A “short history” of anything that begins in 1066 is a daunting prospect and, given the many weighty tomes on prison history already on the market, I was rather hoping this volume would be more like a Bill Bryson book. Those interested in the history of our prison system, and who can see its potential to engage and entertain, should not be deterred by the dour title. Although it is not filled with quite as many gags and wry observations as a Bryson travelogue, Pain and Retribution is a thoroughly entertaining and informative read. Written by the charismatic David Wilson, the former prison governor turned criminology professor and media personality, the book rolls along at a cracking pace, full of gossip and anecdotes that illuminate what really happens within the “belly of the beast”.
Few scholarly histories go as far back as Wilson takes us, and there is undeniably a grim fascination in reading the vivid tales of torture and executions, of imprisoning members of the nobility (and, later, spies) in the Tower of London, and of the informal economy that thrived within the walls of Newgate Prison. But it was the events that have occurred in my lifetime, and that are now part of the cultural landscape via their retelling in novels, films and television dramas, that most piqued my interest. Here, Wilson doesn’t disappoint; he recounts with relish the tales that are now part of folklore, of the crimes, imprisonment and subsequent escapes – including the infamous duo who absconded from HMP Gartree by helicopter – that marked the period when prisoners (or some prisoners, at least) shrugged off the public shame of previous eras and became feted for their daring escapades and for sticking two fingers up at the Establishment. The autobiographies of ordinary rank-and-file prison officers are also dissected and served up. Their eye-popping stories of the alcohol-fuelled violence and casual brutality that marked the prisons of the 1970s are perfectly framed by Wilson’s observations about the penal philosophies of the time.
Like many other books on the subject, this one largely ignores the pain and retribution meted out to women in prison, and to children and young people. The former only really appear in an ill-judged section on the ITV drama series Bad Girls, and the latter group in reference to a Channel 5 reality show, Banged Up, in which Wilson appeared. These programmes will have been largely forgotten by the readers of this book (if they ever tuned in in the first place) and did not perform a penal reform function, however much the author protests that they did. Here, they stall a narrative that otherwise flows beautifully and has a pleasing holistic quality that emphasises continuities, rather than changes, in punishment over the centuries.
The book ends with a thoughtful commentary on the author’s visit to the prison museum at HMP Wandsworth and the ghost of the gallows in what is now used as a cleaning store. Pondering a civil servant’s bumptious instruction – as recently as the mid 1990s – for the gallows to be dismantled rather than disposed of, in case capital punishment was ever reintroduced, our knowledgeable and entertaining guide on this journey through the ages of incarceration becomes thoughtful and melancholy. Wilson writes powerfully and affectingly about the continuing role of the prison as a primary site of state-sanctioned violence directed at the socially disadvantaged, whose life chances – and all too frequently, lives – are cut short by their placement on the penal production line.
In the end, then, a volume that raises many smiles in the course of its reading becomes a statement on the tragedy of our prison system. One hopes it will change a few minds, not only about what prisons are but also about what they do.
Pain and Retribution: A Short History of British Prisons, 1066 to the Present
By David Wilson
Reaktion, 240pp, £20.00
Published 14 March 2014