Since the inception of the ‘modern’ prison system in the mid-nineteenth century to the current day, the relationship between mental illness and the prison has been hotly debated, in terms of why so many prisons came to contain large numbers of mentally ill people, as well as their tendency as institutions to produce or exacerbate mental disease.
This strand of the project explores this enduring relationship and the management of mental illness in English and Irish prisons. Prison governors, medical officers, chaplains and other prison officers grappled with relentlessly high levels of mental illness among prisoners, and the detrimental impact of prison regimes – the separate system and solitary confinement, overcrowding, and poor diet and conditions. However, advocates of these regimes and prison officials were reluctant in many cases to acknowledge the impact of prison discipline on prisoners’ health and wellbeing, as they remained ever alert to cases of malingering and feinged insanity. Mental breakdown was often attributed to the intrinsic mental weakness of the prison population and by the late nineteenth century explanations of the criminal mind were invoked which rested on ideas of degeneration and hereditary weakness.
Drawing on under-utilised prison records, official reports, medical literature and memoirs, this strand of research investigates the ways in which mental breakdown was experienced by prisons and their prisoners mapping changes in approaches to care and treatment. It interrogates the impact of reform and change in health care provision within and beyond the prison walls, and the relationship of the prison with the mental hospital and psychiatric services.
Image: MSS 16A/7/23/1, Howard League Papers. Photograph courtesy of Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick