By Smith, Razor
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4577
The close study of prison architecture has been a hobby of mine for many years now, though not, I must admit, for any aesthetic reason. I have been a "guest" at more than 30 of Her Majesty's prisons, on and off since 1975, so believe me when I tell you that there is no such thing as a "good" prison. There are only varying degrees of bad. Therefore, when I discovered that English Heritage had published the first architectural history of prisons in England, "complete with over 100-full-colour photographs", I couldn't help wondering what its next project might be. Perhaps a full-colour guide to historically interesting whipping posts, torture chambers and gibbets?
The prisons of England are steeped in the misery and despair of the countless thousands of men, women and children who have been incarcerated behind their high stone walls and razor-wire-festooned fences. So, to me, there is something intrinsically voyeuristic about a book that celebrates places of punishment.
I can understand how people on the outside, whose only experience of English prisons comes from the ludicrous sensationalism of the tabloid press and reruns of the 1970s BBC comedy classic Porridge, might be interested in seeing the mausoleums of misery that have been built in their name, and with their money. And if architecture is your thing, Victorian to modern with all the stops in between, this book will probably keep you as happy as a pig in uniform. But while you admire the full-colour pictures of cells and punishment blocks, spare a thought for the human beings who are held inside them, forced to see them every day, sometimes for decades, until it becomes easier to take their own lives rather than keep on seeing them.
English Heritage received "unprecedented co-operation" from the Home Office and the prison service during the three years it took to put this book together. It can only be a coincidence that English Prisons was launched in the same week that Beverley Hughes, the prisons minister, gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph outlining plans to sell off most of the inner-city Victorian prisons - the very prisons that receive such fulsome praise from English Heritage.
The plan is to create a generation of "super prisons", holding up to 1,500 prisoners, on sites outside major cities. They will be built and run by the private sector, but paid for by selling prime prison real estate to developers. …