Our Criminal Past

Canterbury Prison: Making sense of its past and imaging its future (Part II)

Property developers have purchased most of the eleven former prisons closed in 2013 and so the acquisition of the former HMP Canterbury by Canterbury Christ Church University bucks the general trend.

Cell Block B Interior

Photograph of the inside of Cell Block B showing the suicide mesh installed to reduce harm to any prisoners jumping from high prison landings

Exact plans for redevelopment at these sites are yet to be finalised and, given the constraints of listed status, the feasibility of producing luxury flats is somewhat in question. Ingenuity will certainly be necessary to “bring these buildings back to viable and beneficial use” and the implications of this substantial redevelopment for the history of these sites in uncertain. Plans for Dorchester prison include a museum housed in the gatehouse, which may become a common feature given the architectural significance and spatial constraints of these imposing entrances. The University, too, intends to include a heritage centre, part of which will focus on the site’s penal past. At an event organised to discuss Canterbury’s prison heritage last year, Professor Alyson Brown spoke of the need to produce ethical and multi-perspective interpretations of penal history. The challenges of representing the problematic histories of former prisons is unlikely to be high on the agenda for developers, however, and this second instalment of a two part blog explores this using some examples from preliminary research on Canterbury’s former prisoners.

Prison museums so often tell a story of progress, in contrast to many other dark tourist sites which raise questions about late-modernity and its progressive nature (Lennon and Foley, 2000: 11)). The harshness of historic prison regimes are emphasised, along with the pettiness of many of the offences, through a focus on the distant past; allowing visitors to leave with a comfortable feeling that it is all so much better now. Such representations ignore the remarkable and uncomfortable continuity of suffering, which ceased in Canterbury only during the temporary closure of the prison between 1922 and 1942, and when its doors finally slammed shut in 2013. Although it is important to remember that confinement continued elsewhere. Most of Canterbury’s prisoners were transferred to Kent’s other Victorian relic ­– HMP Maidstone. Since this transition there have been three deaths and an increase in the use of force and segregation, with the most recent inspection of the prison resulting in a “disappointing report”.

The dangers of sensationalism, evident in a number of representations of penal history, are reduced somewhat for Canterbury since it was a fairly ordinary prison. There are, for example, few “celebrity” inmates (Wilson, 2008). The Krays possibly spent a couple of nights here before their gangster days but most of the inmates would have been the petty but persistent offenders that have always made up a vast proportion of the prison stock. Additionally no executions were carried out at the prison although there will, of course, have been the routine and repeated suffering associated with the pains of imprisonment and a fair share of the most overt manifestations of this: violence, self-harm and suicide. These walls have contained death, though, from the poor plight of seven month old Henry Johncock, who died in 1884 whilst imprisoned with his mother who was, ironically, serving a sentence for child neglect (Whitstable Times, 21 June 1884), to the last known suicide of a 37 year old Indian man, unnamed in the report on his death, in 2007.

If we take suicide, just one of the troubling aspects of imprisonment, it becomes clear that there are many areas of continuity throughout the prison’s operation. How many such deaths occurred before they were subject to regular public scrutiny is unknown but many examples can be found in newspapers. There was William Mabb, a 30 year old charged with Petty Larceny who was found to be insane and detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Delays in organising his removal to an asylum led to his continued incarceration at Canterbury, where he was found dead in November 1863, having suffocated himself with his own shirt (Kentish Chronicle, 21 November 1863). In 1900 James Spilling, a father of six from Deal sentenced to 21 days for begging, strangled himself with the oakum he was given to pick as hard labour on the first night of his incarceration (Whitstable Times, 21 July 1900). These two examples highlight issues which continue to be of concern for their contribution to prison suicides: the treatment of those with mental health problems and the support of prisoners in the early stages of their sentence.

In the more recent past figures become clearer. Nineteen inmates committed suicide in Canterbury prison between 1978 and 2013. The youngest was 18 and all but one were under 40. Many of them were unconvicted prisoners awaiting trial, some of whom may have been found not guilty. The 1980s in particular was a period when concerns about suicides within the prison were high, leading the charity Inquest to call for an inquiry (The Times, 22 April 1983). Little changed, however, and in 1989, already demoralised and exhausted from overcrowding in the prison, staff dealt with the self-inflicted deaths of two young prisoners in the space of one week. The effects of these events touched not only inmates and their families but also those prison officers who found the bodies, tried to revive them and undoubtedly questioned afterwards whether these deaths could have been prevented. These are stories it must be difficult for staff to relay to those outside the service and yet they form an important element in the narratives which combine to make up the history of the institution.

And then there are the stories of the victims whose own suffering lay behind the incarceration of so many. Sarah Pritchard, the wife of Charles, who was assaulted by him in 1899 and was then left a widowed mother of six after he hanged himself whilst undergoing his sentence (Whitstable Times, 29 Jan 1899). Or Mary Ann Fiefield (who died in London in 1887 following an assault by her blind husband John, who was possibly also suffering from dementia. Or Harold Sims, himself an offender, who was assaulted by his cell mate in 1958, leading the judge to highlight the dangers of confining three men to a cell built for one (The Times, 2 Dec 1958). Again the list of victims could go on and there is much continuity to the narratives over time. The repeated and complicated nature of victimisation in domestic violence cases, the failure of social care for the elderly, and the problem of prison violence and the role of living conditions, particularly overcrowding, in contributing to this. The recent death of an inmate following a stabbing at HMP Pentonville, with suggestions of “brutal and squalid conditions” in a prison system which is “in a very dark place”, highlights the degree to which we cannot assume that such issues are a thing of the past.

