Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pauper, The Thief and the Convict, by Thomas Archer, 1865 - Chapter 12 - Pentonville Prison

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   Pentonville, or, as it was formerly called, "The Model Prison," was built in 1842 (at a cost of 85,000), for the reception of convicts selected to undergo probationary imprisonment previous to their transportation to the colonies.
   It may not be out of place to mention here that this prison was originally intended only as a sort of preparation for penal servitude abroad, and that the "ticket-of-leave system" introduced amongst this class of convicts was applied only to those who were sentenced to Van Diemen's Land.
   "I propose," said Sir James Graham, in his letter to the commissioners, "that no prisoner shall be admitted into Pentonville without the knowledge that it is the portal to the penal colony, and without the certainty that he bids adieu to his connections in England, and that he must henceforth look forward to a life of labour in another hemisphere. He should be made to feel that from that day (the day of his entrance into the prison) he enters on a new career. He should be told that his imprisonment is a period of probation; that it will not be prolonged above eighteen months; that an opportunity of learning those arts which will enable him to earn his bread will be afforded, under the best instructors; that moral and religious knowledge will be imparted to him, as a guide to his [-209-] future life; that at the end of eighteen months, when a just estimate can be formed of the effect produced by the discipline on his character, he will be sent to Van Diemen's Land, there, if he behave well, at once to receive a ticket-of-leave, which is equivalent to freedom, with the certainty of abundant maintenance, the fruit of industry. If, however, he behave indifferently he will, on being transported to Van Diemen's Land, receive a probationary pass which will secure to him only a limited portion of his earnings, and impose certain galling restrictions on his personal liberty.
   If, on the other hand, he behave ill, and the discipline of the prison be ineffectual, he will be transported to Tasman's Peninsula, there to work in a probationary gang, without wages, and deprived of liberty - an abject convict."
   Pentonville Prison, then, was originally devised as a sort of penal training establishment for convicts sentenced to transportation, and it still retains so much of this character as devotes it to the reception of prisoners who undergo the longer terms of servitude which consign them to the various Government stations in this country.
   Having previously learned thus much of its history and intention, I prepare to pay it a personal visit, still keeping in view the cases of the two patients to whose cure such careful attention is bestowed. I am not long in discovering that the place itself differs exceedingly from that gloomy pile at Millbank. It is true that it stands in an unfinished-looking, bleak, and somewhat melancholy neighbourhood  - there may be some influence in all prisons which will affect their surroundings in this way; - but the building itself seems to have little in common with the prevailing expression.
   Arriving in the early morning at the Caledonian Road station of the North London Railway, I have noticed the presence [-210-] of blue-frocked, hoarse, and somewhat greasy fellowpassengers, and have heard a sound of lowing and bleating so pastoral in its character that it is unaccountable except by remembering that the cattle-market lies at only a short distance. For the rest, the whole locality bears the neglected and slovenly appearance of a neighbourhood habitually awakened at preternaturally early hours. The taverns especially seem to resent this condition of existence by an unbraced and slipshod demeanour, and a look of sordid dissipation which the unthinking are too apt to associate with "night-houses." Nothing, on the contrary, can, as a rule, be more (metaphorically) spiritless than the air of an early-rising public-house. But it is neither with the taverns nor their neighbourhood that I have to do; for here is the square, massive entrance to the prison, closed in front, but reached by a gate in the side, to which a broad, paved causeway leads from an iron wicket at the end of the "curtain" wall.
   When once the warder's lodge is passed, and the visitor traverses the neat gravel yard, and ascends the flight of white steps leading to the half-glazed door, the imagination wanders between a hospital and a Government office, everything is so quiet and so clean. After entering the governor's waiting-room, and recording his name and the authority by which he receives permission to inspect the building in a book kept for the purpose, he is consigned by the governor to the care of an intelligent officer, and commences his tour of the prison. Even on a dull, heavy day those four long and lofty corridors are singularly light and pleasant, lighter, indeed, than that occupied by the offices, from which they spread like the sails of a windmill, or four sticks of a fan.
