Mentally Disordered Prisoners: Drawing on History


Professor Hilary Marland (University of Warwick) and Associate Professor Catherine Cox (University College Dublin)


Mentally Disordered Prisoners: Drawing on History


Speaking at the policy workshop, ‘The Prison and Mental Health: From Confinement to Diversion’, London, 12 February 2016.


Hilary and Catherine’s presentation underlined historical continuities between the first modern prison systems of the mid-nineteenth century and those of the present day, regarding the large number of mentally disturbed prisoners and also the tendency of the prison itself to either exacerbate or instigate episodes of mental illness.

The high level of mental illness in the contemporary prison population is a well-established fact; some 70% of male and female prisoners in Britain have been found to have two or more mental disorders; while in Ireland, the rate of psychosis among remand prisoners, at 7.6%, is ten times that of the general population. In 1851, the noted psychiatrist Dr Forbes Winslow, reported his findings that some 1.4% of prisoners in Pentonville Model Prison were mentally ill, while the rate of insanity in the general population was then thought to be about 0.25%. While the figure for Pentonville was likely to be a large underestimate, it shows the discrepancy with rates outside of prison.

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The talk focused in particular on the exacting regime of separate, cellular confinement, first implemented at Pentonville when it was established in 1842. Inmates there were not allowed to communicate with each other and had to work, eat, and sleep in their cells, where they were confined for almost 23 hours each day. When they were moved through the prison, their faces were covered by masks, or hoods. In chapel they were seated in separate closed stalls, while exercise took place in individually partitioned airing yards. Everything was done to isolate the prisoner from their fellow inmates.

The separate system was designed to encourage reform and moral reclamation as prolonged solitude, its proponents argued, would make the mind of the prisoner receptive to the moral exhortations of the prison chaplain and others. However, critics both within and without the prison system quickly noted solitary confinement’s deleterious impact on the physical and mental health of the confined. It soon became clear that the separate system often led to mental breakdown and suicide among prisoners.

Rounding off their discussion, the presenters remarked that historical research can be useful in highlighting areas of concern, continuity and change in the prison system, as well as recurring challenges. They also suggested that current debates and key issues regarding mental health in the prison system might prompt, shape and inform historical inquiry.

Hilary and Catherine are the recent recipients of a five year, Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award, running from 2014-15, for their project ‘Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000’.

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