The Persistence of the Victorian Prison

Project: Research council

Project Details


Twenty-two thousand, or over a quarter, of the custodial population of England and Wales currently reside in 32 prisons with Victorian-era accommodation, and since most of these are 'local' prisons (i.e. holding those awaiting trial or sentencing), very few of the remaining sixty thousand will NOT have spent time in one. Media reports describe their continued operation as a 'scandal', and frequent calls to 'tear down the Victorian prisons' echo a 1922 report claiming that 'the only reform to which the buildings can be usefully subjected is dynamite'. A century on, despite politicians' frequent promises to close these outdated 'relics', they remain an integral part of the prison estate.

What are the implications of their continued operation? How can we understand the tension between the capacity of old buildings to carry (or not) new ideas and experiences, versus their capacity to carry the traces of their own past and the past lives they contained? This project asks how and with what implications Victorian-era prisons continue to operate despite their apparent obsolescence, and whether their operation should continue.

The 'persistence' of Victorian prisons means that despite being considered 'outdated' in the 1920s, many have operated for a further century, and their permanence is reinforced through numerous intertextual loops in the collective consciousness. Through multiple methodologies, this project traces the fabric, function, feel, 'framing' and 'fallout' of these prisons - the ways in which the buildings have changed over time; the influence of the buildings over prison management across their period of operation; what it was and is like to be incarcerated in these buildings over time, and the implications of their continued operation. What we mean by 'framing' and 'fallout' is the ways in which the survival of these buildings influences wider transformation in the prison estate, both in terms of potentially hindering broader progress in the contemporary prison estate, and influencing both contemporary design and construction processes, and notions of what prison should be 'like'.

In partnership with the UK's oldest penal reform organisation The Howard League for Penal Reform, this interdisciplinary project combines archival research, oral histories, discourse analysis of literary and media sources, interviews, creative methodologies with prisoners and staff, and a public engagement and co-production strategy - engaging both incarcerated and 'free' populations - to understand these prisons' material and conceptual solidity. A series of interactive multimedia exhibitions (both inside and outside prisons) builds cumulatively and reflectively upon diverse materials (e.g. archival records and photographs, oral histories, prisoner poetry and artwork), culminating in a conference addressing the critical policy question of the future of these Victorian establishments.

By tracing these prisons through time, the project critically reinterprets notions of obsolescence in the built environment, explores the UK's enduring cultural attachment to a particular (arguably archaic) material manifestation of punishment, and informs contemporary policy development around these contentious issues.
Effective start/end date1/11/2031/10/24

Collaborative partners


  • Economic and Social Research Council


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