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A list of blog entries by researchers connected with Our Criminal Past can be viewed below. Please click on the links to expand the blog entries.

Plus Icon 18 January 2017: Canterbury Prison: Making sense of its past and imaging its future (Part II)

Date: January 18 2017

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

Author: Dr. Maryse Tennant, Canterbury Christchurch University

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. 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” (http://www.cityandcountry.co.uk/in-the-media/city-country-news/city-country-completes-acquisition-of-four-forme) 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 (https://www.canterbury.ac.uk/about-us/master-planning-review/master-planning-review.aspx). 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” (https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/12/Maidstone-web-2015.pdf).

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 (http://www.ppo.gov.uk/wp-content/ReddotImportContent/126.07-Death-of-a-male-prisoner.pdf#view=FitH).

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.

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

In the more recent past figures become clearer. Nineteen inmates committed suicide in Canterbury prison between 1978 and 2013 (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/493975/deaths-in-custody-table.pdf). 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 (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/493975/deaths-in-custody-table.pdf). 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 (https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=def1-643-18870523&div=t18870523-643). 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 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-37698780).