Wednesday, 9 June 2010

British Prisons in Ireland: Some historical notes (Part One)

By Mike Tomlinson and Patricia Heatley

This article orginally appeared in "The Abolitionist" The magazine of Radical Alternatives to Prison No 15 in 1983 (An extended version of this article appeared in Hillyard, P. and Squires, P. (ed) Securing the State: the politics of internal security in Europe, Working Papers in European criminology No.3, Bristol 1982.)

The escape in September of 38 Republican prisoners from one of Northern Ireland's notorious H Blocks provides a timely reminder that what goes on in the North's prisons is never very far removed from the broader battle between the Republican objective of national liberation and the British government's determination to contain, if not crush, the Republican movement. Far from being a recent post-1969 phenomenon, this article argues that prison resistance linked to major political struggles outside the prison walls has a long historical pedigree in Ireland.

The first. half of this article summarises the main developments in the prison 'system in Ireland from the end of the eighteenth century onwards and the second half considers a number of selected issues concerning prison regimes. In particular we look at the controversies surrounding the protests of political prisoners and how there were involved.


The latter half of the eighteenth century was an unsettling period for British rule in Ireland. On the one hand, prolonged agrarian unrest, perpetrated by secret societies of the impoverished Irish peasantry deprived of political and social rights by the Penal Laws, was providing a major challenge to English and Protestant settler landlordism and specifically to the quadrupling of rents between 1760 and 1815. Effectively, two forms of law existed by this time: the popular justice of the secret societies carried out against landlords and their agents, and the official law which was often difficult to administer without military backing.

On the other hand, the increasing frustration of the Protestant colonists with British restrictions on Irish trade was beginning to generate a movement for political and legislative independence from England. Britain's strategic interests in Ireland were threatened on two fronts: the withdrawal of troops required for the American War of Independence and the subsequent threat of a French and Spanish invasion of Britain through the 'back door' of Ireland. The Irish Protestant volunteer militia, while filling the breach in Britain's defences, demanded greater legislative autonomy for the Irish parliament which was granted in 1782. This was, however, a short-lived resolution of the movement of Protestant nationalism. With the inspiration of the French revolution, the movement acquired a more radical impetus involving demands for a parliament based on representation rather than patronage and for Catholic emancipation. Thus the Society of United Irishmen, initiated mainly by Belfast Presbyterians, became the first advocates of Irish Republican separatism. Having no success with the government and only limited success with other Protestants, many of whom were rallying behind the newly formed Orange Order dedicated to Protestant supremacy, the United Irishmen planned for rebellion, seeking assistance from the French and from the network of agrarian secret societies of the Catholic peasantry with all their experience in rural guerrilla warfare.

The immediate outcome of the United Irishmen's rebellion of 1798 was the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland under the 1801 Act of Union. The Irish parliament was abolished and Ireland placed under the direct rule of the British government who used a relatively centralised administrative apparatus with its headquarters at Dublin Castle to carry out its policies. The 'Castle system' as it was known - sinecures, patronage and government appointees survived until the Easter Rising of 1916 and the partition of Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act., 1920

The period surrounding the 1798 rebellion demonstrates the extent to which the prevailing methods of punishment in Ireland were dependent on Britain's changing imperial fortunes and colonial experience. As in England, transportation or execution were the favoured means of dealing with serious crimes, but with the outbreak of the American War of Independence there was a sudden suspension of transportation. The War had two consequences. With the closing off of the American colonies as a depository for British and Irish prisoners, sentences of imprisonment rose dramatically.

