Why England Still Builds Victorian Prisons

They’re easier to control than more modern prisons. Still, yeesh.

In rapidly industrializing Victorian England, rising crime levels (and public fretting over the “criminal classes”) led to a prison construction boom. Between 1842 and 1877, 90 prisons were built in the country. These facilities “were marked by dirt and ‘disorder’ to an extent now difficult to grasp,” as Philip Priestley wrote in Victorian Prison Lives, a 1999 book on English prisons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


According to The Economist, Victorian prison design seems to be coming back, albeit slowly, with the building of two prisons in the same style recently, one in 2012 and one beginning this summer. It’s an odd design for modern architects to emulate, as the magazine notes, since these prisons were particularly grim places:

The large, oppressive prisons built in Britain in the 19th century have long been thought inadequate. Cells are stacked in rows either side of a narrow central atrium–inevitably now covered with netting to prevent prisoners flinging themselves or others to their deaths.

Newgate cell and galleries via Wikipedia

Victorian prisons were designed to accommodate what was called the separate system, a method of solitary confinement based on the theory that prisoners needed silent reflection time to think about their crimes. The design resembles the dank cell rows depicted in pretty much every prison movie (here’s a shot from The Shawshank Redemption). From above, the wings of the building fan out like the point of a star from a central point, with blocks of cells stacked around an atrium.

It’s not an uplifting design, certainly, but more recent prison designs have proved problematic for other reasons:

Prisons built in the 1960s and 1970s resemble hospitals. Ceilings are low, allowing prisoners to scratch the lenses of CCTV cameras or yank off their metal cases to use as weapons. Small corridors contain dangerous blind spots. During riots in Risley prison, which opened in 1964, people were trapped on landings where stairwells stopped halfway down. Control is simply easier in older prisons, says Kevin Lockyer, a former governor.

Prison design can be a dicey moral field to inhabit for an architect. A group called Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility recently petitioned the American Institute of Architects to amend its code of ethics to prohibit members from designing “supermax” prisons, arguing that the prolonged solitary confinement such prisons enable is a form of torture. Architects who design those spaces wade into murky ethical area, the group says.

Bird’s-eye view of Millbank Prison from Henry Mayhew’s, ‘The Criminal Prisons of London’, 1862. via British Library

Victorian prison designers may have been more effective architects than the prison designers of the ’60s and ’70s. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that if it came down to it, we’d rather go to a notoriously humane Scandinavian prison.

Read more about English prison design in The Economist.


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut