Let’s Go to Gaol: Prison History, Prison Museums, and Why They Matter

Lincoln Entrance
Front view of the Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle

Dan Johnson is a PhD researcher in the Department of History at the University of York. His research focusses on public understandings of British penal history in museums.

Prisons are a major part of society, yet most of society have never seen one. We are taught that if we break the law, we go to jail. Our society depends on law and order, and if you break the law, you could be punished with by spending time in jail or prison. Crime and punishment is featured prominently on television in series such as Orange is the New Black, Prison Break, and Porridge; as well in movies including The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and even Toy Story 3. Crime and punishment have always been popular in literature, the news, and other media outlets as well. Generally speaking, the way that a large portion of society views the prison is through the media. Our views of criminals are often glorified as either the violent criminal, or the mistakenly convicted. Guards are often portrayed as racist, corrupt, cruel, or inept. How did these views come to be? Are these stereotypes used purely for entertainment, or are they rooted in historical fact? How did our society come to view prisons these ways and how did they come to function the way that they do? Through the interpretation of prison history in museums, visitors may find answers to some of these questions.

Prison museums have become popular tourist attractions all over the world in the last few decades. Some of the most popular prison museums in the world are Alcatraz in California, Robben Island in South Africa, and Melbourne Gaol in Australia. These museums, and the hundreds of other prison museums around the world, all attempt to give an historical interpretation of the prison to help visitors to construct a more realistic view of penal history and how prisons work today. In order to form a better understanding of how prisons work today, it is important to understand the history of the prison. Prisons became the main form of punishment in the first half of the nineteenth century. Prior to that, the Bloody Code made over 200 criminal offences punishable by death. Those that were not hanged for their crimes were often transported to North America. Following the American War of Independence, prisoners were transported to Australia from 1788 until 1868. The Bloody Code was repealed with the 1823 Judgement of Death Act that made the death penalty discretionary for all crimes except murder and treason. The loss of the ability to hang or transport convicts to America lead to the necessity to develop a more expansive prison system. A number of prison reform acts from the 1830s-70s saw the development of a two-fold penal system consisting of local prisons and gaols (jails) for minor offences, and national penitentiaries starting with Millbank and Pentonville Prisons. These national penitentiaries were the birth of modern prisons in Britain.

Through the restructuring of the punishment system in the UK, the role of prisons has also changed. Originally, prisons were a place of punishment for prisoners once convicted. Ideas of punishment evolved from physical such as whippings, to mental, such as solitary confinement. Eventually, the role of prisons shifted from places of physical punishment to places of reflection and moral rehabilitation. This shift saw the introduction of the separate and silent systems. Both were forms of solitary confinement where prisoners had little interaction with each other and forced them to reflect on their actions and hopefully they would repent their sins and become rehabilitated. Today, prison is no longer a place where convicts go to receive punishment, but their sentence is their punishment. In order to help prisoners reintegrate, many prisons offer education and various trade courses to help them to have the opportunity of a productive life after incarceration.

Understanding prison history is important for society because it helps people to make sense of the system that we live in today. The average prisoner has never been a murderer, yet that is how we see them on TV and in the news. Prison museums allow visitors to enter historic prisons, see how past prisoners lived, and sometimes see how prisons look and function today. They give people the opportunity to learn about the penal system and why the prison populations, along with stereotypes look the way that they do. In the USA, Eastern State Penitentiary museum brings current prison issues into the public eye, including a new exhibition on mass incarceration. One of the best prison museums in the UK is located at the Victorian Prison in Lincoln Castle. At this museum, visitors step into a day in the life of Victorian prisoners in 1848. The museum explains that most criminals were not murderers or violent criminals, but were the unfortunate by-product of a class system that meant some were very wealthy and others were very poor. Most crime in Victorian rural Lincolnshire were convicted of theft, larceny, poaching, and pickpocketing because they simply needed to feed their families. Another top prison museum, the Nottingham Galleries of justice, houses and displays the HM Prison Service Collection that shows how the prison system has evolved over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Each prison museum shares a unique perspective on the history of criminal justice and provides visitors with a narrative rooted in history that they can compare to their previous assumptions and stereotypes perpetuated by the media and news outlets. Prison museums are special because they have the opportunity to provide visitors with a different view of the largely unknown, yet oddly familiar prison. It’s an opportunity to separate fact from fiction in an institution that is a large and important part of society. How different are prison museums from the popular culture? Visit one and see for yourself.

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