Pity The poor Prisoners

Conditions inside the Victorian prisons were deliberately made as harsh as possible for the inmates. The purpose of the prison system was to make time behind bars so utterly unpleasant that those who found themselves languishing behind the grim, grey walls of a penitentiary would, on their release, think twice before daring to re-offend.

However, the conditions proved too harsh for many, and the only way they could see to escape the torment of their existence was to commit suicide.

For others, it was the conditions that did for them. The cold, damp cells, and a diet that bordered on a starvation diet, led to their health breaking down and they died of supposedly “natural” causes.


In the 1880’s, numerous articles appeared in newspapers criticising the high suicide rate amongst prisoners and exposing the fact that the conditions that many prisoners were kept under were little short of torture.

One place of incarceration that was often singled out as an example of all that was wrong with the Victorian penal system was, Coldbath Fields Prison, located in the Mount Pleasant district of Clerkenwell in London.

Although it had originally been built in the reign of James I (1603–1625), the prison had been completely rebuilt in 1794 and was further extended in 1850.

It was used to house prisoners on short sentences of up to two years. There were separate blocks for felons, misdemeanants and vagrants.

On Saturday, 7th August, 1880, The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, published the following article about conditions in the prisons.

Although the article mentions several prisons, it also commented on the conditions and the suicide rate at Coldbath Fields.

A view of Cold Bath Fields Prison.
Cold Bath Fields Prison.


“In the good old times when the State took less than a paternal interest in the criminals whom it saw fit to place under lock and key, those of the public who passed the prison house were commonly saluted by the cry of “Pity the poor prisoner.”

The appeal was usually backed up by some dozens of bony hands stretched through the iron bars, with here and there such a useful receptacle as a stocking suspended from a stick.

In those days the State left its prisoners to feed or flourish by chance, according to their fortune, or to the generosity of the public.


Now that the State has developed paternal solicitude, it takes care that its prisoners are not starved to death by chance, for it starves them itself.

The condition of prisoners in an English prison in this nineteenth century of liberal ideas and much education, of Bibles and tracts, is simply deplorable.

Prisoners picking oakum.
Prisoners Picking Oakum.


From the moment an unhappy wretch enters the House of Correction, he is subject to inconceivable physical and mental torture.

He is slowly starved, his marrow is chilled within him in a cold stone cell, his labour is hard and monotonous, and if nature rebels he is flogged with a brutality that is only excelled by Scotch missionaries.

Far be it from anyone to excite uncalled-for sympathy for the hardened ruffians who form so large a proportion of our criminal population, or even for the less culpable wretches who, fallen from their high estate, have to mourn in bitter tears the life-long ruin caused by a perhaps petty, but none the less grave, deviation from the paths of honesty.

Justice must be stern and unforgiving. Her punishments must be severe and palpable, but they may not be allowed to degenerate into torture.

To place a prisoner in a cold cell, unwholesome and pregnant with disease, is torture, not punishment.

To feed a prisoner so lightly that existence is made a misery by the incessant gnawings of hunger is torture, not punishment.

It is not easy to get inside a prison, except in a capacity which would be too realistic to be pleasant.

Nevertheless, facts crop out now and then which prove undoubtedly that prison discipline too frequently degenerates into prison torture.


Why all the suicides we hear of in prisons, and the still greater number of prevented suicides which the public knows nothing of?

The burglar who at Birmingham subjected himself to a horrible death the other day, to escape his daily misery, the unhappy convict who at Manchester used much ingenuity and incredible self-determination to strangle himself out of the way; the unhappy youth, Helliek, who killed himself rather than face the remainder of his month of starvation on bread and water and porridge at Coldbath Fields – these are but eloquent appeals for pity for the poor prisoners.

It is no secret that one of the great anxieties of prison officials is to keep down the suicidal mania.

An illustration showing the prison treadmill.
The Prison Treadmill.


But, even then the ungrateful prisoners find a way of escape from their torments, for they actually die, yes, die of consumption and such like diseases for which prison diet and prison cells form an effective forcing house.

The number of deaths at Coldbath Fields is positively alarming, so alarming that a committee is being formed to see if some pity cannot be extended towards the unhappy sinners who languish out their health in its unwholesome cells.


By all means, make our convicted criminals’ labour hard and bitterly, for work is healthy, and it is perhaps the most disagreeable punishment that could be imposed upon the habitual thief who steals because he is too lazy to work, the ruffian wife beater who needs the salutary influences of restraint and the sobering influences of physical toil.

Let the food of prisoners be coarse, but give them enough of it to maintain health, and remove from English prisons the disgrace of that punishment most complained of by released prisoners, the pangs of hunger.

Confine our convicts in stone cells by all means, but take due precaution that such cells are dry, and if not actually warm, at least not cold enough to produce fatal diseases in constitutions that were previously healthy.


It would be far better to revive the wholesome deterrent of a whipping at the cart-tail than to torture prisoners in icy cells and on starvation dietary.


Under the existing system, punishment bears hardest on the least guilty, for they droop and die under it, while the really hardened scoundrels have the strength to withstand the assaults on their health, and enough cunning to obtain certain amelioration of their lot.”