London’s Newgate prison erected its gallows in 1783. It was estimated that the state killed around a thousand people there. Then, in the early 1900s, the decision was taken to make Brixton prison the new site for executions. A brick shed was built and a pit dug. The next thing to do was to erect the gallows. However, the locals of Brixton didn’t like this. They had already complained about the sight of prison vans going up and down Brixton Hill. Then it was announced that people would be hung by the neck at Brixton jail and The Shoreditch Observer reported that “the change may not be so favourably regarded by a suburb so famous for its middle-class respectability as Brixton.”
In the end, the gallows at Brixton were never used; in fact they may never even have been built. Instead executions took place at Wandsworth, Pentonville and Holloway. In 2019 the affluent are returning to Brixton. They buy one bedroom flats for a quarter-of-a-million pounds that are a kilometre from the building that incarcerates over 800 men. The middle-class - the people politicians seem most eager to keep happy - sleep within minutes of those not allowed to vote. What relationship will the respectable locals of today’s Brixton have to the prison on their doorstep?
I read The House on the Hill, Christopher Impey’s engaging and compassionate history of Brixton prison, whilst nursing an Oolong tea in one of Brixton Hill’s cafes. The man next to me stopped tapping on his MacBook keyboard when he saw what I was reading. He curled his lip and said ‘To me prisons are like sewers. I get that we need them, but I don’t wanna think about them for too long.’
Hearing that comment I found it easy to imagine the challenge Impey must have faced when composing his book. How do you write a book about prison that isn’t a total turn off? Many writers would solve this problem by glamourising the material, making the violence sexy or fetishising the lip-curling sewer-like aspects of the story. Impey, however, worked at HMP Brixton for National Prison Radio for nearly ten years and the intimate affection he feels for the setting, prisoners and staff comes through on the page.
There’s a dreary predictability to most prison stories. Poverty, addiction, child abuse and mental illness are what so often give shape to the lives of people in prison. So a two hundred page book about prison runs the risk of wearing the reader down with punishing stories before they reach the end. However, Impey’s stories range from sincere to comic. The book discusses suicide; it also tells of a war time prison inspector reporting of the “very bad smell” after inmates are confined to their cells for the weekend and given a diet of beans. The House on the Hill is rescued from cliche by Impey’s eye for the particular - there is one prisoner who kept a photograph of himself in his cell and another who does time for faking his own death.
Brixton prison has had an all-star cast of inmates. The Kray twins were held there at one point. In WWII Oswald Mosley and other Nazi sympathisers were detained. HMP Brixton has hosted members of the IRA, two of whom shot their way out of the prison in 1991. Even the Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell did two spells for his activism as a pacifist. HMP Brixton is a core sample of twentieth century Britain. In its time Brixton prison has held most types of person: men, women, children, political prisoners and politicians. In the 1920s Brixton had its first transgender prisoner. She refused a medical examination upon arrival.
Over the last two hundred years, the prison has been home to the weird, the wonderful and the wounded. Amongst the most idiosyncratic characters Impey tells us about is Dando “the oyster eater.” First convicted in 1831, Dando served several sentences in jail for repeating the same crime. He used to go into restaurants and down as many oysters as he could and then run off without paying the bill. In the 1820s, Brixton also had its fair share of grave robbers. As more people were training to become doctors, the going rate for a corpse was enough to motivate some to dig up bodies for cash. In the 1940s, serial killer John George Haigh was a Brixton prison. He killed victims and dissolved their corpses in sulphuric acid and poured the solution down the drain. Other jailers report that Haigh faced his death sentence with perfect equanimity though he was said to become very emotional when he lost the socks his mother had knitted him.
Despite this cast of sometimes tragic inmates, The House on the Hill is by no means a book of despair. To those who want to find evidence of moral advancement in the punishment system, The House on the Hill offers much confirmation. Impey documents how prisoners used to piss and shit in buckets in their cells and slop out once a day, whereas now inmates have toilets in their cells. The windows used to have bars on that made it very easy to attach a ligature with which prisoners hanged themselves. These days the prison has installed suicide-free windows. In the 1990s staff were said to return from their breaks smelling of booze. This no longer happens.
In the 1980s and 1990s, F-wing housed 250 men with psychiatric conditions. The security staff called this wing “Fraggle Rock” after the TV show about the muppets. A former officer who used to work on F-wing said “We’d bring in silly masks. We’d play tricks on the prisoners by knocking on their door, waking them up and they’d look out of the hatch and there’d be someone in a scary mask. Or we’d squirt water pistols through the door…” “Fraggle Rock” has since been closed down and reopened as G-wing. The “F” is missing from the alphabetical sequence - an attempt by the prison to shed its dark past.
Labour and the habit of industry have always been core to the lives of prisoners in Brixton. Two hundred years ago, the prison boasted a legendary treadwheel. In the summer months, prisoners would be forced to walk on the treadmill for up to ten hours a day. The power generated by the turning of the wheel turned the grinding stones that would produce the flour for making bread. The bread would be fed to inmates in the jail and surrounding prisons. Today Brixton has The Clink, a restaurant open to the public that is run by prisoners. Work is still salvation, but the type of work has become considerably more humane.
As much as Impey’s book reassures the reader that things have gotten better, the prison system still suffers from lots of the problems that Brixton prison was suffering from many years ago. In 1821 Brixton jail was overcrowded; today two-thirds of UK prisons are overcrowded. In 2019, whilst vagrancy itself is no longer a crime, there’s been a significant increase in the police giving fines for begging and criminal convictions for sleeping rough. In the 1800s, newspapers were bemoaning the good quality of food that prisoners receive, not unlike the prison-is-a-hotel style headlines you still see in the Daily Mail. In the past, inmates spent little time out of their cells. Some even saw association as an evil. Prison inspections today often find that staff shortages within jails mean it's not uncommon for prisoners to spend 18 hours a day in a cell.
The House on the Hill shows us that for the last two hundred years there have been those who wanted to reform prisons. It also shows us that there have been those who seek to undo and counter such reforms with a punitive, tough-on-crime approach. The reformists tend to have their way until it is deemed that they have turned prison into a hotel. A tougher regime is then installed until the suicide rate gets out of hand. Then the reformists get their turn again. Progress is undeniable, but there’s also a political back and forth here that is as circular as Brixton’s infamous treadwheel.
In his epilogue Impey describes the ways in which prison and having a criminal record can be ruinous to a person’s sense of themselves and their opportunities. He says that it is not so much prisoners but prisons that need rehabilitating. To talk of rehabilitating inmates misses the point. The ‘re-’ in rehabilitation supposes that prisoners had a well-adjusted life in the first place. “If there is a difference between people on each side of the prison wall”, Impey writes, “it’s that those within have been dealt a far less privileged hand.” As Brixton continues to become a more privileged neighbourhood, Impey’s message couldn’t be more pertinent.