The history of Brixton Prison and what we can learn from it

A brief reflection on the history of London’s oldest working prison

 female_convicts_at_work_in_brixton_womens_prison_after_mayhew__binny_1862 via Wikimedia Commons

Back when Brixton Prison Was a womens Prison in 1862. Photo via Wikimedia Commons


Chris Impey is the Managing director of National Prison Radio and in 2013 he wrote and produced two documentaries for BBC Radio 4 about the history of HMP Brixton.

Prison Watch UK spoke to Chris about London’s oldest working prison and his views that prisons alone cannot solve all our problems.


What’s so different about Brixton prison?

Chris Impey. Photo:

Chris Impey. Photo:

Chris Developed his fascination with the history of Brixton prison when he was researching for a topic to write a book about. He eventually became deeply engaged in the history of Brixton prison.

He said the prison is special in many ways becausethe history of Brixton reflects and tells the story of the history of prisons, a kind of microcosm of what’s gone on in prisons over the last 200 years.



The pioneers of prisons

According to Chris, HMP Brixton was the first place to trial and popularise many forms of penal policy.

The earliest example of this was the treadmill. Made famous at Brixton, it was an elongated waterwheel, where many prisoners would tread upon it walking up to two miles or so a day. This was connected to a mill that would then grind flour for the prisoners.

He described how it proliferated round the country as there was a general fear of crime at the time.

“The country went mad about it … people really thought the treadmill was the answer. [They thought] it was going to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who was going to commit a minor crime; scared of going to the treadmill.”


A Prison Treadmill or Treadwheel. Photo: Wikimedia commons

A Prison Treadmill or Treadwheel. Photo: Wikimedia commons


Brixton was also the first place to trial isolating prisoners, silencing and separating them from the other inmates as a form of control and punishment.

When Brixton became a women’s prison in 1853, they trialled and introduced an incentives scheme for good behaviour, where inmates, for example, would be rewarded with extra visits. A scheme which is now commonplace in nearly all modern prisons.

And more recently it has pioneered famous rehabilitation schemes such as The Clink Restaurant, the Bad Boys’ bakery and the National Prison Radio.


Prisons alone will not solve society’s problems

The overarching lesson that he seemed to extract from Brixton’s history was that,

“there has always been an effort to try and do something new and it does not seem to matter what new things people do it never quite solves the problem.”

“People still think… that the whole problem of crime can be answered by how we run prisons.”

“And that’s never going to happen,” he added.

He finished by saying that there is never going to be a prison system that can solve society’s problems.

“Prisons can give people opportunities they can help give people an education but really as a society we want to be looking at schools and parenting and that kind of thing … we have to look outside prisons to solve a lot of issues that are found in prisons”


You can read more about the History of Brixton Prison on Chris’s Blog .


TWITTER: @prisonwatchuk


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