Particular Communicative Forms of Public Access to Prisons

face of a prisoner

About 1850, an author lamented restrictions on public access to London prisons. This author had recently achieved popular success with a romantic biography of John Howard.^ The author followed up that success with a new book, The London prisons: with an account of the more distinguished persons who have been confined in them. In that work, he declared:

To secure their efficacy, punishments should be rendered more public than they are now. …The surest way to create a popular interest in the prison, (and in the problems with which it deals) is to submit it to the influences of public sentiment and public opinion.

The Preston House of Corrections offered an example of free public access. That prison admitted without an admission fee all visitors except for specific persons for which strong reasons for denying access had been established. The prison thus attracted persons of all classes and professions:

In the visitors’ books, the strangest contrasts may be read. On the same page may be seen the signature of the Russian prince and the Yorkshire artisan; the French marquis and the Preston hand-loom weaver; the minister of state, the journalist, the magistrate, and the peasant.

The author argued that this publicity fostered good prison governance:

This {free access to the prison} is as it ought to be everywhere; the cause or the consequence of this publicity is, that the great experiment of penal correction is being both more humanely, and, everything considered, probably more successfully, conducted in the Preston House of Correction than in any other prison in this country.^

Public access is central to ideals of political liberty and deliberative democracy. Allowing personal communication between prisoners and their family and friends outside the prison is one form of public access. Exhibiting prisoners to the public is another form of public access. In the nineteenth century, penal officials suppressed prisoners’ communication with family and friends, but exhibited prisoners to the public.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *