The first half of the 19th century – the period which saw the initial construction and further development of Inveraray Jail – was also a time of prison reform in Britain. The idea of simply removing criminals from society before releasing them, often hardened, embittered or otherwise adversely affected by their experience in jail, began to be questioned. Different approaches to dealing with prisoners were being tried in America, notably the Penitentiary system, which saw prisoners kept separate from one another in cells with silence enforced so that individuals might reflect fully on their crimes and repent.
In Britain too, the idea of rehabilitation gained ground, and it was thought that solitary confinement, silence, hard work and bible study could help achieve this goal. Against this background the Prisons Act of 1835 gave the Home Office a greater role in standardising prison conditions. Part of this process involved appointing prison inspectors who would visit prison facilities throughout the kingdom before making regular reports.
Inveraray, as a significant regional prison, was visited by the inspectors and the resulting reports, which were often less than glowing, provide some fascinating insights into how the institution developed over the decades it was in operation.
The report from 1838 puts the population of Inveraray at 1100 and the inspector begins by giving a brief description of the Jail’s layout:
“The prison of Inveraray consists of five small rooms in the back part of the town house for debtors and revenue prisoners and of a detached building containing eight cells and a day room for criminals…The prison including the part which is detached stands at the back of town house and is so close to the sea side as to be rendered damp.”
Along with the dubious quality of the cells, the inspector was unimpressed by the fact that prisoners – male and female – could associate with each other freely during the daytime and had little in the way of structure to their days.
“There has hitherto been no attempt to maintain anything like discipline. The prisoners have no occupation and most of their time is passed in each other”s society. Even male and female prisoners often associate during the day.”
This lack of occupation and freedom to associate had predictable consequences.
“At the time of my visit there was a woman of loose character who passed most of her time in the company of the other prisoners some of them being men and some boys. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that within the last 3 or 4 years 2 children have been born in the prison.”
With the prison located in the heart of the town and with security being so lax, it was also not surprising that contraband in the form of Scotland’s favourite tipple regularly made its way into the establishment.
“The usual prison offences are making noises quarrelling and fighting getting whisky through the windows and stealing from fellow prisoners. Punishment is seldom inflicted sometimes however a prisoner is confined in one of the sleeping cells. There is no whipping.”
The inspector also gave a brief overview of what is referred to as the “State of Crime” in Inveraray.
“It rarely happens that any serious offence is committed here but there appears to be a considerable number of petty offences consisting chiefly of assaults and thefts. A respectable and active police officer is much wanted.”
At this time, the presence of a police officer, let alone a police force as we would know it, was by no means guaranteed in rural Scottish communities and it was left to town officials or officers of the Scottish judicial system to enforce the law, something which they appear to have done in a haphazard manner.
As for the state of crime in the county of Argyllshire (as it was then known), that seems to have been a more complex and more disturbing picture than that described for Inveraray.
“There appears to be a good deal of crime in this county in proportion to the population. The chief offences are thefts and assaults, the latter being often to the danger of life. In some parts of the county too, child murder is rather common as is forgery in others.”
Increased shipping traffic as well as improved lines of communication by sea throughout the Firth of Clyde also provided opportunities both to steal and to dispose of stolen goods.
“An offence also of a yet more serious character which is still common in this county and which indeed is scarcely yet generally recognised as an offence is the plunder of wrecked vessels. In the neighbourhood of Campbeltown stealing linen and poultry and robbing dairies and gardens have of late become common owing it is believed to the facilities for the disposal of the stolen articles which steam communication with Glasgow and other large towns has afforded.
Sheep stealing appears to be a common offence throughout the county but owing to the want of an efficient police the offenders are seldom detected.”
So, on a county as well as a town level, the inspector calls into question the state of the police force. Lest there be any room for doubt he concludes his report in damning fashion.
“There is a great want of an organized and efficient police. With the exception of few burgh officers the only men employed are sheriff officers and messengers-at-arms who are paid only for the particular service in which they are employed and who with the exception of about half a dozen respectable men are reported to be drunken and worthless.”
It would be a further two decades before police forces became mandatory in Scotland and no doubt in the intervening years, many crimes in both Inveraray and rural Argyll went undetected and unpunished.