VICTORIAN PRISON LIVES: English Prison Biography, 1830-1914 by Philip Priestley

VICTORIAN PRISON LIVES: English Prison Biography, 1830-1914

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A case history of English prison life between 1830 and 1914, based upon the writings and diaries of over 200 prisoners and prison workers of that era. The author, an English writer with a strong background in prison work as a probation officer and a prison welfare officer, gives us a guided tour of the horrors of England's Victorian prisons. Each chapter takes the reader on one segment of the journey from admission to release. In the time that Victoria was Queen of England (some 64 years), fully fifteen million Englishmen and Welshmen made this same journey (counting repeaters, of course). Priestley breaks these down into, roughly, five classes of prisoners: pickpockets, frauds, gentlemen, the celebrated, and women (sub-classed into women and women with babies). All of these received varying degrees of horrific treatment, not the least of which was an inhuman insistence upon total silence for days and weeks at a time. Prisoners, allowed to attend church services on Sundays, would be so starved for conversation that church hymns would provide the occasion for an exchange of a few lines of chatter from one prisoner to another. The longer the hymn, the longer the conversation. This silence was meant in a moralistic way to provide seclusion in which prisoners could think upon their misdeeds and repent. But, as evidenced by some of the writings, it more than likely rendered them dull and morose, not in the least bit introspective. Priestley's approach will be of interest to the specialist in the subject, and to historians of prison life who might wish to compare American prisons with England's. For others, a dry and plodding commentary.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Methuen