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Unlocking the cells: Bristol’s history of prison reform

From rioting in 19th century to fighting for prisoner rights in the 1970s, Bristol has a long history of attempted prison reform.

People's History

From rioting in the 19th century to fighting for prisoner rights in the 1970s, Bristol has a long history of attempted prison reform.

Illustration: Kathryn Rose Brown

The 1831 Bristol rioters had a straightforward remedy to the rotten prison system – break in, release the prisoners and destroy much of the prison.

But there were problems with that route – four of the rioters were hanged, despite a public petition of protest. Many of Bristol’s critics of the prison system preferred protest and persuasion; more effective when they included those who had endured imprisonment themselves.

PROP made a huge impact, with 10,000 inmates at 33 British prisons taking part in strikes and protests in the summer of 1972

Horfield gaol was built in the 1880s by the Prison Commissioners and it was claimed that the building took into account the criticism of reformers like Elizabeth Fry and Charles Dickens, with a separate wing for women. But in 1886 Bristol socialist John Gregory was about to board a train at Horfield Station when he had a disturbing encounter, “I was horrified by a sight I shall always remember.” It was a group of five women prisoners tethered by a heavy iron chain as they were moved from Horfield gaol to another prison. “Why were they subjected to this unnecessary degradation and torture?”

Though the manacles had gone when I visited Dartmoor prison in 1968, I had a similar sense of shock – the grim setting, the utter tedium, the wasted lives. I had gone inside to make a documentary for the BBC and when the organisation Radical Alternatives to Prison (RAP) was founded in 1970, I became a member. Its objective was as bold as that of the 1831 rioters; not improving prisons but aiming to get rid of them altogether. “By improving conditions,” it argued, “prisons are made more acceptable, they are legitimised in the public mind.”

Dynamic Ros Kane, RAP’s founder, came to Bristol and fired us with her commitment, convincing us that this wasn’t a naïve ambition but a way of turning reformist attitudes on their head. Aware of the anger in Bristol, especially in St Paul’s about the police use of stop-and-search legislation, Bristol RAP visited prisoners and produced a ‘Defendants’ Handbook’, which enabled anyone detained by the police to know their legal rights.

During one meeting our principles were put to the test. There was a crash and a tinkle and we realised that the car of one of our members had been broken into. The would-be thief was arrested and, when he appeared before the bench, a Bristol RAP representative turned up too, arguing against sending him to prison.

In 1971 I received a letter from Doug Curtis, one of the Dartmoor prisoners I had met while filming there. Doug was born and brought up in Bristol and, after Cotham Grammar School and national service in the RAF, turned to a life of crime. The offence that got him sent to Dartmoor was that of stealing a luxury motor yacht. He had been trying to steer it through Gloucester Docks but crashed it into the lock gates as the police closed in on him.

Britain now has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe, three times of that in the Netherlands

The letter from Doug told me that he would shortly be leaving Dartmoor prison to take up an undergraduate place at Trinity Hall, a college of Cambridge University. At first I thought he was having me on but it turned out to be true. What’s more, he wasn’t abandoning his campaigning on behalf of fellow prisoners; he and Dick Pooley, a former safe-blower who I had also filmed in Dartmoor, were going to set up an organisation called PROP, a prisoners’ trade union which would demand a Charter of Rights for prisoners. I persuaded the BBC to let me make a documentary focussed on the two men and it went out with the predictable title, From Dartmoor to Cambridge.

At first PROP made a huge impact, with 10,000 inmates at 33 British prisons taking part in strikes and protests in the summer of 1972. The eruption of violence at some of the prisons caused divisions in the PROP leadership but the organisation was given a platform at the influential Deviancy Symposium. At the same time, the success of local initiatives like ‘restorative justice’, where offenders met the victims of their crimes face-to-face, demonstrated that there were possible alternatives to longer and longer prison sentences.

prisionar sits alone in a cell while many protestors are seen outside bared window

Try as it might, the Home Office couldn’t ignore the demands for fresh thinking and in 1973 initiated the Bristol New Careers project. Supported by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO), New Careers was based on ‘the notion that disadvantaged and disaffected offenders had something to give and something to gain from acting in a caring and supportive role for others.’

One of New Careers innovations was giving older ex-offenders a role as ‘Linkers’; informal leaders. Another was to enable the residents at their hostel in Horfield to learn how to use early models of video cameras. These sometimes caught dramatic moments, including one where there had been a theft at the hostel and the camera was handed around as the New Careerists tried to identify who was the guilty party.

I included an extract from that video in the documentary This Is Your Last Chance that I made for the BBC. But the engineers at Whiteladies Road decided that the quality of the video did not meet the BBC’s technical standards and the BBC told me that this was the reason the programme would not be transmitted.

New Careers continued for twenty years but astonishingly the Home Office stopped recording information on the work destinations of New Careerists. Nevertheless it is clear that the project had some success, especially with the Linkers – more than half of them left to pursue careers in social work that experience at the project was expected to foster.

Despite the limited but encouraging evidence of effective alternatives to imprisonment, governments – whether Labour or Tory – have pursued the dead end route of privatising prisons since the 1990s and organisations like PROP and RAP withered, despairing of achieving significant change. The probation service was privatised with disastrous results and Britain now has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe, three times of that in the Netherlands.

Even when Rory Stewart, the current minister for prisons, acknowledges that reducing the prison population “is the right thing to do”, he then adds the pathetic excuse for inaction, “I’m not sure there’s a will among the public and the will among parliament to take measures to reduce that population.”

From edition 17, OUT NOW!

front cover of the edition 17Read more from this edition.

It looks as if prisoners have their own answer to that inertia – in the latest annual report of the chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke refers to “the huge increase in violence” in the last five years. American prisoners are seeking to direct similar anger in a more channelled way and, through Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, are planning nineteen days of peaceful protest, aiming to draw attention to their ten demands for improved conditions.

Perhaps a similar strategy in the UK would at last force a rethink of Britain’s cruel and counter-productive ‘lock ‘em up’ policy.

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