   Here there are no close and stifling passages of solid [-211-] brickwork, no dark and devious staircases leading to blind entries and double-locked barricades--no faint and sickly smell of long-imprisoned air. The smooth, clean floors of asphalte in the lofty arcades are almost an agreeable promenade, while the two stories of light and graceful iron galleries which occupy each corridor are reached by slender iron stairs, and there is an open view not only from end to end of the building, but from floor to ceiling.
   Behind each one of that long series of clean painted doors, opening on to the ground floor, and the galleries above, a man is working out his sentence for a crime. It is a strange sad show which is revealed when that circular iron concealing the peephole is turned, and I look through into some of the cells. Some criminals, intent upon their work, keep steadily sewing, hammering, or mat-making, unconscious that they are observed; others affect to be ignorant of this fact, but betray themselves by a suddenly increased assiduity, while some glance quickly, and with a painfully furtive expression at the peephole, and fall to work again with the knowledge that a human eye, but are ignorant what eye, is noting them. One, at least, is mistaken, and shifts his glance uneasily to the square flap through which he receives his dole of food - in the vague impression that it is dinner-time.
   Still it is not easy for the visitor who has recently left Millbank to associate this place with suffering, or at all events with physical suffering; the general effect is too airy and pleasant to suggest even deep depression. This is not, however, the result of the spotless cleanliness which is everywhere so apparent; for, although this is a pleasant accompaniment to the main building, there is something peculiarly blank and hopeless about the smooth and bare surface of the cell-walls, something terribly unsympathetic [-212-] in the rigid monotony of unbroken order which is stamped upon each small detail of the prison furniture.
   In every cell the prisoner is working at one or other of the trades which are taught both here and at Millbank. In the case of his having undergone a period of confinement at the latter prison, he frequently comes to Pentonville a workman more or less skilled in some handicraft. Weaving cloth and calico for the convict establishments as well as the navy, shoemaking, mat and rug weaving, and tailoring, are the principal occupations; and in every cell the gas is arranged at a height to suit the class of work carried on by the prisoner. In mat making, where it is necessary to force together the fibrous cords of which the body of the mat is composed, the prisoner works with a wooden mallet, sharply shod with iron, and I learn, as I expected to learn, that this has sometimes been used against the warders as a very dangerous weapon. The weavers have, of course, less room to move about in than the others, since their looms occupy a large space; but each cell is light, and of a convenient size. The furniture consists of a copper wash basin and a closet pan, both well supplied with water from a tap which is connected with a cistern above the cell; a table flap against the wall, a stool, and the hammock and bedding, neatly rolled up during the day, and at night slung to the two staples, which, like everything else in the cell, are spotlessly bright and clean. Two or three triangular shelves of deal serve to hold the spoon, platter, tin knife, saltcellar, &c.; and on the table may frequently be seen, beside the Bible, such books as are lent to the prisoners from the library. Entering a cell in the absence of the usual inmate, who is learning to weave, and is now out for [-213-] exercise, I see upon the table, beside a copy-book closely written in short-hand, 'The Divine Authority of the Scriptures,' 'Milner's History of England,' 'Sismondi's Italian Republic,' and 'Selections from the Poets.' It is unnecessary to say that this cell is occupied by a man whose education is above the average, and that even with these alleviations his punishment may be equal to, if not greater than, that of the merely ignorant ruffian. At Pentonville, as at Millbank, the prisoner is known only by his number, all names are at an end; but in each cell hangs a card inscribed with the previous occupation, date of conviction, and term of sentence, of the occupant. Here, as at Newgate, a small handle or button in the wall of the cell communicates with a gong in the corridor, and at the moment that this is struck a metal plate bearing the number of the cell starts out at right angles from the wall outside the door, so that the warder may at once see to what spot he has been summoned.
