Terrible Prison Practices from the 19th Century

The idea of being imprisoned doesn’t sit well with many people and there are plenty of reasons why it shouldn’t. Apart from being confined to one location for the entirety of your sentence, it’s not like you’re staying at a resort. As bad as they may seem now, our prisons are a luxury when compared to those from the 19th century and they too faced their own set of problems. Here’s a list of the worst prison practices from that era. 

1. Sanitation

Despite numerous efforts to keep healthy during the Victorian era, towns and cities were growing too fast to keep an already cramped London clean. In addition to their sanitation problem, law enforcement was trying to figure out a way to keep their criminal population in check. The result was tight living quarters with no garbage or waste disposal and no clean water. Additionally, typhus was making its way around the city. By the turn of the century, there were some improvements, but prisoners were still kept in small cells with little ventilation that often came from waste pipes. 

2. Overcrowding

The main reasons why sanitation became such an issue was because of overcrowding. England tried to solve this problem by sending inmates off to colonies but by the 1830s, countries like Australia refused to accept more criminals. Over the next thirty years, more than fifty new prisons were built while many more were expanded, but it did not do much to help with the problem. When the newer prisons were filled, decommissioned warships, called hulks were renovated to hold them. 

3. Hulks

As described in the previous entry, hulks were large ships that were converted into prisons when those on land were too crowded to house any more. What was meant to just be a temporary fix became a solution when they became traveling work camps. Prisoners were kept in communal decks where they were free to do as they pleased. As years passed, they were taught how to read and write and were given three meals a day, but life was extremely hard for these prisoners. During the day, they were forced ashore to do anything from unloading ships and dredging canals all while wearing shackles. 

4. Debtor’s Prison 

Debtors’ prisons were created for people who could not repay the people or institutions they owed, and they were feared by both the poor and the wealthy. They were for-profit businesses where debtors were given food and housing and were forced to work off the debt they’d accumulated. Once they were out, they’d have to pay off the jailers’ fees from their time in the prison. As mentioned earlier, no one was immune. It wasn’t strange to see entire families including children working hard to pay off their debts. 

5. The Treadmill 

The treadmill is a great device for those who want to get in shape, but did you know that some prisons used the running machine as a form of punishment for their inmates. For 6 to 8 hours a day, prisoners would alternate climbing for two minutes then swap with their assigned partner. Oscar Wilde nearly died from this insane practice and while he was lucky, many were not and we’re not sure if it was because of the physical demand or because of how monotonous it was.



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