Pentonville hadn’t looked like a prison from the outside. For a start it wasn’t directly marooned amidst misty heathland as most of its institutional brethren are wont to be, even in London, but uncomfortably slotted slap between the busily buslaned Caledonian Road and a tight grid of Victorian terraces. And there’d been graffiti on the almost decorative white wall out front, which along with a note in the car park disclaiming responsibility for loss or damage to vehicles left there hardly suggested the slavish fixation with security that I’d idly imagined to be a prison’s defining characteristic. Gazing up at the main building’s stuccoed arches and pediments I was reminded of a Victorian seat of learning or provincial railway terminus. But then Pentonville was different, a Model Prison, the first in Britain whose intention was to reform its inmates.
Erected in 1842, Pentonville was a bold departure from the capital’s usual filthy, raucous dungeons. For the first time prisoners were to be kept in single cells, each with a hand basin and lavatory. The cells were arranged in wings that fanned out like spokes from a central hub, within which a handful of officers could effectively monitor hundreds of inmates. It was clean and light. Within years, Pentonville was the blueprint for new prisons from Germany to Australia and the USA.
But this was 1842, remember, the rehabilitation regime was never going to involve the construction of matchstick cathedrals or correspondence courses in O-level Spanish. Prisoners were kept in solitary cells for twenty-three hours a day, with meals pushed through hatches. Most cells were fitted with a crank that pushed paddles through sand, a hard-labour device invented at Pentonville that produced nothing more useful that fatigued agony. A large bell announced the start and end of labour – all speech was forbidden, and officers even wore special overshoes to maintain the tomb-like silence intended to force inmates to reflect upon the error in their ways. It was soul-destroying, and it was supposed to be. Let out for their hour of fresh air, prisoners were escorted individually around by officers and had to wear slitted, visored hoods that prevented them from seeing the face of any official or fellow inmate. In chapel they were herded into solitary boxes like veal-calf stalls. All they’d have seen during a typical eighteen-month sentence were their feet; all they’d have heard was that bell and their own breathing….
Britain still loves imprisoning its citizens. Almost 75,000 of us are inside – more, as a proportion of national population, than an EU country except Portugal (and you thought their only crime was Mateus Rose). We’re 50 per cent up on France, and a third ahead of Italy. Even Turkey and China can’t match us. You can consider this a shocking blight, or as carrying on a proud tradition. At Pentonville they are of the latter school of thought.