Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 6 - Pentonville Prison

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THROUGH the courtesy of the Governor of Pentonville, I had an opportunity to go through this great English prison. Considering its nature, the surroundings were surprisingly cheerful, and a pretty thorough inspection of the place led one to the conclusion that many of the inmates, notwithstanding the enforced labor, the restraint and the separation from the world, were far more comfortable than they had ever been in their lives.
    The prison is in the extreme north-east of London, and from the street the character of the great building, could it be distinctly seen, would not be guessed. The architecture is good; the structure is low, in the form of a Maltese cross, and the windows are set in frames of iron, the octagon panes like those of old English houses; a few only are barred and these are like kitchen windows looking into the area of an ordinary London dwelling. The grounds, which permit sufficient room for exercise, are surrounded by a thick wall thirty feet in height, which, of itself, is a security that renders unnecessary any undue display of bolts and bars. Opposite the well-rolled drive are the neat comfortable houses of the higher officials attached to the prison. At the entrance near the gate is the Prison Mission, and here men are received for a time who have been serving long sentences, until an effort has been made to find work for them. After the first few months of their imprisonment the convicts are allowed a per cent, of what they earn, when their conduct has been [-54-] satisfactory, and since they are not permitted to squander their money, many of the more industrious accumulate quite a comfortable sum.
    One of the greatest difficulties has been to prevent the men from taking their savings the moment they are discharged, going to the nearest public-house and spending it in drink, which leads to the commission of fresh crimes, their re-arrest and re-imprisonment. Of course after each such experience their term of commitment is longer and the punishment heavier, as is the law in the United States.
    Under the porte cochére, where the police vans halt, was an immense iron door studded with heavy spikes, but even this was not much more prison-like than the many modern gates to the palaces along Park Lane and Piccadilly. Upon the lower left-hand panel was a knocker and a grating; we sounded the knocker and immediately a panel was thrown back - a door within a door. A porter in a dark blue uniform, with brass buttons and a coronet on his cap, conducted us to the lodge just within the gate. I handed him my card and the official permit, which authorized the authorities to admit me with a friend, and the permit was carefully compared with an entry in a ledger which was taken down from a shelf; the document and entry corresponding, we followed the porter up the smooth graveled walk to the main entrance of the prison proper; here we were handed over to one of the guards, who was also neatly uniformed in blue, and we were shown into a pleasant office prettily carpeted, with a bright fire burning in the grate, although the building was comfortably heated with steam. All the offices were thus provided with open fires, more for appearance, evidently, than because they were really required.
    We were seated, and the young guard informed us that the warden would himself conduct us over the prison, though he remained to do the honors until his superior [-55-] officer should be at leisure. As we sat chatting we heard near at hand the notes of an organ, which was played by some skillful musician, and presently a male quartette singing an anthem, the voices being fine and well trained.
    "That is the choir in the chapel practicing for Sunday," said the young guard. "The organist and the choir are all prisoners. We have a great many well-educated gentlemen here."
    Presently the warden arrived, a quiet, courteous man whose force of character was unmistakably apparent in his somewhat military bearing. He had been acting as warden in English prisons for fourteen years, having been recently transferred from the neighborhood of Brighton to Pentonville. While he admitted that the transfer was promotion, the highest of all such appointments in the Kingdom, he spoke rather regretfully of the post he had left as "such a beautiful place," and expressed a decided preference for the country as compared to London.
    From its cruciform construction, all the galleries diverging from a common center, a guard stationed in the circular space could see in every direction down the long corridors. The galleries along the upper stories were reached by a spiral stairway under the dome, and both galleries and stairway were of light wrought iron. As these corridors were well lighted with sky-lights, the ventilation being excellent and every part of the place as clean as the deck of a man-of-war, the effect was certainly anything but dismal. A few of the men were scrubbing the flag-stones, in charge of a single guard, and as we approached the command was given, which was scarcely audible.
    "Stand! Face wall !" and the scrubbers obediently rose and turned their backs until we passed. Each man wore an ugly blouse and trousers of dust-colored canvas, marked here and there with a broad arrow, the govern-[-56-]ment stamp; each wore on his closely cropped head a little canvas cap, pointed before and behind, in shape not unlike that worn by certain Scotch regiments. The individuality of the prisoner, which not even the hideous prison garb could conceal, was strikingly shown in the manner in which this cap was adjusted; the older and soberer man planted it firmly on the head, the younger and more dashing set it a little on one side, while others pushed it back leaving the forehead exposed.
    When the prisoner arrives at Pentonville, as is the rule in most prisons, his clothes are removed, put into a hot air closet to be fumigated and he is scrubbed and shaved and his hair is clipped close to his head; he is then given a perfectly clean suit of prison clothing. He is allowed a change of flannels once in two weeks, and clean bedding a little less often. The cells are large, very well lighted and ventilated and each is supplied with a cot, basins, platters, a table and a set of devotional books, which, at first, are all the reading matter that is permitted.
