In 1895, it was noted, with concern, that a substantial proportion of the population of Canterbury Prison was made up of repeat offenders. During that year, according to a report from the Prison Commissioners, there had been 1155 men and 167 women imprisoned there; the daily average was 128 prisoners, although at its quietest, the prison had been home to 100, and at its busiest, 171.
Canterbury Prison dated from the beginning of that century, having been established as a county gaol in 1808. Its predecessor had been regarded as inadequate following a rise in the number of prisoners in Kent in the late 18th century, the result both of a rise in crime and the impact of the American War of Independence on transportation.
It was noted that ‘a discouraging feature of prison work is the number of men and women who appear time after time in prison’. At Canterbury, 220 men and 60 women that year had already been in a prison prior to their most recent committal – equating to 19 per cent of male prisoners, and 36 per cent of females.
Of these repeat offenders, 27 men and 12 women had over 10 prior convictions resulting in a committal to prison. 11 men and three women had between eight and ten prior committals, and nine men and seven women six or seven prior committals. It was believed that once men and women had been committed once, they were likely to be embarking on a long criminal career.
When the prison population at Canterbury was analysed on 31 March 1895, it was found that the majority of men there at the time were young – between 21 and 30 years old. One of the relatively few ‘older’ men there at the time was Arthur Funnell, a 34-year-old butcher, who had been sent to the prison whilst on trial for forgery, as he had been unable to find sureties. Whilst in prison, Funnell’s father died; his mother was seriously ill, her health no doubt not helped by her son’s incarceration.
It was recognised that individuals placed within Canterbury’s prison walls were unlikely to behave well either in prison or on being released, and that prison actually increased their chances of repeat offending afterwards – they became, to an extent, institutionalised.
In prison, several individuals, both male and female, were reported to have committed offences, primarily violence, ‘idleness’, or breaches of regulations. Punishments for such offences included flogging, being put in solitary confinement (by the end of the 19th century, known as ‘punishment cells’), being put in ‘short commons’, whereby their diet was restricted, or losing other privileges.
Even when not being punished, the prisoners were subject to hard labour, which in Canterbury primarily meant the treadwheel – although unlike in some prisons, this had a purpose, pumping water for the prison. If not on the treadwheel, prisoners were engaged in making mail-bags and chopping wood.
All male prisoners who had a prison sentence of over four months were visited by a schoolmaster, to ensure that their educational achievement reached the third standard, and the chaplain also visited inmates every three months to encourage ‘moral elevation’. It was noted that ‘the prisoners take great interest in reading, and the cases where they injure the books are happily few and far between.’
Short commons may not have been much of a punishment for some; it was noted that ‘the mere feeding of a prisoner costs little enough’, suggesting that the diet was both cheap and limited. This was in contrast to the money spent in 1895 on new stores and staff quarters at the prison.
Despite the education and religious training, prison was hard on its inmates, and suicide was recognised as a problem – netting had to be put up around staircases and corridors to prevent hangings. It was recognised that poverty and unemployment might be factors in reoffending once prisoners were released, and so the chaplain would recommend particular inmates who could benefit from the services of the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society, which aimed to help them find a job.
It was noted that ‘very few cases, really worthy of help, are refused, and then only if the aid asked for is beyond the Society’s scope.’ The society was helped by the Church of England Temperance Society‘s Labour Home, located at Dover, which received and employed ‘men who have no immediate hope of employment’. Women were sent further afield, primarily to Miss Steer’s Bridge of Hope, on the infamous Ratcliff Highway.
So prison life in Kent had the recognised potential of leading to reoffending, through interaction with other prisoners and with resultant poverty once back on the outside, and measures were put in place to try and stop this through education and employment. Yet it was also clear that by restricting prisoners’ diets, by incarceration and hard labour – the economic value of which was reported in financial terms in the prison commissioners’ report – the prisons themselves created an atmosphere of desperation in some that could lead to suicide.
Sources: Canterbury Journal, 19 October 1895, Dover Express, 1 November 1895, Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald, 23 March 1895, Canterbury Journal, 30 December 1895.