Prison ships were usually decommissioned navy vessels that had been converted into prisons, perhaps because navy vessels were built more sturdily. Such ships were called prison hulks because their navigation or propulsion capabilities had been removed. Leaving them intact would have just been asking for trouble. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Britain had more than forty prison hulks because prisons were overcrowded, decommissioned vessels were plentiful, and society had no interest in prisoner rehabilitation anyway. Prison hulks were places to dump unsavoury people and forget about them. Even so, they were highly visible signs of society’s failings and no way were they ever going to be seen as beautiful.
There’s a range of Australian wines called 19 Crimes, which was the number of crimes for which the sentence was Transportation to the penal colonies on Australia’s eastern coast.
The town of Perth in Western Australia began as the Swan River Colony in 1829. It wasn’t founded as a penal colony but simply to thwart the French from coming and claimIng the western third of Australia as theirs. The first permanent building of the new settlement was The Roundhouse jail sited prominently at the end of the main street of what became Perth’s port town of Fremantle. Completed in 1831, the jail functioned as a general brig, detention centre and jail. It was sited, designed and built to be a visible deterrent. In 1844 there was a public hanging on its steps.
The Roundhouse has only the one door linking inside and outside. The image below shows three of the four cell doors, two left two right. Either side of the central door are what we would call administration offices, and upstairs are wardens’ quarters. And that’s it. Jails are still very much about which doors open when and for whom. Punishment was depriving prisoners of freedom of movement by imprisoning them and further punishment was depriving them of further movement through stocks and shackles. There’s a pub in Fremantle called The Ball and Chain.
Because of its location, prisoners could hear the sounds of the town and smell the ocean. There were no niceties such as windows so the only outside world prisoners could see was the sky and seagulls. People outside could see nothing of what went on inside.
The new colony got off to a shaky start and, around 1848, farmers and merchants petitioned the colony’s council to ask the British Government to send convicts as labour to build roads and other basics the colony still lacked. The first arrived in 1850 and they promptly built Fremantle Prison, originally known as the Convict Establishment, between 1852 and 1859 from limestone quarried on the site. It overlooked the town from the other end.
In Britain jails existed to allow society to forget about those inside and their transgressions, but in Western Australia they became civic edifices reminding society of both.
Fremantle Prison was closed in 1983 and its various wings have since been put to use as chapel, literature centre, backpackers’ hostel and general tourist attraction. Prisoners were moved to a new maximum security prison built 25 kilometers south-east at Casuarina where people need never see it.
Transporting convicts to Australia didn’t reduce Britain’s prison population as prison-building continued with, in London alone, Pentonville Prison in 1842, Wandsworth Prison in 1851 and Holloway Prison in 1852. None were in central London but the buildings were nevertheless designed to appear dignified and mildly imposing when seen from their respective residential areas.
Building could not keep pace with demand. It was the 1870s before the first calls for a shift from harsh punishment to reform, education, and training for post-prison livelihoods. Even so, prison ships had to be brought into service again in 1922-1925 with the HMS* Argenta and in 1971 with the HMS Maidstone. Both were temporary measures to ease overcrowding. [*Her Majesty’s Ship – i.e. navy]
The Safe Esperia was commissioned in 1979 as floating accommodation for the Swedish offshore oil and gas industry. In 1982 it was bought by the UK Ministry of Defence, renamed the Bibby Resolution and used for troop accommodation in the Falkland Islands. In 1988 it was bought by the New York City Department of Correction to serve as a prison ship known as Maritime Facility II. It held 400 prisoners in a five-storey cell block.
It stayed in service until 1992 and, in 1994, the ship was sold back to the UK, renamed HMP* Weare to begin service as a prison ship once more in 1997. [*Her Majesty’s Prison]
This continued until 2006 when it was closed due to high operating costs and poor inspection reports saying the ship was “unsuitable, expensive and in the wrong place”. This was true. 1) The ship was never built to function as a prison and, accordingly, 2) it had cost much to make it function as one. Moreover, 3) no prison or prison ship is ever in the right place. These fundamental wrongs were all corrected when the ship was sold to a shipping company, renamed Jackson 27 and towed to Nigeria in 2010 to be used for its original purpose of providing accommodation for 600 oil industry workers.