    When a man arrives he sleeps upon a bare cot covered only with a blanket; this cot is folded and stands against the wall of the cell in the daytime; if his behavior is satisfactory, after the expiration of the first month he is given a mattress on alternate nights; and after the probation, it is furnished him regularly so long as the luxury is not forfeited by insubordination and misconduct. There is also a good supply of rugs and blankets when these have been earned by obedience to the rules. In each cell is a bell which the prisoner may ring should he be ill or require special attention; ringing the bell throws down a number, plainly designated, outside the door so that it may be seen by the guard on duty in the corridor. The most irksome punishment is the treadmill. At Pentonville the treadmill occupied an immense apartment in which there were nearly two hundred men. Two shafts ran along either [-57-] side of the wall, one above, the other below, the upper being reached by a spiral staircase. In front of the upper shaft was a gallery like that in front of the upper tiers of the cells in the main corridor of the prison; to these shafts was attached a huge wheel, which revolved toward the prisoners, and as it revolved each man in front of it stepped upon the stepping-board, the combined weight bearing it down and forcing the wheel to turn. The movement was a wearisome climbing, repeated over and over again, requiring the greatest muscular exertion. The men did not stand shoulder to shoulder, but each quite apart and concealed from his neighbor, in a sort of wooden cell enclosed on two sides, their backs being visible to the guard.
    ·The men were divided into two shifts - for latter-day prison regulations prohibit anything approaching inhumanity - one shift working fifteen minutes and then being relieved; those resting sit on stools about three yards apart and of course are not permitted to communicate with each other. At the word of command the great wheel stops, and those on the treadmill come marching down to seat themselves while those resting take their places. The labor could not be called cruel, hut to stand in that dark, narrow space with the ceaseless climb, climb, climb, for no one dare stop an instant, must be a galling sort of discipline; and yet its terrors are rarely ever sufficient to restrain the evil-doer from fresh crimes when he is again at liberty.
    It must be confessed that the student in physiognomy could find little ground for encouragement in studying the countenances of the prisoners. The regular hours they were required to keep, the enforced cleanliness, the abundant and wholesome food had had a beneficial effect for the time, and had temporarily improved their physical and mental condition, but most of the faces were hopelessly evil, scowling, defiant or brazenly impudent. The [-58-] prisoners, with few exceptions, were the product of hereditary crime, in whom the instinct of vice was irresistible, and the majority showed limited intelligence. Judging from appearances, which of course are occasionally misleading, there were not half a dozen, out of the entire fourteen hundred men within the prison at that time, who seemed to have been of superior birth or education.
    "Are there many here who will reform ?" I asked.
    "Very few," replied the warden, not unkindly, but with the conviction of a man whose opinion was based upon a thorough and scientific knowledge of criminology, "the greater number belong to what I have learned to recognize, in my long experience in dealing with them, as the habitually criminal classes."
    In the treadmill ward some two hundred men were locked in with a guard of but four men.
    "Can so small a number keep them in order ?" I asked. "O! yes; they are rarely ever unruly. Sometimes they refuse to work; then they are put upon bread and water and the time on the treadmill is lengthened. If they are respectful and obedient they are given good marks, by which they obtain, not only certain privileges which it is worth their while to earn, but which also serve to lessen the term of hard labor."
    All the guards on duty seemed to be men of a superior class. They were quiet and watchful, spoke but seldom and then in tones so subdued that they could scarcely be overheard. When I commented on this the warden replied:
    "It requires men of peculiar qualifications and temperament to manage convicts, and especially such men as these, successfully; a quick-tempered person is useless here. As soon as he becomes angry he loses his self-control and is then unable to control the prisoners and maintain discipline. He must give his life to studying his work and, ex-[-59-]cept that he is not forced to perform the same sort of labor, and may come and go at stated intervals, he is, practically, almost as much a prisoner as those over whom he has supervision."
    The treadmill was not a mere purposeless routine; it ground all the grain required for bread in both Pentonville and the prison at Wormwood Scrubs. In the bake shop the baker, who was also an officer and wore his uniform off duty, was superintending the mixing, kneading and baking of bread-tasks that had been assigned the convicts. In the store-room the loaves were placed upon the shelves to cool and were not given out for the table until they were two days old-a rule that was enjoined on the score of both economy and health.
