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Useful Notes / British Prisons

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It was originally the case that gaol was the British spelling of the word that Americans write "jail". (It is pronounced the same.) These days, "jail" is almost universal, and "gaol" looks as old-fashioned as writing "to-day". Time spent in jail is referred to as time "inside", as in: "Did you hear about Gowbo Mitchell? Got done for that bank job he pulled back in '08 - three years inside. Poor sod."


Actually getting sent there- British punishments

The court case is over, the jury has returned and delivered a guilty verdict. The judge goes off to consider the sentence, considering the mitigating circumstances, if any.

He (or she) returns and then delivers the sentence. They will usually throw in a bit about how evil the crime is. The final line is "Take him/her down".

The convict is driven off to prison in a prison van (sometimes known as a "Black Maria", despite the fact that most prison vans are now white). Photographers will (in fact and fiction) point their camera through the (raised) windows, trying to get a photo.

As a rule, British punishments tend to be somewhat more lenient than those in the USA. As the most extreme example, sentence to life imprisonment without possibility of parole (known as a "whole-life order" in Britain) is extremely rare. It is reserved for multiple murder with premeditation, sexual violence and/or gratuitous sadism; child murder with abduction and/or sexual violence; political or terrorist murders; murder by someone who had been convicted of murder before; and from 2015 murder of a police or prison officer in the course of their duties. There were 38 prisoners with that sentence in July 2011. These days, when someone is sentenced to life in prison, the judge will recommend the convict serve a minimum of a certain number of years. Murder is an automatic life sentence, but the judge can set the minimum, known as the "tariff". In the past, this was set by the Home Secretary, but a decision by the European Court of Human Rights declared that this was unacceptable, as a member of an elected government might be tempted to impose an unjustly high tariff on a particularly notorious or unpopular offender to appeal to the voters. (Despite regular distortion from the "hang 'em and flog 'em" media, it is quite rare for someone sentenced to life imprisonment to be paroled as soon as they have served the minimum term.)


There are some punishments Britain has that aren't common in the rest of the world, such as:

  • ASBOs- Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, introduced in 1998. Think of it as a restraining order against yobs, restricting them from going to certain places or doing certain things. This can also happen to old people as well.
    • Referenced in Doctor Who with the line, "It's all very calm around here... I thought they'd all be happy-slappy hoodies. Happy-slappy hoodies with ASBOs. Happy-slappy hoodies with ASBOs and ringtones ..."
    • A better way to describe them would be a restraining order which is much easier to hand out but may not be requested by a private citizen.
    • These were brought in to Ireland as well, replacing the previous Juvenile Liaison Officer (JLO) system.
  • Suspended sentence- You get a sentence of two years, but the judge states that it is suspended for four years. Provided you do not get another conviction within that period, you will not have to serve a sentence. This is not unique to the British system; Russia has a very similar institution.

The Actual Prisons

There are many different versions of these, depending on the setting (some of these appear elsewhere in UK-made and foreign programmes).

Ball and Chain

Medieval British prisons. Prisoners end up in rags, manacled to a large metal ball. They are fed bread and water by evil guards. It's your stereotypical dungeon. (No, not a place you do BDSM. No, not a place for adventurers to kill monsters and seek out treasure either.)

Victorian Prisons

Crowded, with dozens of people in a cell. A particular sub-type is the "debtors' prison", where you went to work your debts off if you couldn't pay them. (These were also present in the United States.)

The Glasshouse - Military Prison

A possible setting for works dealing with British soldiers. These started in the 1840s with Aldershot prison - it was called the Glasshouse because of its greenhouse roof, and the nickname spread to all military prisons. Individual prisons tended to be infamous for the particular punishment drills they favored, usually hard physical labor like literal rock-breaking or "the well drill," where soldiers dug out wells and then filled them in so they had a place to dig the next well. Discipline was famously strict if not downright brutal. Today this setting is an anachronism, as British soldiers who are to be imprisoned for more than three months are transferred into the civilian system.

Modern Prisons

The modern British prison tends to be in a Victorian era building. There are usually two or three people to a cell. These cells tend, in fiction, to have a number of Page Three Stunna pics present.

The prison warders (who often call you by your last name, like you're in the UK Armed Forces) will yell at you, if they're not actively supplying you with drugs.

  • Narcotics are quite a problem in UK prisons.
  • Prison Rape occurs and gets referred to in UK drama (as in Life On Mars), but it's not that common.
  • There is also a problem with self-harm and suicide. A highly notable case was the successful suicide of Harold Shipman, the most prolific Serial Killer in recorded history. Not that anybody felt particularly sorry for him.
The UK has one of the highest rates of incarceration in Western Europe, but the rate is far below the US.

