“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” according to Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Although the penitentiary system seems deep-rooted within modern societies’ machinery, there was a time when cells did not teem with prisoners. The concept has yet evolved in the course of history: back in Ancient Greece, there was already a “place of chains” (desmoterion) set up, where convicts awaited for their dreadful trial (if there was any). But many alternatives have been tried out since.
From the 18th to the 19th centuries, French made good use of their remote islands where they opened so-called “bagnes” – i.e. penal colonies – featuring scorching temperatures. Meanwhile, the English sent thousands of convicts to their own colonies, such as Australia. Later in America, penitentiaries were built with the innovation of having prisoners inside breaking stones into smaller stones. The Bastille, the Tower of London, even the Kremlin – these emblematic, brick-made symbols also housed inmates back in their days. And some famous individuals were to spend some time behind the bars as well – take Nelson Mandela, Oscar Wilde or Voltaire!
However, the history of prisons did not switch between dungeons and electronic tags in a couple decades. As it goes with every search field, experiments have been conducted. This is in such an innocent and creative spirit that one finds Britain at the turn of the 18th century…
At the time, England was a central hub for global trade. Also involved in the very lucrative slave business, and regularly going at war thanks to a powerful, heavily-armed fleet, its worldwide domination knew no bounds (except for the American Revolutionary War which was one of the rare defeats of its 1700-1850 military campaigns, featuring 137 wars and conflicts). British belligerent attitude, however, required heavy spending to house prisoners of war.
Rise in penitentiary numbers (and related costs) thus fostered a change: the prison system had to be rethought and revamped. The British Empire, “on which the sun never sets”, thus decided to export more than its regular foodstuffs and raw materials; it started to export prisoners. Australia would receive about 162,000 of them in less than a century. But with America revolting and closing its doors, the British badly needed to find an alternative prison system to make up for its overcrowded cells. In 1776, the Hulks Acts were implemented in this regard (and did not imply that a ferocious green beast would think on the issue).
Thus were introduced ‘convict hulks’, that is to say former war and trade ships converted to house – pack, really – prisoners in great numbers. Those floating prisons anchored at various places spanned the British Empire, and some could be found in single file on the Thames River, London.
Inside, the living conditions were unbearable for convicts: they were packed in tiny compartments and given very little food portions (plus, it was English food, so, you know). Unsurprisingly, many prisoners died within their first few weeks of imprisonment – aboard the Justitia vessel, located in Woolwich as soon as 1776, no less than one inmate out of three died of exhaustion, disease or bad treatments within eighteen months. In 1778, a former prisoner who managed to escape reported:
“[The prisoners’] sickly countenances, and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands; and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving and storming,–all panting for breath; some dead, and corrupting.”
Nevertheless, convict hulks kept on being used until the Hulks Acts were revoked in 1857. By that time, however, the practice had spread to other countries, such as Chile under Pinochet’s rule, Nazi Germany or the U.S. even later. Remember this article’s opening quote?
- Mitchel P. Roth, Prisons and Prison Systems: A Global Encyclopedia (2005)
- Louis Garneray, Mes pontons : neuf années de captivité (1985)