Lessons from Birmingham prison's history

JM Moore charts the troubling events at the prison since it opened in 1849

By: 
JM Moore
Date: 
Friday, 24 August, 2018

The Ministry of Justice’s decision to seize control of Birmingham prison from G4S featured on the front pages and in the editorials of newspapers this week. For The Sun the prison is ‘out of control’; with The Birmingham Mail reporting that the prison is in an ‘appalling state with widespread violence’; whilst The Daily Mail talks of ‘chronic overcrowding, surging violence and rampant drug abuse’. What was going on in the prison was, according to Prisons’ Minister Rory Stewart, ‘unacceptable’ and required ‘drastic action’.

Birmingham Prison has a long history of crisis, abuse and failure. It was opened in 1849 with great hopes. Matthew Davenport Hill, the social reformer and Birmingham’s resident judge called the new building a ‘moral hospital’ which would see the ‘end of all cruel punishments’. However, less than four years after the prison opened it faced a scandal following the self-inflicted death of a 15-year-old prisoner, Edward Andrews. His death led to the prison being exposed as a place of widespread abuses and illegal punishments.

The newspaper headlines of 1853 seem remarkably similar to those of this week. The Birmingham Journal (7 May 1853) broke the story under the headline ‘Another Suicide at the Borough Gaol – Extraordinary Revelations’. In response, the radical councillor Joseph Allday added ‘Discipline at our Gaol’ to the agenda of one of his regular public meetings. A packed meeting heard him detail the ‘recent extraordinary revelations’ that were ‘so horrifying that he could scarcely believe he was in England,’ before agreeing to petition the Home Secretary to establish an independent public inquiry.

The Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston, agreed and a Royal Commission was established to investigate the prison. This commission heard evidence in Birmingham for 13 days in August/September 1853. The hearings were in public, and evidence was given not only by the magistrates and principal officers of the prison but also by current and former guards and serving and released prisoners. The evidence revealed that the prison had, since it opened, routinely subjected prisoners to illegal punishments. The prison’s two governors, surgeon, and other employees were responsible for widespread abuses. The magistrates, responsible for overseeing the prison, had been complicit in these abuses and failed to carry out their statutory duties.

The press reacted to the publication of the Royal Commission’s report with horror. For John Bull (5 August 1854) the 531-page report ‘discloses a state of things which could hardly have been supposed to exist in a Christian country, and under the aegis of British law’. For The Lady’s Newspaper (12 August 1854), it ‘reveals to us a series of facts so monstrous and revolting, that we find it difficult to believe that they have taken place’.

In 1854, the evidence about what was happening in the prison was interpreted as the failure of a particular regime and the deviancy of individuals. Several guards were dismissed and the prison’s governor, William Austin, and surgeon, John Blount were prosecuted. Both were found guilty of poor record keeping and Austin was found guilty of ten assaults on Edward Andrews and sentenced to three months imprisonment.

Whilst it was true that Edward’s death had occurred under Austin, whose regime had emphasised the terror of deterrence, a careful reading of the commission’s evidence suggests much wider causes. By examining the prison’s management from its opening in 1849, the commission looked not only at Austin’s regime of terror but also the reformative regime of the prison’s first governor, Alexander Maconochie. The evidence shows that the abuses were introduced soon after the prison opened, with Maconochie feeling justified in operating outside the law in pursuit of his reformative aspirations. When his benevolent intentions met resistance from prisoners he resorted to abuses – including flogging boys repeatedly and hanging women from the landing railings in a straightjacket – to obtain the submission he felt necessary for their reformation.

Whilst individuals played a part in the abuses, what was not acknowledged was the extent to which the prison, as a place of punishment operating in secret, was institutionally responsible. If abuses could thrive under both a liberal reformative regime and a more traditional deterrence regime it suggests that the root cause may lie with the very institution itself.

Obviously, there are big differences between what happened in Birmingham Prison in 1853 and what is happening today. But there are similarities. In 1853 it was the self-inflicted death of Edward Andrews that drew attention to the abuses, including other deaths, and in the first six months of 2018 six prisoners died in the prison. Whilst in 1853 it was the management of the local magistrates that was blamed for the failures, in 2018 it is the private company G4S that is blamed. At both points in history, and at many in between, the institution has operated as a lawless place, out of control and subjecting prisoners to pains beyond the imagination of those who sentenced or remanded them to its ‘care’.

For the Guardian austerity is identified as the ‘root cause’ of the current crisis, for the Labour party it is privatisation, whilst the Howard League identified ‘failures of oversights’ in the privatisation process. What is common to both political and media comment is a presentation of today’s crisis as exceptional, the malfunction of an otherwise functioning prison system. What is not considered is the extent to which it is the very institution itself – hidden from public view and legal oversight – that is responsible for the abuses that have characterised its operation throughout its history. Normally, what goes on in our prisons is hidden from sight. When we occasional get glimpses that expose abuse, lawlessness, self-harm and the suffering of an overwhelmingly vulnerable prison population, we should consider if this really is exceptional? If it is not exceptional, but the normal, a further question arises. Are prisons beyond reform? History would suggest they are.


JM Moore is a lecturer in criminology, Newman University, Birmingham.