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Scotland’s prison reform visionary

Cold, damp and dark: life in Inveraray Jail’s Old Prison was full of hardship. It was also very boring. There was no place to exercise and no work or education was provided. Time must have dragged for those poor souls who found themselves locked up in the early 1800s.

Fast forward 50 years and things were very different. And much of that is thanks to the enlightened philosophy and energy of one man: William Brebner. It was largely down to his influence that conditions at Inveraray Jail improved both in terms of the quality of prison staff and the physical conditions prisoners endured.

Airing-yards2

The Airing Yards were built in 1843 so that prisoners could exercise in the open air.

Brebner was the Governor of Glasgow Bridewell Prison for more than 30 years. By all accounts he was a man way ahead of his time in term of his humane approach to dealing with prisoners and his firm belief in the possibility of rehabilitation for all inmates – or at least all those who were sound of mind. Under Brebner’s supervision, Bridewell became a role model for prison reform and his methods and procedures were adopted widely in Scottish jails – including Inveraray.

When it opened, Glasgow Bridewell didn’t exactly garner rave reviews. A press report from 1799, just a year into its existence, stated:

From want of sufficient accommodation to meet the swelling population, it not infrequently happened that as many as six, eight and 10 individuals were chained together in the same cell – eight ft by seven ft – ill ventilated and horribly arranged. The old and the young were mixed together – the hardened and the most pliable.

However, things changed and a report for a House of Commons Select Committee published in 1826, well into the Brebner regime, stated:

“…the prisoners are kept separate, and at constant work from six o”clock morning till eight at night”.

Brebner’s approach to running a prison was holistic and methodical. He turned his attention not only to every aspect of prison life, but to the welfare of individuals after they had left prison.

Female prisoners

Brebner ensured that female prisoners were separated from their male counterparts and supervised only by female staff.

He improved the inmates’ diet, he classified them according to age and gender to ensure that the vulnerable did not fall prey to the hardened criminals and he ensured that female prisoners were separated from their male counterparts and supervised only by female staff.

He introduced a regime of productive labour, as opposed to the unproductive machine-based tasks seen later in the Victorian era and he attempted to improve the habits and conduct of prisoners to the point of being “tolerable”.

But Brebner also recognised that to improve the conditions of his prisoners he had to improve those of his prison staff, including the warders who might otherwise fall prey to bribery and corruption from their charges. He ensured they were adequately paid, worked reasonable hours and had holidays, something which was almost unheard of at the time.

Brebner’s training regime for his staff meant that they were in high demand to run prisons across the length and breadth of Scotland, but far from being reluctant to lose his best staff, it seems that Brebner was keen to see his influence and his ideas spread far and wide through the dispersal of his well-trained personnel.

And one of those was Malcom Thompson, who, after training under Brebner at Bridewell, was appointed Governor of Inveraray Jail in 1841. We know that Brebner had a hand in the appointment of Thomson. A contemporary report by the Inspector of Prisons referring to Inveraray states, I have to report that a keeper [Governor] and matron have appointed under the recommendation of Mr Brebner and the keeper as proposed by Mr Brebner was empowered to appoint an under keeper which he has done.”

It seems that Thompson applied Brebner’s methods to improve conditions in Inveraray Jail but, perhaps as age and diminishing energy caught up with him, his standards slipped. The report by the Inspector of Scottish Prisons in 1871 heavily criticised Thompson and indeed the entire Inveraray Jail regime.

Nevertheless, many prisoners throughout Scotland, including those at Inveraray Jail, would have had much to thank William Brebner for in the 1800s – even if they didn’t know it at the time!


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX