Beyond Reading Gaol: Prison Writings and Mental Illness

Drawing on research from our ‘Prisoners and Mental Illness’ theme, Hilary Marland reveals how nineteenth-century prison memoirs illuminate experiences of mental breakdown in prison

Oscar Wilde

This autumn innovative arts organisation Artangel takes over Reading Gaol to curate an exhibition of art works that respond to the architecture of the prison, the themes of separation and imprisonment, and to the work of Oscar Wilde. Wilde, sentenced to two years hard labour for homosexual offences in 1895, was imprisoned in Reading Gaol from November 1895 until his release in 1897. The event also features readings of prison letters, including Wilde’s De Profundis, a moving love letter to Lord Alfred Douglas composed in Reading Gaol in 1897. Wilde became an advocate of prison reform on his release, and his disgust at prison regimes and conditions were highlighted in two letters to the editor of the Daily Chronicle and more memorably in his poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, published in 1898. Wilde undoubtedly bequeathed some of the most evocative accounts we have of prison life, emphasising the cruelty and stupidity of the prison regime. He stressed the terrible plight of children confined in prison as well as the horrors of the separate system, which kept prisoners alone in their cells for up to 23 hours of the day. His second letter to the Daily Chronicle, published in 1898, claimed that the present prison system ‘seems almost to have for its aim the wrecking and the destruction of the mental faculties. The production of insanity is, if not its object, certainly its result.’1 Wilde also described how he had found his salvation in prison through the sympathetic awareness and pity prompted by ‘looking at the others’. Seeing the unhappiness of other prisoners, he claimed, excited his pity, and ‘broke his obsession’ with his own fate.2

Prison Memoirs

Wilde, however, was far from alone in chronicling the privations of prison life, and large numbers of prison memoirs were produced around the same period, many also preoccupied with describing the experiences of prisoners unable to speak for themselves, as well as recounting their own feelings and responses. These works recreated vivid accounts of prison life: the revolting diet, the lack of exercise and fresh air, the cruelty of the warders, the hard labour and dreadful tasks imposed on prisoners, the dreary boredom, the iron grip of prison weekends, the wasted lives, the loneliness, desperation and sadness. Susan Willis Fletcher described the full force of prison conditions after her confinement in Westminster Prison in 1881, the cold and damp, the poor diet and above all the solitude: ‘Each prisoner is locked in her solitary cell for twenty-three hours out of every twenty-four; which is in itself a very dreadful punishment bad for the health of the body, worse for the health of the mind – abnormal, inhuman, diseasing, demoralizing.’3 She also remarked on the distress of the other prisoners: ‘When I began to look about me, I… soon came to think of others as well as myself… forming an entire new world, of which I had hitherto no idea’.4

‘In His Separate Hell’

Like Wilde, many prisoners, spoke of the devastating impact of separate confinement, as it led to mental ruin and insanity. ‘No-one’, declared, the author of Her Majesty’s Prisons in 1881, can conceive ‘how quickly confinement in a small cell, tells upon the health and nervous system of a man’.5 Why the authorities ‘should leave a man alone with his thoughts for eight months I cannot possibly conceive’, reflected prisoner John Lee of his experiences at the start of his sentence in Pentonville in 1885. ‘I can think of nothing more calculated to drive a prisoner mad than eight months of solitude with nothing to think about but his own miseries, with no companion save despair’.6 ‘Alone’, wrote another Pentonville prisoner, ‘one gets talking to oneself; and the whitewashed walls have such cold sympathy!’ He also described his nights disturbed by lunatics: ‘had two men, who had come in as prisoners but who went out as madmen, raving all day and most of the night in these padded cells. There they were, stark naked, their clothes having been taken from them, as a protection against their habits of tearing everything up… Their habits were filthy… One of them had been in the British army, and was to be heard pacing up and down, crying imaginary military words of command, such as “Foreward! Right – about – turn!” etc., as he practised these manoeuvres in the narrow precincts of his cell.’7 ‘The prison cellular system kept each man ‘in his separate hell’, wrote another prisoner of his confinement in the early 1920s, as in place of the physical torture of days gone by, we find substituted ‘a peculiar form of mental torture… it is not difficult to understand how the minds of many prisoners become warped and contorted from the comparatively healthy state to the imbecile and dangerous’.8

Solitary Confinement and Mental Health

As we read such accounts, we find echoes of the sufferings of Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol and affirmation of the plight of prisoners experiencing the separate system in the historical past and the present. Solitary confinement or segregation continues to be used extensively in Britain and worldwide, to control and punish prisoners, to keep prisons ‘safe’ or to be imposed in prisons facing severe staff shortages and a lack of resources, despite widespread acknowledgement that such treatment results in mental breakdown or exacerbates existing mental health conditions, producing anxiety, stress, depression and hopelessness. Recent comments from prisoners recorded by Prison Watch UK relate the effects of solitary confinement: ‘[Segregation] just made me worse and made me mentally even more ill.’ ‘Feeling suicidal, neglected, victimised, locked up 23 hours, on my bed covering my head. I was cold, depressed, and suicidal. Cry myself to sleep not mentally able to do anything. Die, I wanted to die.’ ‘Your head does go… only so many times you can speak to four walls.’9

Image Credit

Woking Convict Invalid Prison: a woman prisoner in solitary confinement. Process print after P. Renouard, 1889. V0041242, Wellcome Library, London


1 To the Editor of the Daily Chronicle, 23 March 1898, reproduced in Oscar Wilde: The Soul of Man and Prison Writings, edited with introduction by Isobel Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 193.

2 Peter Stoneley, ‘“Looking at Others”: Oscar Wilde and the Reading Gaol Archive’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 19 (2014), 457-80, on 457.

3 Susan Willis Fletcher, Twelve Months in an English Prison (Boston: Lee and Shephard and New York: Charles T. Dillingham, 1884), 319.

4 Ibid., 350.

5 Her Majesty’s Prisons: Their Effects and Defects, By one who has tried them, vols 1 and 2 (London: Sampson Low, Marsten, Searle & Rivington, 1881), vol. 1, 111.

6 The Man they Could Not Hang: The Life Story of John Lee, Told by Himself (London: Mellifont Press, 1936).

7 Pentonville Prison from Within (with an Actress in the Background) (London: Greening & Co., 1904), 12, 137-8

8 B.2.15, Among the Broad-Arrow Men. A Plain Account of English Prison Life (London: A. and C. Black, 1924), 64.

9 Prison Watch UK, Solitary confinement in the UK in the words of prisoners and staff:

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