Bodmin Jail Part 2 – The Building

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The Chill of the building tells you about the discomfort prisoners must have felt.

The Building

Alley between two rows of jail buildings

Disused Buildings In The Jail

Built in 1778 by prisoners using 20,000 tons of stone from the local Cockoo Quarry, the building is in remarkably good condition. Only one section is open to the public while the rest sits waiting for renovation as nature slowly engulfs it with creeping plants.

Since the entire building is stone you feel a slight chill everywhere you walk.

Stone Stairs In Bodmin Jail

Stone Stairs

The Cells

Prisoners slept in individual cells sealed with a heavy metal door.

Looking at the door from inside the cell

Jail Cell

One thing that appears to be missing from the display is information on the conditions within each cell. We don’t know if they slept on straw beds with frames or if they had straw on the floor. Did they have a table or any other furniture? Whatever was in the cell you are still left with the impression that living in one of these cells for years was a cold, unpleasant experience.

First Impressions

As a first impression you might walk away with the idea that this was a terrible place when compared to modern prisons.
As I walked around I imagined prisoners incarcerated here for years at a time and how they might have felt getting up day after day in this cold, dark, draughty prison facing a long day of hard labour.
I assumed that this prison was the standard of the day, but in fact I couldn’t have been more wrong. The design was based on the recommendations of a prison reformer John Howard and was considered a model prison for its time. Of course this left me wondering; if this was a model prison, what were the conditions of the bad prisons?

Context

As a model prison Bodmin Jail exhibited many features intended to help rehabilitate prisoners. As such it was the first British prison to hold prisoners in individual cells.

The prison’s other features included:

  • An individual sleeping cell for each prisoner. Interesting to note that ex-prisoners from Alcatraz highlight individual cells as one of the benefits of that prison; we can understand how in 1778 the idea of an individual cell would have been seen as beneficial.
  • Hot water
  • The “light and airy” design meant it was more healthy for prisoners
  • An infirmary for sick prisoners
  • A chapel
  • Segregation of prisoners based on types of crime
    • Felons
    • Misdemeanants
    • Debtors. This means that you weren’t in the same area as serious felons and murderers, if your only crime was owing money
  • Prisoners were paid for their work
  • Men and women were segregated

This prison opened nearly 250 years ago and to our eyes looks cold and foreboding, but at the time it represented a major step forward in the humane treatment of prisoners, and to a very limited extent, offered some benefits that today’s prisons do not offer. For instance a current news video in California suggests that overcrowded prisons have large dormitories where prisoners enjoy no privacy.


To find out more about the jail go to part 3.

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