This week’s news that Britain is to build nine new prisons to replace its hopelessly outdated and overcrowded Victorian jails made me realise how much the topic of incarceration has been neglected in these pages. The UK government’s initiative is designed to lower re-offending rates, but it also looks like a plan to free up valuable city centre real estate which could be turned into affordable housing. Whatever the motivation, this is big news and comes after an announcement in 2013 that Britain would spend £25m on building a prison in Jamaica. Using taxpayers money to house foreign criminals is not popular in the UK, and yet repatriating nationals to face worse conditions at home than they face here is not a shining humanitarian example. Far better then to build a prison to an acceptable standard and transfer convicted nationals back home. At least you’d win the humantarian argument and you’d arguably save money in the long-term. Taking inspiration from this news story I’d like to look, in the penultimate post of 2015, at some of the most infamous examples of jails, prisons, asylums and correctional facilities. Some are real, others are imagined. All should strike fear into your soul.
- The Marshalsea – For over 450 years The Marshalsea was a prison in Southwark, London. It became known throughout the world as a debtor’s prison. It is referenced in Little Dorrit and is the London you imagine when you think of Dickens. In fact Dickens’ father was sent there in the 1820s. What awaited him does not bear thinking about. Prisoners were kept in line through a mixture of brutality and the sheer horror of the site’s history. Some inmates were forced to sleep in rooms full of corpses waiting to be buried, and others were crammed in so tightly that it was impossible to lie down let alone sleep. By the time Dicken’s father was sent there you had two options depending on what you could afford. God help you if you were sent to live in the Common side.
- Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary – These days a must-see destination for first time visitors to San Francisco, Alcatraz is the stuff of legend. Home to some of America’s most wanted men and the setting for some of the most famous films of all time, Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) among the classics, the site drips with history. You can practically hear Al Capone holding court among the other inmates. If you listen to the audio guide when you visit there are a few things that stand out. My favourite is the sequence where a former inmate describes the horror of being alone in his cell and able to hear happy voices from the mainland drift over to the island on the wind. Last month The History Channel broadcast a documentary about the events of 1962 when 36 inmates attempted to break out. If that sounds familiar it is because it was the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz. It had always been thought that all 36 were either captured or perished. Until now.
- Devil’s Island – First opened in the 1850s this facility in French Guiana occupied several sites during its notorious tenure as the go-to location for French political prisoners. It is referenced extensively throughout novel, television and film history but is perhaps best known for housing Captain Alfred Dreyfus, he of the Dreyfus Affair. This incredible episode in French history dates back to 1894 and is one of the most brazen miscarriages of justice on record. It fascinates filmmakers to this day, most latterly Roman Polanski who has a version of the story currently in production. The facility itself was an every-man-for-himself survival quest with tropical diseases thrown in for good measure. The lucky few who made it back to France alive after their sentence brought with them stories horrifying enough to make even the most hardened of criminals go on the straight and narrow.
- Azkaban – From J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The moment when I was genuinely scared by a children’s book. The third outing for the boy wizard is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the prison itself is full of Dementors whose job it is to suck the happiness from your soul. If you’ve read the book or seen the film you’ll know that Azkaban is genuinely terrifying, no matter how old you are.
- Arkham Asylum – We touched on this institution earlier this year and it is up there with Azkaban in terms of being questionably child-friendly. The Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane to give it its full title, is a staple of the DC Comics Batman franchise and is as scary as hell. It has housed pretty much all of the figures Batman has faced. Although to be fair most have also escaped from its clutches to roam the streets of Gotham City once more. But you only have to glance at the likes of The Joker, The Riddler and The Penguin to know psychosis on such an pronounced level has been in some part induced. Induced by the horrors inside Arkham Asylum.
There are of course many other sites I could have chosen. Among real examples I could have picked the Tower of London and Robben Island, both of which are inextricably weaved into the fabric of their national identities. From fiction I could have picked Ashecliffe Hospital from Shutter Island (both the novel and the film). Prison dramas, whether on film or television, have huge audiences. Shows such as Porridge, Prison Break, Orange Is The New Black and even the cult classic Prisoner: Cell Block H had or have loyal followings. Films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Midnight Express (1978) and The Green Mile (1999) are as popular today as they were on release. Perhaps more so in the case of The Shawshank Redemption.
Back though to the UK government’s prison-building initiative. Maybe an alternative and less expensive option is on offer. According to J.K. Rowling Azkaban is on an island in the North Sea. The government should threaten to take all criminals there.
Would you risk conviction?