   At six o'clock in the morning the cells are unlocked, and each prisoner is provided with a tub and the means of sweeping and scrubbing his cell. This effected, the corridors, galleries, and entrances are cleaned by separate detachments, each of which is appointed to a particular duty under the inspection of the officers, who watch them either in the corridors or from the light iron bridges which connect the galleries. The various detachments are called, and this part of their work effected with almost military precision, and after the cleansing of the prison is completed the men are provided with their tools and materials by the trade instructors, and work in their cells till seven, when the bell rings for breakfast, which consists of three-quarters of a pint of cocoa, made with three quarters of an ounce of the pure flake and two [-214-] ounces of milk, and sweetened with six drachms of molasses. From eight to nine o'clock is the hour for chapel, and afterwards the prisoners who are not either in the infirmary or undergoing punishment receive instruction in their cells or go out for exercise in the yards, resuming their work when they have occupied the hour given to each, and all returning to their cells at twelve o'clock. For the last half hour, it being now upon the stroke of twelve, I have been watching that long line of men, clad in the coarse, grayish-brown prison dress, walking rapidly in single file along the narrow strips of pavement which are laid down in concentric rings in the exercising yards. There is no lagging, for they are made to move forward at a brisk pace; and although communications occasionally pass between them even at the distance at which they are separated, it must be difficult for the uninitiated to bestow many confidences on each other. There are four of these airing-grounds; but the men who are under punishment exercise in separate yards - several long-walled and whitewashed alleys radiating from a central building-like a substantial dome-covered summer-house - to the different divisions of the building from which the prisoners are brought The walls of the "summer-house" just mentioned seem to consist of strong doors, each of which is the end of one of the yards, and can overlook it by means of a wire-guarded aperture. It is not there that I am standing, however, but at the very summit of the prison, to which the governor of the establishment has led me by so many spiral staircases that I am not a little giddy. From this height 1 can look down upon the external arrangements of the building, which reminds me of a gigantic toy just put together out of a great chip-deal box; a mechanical toy, however, for I can obtain a birds-eye view of the [-215-] grounds, of the divisions of the yards, of the long brown stream of prisoners moving in circles round the brick paths; the outer walls, where the warders' houses stand like postern towers; and that division where some privileged prisoners, whose good conduct entitles them to the small amount of association labour accorded at Pentonville, are busy with spade and barrow.
   But twelve strikes, and all the men are once more busy in their cells. There is time before dinner to see the storerooms, where great piles of cloth for convict garments, a stock of "liberty clothes" for discharged prisoners, according to their previous position; and a wonderful assortment of calico, canvas, tweed, and boots and shoes of all makes and sizes, occupy the shelves of a series of apartments below the basement, almost exactly resembling the warehouse of some large city firm.
   The most attractive manufacture of Pentonville seems to be ornamental mats and rugs, including hearthrugs. Of these there are an almost endless variety of very superior quality, and many of them of bright colours and handsome patterns. To attend to the storerooms is another privilege of certain prisoners, and the bright look which comes into the faces of the men as the governor orders them to display some of the goods they have in charge speaks volumes in favour of such a relaxation of prison rigour in some cases. The other associations are those of the bakers and the cooks, so, as dinner time is approaching and I am promised a convict repast, I hasten to see how the principal meal of the day will be dispensed, learning on my way that the water for the use of the prison is obtained from an artesian well, and that woe may be confidently expected to betide the contractor who should supply an adulterated article for prison diet.
   [-216-] On the journey to the kitchen it is worth while to turn aside to discover the meaning of the aromatic smell which pervades a portion of the offices abutting on one of the yards. It is here that the cocoa nibs are roasted, ground, and flaked, so that there can be no possibility of any spurious admixture. Scarcely less pleasant is the odour from the batch of bread which is just being drawn from the ovens in the bakery. Of the 560 prisoners in Pentonville Prison it may be doubted whether one ever ate bread so pure as that of which he now receives twenty ounces a day. The quality is that known among bakers as the best seconds, but of flour which undergoes a very rigid examination, and with no adulteration in the process of manufacture. The loaves, which lie in long rows, are small, and of the shape known as "brick."