The UK categorizes prisons and prisoners according to various levels of perceived threat and security.

  • Category A: Category A prisoners are considered particularly dangerous to the public and/or national security. For women, this is known as "Restricted Status". They are further divided into Standard Risk, High Risk, and Exceptional Risk. This is the highest distinct category for male prisoners. Offences that may result in Category A designation are: Murder, Attempted murder, Manslaughter, Culpable Homicide, Wounding with intent, Rape, Indecent assault, Robbery or conspiracy to rob (with firearms), Firearms offences, Importing or supplying Class A controlled drugs, Possessing or supplying explosives, Offences connected with terrorism, Treason, Piracy, and Offences under the Official Secrets Act. Some Category A prisons have special, even higher security wings within them for various crimes considered even worse, generally high-profile gangsters, psychopaths, and terrorists are held here. HMP Belmarsh in London hosts what is believed to be the most secure such facility; it holds or has held war criminals, those convicted of the trans-Atlantic airline plot, terrorists, the incorrigible Charles Bronson (not that one), and, if rumors are to be believed, two prisoners, who have their own "prison within a prison within a prison", who are considered the most dangerous in Europe and who may only associate with each other. Their identities have not been released.
  • Category B: Category B prisoners are considered not to require maximum security, but at the same time need escape to be very difficult. For women, this is known as "Closed" status.
  • Category C: Category C prisoners are those prisoners for whom escape is unlikely and who pose a minimal threat to the public, but at the same time cannot be trusted not to try and escape. For women, this also falls under Closed status.
  • Category D: Category D prisoners are usually white-collar criminals or those with records of good behaviour who can be trusted not to try and escape. They generally have little to no security, and may even be allowed day leave and home visits. The disgraced MP Chris Huhne was such a prisoner. The equivalent female category is Open.

Prisoners who have attempted to escape before are put on the "Escape List" and known as "E men" or "E list men". They are made to wear brightly-colored clothing and have their personal belongings confiscated at night.

And for the kids...

The United Kingdom maintains separate institutions for young offenders, which have a focus on rehabilitation over retribution. Despite this nominally more merciful attitude, they are frequently criticized for simply turning troubled young people into better criminals.

  • Secure Training Centres are privately-run education-focused facilities aimed at re-education and rehabilitation. Some have been criticized for lack of oversight and abuse.
  • Local Authority Secure Children's Homes: These are run by local councils and aim to provide a safe environment for vulnerable children to grow up.
  • Youth Offender Institutions: These house those under the age of 18 convicted of more serious crimes.
  • Young Offender Institutions: YOIs house those between the ages of 18 and 21.

Early Release

The UK's prisons are now officially over capacity, resulting in about 19,000 inmates being released early to make room. The release is only up to 18 days early, subject to restrictions before the sentence is concluded and only for sentences under four years.

However, a number of early release prisoners have committed further crimes or gone on the run after being recalled, giving the media another stick to beat the government with.