A cell in Canterbury prison like the one Harold Sims was confined in which measured 13ft 6in. by 7ft 6in.

Cell interior

These little snippets fall a long way short of doing justice to the lived experiences of those involved, which require more detailed research and the creation of sensitive, complex and intertwined narratives. However, they do indicate the necessity for representations of penal history that incorporate multiple perspectives, and the challenges involved in producing these. They are difficult stories to tell because they involve the darkest sides of life: victimisation, the desire for retribution, the problematic question of state power, and the damaging nature of our penal institutions. But, perhaps most difficult, they highlight the flawed nature of both humanity and society.

Not all that is good in humanity withers in prison, although Oscar Wilde’s famous prison poem reminds us that it can often seem so for those who are incarcerated (). It is, however, important to incorporate the more benevolent aspects of human experience within our representations as well. In part they are reminders that those whom society imprison are not inherently bad. They share experiences of laughter as well as despair, engage in acts of kindness, show generosity and provide support. Reverend Cathy Hitchens, chaplain at Canterbury for ten years, described it as “the happiest prison I’ve ever worked in” and spoke warmly of the “mutual tolerance and respect between staff and prisoners”. Prison staff too, often acutely aware of the impact of confinement on inmates, were involved in both day-to-day and more strategic initiatives to offer support. The work on suicide prevention and violence reduction which Iain Clover spoke of at the event last year is a clear example of this, as was the Short Term Prisoner Project which attempted to respond to the resettlement needs of inmates serving short sentences. This innovative work won officers an award in 2003.

The garden and exercise area for the prison hospital wing.

Garden and Exercise wing

In spite of these beacons of light, reflecting on the stories of the small number of inmates that I’ve compiled so far engenders more sadness than hope. I have come to understand the perspective of someone who contacted me suggesting that the best course of action was to allow the former captives to dismantle the building brick of shame by brick of shame. The desire to eradicate a site which both exists because of suffering and harm and has, itself, inflicted these on inmates has appeal. Telling such stories involves bringing into focus issues which are troubling; the things, to quote Wilde again, “that Son of God nor son of Man/Ever should look upon”. But we can only ethically justify eradicating a shameful past if it is, indeed, past. The continued reliance on imprisonment as the dominant penal sanction, the dramatically increasing rates of incarceration and the almost perpetual sense of crisis about prison conditions, preclude such a course of action. As a crime historian I feel compelled to unearth these stories because they have happened; they are part of the fabric of our past. But history also has a role to play in confronting, questioning and challenging both the present and the future.

In the former Shrewsbury prison, closed at the same time as Canterbury, Jailhouse Tours are now holding a number of immersive events. Visitors can participate in the “Prison Escape”, where members of the public will need to use all their cunning in a competition to successfully escape the prison. For those who want a more supernatural experience there is the “Lockdown” – “the UK’s first ever prison based zombie chase event” – in which rioting prisoners “acting like wild animals” take over the institution, whilst visitors struggle to get free. This “dark fun factory” approach is the worst possible outcome for representing the history of those institutions which have recently closed (Stone, 2010). It leaves no room to reflect on any of the perspectives involved in the difficult stories associated with prison, or the uncomfortable questions these raise for our contemporary world. The drama of seeing “if you have what it takes” to escape an actual prison excludes any awareness of the desperation and longing involved in motivating prisoners to break free from their confinement, experiences which are powerfully indicated by the plight of William Mummery, who hanged himself upon realising that his efforts to tunnel out of his cell had been unsuccessful (Kentish Weekly Post, 26 May 1809). Similarly the “Lockdown” event presents an interpretation of prison riots which reinforces narratives of animalistic, uncontrollable brutality rather than focusing on the institutional injustices and poor conditions which have been shown time and again to contribute to outbreaks of disorder.

Representations like this are the extreme end of populist interpretations of historic prison sites but they sit alongside a less sensationalist focus on solely the distant past which is common in prison museums. The narrative of progress that this encourages enables us to continue present practices without addressing the uncomfortable nature of imprisonment in the nineteenth, twentieth and even twenty-first centuries. Whilst there are important political, interpretative and ethical issues when history attempts to bring together the past and the present, there is a need to recognise the whole period in which Canterbury prison was used for confinement and to identify both change and continuity within this. I hope at Canterbury we can attempt, through the heritage centre and other mediums, to represent the history of the prison in ways which are sensitive to multiple perspectives, as well as the damaging nature of both offending and society’s responses to it. This will require incorporating the complex nature of the impact that crime and punishment have on victims, offenders, prison staff and the wider community, whilst remaining critically aware of the political nature of the prison. In doing this it should be possible, although far from easy, to use the history of the prison to both inform about the past and challenge our current perceptions of penal policy.


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