Life in Jail

Life in Jail

From 1839 onwards, all physically fit criminal prisoners had to work in their cells for up to ten hours a day.

Prison Work

In Inveraray most male prisoners made herring nets or picked oakum. Some with special skills were employed at shoemaking, tailoring or joinery work. Female prisoners picked oakum, knitted stockings or sewed.

Making herring nets and picking oakum were the main prison occupations. Inveraray was a busy herring port until the late 19th century and the nets were readily sold to local fishermen.

Oakum was the fibre from short lengths of old rope that had been picked or teased apart. It was mostly sold in Greenock and was used for caulking or sealing the seams of wooden ships and for stuffing mattresses.

Prisoners were expected to pick between 2 and 5 lbs of oakum each day. Herring nets had to be of a certain standard.

Records were kept and prisoners could be punished if they did not achieve what was expected of them. If they did more work than was required, they were paid for this “overwork” and received the money on the day they left prison.

Cell Life

Prisoners slept, ate and worked in their cells and were only allowed out for exercise once a day or to go to the washroom or WC.

On arrival in Inveraray Jail, all prisoners had to go through the same procedure. Their particulars were recorded, they were weighed and measured by the Prison Surgeon and were tested as to their proficiency in reading and writing. They were then given a bath before being issued with a set of prison clothing.

In their cell, they were provided with a hammock, mattress, blankets, sheets, a pillow, towel, comb, spoon and salt cup. Each cell had a stool, box and chamber pot with lid. On the wall hung a copy of the prison rules.

Protestant prisoners were given a Bible, Prayer Book and Hymn Book, Catholic Prisoners were given the Douai Bible, Garden of the Soul and Crown Hymn Book.

In the middle of last century, it was felt that prison life had become too easy. To make life less comfortable, wooden "guard beds" with wooden pillows were introduced. Prisoners had to sleep on them for the first thirty days of their sentence. Inveraray Jail had four of these beds.

In the early days of the Old Prison prisoners wore their own clothes. New regulations brought in during the 1840's stated that, on arrival, all convicted prisoners should be issued with a set of prison clothing.

Hard Labour

Life in prison was made more unpleasant by such hard labour tasks as turning the crank machine, shot drill or climbing the treadwheel. It was thought that these useless and often exhausting activities would act as a deterrent and discourage prisoners from committing further crimes on their release.

The crank machine, a form of useless labour, was introduced in the middle of the last century to make prison life tougher for those prisoners sentenced to hard labour. Male prisoners had to turn the handle 14,400 times a day forcing four large cups or ladles through sand inside a drum.

The number of revolutions was registered on the dial. The warder could make the task harder by tightening a screw, hence the slang word for prison warder – “screw”. In Inveraray Jail, there was only one crank machine and little evidence that it was in fact used.

The Treadmill

The treadmill or treadwheel was like the elongated wheel of a paddle steamer with 24 steps instead of paddles. Prisoners stood, hanging onto a bar or strap, in individual compartments over these steps. The wheel turned under their weight. Prisoners had to keep climbing or fall off. It was exhausting and utterly unproductive work. Though they were widely used in English jails, few treadwheels were built in Scotland and all were removed by the 1840's. Shot drill, another form of hard labour, was practiced in certain English prisons. The drill consisted of stooping down without bending the knees, picking up heavy cannon-ball, bringing it up slowly until it was on a level with the chest, taking three steps to the right, replacing it on the ground and then stepping back three paces to start the procedure all over again. Warders shouted orders while prisoners, sweating profusely, moved cannon-balls with precision from one pile to another.

Food in Jail

The food was cooked in the courthouse kitchen by the matron, and served to the prisoners in their cells. Prisoners were provided with a spoon, a 2 pint zinc dish for their broth or soup and a 3 gill zinc bowl for their milk.

Milk for the prison was bought 'from a passing milk cart'. In winter when supplies were short, prisoners had sometimes to make do with treacle water as a substitute.

The quantities of food provided for the different classes of prisoner were strictly laid down in the prison rules.

For dinner a female prisoner who was unfit for work would receive 1 1/2 pints of soup and 6 ounces of bread; while a male prisoner who was fit for work would receive 2 pints of soup and 12 ounces of bread. Male prisoners weighing more than 12 stones (without boots) and female prisoners weighing more than 11 stones (without shoes) were entitled to receive an extra 1 ounce of cheese and 4 ounces of bread daily.

Breakfast was served at 7.30am. A prisoner would receive 5 ounces of oatmeal made into porridge with 3/4 pint of milk. Dinner at 1.00pm consisted of soup and bread. Each pint of soup had to contain an ounce of marrow bones or ox head, 1 1/2 ounces of barley, 1/2 ounce of green peas, 1 1/2 ounces of leeks, carrots, turnips and other similar vegetables and 1/4 ounce of onion.

Supper, served at 6.00pm, was 5 ounces of oatmeal made into porridge and 1/2 pint of milk.
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Did You Know?
The Crank Machine, a form of useless labour, was introduced to make prison life tougher for those on hard labour. The warder could make the task harder by tightening the screw, hence the slang word for the prison warder - 'screw'.
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