Secondly, the crisis in the prisons was further exacerbated by the increase in crime associated with the depression in trade which went. hand in hand with the loss of a major colonial market.2 Although new avenues of transportation were opened up in the 1780s, for instance Gibraltar, the Bermuda Islands and the Antipodes, the serious political disturbances in Ireland referred to above ensured that the county jails and bridewells were overcrowded with prisoners awaiting transportation. To meet this crisis, the lord lieutenant of Ireland had, from 1792, powers to convert transportation to a term of imprisonment and to establish penitentiaries to house such prisoners, but it was not until 26 years later that the first penitentiary was opened at Richmond, Dublin.3 Thus the penitentiary as a system of discipline generalised throughout prisons in Ireland was delayed until the colonial administration of the nineteenth century made a political judgement as to its necessity. Direct military repression coupled with grotesque public displays of torture designed to extract information from suspected rebels, were the chosen methods of suppressing the United Irishmen. In circumstances of continued agitation and revolt, punishment was characteristically arbitrary. The Act of Union heralded a greater centralisation of the coercive arm of the state. Although considerable use was made of 'emergency' legislation, the British were determined, under the direction of Sir Robert Peel, to construct a more permanent and legitimate apparatus of control - essentially less reliant on the military. By 1836, Ireland had a unitary police force under the direct command of Dublin Castle and by 1821, a central inspectorate of prisons was established to give effect to the recommendations of the 1809 prison inquiry for universal regulations to he applied to prisons throughout Ireland - pre-dating the inspectorate for Britain by 13 years. Under the consolidating Prisons Act of 1826, the Inspectors General were provided with wide-ranging powers to use moral and legal pressures to ensure that the local authorities carried out British government policies. As with policing, reforms of the prisons would begin, it was hoped, to break the old running battle between the martial law of the Protestant ascendancy and the popular justice of the secret societies.

Notwithstanding the occasionally defiant local authority, the Inspectors were able to transform the prisons over the l820s and l830s. The continuing agrarian disturbances of the period were an ever-present incentive to local magistrates and Grand Juries to take the ideas of the mind-bending, well-regulated penitentiary seriously, even though the typical fate of political offenders remained transportation or execution. By the mid-1840s more than one hundred local prisons and bridewells had been closed and 26 new prisons built, most of which were constructed along panoptic radial and semi-circular lines. Only a handful of prisons had failed to install tread wheels, a third operated the silent system and educational and religious instruction were universal. From the late l820s separate prisons were being established for women following Elizabeth Fry's dictum, quoted enthusiastically by the Irish Inspectors, that 'the first thing which is absolutely essential if a woman is to be reformed is that she shall be kept from the other sex, not only from prisoners but from the male officers.?

While considerable central control was being exerted by the Inspectors General, individual prisons remained the responsibility of local boards of superintendence appointed by Grand Juries. The Inspectors had succeeded in demilitarising the prison (military guards were withdrawn in 1830), even though they continued to express dissatisfaction with the quality of prison governors and other staff. It took the crisis of the famine years (1845-9) coinciding with the cessation of transportation before the central administration assumed direct control of the incarceration of serious offenders.

The Consolidation of the Modern Prison

Transportation ceased for a number of economic and social reasons. 'Convict labour' wrote Rusche and Kirchheimer, 'could not compete with free labour the moment the latter began to assume appreciable proportions '. Initially, convict labour was tolerated by the colonisers out of necessity. Once the pioneering work was done, the presence of convicts threatened the search for stability and social maturity. The governor of Western Australia, referring specifically to Irish convicts reported that 'coercion appears to be the only force they are capable of appreciating' Another observer noted that 'even in Australia, where, in consequence of the want of labour, healthy muscular power was held in higher estimation than resolutions of amendment, the Irish convict was feared, and on account of his entire uselessness was considered fit for no occupation'. Such sentiments were echoed by Nassau Senior's comment that transportation was 'sowing our colonies with poisoned seed '. However, Rude suggests that Irish political transportees were generally highly regarded by the colonial administrators, much to the resentment of those trying to keep the lid on Irish revolt back home. From the account of John Mitchel, transported under the Treason Felony Act 1848 for publishing a journal, the United Irishman, we learn that Irish political convicts were indeed respected by the Australian colonial authorities. But at the same time, fearing their escape and re-involvement in politics, the authorities kept these prisoners under much closer surveillance than the 'real convicts', as Mitchel called them. Political leaders such as Mitchel himself were singled out for particular scrutiny

Despite the growing restrictions on transportation, there was an explosion in the numbers sentenced-to transportation as the famine progressed - a fourfold increase in 1847 alone. The prisons, particularly in the hardest hit south and west, rapidly filled to overflowing, quickly disrupting the regime encouraged by the Inspectors over the past twenty years and increasing disease and death to epidemic proportions. 81 prisoners died in 1845 compared to 1,315 two years later. Petty larceny soared as people tried to fight against starvation - as the Inspectors put it, 'men will steal food rather than die'. The authorities responded by cutting the milk ration in the bread, oats and milk diet by half. Many committed more serious offences to secure the comparative respite of transportation. Over 40,000 rural outrages were recorded for 1849 alone. In 1853, there were complaints that women were deliberately seeking conviction as a cheap way of emigrating taking their children with them, as they were permitted to do. The following year, 42% of new inmates were women (compared to 25% in England). As a temporary disincentive, children over 2 years old were forbidden to accompany their mothers if transported, but the ultimate solution was seen to be a 'separate and distinct model prison' for women.

It must be said, however, that notwithstanding individualised political responses to the famine and the abortive 1848 insurrection, the most dramatic consequence of the famine was mass starvation and migration. Estimates suggest that just under a million peasants died and a further 1.5 million emigrated, mainly to America.

But the problem of disposing of a grossly inflated prison population was real enough. New convict depots for those awaiting transportation were hastily constructed, notably on Spike Island, a military fortress in the mouth of Cork Bay. Spike Island quickly became a massive hard labour camp housing 2,000 convicts. Many others were put on the Hulks moored at Dublin. With the ending of transportation, a number of Acts were passed to enable the government to set up a new system for dealing with convicts within Ireland itself. Transportation was converted to a term of penal servitude and a central administration under the control of Directors of the Convict Prisons was appointed. The Directors were responsible for managing the Hulks, Spike Island and the four large Dublin prisons at Richmond, Smithfield, Kilmainham, and Mountjoy which was opened in 1850 as one of the Jebb-designed 'national model' prisons alongside Perth and Pentonville. It was from this basis that the Directors constructed the full rigours of the Irish convict system.

Initially, the Directors concentrated on problems of accommodation, but they also took steps to tighten prison discipline not only as regards prisoners but also prison staff. For the latter, detailed rules were issued describing their duties, qualifications for entry to the prison service and the keeping of records and returns to be forwarded to the Directors. A new temporary prison of iron huts was opened at Philipstown. By 1854, the Directors controlled eight prisons including the large women's prison at Grangegorman, Dublin. Most of their accommodation was situated in the Dublin and Cork areas. Much of it was recently built and therefore suitable for separate cellular confinement. However, two-thirds of all convicts were still housed on Spike Island where, due to the numbers and the essentially temporary nature of the accommodation, discipline remained a constant headache for the authorities. There was little prospect of closing Spike Island in the short term, even though the drop in the crime rate after the famine years reduced the convict population from 3,933 in 1854 to 1,768 ten years later. After 1864 the numbers of convicts began to rise, largely as a result of a change in sentencing policy. Under the Penal Servitude Act of that year, five years (instead of three) became the minimum sentence.

As regards the local prisons, the Inspectors continued to apply pressure on the boards of superintendence to modernise buildings, conditions and regimes, using British developments and penal servitude as their models. They were particularly enthusiastic about the English Prisons Act of 1865 which legislated separate cellular confinement, graduated penal labour and standardised diets. While four attempts were made to copy this law for Ireland, none was successful. It seems that Irish members of the English parliament, conscious of the treatment of Irish political prisoners under the convict system, resented these attempts to perfect the penal servitude regime throughout the Irish prison system. It was certainly on this basis that they opposed the centralisation of the entire prison system under the Act of 1877 .

It is difficult to make conclusive comparisons between the convict system and local prisons during the period from the famine to the 1877 Act which brought all prisons in Ireland under the direct control of Dublin Castle and the General Prisons Board for Ireland. Certainly there was a marked difference in the emphasis on separation; by 1866, 17 of the 39 local prisons under the watchful eye of the Inspectors General were recorded as having no separation of the different 'criminal classes' (but separation of males and females was universal). 'Punitive labour' was the dominant form of work, although as might be expected in the newest prisons such as Belfast's Crumlin Road jail, opened in 1840 and very similar in design and construction to Mountjoy. ?industrial labour' was 'carried on with great activity' and was combined with strict separation.

It would appear then that by the time the General Prisons Board took over, the largest and newest local prisons provided a very similar disciplinary experience to that of the permanent prisons used for the initial stages of the convict system. It was around these similar institutions that the Prisons Board consolidated the prison system. By the middle of the nineteenth century the wave of prison construction was over and the Board's modernising function was one of closure and demolition, with the scrapping of 90 bridewells and 24 local prisons over the next forty years. Only the core of the convict prisons, those at Mountjoy and Portlaoise (formerly known as Maryborough), survived this consolidation; indeed these prisons remain the backbone of the penal establishment in the Republic of Ireland today, just as Belfast's Crumlin Road jail still stands as the central monument to nineteenth century discipline and punishment in the North.


