I have been in and out and generally hanging around prisons since the autumn of 1967. This lifelong interest, which many might characterise as morbid, or at least odd, began with the chance of a student placement. Mixing academic course with real-world experience, the then new University of Bath offered four-year degree courses with a ‘sandwich’ format. I was greatly attracted by the mix. Supervised internships were provided for one of the four years. Placements were available in public administration, industry, or commerce.
An only partly informed decision had far-reaching consequences. Experience of the penal sector - especially Leyhill Prison (Gloucestershire) – totally captured my interest, unleashed an abundance of questions and became a career cornerstone. During the half century and more since that placement I have been engaged in research, writing and debates on the problems of crime and punishment – and of course teaching about all this.
Moving from Bath to the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, I joined a company of three or four doctoral students. My research was completed under the direction of Dr Roger Hood and the general supervision (and intermittent intervention) of Professor Sir Leon Radzinowicz. Bureaucracy was minimal and the reins were always loose, which suited me. The prevailing Cambridge notion was that since you had asserted a claim to be able to deliver a doctoral dissertation then you had better go away and get on with it.
A lectureship at the innovative and somewhat experimental University of Sussex followed. Having settled in, I started work on what would become a multi-volume history of punishment. Then, I had little notion of the many years it would take, or the unremitting and sometimes fierce commitment that would be necessary. The first book, A History of English Prison Administration 1750-1877, was published in 1981.
In 1975 I was appointed to the Board of Visitors at Lewes Prison (just a few miles from Sussex University). This unpaid position entailed systematic inspections of the prison, interviews with inmates and staff, board deliberations, adjudications on disciplinary offences and the compilation of reports. Boards of Visitors were, notionally at least, the eyes and ears of the community in a hidden section of public administration. Another career decision had unwittingly been taken. Regular engagement and a formidable responsibility to ensure custodial accountability concentrated one’s mind. It was also a new and constantly unfolding education, and reinforced the human dimension and humane quest in my research and teaching.
House of Commons
The mix of practical and academic experience attracted the attention of the secretariat which supported the various committees of the House of Commons. In 1977 I became a special advisor to a sub-committee of the Expenditure Committee (later to morph into the Home Affairs Committee). It was then investigating the acute pressures on prisons. My task was to provide research support for Members' interests and concerns – and where appropriate to challenge them. I also drafted various Committee reports – some of which were lengthy and complex. I soon found it was not enough to keep a grip on the verbal evidence, written submissions and relevant research. With only modest psychic talents, I had somehow to divine and represent the drift of Members’ views: there were very few explicit directions.
Accompanying MPs on their various visits to male, female and juvenile institutions around Britain, holding discussions with staff and inmates, provided some shocks and enduring memories. Many of the prisons were in a truly scandalous state – especially the local prisons which held remands (pre-trial, some pre-sentence) and short-sentence prisoners. Conditions frequently dipped into sordidness and perilousness. Notionally serving criminal justice, these dilapidated and crumbling facilities, crowded and disgustingly unsanitary cells - and backed-up drains – were soaked with injustice and permeated with arbitrary hardship. This was punishment by haphazard neglect.
The problems were glaring but had been left to fester. By and large public sentiment was indifferent, sometimes vindictive. Decency apart, there was an unwillingness to consider the consequences. With scarcely any exceptions these men, women and young people were going to walk the streets again. Just to get by many had acquired or further refined toxic coping skills and became more hardened in crime and with fewer social or moral restraints. In terms of public safety this made no sense at all. But, with constant competition for public funds, who in political life was going to put prisons anywhere but at the back of the queue? Little has changed since then.
Prison Staff College
Other work during these years included the Council of Europe, and a spell as the Deputy Editor of the British Journal of Criminology. I also joined a policy committee of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO), took part in BBC radio and television programmes, and was appointed to a Visiting Lectureship at the Prison Staff College, Wakefield. The Wakefield course was for trainee governors and my nine years in the position gave me professional contacts in prisons throughout the UK.
Baltimore and Washington DC
In the autumn of 1982, Sussex University granted a year’s leave to take up a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. With thousands of city and county jails, several hundred state prisons, elaborate probation and parole systems, as well as a complicated array of federal jurisdictions, the United States was (and remains) a vast laboratory for research into penal policy and practice. Institutional diversity, federalism and the American mindset encourage experiment and innovation. On John Hopkins’ doorstep there were the very considerable criminal justice problems of Baltimore and Washington DC.
My Hopkins’ fellowship was extended for a second year. During that time the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the District of Columbia, and other agencies provided funding for a review of the penal policies of the District and the state of its prisons. The Brookings Institution and the National Institute of Corrections offered bases and collegial support in DC. The work – document-centred, but also drawing on numerous interviews and many visits of inspection - was conducted in 1983-4.
