By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Bolivian prisons will soon offer time off for literary behavior. Following a model introduced in Brazil, Bolivia will reduce prisoners’ sentences if those prisoners spend free time reading books. Victorian Britain created modern prisons and police forces.
In an effort to promote literacy and education, Bolivia will commute its prisoners’ sentences by up to several weeks if the incarcerated read books while in prison. The program is called “Books behind Bars” and was first introduced by Brazil. Nearly 50 Bolivian prisons have adopted it so far, reporting more than 800 prisoners who have risen to the challenge.
Prison systems around the world are frequently points of controversy. Prisons are often overcrowded, many fail to meet health and safety conditions established by the state, and inmates die at the hands of other inmates or even prison guards. Where did our basis for modern police forces and prison systems come from? In his video series Victorian Britain, Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, finds their roots in England in the 1820s and 1830s.
Bobbies and Peelers
“The police themselves, the Metropolitan Police Force, the London police force, was founded in 1829,” Dr. Allitt said. “This was when Robert Peel, who later became prime minister, was the home secretary. Because he founded them, one of the early nicknames of the police was ‘The Peelers.’ It is virtually an extinct name now, but you might have heard it already.”
According to Dr. Allitt, the Metropolitan Police Force centralized under two police commissioners and increasingly became used on the streets, replacing earlier use of the army to break up serious disruptions. This was part of England’s transition to a more civil way of dealing with petty criminals. Members of the criminal community hated them, attacking them in rookeries—crime-ridden slum areas and groups of houses.
“On the other hand, they were greatly admired by people like the small shopkeepers who felt that their business was far safer if there was a policeman on the beat looking after their interests,” Dr. Allitt said. “In 1842, the detective force was founded—a group of policemen who were wearing uniforms but whose job it was to investigate crimes and also to try to anticipate when crimes might happen by getting to know who the crucial figures were.”
I’ll Stick to Going to the Movies
In 1837, Parliament reviewed its criminal code and found there were more than 200 crimes for which a prisoner could be put to death. By 1861, this number was reduced to just four. Before the reforms, executions weren’t as common as one would expect. Usually, Dr. Allitt said, a jury would find prisoners guilty of lesser sentences, taking on an “ad hoc function” of sparing the prisoner’s life, even if he was guilty of a capital offense.
However, when there were executions, they were public and they drew crowds. Food and concession vendors peddled their wares among the crowd.
At London’s Newgate Prison, crowds would gather up to 12 hours before a hanging. People who lived in houses across the street from the gallows would rent out their windows to gawking onlookers for hefty sums. The prisoner’s body would hang from the noose for an hour in public view before being lowered into a coffin and taken to anatomy clinics for dissection.
Protests against public execution gained steam with the help and participation of Charles Dickens. Public executions were banned in 1868, and the idea of prisons that could actually reform prisoners finally began to surface.