Beyond being imprisoned in make-believe castles by my son pretending to be a knight, I’ve never visited a modern prison.
The closest I’ve come to this was at a hen party in the swanky Oxford hotel Malmaison, rather creepily set in what was, until 1996, Oxford prison.
And this is really important – though it’s something we don’t often think about. We don’t see modern prisons. And we can all the more easily forget about them.
In the Middle Ages, prisons were very often to be found in the middle of the town. Oxford castle is a classic example – much of the town grew around the castle, and even now, it feels part of the city-centre.
It was built during the Norman conquest in the 1070s, as an important defensive castle (anyone climbing to the top of the castle mound now is rewarded by being out of breath, and with amazing views over the surrounding town and countryside). After 1350, it wasn’t needed for defence and became the building for the court of assize. Increasingly, it was used as the municipal prison. Guy Geltner has shown that medieval prisons were really part of the town-scape – local people were even expected to drop off gifts of essential food and water to the prisoners. No-one envied their fate, but they still deserved charity. You could have a chat to the prisoners through the bars and hear about their miserable conditions.
I find it a bit ironic that we tend to think of medieval prisoners languishing forgotten and mouldering away, their rotten corpses nibbled by rats. Conditions were certainly dreadful – but if any society prefers to forget about its prisoners, it’s ours. We have made prisons and prisoners almost invisible. And I think one of the reasons for this is so that we don’t need to think too much about them. The whole idea makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. Medieval prisons were horrific places, make no mistake – they were filthy, you had to pay for basics such as a bed, and they were full of disease and cruelty But they are nevertheless a useful reminder that prison doesn’t have to be somewhere you send people just to forget about them.