The pre-famine period had reflected various themes in penitentiary theory; an emphasis on hygiene, deterrent labour, religion, education, surveillance, silence and separation. There was even mention of 'useful' labour and trades, but this was confined to stone-breaking and from the prisoners' viewpoint was scarcely distinguishable from turning the crank or treading the wheel. None of these elements was of course contradictory although they were yet to be assembled and refined as a coherent science of punishment. The impetus for that came with the need to set up the convict system.

Though its architects were ex-military Englishmen, notably Knight and Crofton, the Irish convict system differed in a number of respects from the English system. In theory, convicts were first sent to Mountjoy for a period of total solitude, but unlike in England, they were given no work to do. The purpose of this stage was described by four visiting Justices from Wakefield prison:
 idleness and dislike of steady work are probably the most universal characteristics of the criminal class We in England have sought to correct that evil by making labour as penal as possible ... The Directors of the Irish convict prisons have adopted the opposite plan: they have made idleness penal and work a privilege ... The want of work becomes the severest punishment..
Once this had been endured, the 'privilege' of solitary work was granted - typically the tedious oakum picking for men and needle work for women. The boring labour presumably kept the mind constantly open to the process of repentence and the occasional dose of direct moral persuasion. Such instruction was, according to one observer, explicitly concerned with teaching the 'fundamental principles of political economy'. It was a schooling that must have been particularly alien to a rural peasantry struggling for subsistence.

Eventually, the male convicts would he transferred from Mountjoy for a period of 'hard labour in association' at Spike Island. This was to be conducted in silence and convicts were to be excluded from 'association with free labour of the working classes outside'. The latter requirement was largely unenforceable because much of the work, for example the building of roads and fortifications for the British army, took place outside the depots.

The next stage was unique to the Irish system and involved a term in what was called an 'intermediate prison' There were two of these, one at Smithfield and the other at Lusk. Not all convicts were processed through this type of prison since entry was selective. For instance all agrarian offenders were barred from intermediate prisons. The aim here was to establish an environment in which the prisoner was 'assailed by temptations' and his conduct as a reformed character put on trial. Prisoners were usually employed outside of the prison and were sent to visit shops as a test of self-discipline. They were required to accumulate all but a small proportion of their earnings so that they would have a sizeable lump-sum when discharged. More than two-thirds used this to finance emigration, which was the intention behind the scheme. The authorities therefore saw the intermediate prison as a sort of 'finishing school'.

The equivalent of intermediate prisons for women were known as 'refuges' of which there was one each for Protestants and Catholics. Again, entry was selective. Women were groomed for domestic service, marriage or for returning to the family. In fact this emphasis on femininity and domestic labour was a strong current running through every stage of the convict system as it applied to women. Many of the women in the refuges were prostitutes and for this reason, and others, were encouraged to emigrate. An extra £5 gratuity was paid to those women who left the refuge with the intention of emigrating. As a matter of government policy therefore, emigration was seen as one way of reducing both male and female crime.

The final stage of the convict system was release on licence, and this too differed in practice from the English system. The length of licence rested on the amount of remission earned through good conduct, but whereas in England remission was seen as a right by prisoners, only to be withdrawn for serious misconduct, in Ireland it had to be positively earned. Moreover, the conditions of licences were rigidly enforced. Failure to report to the police meant being sent back to prison; in England police reporting was usually ignored. Given the political nature of many of the offences of Irish prisoners, it was clearly important to extend the surveillance of the convict system well beyond the prison walls. But this had drawbacks. Reporting on a regular basis to the Royal Irish Constabulary, the front-line of the Castle system, was very unpopular amongst prisoners. More important to the authorities however were the views of potential employers of ex-convicts. If criminal reform was to be successful, convicts had to be accepted as free labourers outside the prison walls. Some employers obviously felt that the need for police supervision meant that prisoners were untrustworthy. The problem for the managers of the convict system was to legitimate the system to this class; release on licence could be misunderstood as an admission of failure of the other stages of the system.

Part two will be posted tomorrow

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