Article ID: CBB806506707

‘Close confinement tells very much upon a man’: Prison Memoirs, Insanity and the Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Prison (2019)


This article explores prisoners’ observations of mental illness in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British prisons, recorded in memoirs published following their release. The discipline of separate confinement was lauded for its potential to improve prisoners’ minds, inducing reflection and reform, when it was introduced in the 1840s, but in practice led to high levels of mental breakdown. In order to maintain the integrity of the prison system, the prison authorities played down incidences of insanity, while prison chaplains lauded the beneficent influence of cellular isolation. In contrast, as this article demonstrates, prisoners’ memoirs offer insights into the prevalence of mental illness in prison, and its poor management, as well as inmates’ efforts to manage mental distress. As the prison system became more closed, uniform and penal after the 1860s, the volume of such publications increased. Oscar Wilde’s evocative prison writings have attracted considerable attention, but he was only one of many prison authors criticizing the penal system and decrying the damage it inflicted on the mind. Exploration of prison memoirs, it is argued, enhances our understanding of experiences of mental disorder in the underexplored context of the prison, highlighting the prisoners’ voice, agency and advocacy of reform.

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Authors & Contributors
Melling, Joseph
Forsythe, Bill
Hilton, Claire
Wessely, Simon
Jones, Edgar
Blue, Ethan
History of Psychiatry
Health and History
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
Twentieth-Century British History
Pacific Historical Review
Historical Journal
Bloomsbury Academic
Cornell University
University of Minnesota Press
Mental disorders and diseases
Medicine and society
Psychiatric hospitals
Bleuler, Eugen
Great Britain
United States
20th century, early
19th century
20th century
20th century, late
17th century
16th century

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