London's Oldest Prison: A History Of Criminal Justice


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Through the prism of HMP Brixton, BBC Radio 4 traces changing attitudes to crime and punishment during 19th century industrialisation, urbanisation, and national debate about how prisons should be run, who should run them and whether they exist to punish, deter or reform.

Ever since it opened in 1819, Brixton prison has stood at the vanguard of debate around crime and punishment. Before Brixton, the most common punishments for minor criminals had been held in public - such as the pillory and the stocks. But changing sensibilities meant the days of such spectacles were numbered. When Brixton opened, prisons were emerging as the central focus in the struggle against crime.

In the first of two programmes, Jerry White, Professor of History at the University of London, uses rarely-seen documents to chart the early history of Brixton. With the help of current prisoners and staff he discovers how Brixton's response to public concerns about the rising level of crime was to introduce the treadmill.

It was a new means of punishment where inmates trod giant wheels which were connected to millstones; the flour would be used to make their daily bread. Brixton made the treadmill famous and, within two decades, half the prisons in the country would have one. Some called it an 'engine of terror' - we hear the testimonies of those made to suffer its rigours, read out by current prisoners.

Jerry also finds out about efforts to improve the conduct of nineteenth century prison staff, who had a reputation for corruption, violence and drunkenness. And he reveals how - as the middle of the century approached - massive overcrowding and staff brutality led to Brixton's temporary closure.

Producer: Chris Impey

A PRA production for BBC Radio 4.