- Convict Voices: Women, Class, and Writing about Prison in Nineteenth-Century England by Anne Schwan
One of the sins for which Michel Foucault should be called upon to answer is the rogue fingerpost he planted in nineteenth-century penal history. Pursuing his broader political polemics, he wrote about penal servitude—the punishment that was devised to replace transportation—which itself had originated in the desire to provide an alternative to, and thus reduce reliance upon, capital punishment. Penal servitude is an attractive study for any essayist, Charles Dickens included. It seemed to have gathered and projected basic fears and can be portrayed as a raw exercise of power. More than other forms of incarceration, it had fairly coherent and certainly well publicized rationales which (at least notionally) were related to the administration of penal discipline. Both the concept and its realization had dramatic and disturbing qualities—isolation, minutely engineered and life-testing deprivations, stern and implacable discipline, long confinement and a longer shadow.
But alongside penal servitude—and it is here that Foucault waved the inexperienced traveler to the bye-way—there existed a much older and more widely used form of imprisonment, which was a pillar of order and control. Whereas penitentiaries dated from the end of the eighteenth century, the jail may be traced to the beginnings of organized criminal proceedings—in English law for more than a thousand years, and in other societies even longer. In the nineteenth century, the penitentiary held only a small proportion of the incarcerated. The 1877 Judicial Statistics, for example, show that there were 27,151 jail places in England and Wales and 10,157 penal servitude (convict) places. But sentences of penal servitude were for a minimum of three years, meaning that there was a [End Page 143] relatively low turnover. Jail sentences or periods of remand, by contrast, could be for a few days or weeks. Sentences exceeding three months were relatively rare, above six months rarer still. In 1877, 187,412 persons were committed to jails in England and Wales, but only 1,639 sentences of penal servitude were imposed.
When we look to experiences of imprisonment, therefore, by far the most common was (and is) the jail. The nature and quality of this confinement was very different from that of the penitentiary. Inmates were mainly comprised of those awaiting trial or sentence (remands) and those under sentence, while only a small number were awaiting the execution of the capital sentence or the infliction of corporal punishment. Periods of stay were likely to be short: weeks or months rather than years. The committal offences ranged from drunkenness, prostitution, and public disorder to thefts and assaults that did not cross various legal lines of seriousness. Those whom other institutions would or could not take—some of the violently insane and the grossly unruly—were layered into the jail population, as were debtors and other civil prisoners. Turnover was constant and the gap between the outside world and confinement was not large. Run by local government, the range of penal nostrums and regulations was wide and varied.
With Convict Voices: Women, Class, and Writing about Prisons in Nineteenth-Century England, Anne Schwan, building upon a decade or more of scholarship in this field, has put together a wide-ranging work of textual narrative and analysis without addressing the great difference between the convict and the ordinary prisoner. Even the title of her book is therefore not wholly accurate. Female convicts were relatively rare and a good deal of what Schwan writes about is not convict, but rather ordinary imprisonment. London’s Newgate and Holloway jails were not penitentiaries, nor was Coldbath Fields.
Some of Schwan’s accounts of cases, trials, and sentences do indeed deal with female convicts—Florence Maybrick, who served fifteen years following the commutation of her death sentence for murder is one such. The suffragettes, however, served short jail sentences (mainly at Holloway) and, as with all their criminal justice involvement...