Charles Dickens often spoke out against inequality and injustice in Victorian society – not least in its penal system.
In 1842, Dickens was in Philadelphia where he visited the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary, where all prisoners were kept in solitary confinement. They occupied separate cells and were denied human contact except for an occasional visit from the chaplain or a warder. Dickens thought the treatment inhuman and a futile method of reform.
Dickens’ views on crime and punishment are reflected in his novels. In David Copperfield, the tragicomic Wilkins Micawber is arrested for debt and sent to the King’s Bench Prison. In Little Dorrit, William Dorrit has been a resident of Marshalsea debtors’ prison for so long that his three children have all grown up there. (As a child, Dickens spent time in Marshalsea when his father was imprisoned for debt.) Great Expectations, whose plot revolves around the escaped convict, Abel Magwitch, is explores in depth Pip’s, Estella’s, and Miss Haversham’s physical and psychological solitude.
But no one in authority was paying any attention. The 1877 Prisons Act introduced solitary confinement on the grounds that offenders were more likely to recognise the error of their ways if left alone to contemplate their crimes. For the first month, prisoners slept on a plank bed and worked in their cells. No letters or visits were allowed for three months, and thereafter only at three monthly intervals. Convicts sentenced to penal servitude spent the first nine months of their sentence in solitary confinement.
London’s Pentonville Prison was completed in 1842, the year that Dickens was in Philadelphia. It is still open for business. In “I’ve been in Britain’s grimmest prisons, but Pentonville’s the worst” (The Guardian, 6 July 2015), Carl Cattermole describes a totally alien environment, not far removed from Dickens’ time. Solitary confinement is still in use and drugs are easy to get:
“Many prisoners are being isolated because of their bad behaviour, and once isolated they are denied TVs and radios. Couple that with the shocking illiteracy levels of the prison population, and a cell starts to become a sensory deprivation tank that leaves an inmate to ruminate over his anger, anxieties and neuroses for 23 hours a day.”
The UK government is aware of the problem – especially overcrowding and understaffing – and has initiated a rebuilding programme. Yet, according to Alan Travis writing in “Time has come to close ‘grimmest of the grim’ Pentonville prison” (The Guardian, 19 October 2016), only one major jail has closed under the government’s £1.2 billion “new for old” programme and that was Holloway women’s prison, opened in 1852 and supposedly soon to be sold for housing.
Pentonville is not alone. In his Annual Report 2015–16, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales states:
“What I have seen is that despite the sterling efforts of many who work in the Prison Service at all levels, there is a simple and unpalatable truth about far too many of our prisons. They have become unacceptably violent and dangerous places… It is clear that a large part of this violence is linked to the harm caused by new psychoactive substances (NPS) which are having a dramatic and destabilising effect in many of our prisons… these synthetic substances, often known as ‘Spice’ or ‘Mamba’, are becoming ever more prevalent in prisons and exacerbating problems of debt, bullying, self-harm and violence.”
Dickens’ reaction to the horrific treatment of prisoners in 19th century Philadelphia can be found in chapter 7 of American Notes. And in Little Dorrit, there is a reminder that the penal system itself is grimly fettered to a past that is still with us:
“A prison taint was on everything there. The imprisoned air, the imprisoned light, the imprisoned damps, the imprisoned men, were all deteriorated by confinement. As the captive men were faded and haggard, so the iron was rusty, the stone was slimy, the wood was rotten, the air was faint, the light was dim. Like a well, like a vault, like a tomb, the prison had no knowledge of the brightness outside; and would have kept its polluted atmosphere intact in one of the spice islands of the Indian Ocean.”