   Having seen and written something of the bakeries of the metropolis, and the bread made in them, I make some slight examination of one of the loaves, and am led to believe that the prison bread of Pentonville is equal if not superior to that which is ordinarily consumed by middleclass families.
   There is a slight bustle in the kitchen just now, for the 560 dinners will have to be served in some ten or twelve minutes, and the great coppers of soup are bubbling, and the potatoes are steaming over the hot pipes by which all the cooking is effected; while one of the chefs is already busy cutting and weighing the allowance of meat. Here, too, the assistant cooks are mostly military prisoners, and do their work admirably. The dinner at Pentonville is a good, nourishing, substantial meal, and the soup, which is now steaming from the open coppers and making the rather dark underground kitchen still more foggy, is as strong and rich of meat as that usually sold at the best [-217-] eating-houses in London. Crede experto. The potatoes are of the mealiest and the soup the meatiest that I have tasted for some time past, charity dinners included. The dietary orders include beef and mutton on alternate days, and the liquor of yesterday's boiling is made into to-day's soup by the addition of shins or other coarse parts of beef, carrots, onions, and a little seasoning.
   The ordinary rations for dinner are four ounces of cooked meat without bone, half a pint of the soup just mentioned, a pound of potatoes, and five ounces of bread, but here, as at Millbank, a slightly reduced scale of living is about to be tried as an experiment. Men for whom extra diet is ordered have two pounds of potatoes, while of course the men in the infirmary receive whatever is ordered, even wine or spirits, if necessary.
   Several large wooden trays have already been brought forward and filled with round tin cans, each of which contains a partition to divide the meat and potatoes from the soup. When these are filled a wooden flap opens in the floor of the corridor above the kitchen, and they are raised by means of a lifting apparatus, the iron rods of which reach from the bottom to the top of the building. Those rations destined for the lower cells are wheeled along the corridors in trucks, while for the upper series the iron tops of the parallel galleries make a tramway, and the trucks are pushed along the corridor with wonderful ease and despatch. Two officers attend each truck, one of them opens the square flap in the door of each cell, upon which, as it falls inwards and makes a sort of shelf or table, the other deposits the ration, so that the whole of the prisoners are served in an incredibly short space of time.
   The afternoon passes principally in the ordinary work [-218-] of the prison until half-past five, which is the prisoners' supper-time. This meal consists of a pint of gruel, made with an ounce and a half of meal, and sweetened with six drachms of molasses, together with five ounces of bread. The personal cleanliness of the prison is strictly enforced, and a series of baths, enclosed by separate boxes where there is room to dress and undress, occupies a portion of the building. It is no part of my intention to express any very decided opinion on the relative merits or demerits of "our convict system." I visit these prisons to describe, not to discuss; but I may say without prejudice that the health and physical comfort of the British felon is better cared for than that of the ordinary British pauper, and receives far more earnest attention than that of the British soldier or the British sailor.
   The principal distinctions made at Pentonville are between the prisoners who are known to be desperate and dangerous, the unruly criminals sent back from the public ,works to undergo a second probation, those who are working out their first nine months' preparation, and the men who have conducted themselves so well as to be entitled to a badge and to the advantage of association work; but here, as in Millbank, the conclusions arrived at by the commission of inquiry into prison discipline are unfavorable to association during this stage, and complete separate confinement will now be substituted for it. Although corporal punishment is sometimes resorted to, the usual discipline for the worst part of the prisoners is the dark cell and the punishment diet, which consists of only a pound of bread a day and water to drink. This is said to be more effectual than any other method, although many of the old offenders care very little for the "horrors" of the black room, and sleep away the greater part of their [-219-] time there. These cells are similar to those at Millbank, and are placed under the same regulations.
