The Prison System In the Victorian Age

The Definition of Prison:

The dictionary definition of prison is as follows. "A building for confinement of persons sentenced or awaiting trial for crime; a place of captivity". However, this is not necessarily true. In times as close as the 19th century, people were sent to workhouses just because they were orphans. Even today, the mentally ill are sent to a kind of prison against their will. A better definition for prison would be "A place of confinement for persons labeled as unfit to live in normal society."

The Poor Law of 1601

The Poor Law of 1601 in England, assigned responsibility for the poor to parishes (local civil government). These parishes built workhouses to employ the poor on a profitable basis. This turned out to be a difficult thing to accomplish and during the 18th century workhouses degenerated into mixed receptacles (places to store things), where every type of person was dumped. Orphans would also be put into workhouses if orphanages were full or simply non-existent. Some of the more famous workhouses are Bridwell in Britain and Maison de Force in Belgium.

The Poor Law Amendement of 1834,, standardized the system of poor relief throughout Britain. Groups of parishes combined into unions, which became resposible for the workhouses. This law provided that no relief could be given to the able-bodied in their own homes and that all who wanted to receive aid had to live in the workhouses. Conditions in these workhouses were very harsh and degrading in order to discourage the poor from relying on parish relief. These conditions improved in the later 19th century and by the first half of the 20th century social-welfare services and the social-security system replaced workhouses altogether.

Prison in the 1850's

Different countries imprisoned debtors, delinquent juveniles, minor misdeneanants and felons. Jails were mostly dark, overcrowded and filthy. All types of prisoners were herded together with no separation of men and women, the young and the old, the convicted and the unconvicted, or the sane and the insane. The poor conditions were descriped in detail by Charles Dickens, in his book "Great Expectations". The description is from his own experience in debtors prison as a child.

Debtors Prison

Debtors prison was a place where they took people who couldn't pay their taxes, rent or debts. These places were commonly workhouses where they would make potato sacks, baskets and other mass-produced items. These are very similar to the ones in the Charles Dickens novel "Oliver Twist". A debtor's prison could also be a small jailhouse resembling a small house or shed. This would be a place for debtors and their families to stay in for a short sentence. Normally, if a debtor had family, then they would accompany him in prison.

Prison Reform in the 1860's

In the early 1860's prisons were reformed. In some prisons the cooking was excellent, far better than in most ordinary inns. It seemed that the convicts were not just well fed, but fed as well or even better than some non-criminal Londoners. Food is not the only area where English convicts seemed to far better than non-convicts. The convicts got exercise, had regular habits, sufficient feeding, were healthier than the average population and didn't have to worry about keeping a job. Once a week, every man had an excellent bath. The bedding was good, the whole building was warm and every corner was thoroughly ventilated. It provided schooling for the criminals. They were also allowed to borrow books from an excellent library in the prison. It seemed more advantageous for an Englishman to commit a crime, thereby be convicted to prison, where he could obtain better food, baths and good warm lodging, than if he were struggling on the streets of London.


The idea of imprisonment as a form of punishment for crimes is relatively new. Until the late 18th century the most common forms of punishment were execution and exile(banishment from one's country, prisons were used as debtors prisons. They imprisoned debtors who could not pay off their creditors, along with the rest of their family. The prisons also held people waiting to be tried and the convicted awaiting their sentences (death or transportation) to be put into effect.

If you are interested in learning more about the Victorian Era, I suggest you visit the Victorian Web

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