How I learnt about English civics and wondered about free will.
My ‘take aways’
Walking around the prison, you can’t help but be struck by the coldness of the place. You can imagine that on a moderate day in Cornwall the temperature in this place would make you uncomfortable (It appears that the average high temperature in Cornwall doesn’t get above the mid 60’s F ( 15o C). On a cold winter’s night it must have been really uncomfortable. Unless you were well clothed it was probably permanently uncomfortable.
Then there are the punishments. Unlike modern prisons that provide television, visiting facilities, conjugal visits, diet choices and exercise programs, it appears that many prisoners were expected to work six days a week in extremely hard conditions with little food and severe punishments for breaking the rules.
So it’s easy to walk away with the impression that this is a place of extreme hardship representing the hard attitudes of the day, but in fact it represents a step forward in prison design. A place where the quality of life was an improvement over other prisons of the time.
From this I’m left with four thoughts:
Firstly, on the context in which we see things. Coming to understand that this prison was in fact a big improvement in prison conditions was enlightening. The exhibit is designed, understandably, to impress with tales of heinous crimes and hard conditions and so it’s easy to miss the point that this was a step forward in prisoner treatment. The out of context presentation is one of mayhem and horror, the in context facts is far more mundane.
Secondly, it makes me ponder on the question of why we send people to prison. Clearly society intends to punish, and in some cases offer an opportunity for reform. However, if people are not dissuaded from returning to prison as happened in some cases in Bodmin Jail, then perhaps the punishment is incorrect and we need some other form of punishment. Certainly in a bankrupt California with recidivism rates above 70%, there is a high cost that needs to be reduced.
Thirdly, I wondered about “free will”. If prison life is any sort of deterrent, then why did people keep committing crimes knowing that they were likely to go back to prison? This makes me wonder if our actions are more the result of our personalities than exercising free will.
Finally, I was given a lesson in the roots of democracy. I had no idea where the term “cruel and unusual punishment” came from. Imagine my surprise when I learnt that it originated in the “English Bill of Rights“ – obviously my school education was lacking or I forgot. But the bill of rights is a whole other story.