   One of the most common offences is talking in chapel, or otherwise endeavouring to establish communications with another prisoner. It would be idle to suppose that these attempts are always detected; the utmost vigilance is inadequate to prevent it, and it is the consciousness of this difficulty which has induced the Directors of Prisons to abolish the association of the criminals altogether. The chapel, which is a large square building, was formerly fitted with long seats, divided into entirely separate stalls, concealing the prisoners from each other, the officers occupying very elevated desks commanding the whole area of the floor. These were found inadequate to prevent communication, however, since they in reality gave greater opportunities for the prisoners to conceal their faces, and now only ordinary forms are placed along the ground floor, the seats beside the high pulpit being reserved for the governor and deputy governor. The warders occupy raised seats (similar to those of the monitors' desks at schools), which are placed along the walls, so that each officer can overlook about six forms, and it is believed that there is now less talking even under cover of the prayerbook and during the responses. But some of the older prisoners can speak without moving a muscle of the face, and even in the cells various methods of communicating by speaking through the water-pipes, or by the mysterious organization of a code of signals by a given number and variety of taps upon the wall have been from time to time discovered.
   The prisoners are draughted from the chapel by means of a sort of signal-plate which stands in the lobby at the entrance; and is worked in a similar way to the contrivances [-220-] used in offices for showing the date of the month, by shifting a card opposite a hole in the front of the box. This summons each section of the congregation to return to the cells in proper order.
   There is but little time to walk through the clean and airy infirmary, and to visit the violent prisoner who has been placed in the dark, padded cell and subjected to a shower bath, for already fresh arrivals are here from Millbank, and our two ruffians among them. He of the lowering face has already received an indifferent character: he is still moody, sullen, and apparently hopeless. His companion looks round him with a mingled expression of indignation and cunning. He will work well and keep quiet, and will get a badge, and finally reduce his sentence by a ticket-of-leave, but perhaps neither for his own good nor that of the community. They are both standing now with the rest of the prisoners who have come from Millbank handcuffed. The doctor, who has received a certificate of their health, inspects them, presently, asking them a few questions, and is followed by the governor, who speaks to them kindly but firmly of the discipline and regulations of the prison. After a short address from the chaplain, they are marshalled into the rooms where they strip for examination and the bath, a regulation necessary to prevent them from concealing any article of which they may have contrived to possess themselves, and particularly letters, of which they will be allowed to receive one from their friends every three months, subject to good conduct and the inspection of all letters (either sent or received) by the governor and chaplain. The two, whose period of servitude has here reached its second stage, are consigned to separate corridors. One of them (the intractable) is standing with folded arms and clenched hands in the very [-221-] middle of his cell, glaring like some sullen, half-tamed brute who will presently dash itself against the door. The other is seated on his stool, looking on the ground; but he gets up presently and turns carelessly to a printed form which hangs against the wall with the card already mentioned. This is a "Notice to Convicts," explaining how he may receive a visit from his friends after a certain period of good conduct; how he may receive a diet superior to that already described; how he may, by industry and similar good conduct, become entitled to a badge, which will entitle him to certain privileges, the principal of which will at first be his recommendation to the gratuities that are placed to the credit of certain prisoners, and may be increased at each stage until, when he reaches the public works, they will amount to about tenpence a week for the whole time of his subsequent servitude; and how he may, if he persevere in his good endeavours, be placed in such a position on his removal to the public works that the term for which he is sentenced may be shortened one fourth by a ticket of leave. The new prisoner is only disturbed from his contemplation of these advantages by the arrival of his supper, and as the can of gruel is pushed in at the open trap it may be conjectured that he is already looking beyond the probation of Pentonville, and anticipating the outdoor labour of the Isle of Portland, whither I intend to follow him.

[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]