    "There is no better bread made anywhere," said the cook with pardonable pride, breaking two loaves apart that we might see the fine, flaky grain; it was light, sweet and palatable. In the kitchen, under the management of the cook, who like the baker was also an officer, other men were preparing the vegetables, while soup, beef and cocoa were boiling in shining coppers. A little table was spread with portions of the food-bread, boiled potatoes and cold meat placed there for the convenience of the inspector when he should go his rounds. All the repairs, making of new doors and window frames, stools, metal work, mending broken machinery, even to the prison clocks, were done by skilled workmen among the prisoners, of which there was always a sufficient number. The shops of the prison were well-furnished with all the needed equipments and men were busy at turning-lathes; the blacksmith was hammering at his anvil, the clock-maker with his back to us was painstakingly riveting the cogged wheels he had mended, his deft fingers betokening the skilled artisan in every movement.
    Outside the prison and within the high wall that shut [-60-] out the road, were pleasant, grassy quadrangles carefully clipped and kept free from weeds, set in rhododendrons and other ornamental shrubs. Around the grass plot ran a circular path with other paths bisecting it; here the men were taking their exercise, with two or three guards looking on. Each wore good, stout shoes and, in addition to his prison cap and clothing, a warm cape of dust-colored frieze, for it was December and the day was raw and chill. From the breast of each man's blouse dangled a triangular card bearing his number. The convicts walked at a good brisk pace, a little distance apart, and as one stalwart fellow passed us his card became detached from his button-hole and fluttered at his feet. He did not halt to recover it, but continued his enforced march and his mate behind him picked it up, overtook his fellow prisoner, silently handed him the card and then fell back into his proper place. This was the only semblance of communication that we saw, for the prisoners were not allowed to talk to one another except at stated intervals. As one of the prisoners marched past, the warden quietly ordered him to fall back a little as he was approaching too near the man in front of him. The offender grinned knowingly, but obeyed promptly, and this was the only word of caution or command that we had heard, except in the case of the scrubbers.
    There is a well-stocked dispensary in charge of a competent pharmacist, and two good physicians on constant duty, day and night. The hospital was a bright, cheerful room, the walls tinted in shades of Olive green, with rows of snow-white cots and fires in open grates. One young convalescent who was reading, looked up as we entered: while he seemed to possess sufficient intelligence, his countenance was anything but frank and engaging. There was a pleasant and roomy chapel with a good organ which we had heard while waiting in the office; the [-61-] chancel was tastefully appointed and adjoining it were the pews for the prison officials; the men were assigned forms - benches that had no support for the back. I was told that, although the attendance at chapel was compulsory, it was a pleasant change from the routine of prison life and most of the prisoners liked to attend the services in which they cheerfully and readily took part.
    Last of all we saw "Her Majesty's Room" - where the Board of Directors met in session once a month to transact business connected with the management of the prison. An important part of this regular business is the investigation of complaints, for even here the utmost respect is paid to the old Anglo-Saxon right of appeal; An inspector, especially appointed, goes the rounds once a week, and any prisoner is entitled to acquaint him with a fancied or real grievance which he thinks should receive consideration. The complainant's name and number are given and recorded and his case is then discussed at the next directors' meeting. The complaints may relate to food, treatment at the hands of officials, or any regulation or requirement that may be regarded as excessive or unreasonable, and are certain of investigation.
    Out of 1,400 inmates but two were in the hospital, so that the health of the men was certainly excellent, and none who were at work seemed ill or feeble. The reason for this high health rate was undoubtedly the regular life the men were forced to lead, their inability to gratify their vicious inclinations, and the wholesome and abundant food with which they were supplied. Each man was given for breakfast sixteen ounces of bread, gruel or porridge and a bowl of cocoa; for dinner, soup, vegetables, twelve ounces of bread and meat, with a suet pudding on Sunday. The diet was varied as much as it could be within the allowance made for provisioning the prison: it was certainly far better than many an honest laborer could afford, who [-62-] respected the laws and who scorned the bread of charity as he would have rejected the fare of a prison as the price of wrong-doing. The difficulty in England, as in the United States, has been to furnish convicts with employment which is thought to operate against industries upon which the law-abiding depend for a livelihood. In Pentonville, with labor in the treadmill, in the kitchen, bakery, laundry and repair shop the men pick oakum used in calking men-of-war, and make packing cases for the post-office; it is work which they like and in which they display considerable interest. For those who have no trade, bag- making is provided, the bags which they manufacture being used in the postal service by the letter carriers. Upon the whole, the prison, even with its most irksome restraints, is a vast improvement upon the homes from which those of the convicts had come who had homes; and if there was no improvement in their moral condition after a few months or years of imprisonment, there was a marked and decided gain, mentally and physically. The greater number, in reality, while submitting to punishment for crime, were more comfortable and were enjoying greater peace of mind than they had ever known elsewhere. It accounted for the fact that many who are released are ill at ease, and have been known to commit crimes that they might return. The work that they are required to do at last becomes habitual, and insures sufficient and unfailing food and shelter, proper care in illness and decent burial at death; and comparatively few have any ambition beyond this.