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Health and wellbeing in Inveraray Jail

Damp, stuffy and overcrowded, Inveraray’s Old Prison was not the healthiest of environments. When it opened in 1820 there was no heating (imagine that on wintry Argyll night!), no washroom and no proper sanitation as we would understand it. Because standards of hygiene were so poor, outbreaks of disease were common. Prisoners had to pay for their own food so malnutrition was rife. With no secure place to exercise, the poor souls were confined to their cramped, windowless cells day and night. Women, men and children, the sane and the insane, all crowded in together. Petty child criminals might share space with murderers, the convicted with the yet-to-be tried. These conditions were a recipe for physical and mental suffering.

Fast forward thirty years and the situation had changed thanks to the Prison Reform Act of 1839, which ruled that prisoners should be clothed, fed and exercised and cells should be meet certain conditions. The Old Prison was fully upgraded, with the addition of facilities such as a water closet with a bath and washing stand and a heating system. The New Prison, meanwhile, was completed in 1848. It was a model of its day, with twelve individual cells, a water closet on every floor and a washroom. The building was well heated and ventilated and was lit by gas. All in all it was a much more wholesome and comfortable – some would say too comfortable – place for inmates to serve their time.

Under the new regime, hygiene was paramount. On arrival, prisoners were often far from clean. A Peter Campbell, imprisoned for ten days in 1840, was described as being ‘very dirty and naked and swarming with vermin’. Each new inmate was given a bath and issued with two sets of prison clothing. From them on they were expected to wash every morning and evening and take a bath once a fortnight. Underwear had to be washed once a week and outerwear once a month.

Prisoners exercised for one hour a day in the Airing Yards.

Exercise was deemed important too. Airing yards were built in 1843 to provide a secure place where prisoners could walk in the fresh air. Each prisoner had to be exercised for an hour a day. It must have been a real relief from the confines of the cell walls. Food was provided for free. It was plain – porridge, soup, bread and milk – but more plentiful and nutritious than many of the prisoners would have been used to in their lives outside. As a result, prisoners often put on weight during their stay. The Prison Surgeon examined and weighed all prisoners on admission and every four weeks after. He also had to examine each prisoner as to the ‘hardness or softness of muscles and the pliancy or stiffness of his limbs’.

The Surgeon was a new post, appointed in 1940 as a result of the Prison Reform Act. He was responsible for prisoners’ wellbeing and had to make sure they were adequately fed and that their cells were properly heated and ventilated. He had to approve certain punishments, such as a bread-and-water diet or placing prisoners in handcuffs. He was also on call to tend to sick or violent prisoners. When prisoner Jane Campbell, for example, fell seriously ill she was given castor oil and cups of beef tea. When this failed to cure her she was eventually removed from the prison on the recommendation of the Surgeon. In another case, the Surgeon was called to attend Anabella MacFarlane who, on 13th August 1846, gave birth in her cell to a boy.

Whipping was introduced in 1852 as an alternative to sending boys to prison.

Thanks to all the changes of the Prison Reform Act, by the middle of the 19th century prisoners in Inveraray Jail were healthier than ever before. But there was a growing feeling that the improvements had perhaps gone a little too far. Had life become too easy for the convicts? What if a jail sentence was no longer a deterrent for crime? For some children, especially those without a home, life was a daily battle for survival. A spell in prison, where they would be warm and looked after, could look rather appealing. So in 1852, whipping was introduced as an alternative to sending boys to prison. The whippings, not exceeding 12 lashes for each boy under 14 years of age and 36 lashes for those over 14, were supervised by the Surgeon. The adults saw some changes too. The jail introduced wooden beds complete with wooden pillows that prisoners had to sleep on for the first 30 days of their sentence. Well, you wouldn’t want prisoners to get too comfy would you? They might not want to leave!

When you visit Inveraray Jail you can find out more about life in jail. Meet the prisoners, take a walk in the airing yards and try to imagine how you would have kept healthy if you were locked up in the cells all those years ago.


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX