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Admittedly, Wordsworth was a Romantic English poet of the Victorian Age with some highfalutin ideals and a penchant for a Christian God. But he also had some pretty radical ideas about the health of the human soul being dependent on its environment.

“Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing Boy.”

Along with the dirt and the consolidation of British class frameworks, the industrial revolution also ushered in the politics of institutions and discipline. Wordsworth lamented a society in which the economies of labour stacked the odds against the young and unschooled.

The prison was a notion of culture; as visible in the cities as it was felt in the soul. Piers Lewis summarised it as such:

The prison house that Wordsworth is talking about is more metaphorical than literal; he is thinking of the force or weight of social rules and conventions, of received ideas, of ready-made or pre-formed thoughts – clichés

Got any conventions or received ideas you’d like to take the opportunity to shed?

In his book Prisongate (2005), David Ramsbotham, former Chief Inspector of Her Majesty’s Prison Service, quotes a young prison reformer, Winston Churchill.

Ramsbotham read Churchill’s words very early in his employment as Chief Inspector, and kept them close throughout his five year tenure. Ramsbotham understood the following quote as “the clearest possible condemnation of punitive, as opposed to rehabilitative, imprisonment.”

Churchill concluded the parliamentary debate:

We must not forget that when every material improvement has been effected in prisons, when the temperature has been rightly adjusted, when the proper food to maintain health and strength has been given, when the doctors, chaplains and prison visitors have come and gone, the convict stands deprived of everything that a free man calls life. We must not forget that all these improvements, which are sometimes salves to our consciences, do not change that position.

The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state, and even of convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes, and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.

House of Commons speech, given as Home Secretary, July 20, 1910

Note: Often Churchill’s House of Commons speech, July 20, 1910 is quoted without this first paragraph. Ramsbotham plumped for the expanded version.

Prisongate is a riveting book in which Ramsbotham details his observations, strategies, inspections and concern within a broken UK prison system. The London Review of Books said “Prisongate will make uncomfortable reading for ministers. It is a vivid and at times idiosyncratic account expressive in equal measure of personal frustration and moral outrage.”

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