Famous UK Prisons

  • The Clink is believed to be the oldest official prison in England, operating between approximately 1145 and 1780 AD. It was the prison for debtors and heretics in the local manorial area in Southwark owned by the Bishop of Winchester. The name is believed to have come from the sounds of the prisoners' chains and locking doors, and came to be used as a generic slang term for prisons throughout the country. Part of the original site is now The Clink Prison Museum.
  • Another famous historical prison in London was Newgate Prison, which frequently appears in eighteenth and nineteenth-century literature. It was opened in the late twelfth century and finally closed in 1902, although it was rebuilt many times in between. The Central Criminal Court, popularly known as "Old Bailey", was then built on the site.
  • HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs is probably the most famous. It is now a Category B prison. "The Scrubs" as it is often known is a curious establishment that is built on land owned by the Church of England. For this reason, Wormwood Scrubs is the only Victorian prison where no hangings ever took place.
  • HMP Manchester, formerly Strangeways, is another famous prison. It is now holds both prisoners on remand and Category A prisoners in separate facilities. It was one of few British prisons to have a permanent gallows, and one of the last prisoners to be executed in the UK, John Walby, was executed here.
  • HMP Barlinnie is perhaps the most famous in Scotland. It is the largest prison in Scotland. Between 1946 and 1960, it carried out executions in Scotland. Known locally as "The Bar-L", an example of Glasgow's long-standing affinity for The Western, or "The Riddrie Hilton".
  • HMP Peterhead is a former convict prison near Aberdeen. For a long time a high-security prison, it gained a reputation as a very nasty jail; in 1987 prisoners took a guard hostage for several days. Eventually, the Home Secretary was forced to call in the SAS to suppress the riot, which they did, brutally. It is now a specialist centre for sex offenders. Called "Scotland's Gulag", electricity and central heating were not installed until 2005. Prisoners still "slopped out" their cells until the closing of the facility for the under-construction HMP Grampian.
  • HMP Holloway is pretty much the canonical women's prison for fictional purposes and the only women's prison widely known in the UK, although it was mixed-gender until 1903. Famous inmates include many suffragette protestors, Edith Thompson (executed for complicity in the murder of her husband by her boyfriend, of which she was almost certainly innocent), and Ruth Ellis (the last woman to be executed in Britain, for the murder of her lover). Severely criticised by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) as well as several prison reform organisations for its poor design and dilapidated state, it was closed in July 2016, and set to be developed into a large housing estate.
  • HMP Belmarsh, a Category A London prison used to house terrorists among others. Includes some of the UK's most dangerous escape risks.
  • HMP Shotts, a notoriously brutal and high security facility in Scotland. Houses mainly dangerous gangsters.
  • HMP Ford, an open prison in West Sussex. Security and the prison regime is less harsh in open prisons and they are used to house prisoners who are considered low risk because of the nature of their crime or for a sustained record of good behaviour in a more secure institution.
  • HMP Maze (now closed), also known as the Long Kesh Internment Camp, was built on a former RAF station to imprison those who were suspected of being members of the IRA or other partisan groups during The Troubles. In practice, alongside the paramilitary internees, some occupants tended to be otherwise-innocent civil rights marchers or trade unionists. In 1981, 10 prisoners went on hunger strike in protest of violations of human rights and demanding prisoner-of-war status. After their deaths, there were worldwide protests against the British government, and the prisoners demands were eventually granted in the face of international pressure.
  • HMP Dartmoor, noted for its isolated location (being an area so remote that the Royal Marines use it for survival training), deliberately chosen to discourage escapes. Escaped convicts roaming the moors are a feature of several famous works of fiction, probably the best-known of which being The Hound of the Baskervilles. Fun fact: Dartmoor is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, and it is therefore currently part of the private holdings of Prince Charles. Once considered the UK's version of Alcatraz, it is now a Category C institution.
  • Broadmoor Hospital, technically not a prison (it is administered by the National Health Service, not HM Prisons), but the most famous high-security psychiatric facility in the UK. Most of the patients have been convicted of, acquitted of due to insanity, or found to be unfit to stand trial for violent crimes. Famous modern patients include Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper, one of Britain's most notorious Serial Killers) and the celebrated London Gangster Ronald Kray. The less well-known high-security psychiatric hospitals in the UK are Ashworth, Rampton, and the State Hospital at Carstairs (the only high-security hospital for patients from Scotland and Northern Ireland).
  • HMP Wakefield. Category A male prison in West Yorkshire. There has been a prison on the site since 1594, making it one of the oldest prisons in the UK still in use. The current buildings date from the Victorian era. It is currently on of the UK's highest-security facilities. The Soviet superspy Klaus Fuchs was held there during The '50s. Currently, it primarily houses high-risk sex offenders, leading to its nickname: the Monster Mansion. It is the largest maximum security prison in Western Europe.
  • HMP Frankland is another Category A male prison in Durham, which is infamous for holding organized criminals, including notorious Glasgow gangster Paul Ferris. It is also notorious for the short life expectancy of sex offenders sent there; in 2010 psychopathic child-murderer Ian Huntly had his throat slashed, though he survived. In 2011, two inmates held child rapist Mitchell Harrison down and disembowelled him.
  • HMP Full Sutton is a Category A & B men's prison which became notorious for being practically ruled by drug gangs and a hotspot of prison drug dealing. In 2013, a prison officer was taken hostage there. Like Frankland, several child-killers have been severely injured whilst serving time there; in 2011 child murderer Colin Hatch was beaten to death there.
  • HMP Polmont is a young offender's institution near Falkirk. It was referenced in the Glasvegas song, Polmont on My Mind.
  • HMP Reading, perhaps more widely known as Reading Gaol, is best known for housing Oscar Wilde who didn't write The Ballad of Reading Gaol there (he wrote it in Paris after his release), but he did write De Profundis. Much more recently it was home to Stacy Keach in the 1980s after he was busted for possession of cocaine at Heathrow Airport. Soon after that it was demoted to a Young Offenders Institution, and it finally closed in 2013. The building still stands but its future is uncertain; the British government wants to sell it for housing but the Reading Borough Council wants to preserve it as a cultural monument.


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