere to the strict silence rule. All because he tried to garner a bit of humanity and speak to a fellow convict.

He would find ways to break the unearthly silence imposed upon him. He tapped messages on the walls or water pipes. The chapel he found was ripe with opportunity. He was a quick student, learning to use hymns (meaningless to him before) to his advantage. Emphasizing the first word of each line then quickly dropping to a lower tone, he could carry on a conversation with his neighbor. The longer the hymn, the longer the conversation he could murmur between lines. Sign language useful as well. The isolation was a forlorn hope. Man was not designed to live alone...

Morning noon and night his belly rumbled for the succulent soups, roasts and puddings his crime denied him. Three-quarters of a pint of cocoa was his breakfast, a sludge of flaked cocoa mixed with molasses. Dinner was four ounces of meat, a half-pint of soup and one pound of potatoes. Supper: a pint of gruel sweetened with molasses with one and a quarter pounds of bread and salt.

Tired and hungry, he retreats to sleep. But the silks of his pillow are gone and the down that warmed him is a distant memory. Nothing is so aptly designed to depress than his prison cell. Thirteen by seven feet (4 by 2 meters) and nine feet high, only a tiny window offers a glimpse of freedom. But standing on a stool to look out was a punishable offence.

He was cold in the winter, hot in the summer and his eyes constantly fighting the poorly lit conditions. Why not just go blind? Maybe he would not be reminded of this hell. His isolated room seemed private, but the spy hole in the door made him uncertain as to if whether he was being watched or not.

Perhaps he could sleep? Wake up and this nightmare would be over? The year was 1865, a few months previous a new Prison Act was initiated bringing with it the hard plank bed. Part of a severe regime introduced where punishment and deterrence took precedence over reform. Not that he thought he needed reform.

When morning dawned and he choked down the cocoa, a question was poised. Was this labor he faced meant to encourage fulfillment in honest work, or break him body and spirit?

The tread wheel was an ominous beast. He would climb the wheel as if trying to summit an endless mountain. As the wheel fell way beneath his feet, he was forced to lift his body into the next step.

All this for grinding corn? He thought not.

If not at the wheel he would be at the crank, turning a handle until his shoulders ached. There was no harder or more degrading work. He would do his work, eat his meals, live in silence and fight for a small scrap of interaction with the other convicts. Prison officers were products of their own draconian regulations. They lived in a powder keg, where one spark could set off a symbiotic relationship between guards and convict. Each could make the other's life difficult.

And life would be difficult.

Staring down at calloused hands in a sweat soaked uniform, isolated, angry and questioning his "reform"...he definitely regretted that last pint.

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