My findings and proposals (published early in 1986) unexpectedly stirred local political ire. Although many positive and practical solutions were set out to address the system’s problems, DC’s mayor, Marion Barry, was affronted by what he took to be criticisms of his administration’s stewardship of the prisons. The document was covered at length by the Washington Post, which successively ran several prominent pieces. The German Marshall Fund stood by the integrity of my investigation. The episode confirmed how very difficult it can be for politicians – even those with a civil rights background such as Barry’s - to handle criminal and penal policy issues. I found this repeatedly during my career.
My family and I decided to stay in the US a while longer and in the autumn of 1984 I joined the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Several fruitful and enjoyable years followed, with teaching at undergraduate and graduate levels. The students were as mixed as might be imagined for a college located in the heart of Chicago: they were challenging, curious and rewarding – and some were courageously starting from a long way back. Many were paying their way through college, working part-time, and where possible I scheduled classes and sessions in the early morning to keep their afternoons and evenings free.
Around this time - possibly because of the DC report - litigators and administrators began to contact me about prison cases. This initiated several years' involvement in litigation in California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Toronto. The work was as varied as the issues, but generally entailed interviews with staff and inmates and sometimes lengthy and repeated inspections of premises and facilities as well as evaluations of regimes.
Court appearances often followed the gathering of evidence. Quite properly my findings were subject to minute examination and cross examination by counsel. These sessions could be gruelling – intellectual workouts requiring sustained concentration and a sharp memory, as well as physical stamina and emotional robustness. Several cases were settled by advice to administrations and agreements between the parties.
Over several years the concerns of prisoners and staff noticeably shifted from basic welfare issues such as prison medical services, food, work opportunities, education, recreation and physical conditions, to life and death matters such as gang domination, extortion and violence and the inability of some prisons to provide safe custody. By way of contrast, two particularly interesting cases (Michigan and California) involved conflicts between security procedures and First Amendment religious rights.
Islamic Criminal Law
Such a pace and volume of work on top of the usual university duties of teaching and writing meant that long-term research and publishing plans were sometimes given lower priority. And there were other distractions. Teaching a graduate course on comparative law and legal systems threw up the need for an accessible text on Islamic criminal law. Close collaboration with my colleague Dr Matthew Lippman as well as with Mordechai Yerushalmi (an exceptionally able graduate student) led to our joint publication, Islamic Criminal Law and Procedure: An Introduction.
Another siren voice – only occasional, but always irresistible – was broadcasting for Chicago’s Public Radio, WBEZ. This arose from the publicity for Islamic Criminal Law and Procedure. Discussing the book on air, a phone-in contributor attacked not the authors’ competence, but their entitlement to write about the topic. The response was polite but definitely robust. The station and its listeners evidently liked the lively tone and over the next few years there were several invitations to be a stand-in host for WBEZ’s lunchtime programme of news and discussions. This was a wonderful opportunity to interview well-known public figures and authors of noteworthy books. I was never able wholly to suppress a smidgeon of terror when the red studio light came on. Several thousand people were tuning in, and my vapidity was just as likely to be on display as was such small stock of erudition and wit I possessed.
‘Next only to death… ‘
Were I to progress with my plans for a history of punishment the pace of research and writing had to be stepped up very considerably – that much was clear amidst Chicago’s enticements and pressures. A very welcome award from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation allowed me to return full time to the project – at first in Chicago and then at Oxford’s Centre for Criminological Research. The first book from this renewed effort, English Local Prisons 1860-1900: Next Only to Death, was published in 1995.
In the Victorian decades the vast bulk of those who went to the local prisons (gaols/jails) run by the counties and some cities had committed offences at the lower end of the scale of gravity. They ranged from vagrancy, begging, public drunkenness and disorder to prostitution, fighting, assaults, trespassing on the railway, minor thefts, to deception and fraud. Sentences were short – usually denoted in weeks and months, but sometimes just days. The gaols also held those awaiting trial or pending the infliction of a corporal or capital sentence. Warders administered floggings and birchings and the principal county and city gaols with some regularity carried out executions.