Name: Jascon 27
Owner: Sea Truck Group
Port of Registry: Kingstown, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Builder: Götaverken Finnboda, Stockholm, Sweden
Status: in active service, as of 2012
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS (AS OF 2010)
Type: Accommodation barge
Length: 93.14 m (305 ft 7 in)
Beam: 25.8 m (84 ft 8 in)
Height: 27.03 m (88 ft 8 in)
Draught: 3.15 m (10 ft 4 in)
Capacity: Accommodation for 608
This tells us a few things. (1) Building use is to an extent arbitrary. Prisons tend to be rows of small spaces opening off corridors and thus have much in common with dormitories, apartment buildings, asylums and hospitals. Many Victorian mansions were or are used as hospitals, schools or asylums. Colditz Castle was famously used as a prison and is currently a museum and hotel. This happens because much of our lives is organized around private spaces accessed via semi-public/private corridors radiating from some shared public zone.
Colditz Castle suggests that (2) Keeping people in is not so different from keeping people out. The walls were already thick and the windows already barred. Floating prisons come with their own moat. However, the high running cost of HMS Weare suggests that (3) Operating a prison is not like operating accommodation for oil workers. For one, the same ship can house either 400 prisoners or 600 oil industry workers. Assuming similar spatial requirements for catering and recreation, prisons require (approximately) one third of the building volume to be used for personnel for training, visiting, monitoring and escorting.
(4) People don’t want to live near prisons and this is probably why they tend to be located in areas where the effect on property values is minimal and residents have little agency. The New York City Department of Corrections sold HMS Weare to the UK in 1994 and part of the reason was because the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center was brought into service in 1992. It was twice the capacity of HMS Weare and moored near The Bronx’s Hunt’s Point, across the East River from Riker’s Island, the worlds largest prison and operational since 1932. Riker’s Island holds about 10,000 inmates on average, down from a peak of 22,000 in 1991.
Floating prisons at least have the promise of not being permanent and this promise is usually fulfilled. In October 2019*, the New York City Council voted to close both Vernon C. Bain and Rikers Island by 2026 and transfer prisoners to four, smaller, local jails closer to courthouses. It is hoped this will reduce processing and transfer times and also have the effect of keeping prisoners in their neighborhoods so they can have more frequent and beneficial interactions with visitors.
I found this paper from 1965 outlining the principles of a community jail. I think I can summarize it by saying 1) Separation from the outside community implies but doesn’t necessarily mean isolation from the outside community. 2) Isolation benefits neither inmates nor society.
It’s still early days and nobody’s mentioning the term “community jails” just yet because the idea of putting high-rise jails in denser urban areas is still being thrashed out. In a recent Guardian article on New York’s proposed high-rise prisons, Oliver Wainwright asks What could go wrong? and sets the tone in his first paragraph.
The author’s beef turns out to be that high-rise jails aren’t apartment towers. The negatives and opinions against come first and aren’t completely countered by later opinions for. The article also contained this next image I first thought was a sophisticated visualization because the mass of the building is expertly downplayed by viewpoint and shadow and the rooftop exercise yard is the only part of the building with sunlight calling attention to it. It’s actually an artful photograph* of Chicago’s 1975 Metropolitan Correction Centre, designed by Harry Weese. Each cell has a floor-to-ceiling 5″-wide window. As the above article illustrates, how a building looks is where the emotive arguments get made. Even if it’s not about aesthetics, it is. This building’s aged well and looks nowhere near as inhospitable as those two on the right.
As a detention centre however, and from what information I can find, it’s no better or worse overall than any other. One definite plus is its relatively central location makes it easy for family members and lawyers to visit. Mitigating the feeling of isolation from the outside world while maintaining a separation might be one of the things urban jails just might get right. Shared library and miscellaneous community facilities aside, it might be time for jails to be places of controlled connection rather than enforced isolation.
Some of this connection will happen anyway for jails have an internal rhythm that will become obvious at night. “The community” will see cell lights come on at 9 pm when inmates return to their housing area to use their free time as they wish. At 11 pm, they will see lights dimmed and the building go to sleep, although corridors may occasionally illuminate red from prisoner transport lighting that allows the vision of prison officers to quickly adjust in the dark.
This pattern of illumination will, more than the austere facades or size and number of windows, indicate to those outside the daily reality of the lives of the people inside these buildings. Depending on who’s doing the looking, this could be either comforting, heartbreaking or disconcerting. Upon seeing this repeated every evening, some people may even think twice and, if they were to, it would be another instance of something going right.