Book Review: Prison: Five Hundred Years Of Life Behind Bars

Prison:  Five Hundred Years Of Life Behind Bars, by Edward Marston

For the most part, this book was a serviceable (if somewhat biased) book about the history of British prisons.  The book itself seemed to think that the reader would have a great deal of sympathy for imprisoned radicals and would have a burning hostility against capital punishment, but neither of those is true for me, and so this book was not quite the tour de force for me that it evidently tries to be, capitalizing on moral outrage against the coercive power of the state being used against those who quite plainly and openly are enemies of the state.  Even those of us who harbor ambivalent to hostile feelings about the state such as myself should at least be sensible enough to recognize that the people in institutions that grant them power and legitimacy are going to use every means fear and foul to protect that power.  One doesn’t have to like it, but should at least realize it, and this author seems to believe that the use of the coercive power of restraint on those who have shown themselves enemies of the state either through criminal or political means is inherently illegitimate and unjust, thus limiting (or even prohibiting) the means by which societies can protect themselves from the enemies within.

This book is organized into eight chapters, with a preface and then an introduction that talks about life behind bars.  After that the author spends an entire chapter talking about the great jails of London (1) as well as the terrible state of 18th century prisons that were frequently connected to efforts to transport prisoners to the American colonies (2).  AFter that the author looks at how the Revolutionary War brought with it the spread of rat-infested prison hulks that killed a great many of those imprisoned within (3) and how the Victorian period brought with it one of those periodic calls for prison reform (4).  The author spends a great deal of time (much of this was missing in my own book, which had lots of blank pages in this chapter) talking about a particular female prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry (5) before talking about the way that suffragettes were frequently imprisoned in the early 20th century (6).  Finally, the author talks about conscientious objectors imprisoned in the two world wars (7) as well as the last executions before the end of capital punishment in Great Britain (8), before closing with a conclusion and a note on sources that brings the book to slightly more than 200 pages.

The issue of England and the United Kingdom making such a big deal about life behind bars has had a variety of consequences.  For one, from before independence the American colonies (and later the independent United States) were embedded in a system that viewed imprisonment as an essential means for social control as well as a way of providing rentier income for political and economic elites.  For another, the author has an apparent hostility towards those who are involved in being employed in prisons, viewing with a certain London snobbery the fact that it was families of Northern England descent that tended to create dynasties of prison workers and executioners, as if the fact that they were Northern English as opposed to Greater Londoners that made capital punishment illegitimate, or even contributed to its illegitimacy.  Also, the author seems somehow incensed that political prisoners came to be housed with the obviously dangerous and often insane criminal class, facing all of the horrors of that contamination, which would indicate that in a more just society that the author might fear finding himself facing imprisonment himself, and not very happy about what that might mean for himself and others of his ilk.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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