Chairman of the Brixton Prison Visiting Committee / Sir Vansittart Bowater
May 10, 1918
As part of a major reform of the English penal system, the Prison Act (1898) had created three distinct categories of confinement for offenders sentenced to two years or less (without hard labour) in a “local” prison. (A separate tripartite system of classification applied to prisoners serving longer terms of penal servitude in Britain’s “convict” prisons.) For less serious crimes, the courts were to consider the “nature of the offence” and the “antecedents” of the guilty party before deciding in which division the sentence would be served. But in practice such direction was rarely given, and the overwhelming majority of offenders was therefore assigned third-division status by default and automatically subjected to the harshest (local) prison discipline (see Victor Bailey, “English Prisons, Penal Culture, and the Abatement of Imprisonment, 1895–1922”, Journal of British Studies 36 : 294). Yet prisoners in the second division, to which BR was originally sentenced, were subject to many of the same rigours and rules as those in the third. Debtors, of whom there were more than 5,000 in local prisons in 1920, constituted a special class of inmate, whose less punitive conditions of confinement were stipulated in law rather than left to the courts’ discretion.
The exceptional nature of the first-division classification that BR obtained from the unsuccessful appeal of his conviction should not be underestimated. The tiny minority of first-division inmates was exempt from performing prison work, eating prison food and wearing prison clothes. They could send and receive a letter and see visitors once a fortnight (more frequently than other inmates could do), furnish their cells, order food from outside, and hire another prisoner as a servant. As BR’s dealings with the Brixton and Home Office authorities illustrate, prison officials determined the nature and scope of these and other privileges (for some of which payment was required). “The first division offenders are the aristocrats of the prison world”, concluded the detailed inquiry of two prison reformers who had been incarcerated as conscientious objectors: “The rules affecting them have a class flavour … and are evidently intended to apply to persons of some means” (Stephen Hobhouse and A. Fenner Brockway, eds., English Prisons To-day [London: Longmans, Green, 1922], p. 221). BR’s brother described his experience in the first division at Holloway prison, where he spent three months for bigamy in 1901, in My Life and Adventures (London: Cassell, 1923), pp. 286–90. Frank Russell paid for his “lodgings”, catered meals were served by “magnificent attendants in the King’s uniform”, and visitors came three times a week. In addition, the governor spent a half-hour in conversation with him daily. At this time there were seven first-class misdemeanants, who exercised (or sat about) by themselves. Frank concluded that he had “a fairly happy time”, and “I more or less ran the prison as St. Paul did after they had got used to him.” BR’s privileges were not quite so splendid as Frank’s, but he too secured a variety of special entitlements (see Letter 5).
May 10, 1918