Versions of active punishment – going beyond the deprivation of liberty - had been implemented according to a variety of local formulas for several decades, but from 1865 all gaol regimes were prescribed by law and minutely regulated. Pursuing deterrence and uniformity across multiple jurisdictions, and to fend off the desperate who sought the cold comforts of the gaol as an escape from complete destitution, the authorities sought to calculate and to inflict as much physical discomfort and sensory deprivation as the prisoners could endure. The borderland between discomfort and pain was constantly probed, as were the extremities of physical and psychological survival. Devices such as the treadwheel and the crank were refined, and the hours, nature and pace of hard labour followed an iron track. Sleep was restricted and rendered as uncomfortable and shallow as possible. Food was apportioned and prepared so as to keep body and soul together, without imparting flavour or the slightest enjoyment. All of this was epitomised in the formula ‘Hard labour, hard fare and hard board’.
This approach seems grotesque to most modern observers (though likely not to all) and the book explored the pathways which brought reasonable and educated men and women of the time to the belief that medically pondered, and carefully calibrated harshness could deliver crime reduction. Engrossing to research and write, it could have been larger still without losing interest and certainly without running out of original material.
I have always tried to keep abreast of current and practical criminal issues as well as the academic agenda. A conference on prison architecture was one such opportunity. An overly defensive Home Office architects’ department sparked my curiosity. Great good chance introduced me to Leslie Fairweather, a leading figure in British architecture, who had for many years studied British and European prison architecture. We published a little book in the late 1970s and then in 2000 expanded and updated this material in the more substantial Prison Architecture. The book is still in print, but it needs a new edition and Leslie, to my great sadness, has since passed away.
In court – again and again…
In 1997 I became a justice of the peace, assigned first to Thames Magistrates’ Court - one of the oldest in the country. The volume of cases was high, and magistrates were all expected to commit to at least twenty-five days of sittings per year. The work was enormously varied and from my first to my last sitting, was richly instructive. I sat only in the adult court and a session could well include applications for liquor licences, a breach of market regulations or the whole span of criminal offences, from disorderly behaviour to murder. In the more serious cases an order was made as to what was sent to the Crown Court. But in England and Wales the great majority of criminal cases were (and are) heard through to acquittal or conviction by magistrates’ courts. Family and juvenile proceedings are handled by separate divisions and specially trained magistrates. In the many hundreds of proceedings in which I played a part justice was sought with integrity and fairness. Inevitably, there were some decisions which with hindsight might have been better made.
In the mid nineties I was able to move to the next section of the penal history project. The direction seemed obvious – at least initially. I had been intrigued by a conundrum which much vexed Victorian policymakers. They operated within a rigid moral and social code and accepted that an irreparable taint accompanied any conviction or penalty. Character and place in respectable society were damaged, perhaps totally lost, and that was part of the penalty. Stigmatisation and exclusion became more reflexive as the country’s expanding wealth and a plethora of reform movements repaired and strengthened the social fabric and brought the working classes into the possibilities and responsibilities of position, security and respect. Prison populations followed crime statistics downwards. Those who made their way into the criminal justice system were even more likely to be marked as outcasts – a stubborn residue.
But what when an offence was committed for moral reasons rather than against the moral code? A great cast of characters fell into this anomalous category. There were clergy who, gripped with enthusiasm for the Anglo-Catholic revival of the Oxford Movement, were convicted under the Public Worship Act. Ordained and of impeccable character, convicted of a conscionable offence rather than one of personal gain or moral turpitude, were they to be degraded in the same way as the thief who toiled uselessly on the treadwheel? The same applied to W.T. Stead, campaigning editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who ran an exposé on London’s vile and horrific trade in virgin girls. He was convicted of abducting a girl from the depraved mother who offered her for sale. Stead’s reward was a two-month prison sentence instead of the public commendation that the Anglican hierarchy and much of English motherhood thought he deserved.
There were many more such instances – not a vast number, but enough to constitute a persistent problem, apt to erupt without warning, raising a Parliamentary squall here and moral cannonade there. Running across several decades of controversies there were the deeds of Irish revolutionists. Without question they broke the law, sometimes violently, recklessly and wickedly. But as the courts were informed, they had previously been of good character; some were even gentlemen. Through the mysterious workings of national sentiment they touched the hearts of their countrymen and women. It became intolerable to them that these activists, however misguided, should be forced for years into penal degradation alongside robbers, rapists and blackmailers. A hundred and fifty years of agitation and campaigning was built on such deep unease, ending only (but not completely) with the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. I thought I could encompass these legal and political conflicts in two or three chapters in a book dealing with several other groups of religiously, morally and politically motivated offenders.
My folly became manifest as soon as the research and writing got under way. An anticipated commitment of perhaps half a year turned into some twenty-five years of continuous research and writing. The notional three chapters turned into three books and around a million and a half words.
The Leverhulme Trust was the principal funder of the first of the three Irish books. The narrative opens with the pallid, tentative and generally well-mannered 1848 rebellion of the Young Irelanders. I travelled with them to Tasmania and Western Australia, following their paths though the transportation systems.
That book, Irish Political Prisoners 1848-1922 (2003), traced a path though the Young Ireland, Fenian and Dynamitard campaigns to the parliamentary torpor, frustration and turmoil that culminated in the 1916 Rising and the Anglo-Irish War that followed. The book concluded with the formation of Northern Ireland in 1921 and of the Irish Free State in 1922.
The next book, Irish Political Prisoners 1920-1962: Pilgrimage of Desolation (2014) had been intended to see the tale to its 1998 conclusion, but once more the material dictated otherwise: no-one could close the lid of such a suitcase. Funded by a variety of agencies, including British and Irish government departments, this second volume opened with the Irish Civil War, during which comrades became bitterest of enemies and former prisoners became gaolers. The state of Northern Ireland, founded by agreement between the forces of Republicanism, Unionism and British ministers, created yet another dynamic.
The Unionist and Protestant population were adamant in their determination to remain a part of the United Kingdom; nationalists and republicans were just as determined to have a united Ireland. Irreconcilable republicans were determined to bring down both states – North and South - and campaigned in the three jurisdictions with various degrees of force from the end of the Irish Civil War until the early 1960s. They entered prisons in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain in appreciable numbers, frequently serving long and hard sentences for very serious offences. This was the last hurrah of romantic Irish nationalism and republicanism.
Again, my optimism was checked by reality. I had hoped that the modern conflict could have formed part of this book and that I could tell the tale all the way through to the end. But as the research material unfolded and its volume became evident, I had to face what I had probably sensed all along. There was a marked discontinuity between the sporadically violent republicanism of the forty or so years that followed the foundation of the two states on the island of Ireland and the modern Northern Ireland conflict, known as the ‘Troubles’. Ethnicity, religion, widespread discontent, failures of government and justified social grievances all too easily blended and fuelled violence of a quality and volume beyond any previously experienced. Vast numbers of people – mainly young men, but some young women – passed into the prisons. Protests were organised behind the walls and wires that attracted worldwide attention and further stimulated violence.
Supported again by the Leverhulme Trust I was able to conduct further extensive research in the three jurisdictions (as well as the United States). Many who had participated in the conflict or who had been affected by it were willing to speak about their experiences. The work was complicated and conducted amidst still burning resentments and suspicions. Without able and committed fact gatherers and checkers I would have made slow progress indeed. The integrity and perceived even-handedness of the earlier volumes now opened many doors. I was able to publish Irish Political Prisoners 1960 – 2000: Braiding Rage and Sorrow in the spring of 2021. It was a daunting and some ways a haunting book to write.
The Peace Process
The political prisoners project inevitably involved attempts to understand the context of conflict, the bitterness of community relations and the elusiveness of a political settlement of national and constitutional issues. All of these were touched on in the research and books, but the focus was imprisonment and the issues that arose from it. When an opportunity arose to consider the difficult and seemingly impossible business of seeking peace and encouraging reconciliation, I was happy to take it up. It was my view that peace was sought and found not only in the corridors and offices of professional politicians, but had to be sought in every section and level of society where people sought to live alongside each other. Together with my colleague Anna Bryson I put these thoughts together in a proposal and secured EU funding.
The project was not limited to the academic, and combined teaching and participation as well as data gathering. We interviewed people from all sections of society in Northern Ireland, private citizens as well as public figures. Alongside this we ran training sessions, imparting interviewing skills and supporting some local projects that examined cross-community relations, positive and negative. Anna Bryson, my coinvestigator, directed much of the day-to-day running of this interesting and inventive project and we were supported by a small number of staff. The project was completed late in 2014 and I hope now to find time to draw some of our principal research themes together in a short book. There were heart-breaking accounts of events and problems but there were also stories full of hope – all deserve a wider readership.
Besides the peace process material there are other collections that are now nagging at my conscience and demanding to be let out of the filing cabinets and computers. How many and how much I can handle at this stage in my career, I shall have to see. There is, I know, the ever more discernible shape of a final book for the history of punishment series. This would bring the project so blithely embarked upon fifty years ago to a symmetrical conclusion, examining punishment in England in the twentieth century. The canvas would need to be stretched to take in non-judicial punishments and institutions beyond the prison.
Aside from the production of books I am aware that many controversial matters in criminal policy and administration have played themselves out while I have sat at the writer’s desk or struggled to find paths through library stacks and archives. There may be some public debates in which I now have the time to take a hand. History offers many lessons, though most of us are indifferent pupils. Perhaps there will be constructive ways to remedy this.