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First Night

On prison.

Until just the other day, the phrase “First Night” had a rather light-hearted, jolly sound to me. It suggested the clink of Champagne glasses and the happy chatter of playgoers at a theatrical opening on Broadway or in the West End theater district of London. But not any more. For I recently spent some days in a prison—in fact the Shrewsbury jail, the one A.E. Housman wrote about in A Shropshire Lad. This fierce, glowering building still stands near the railway station where the trains “groan upon the rail,” as Housman remarked, night and day. But, while it has been withdrawn from use, its solid brick blocks still stand, much as they did the day it closed its doors, and very similar to many surviving British prisons. And there I saw the same words, “First Night” painted in large doom-laden old-fashioned lettering above the iron doors of several cells. These are very gloomy portals indeed, designed to make you bow your head as you enter a new world of hard, unfamiliar surroundings, and a choice between unchosen company or unwanted solitude. Each time I observed this during my days in Shrewsbury (and it was several times a day), my mind revolted against it. I was so used to the normal, happy meaning that I simply could not absorb the harsh, miserable one, in which a first night was a night of despair, humiliation, implacable home-sickness, and fear of the morning to come. I still can’t quite do so.

Let me explain for a moment that I was taking part in a British T.V. experiment which I hope will bear fruit sometime in October. A few minor celebrities, including me, were asked to undergo a remarkably lifelike simulation of a spell in prison. Alongside us were a much larger number of real former prisoners, in several cases men convicted of serious and violent crimes. And then there were retired prison officers, as we call them in Britain (they angrily reject the description of “guard” or “warder,” believing that this misrepresents their much more engaged approach to the work). We were constantly filmed and recorded, and for many of us (including me) the experience became quite real and rather grueling. Of course one part of our minds knew that it was a simulation. But another part deliberately entered into a sort of compact, that we would make it as realistic as possible and believe in it as strongly as possible, so as to make it as instructive as possible for ourselves and for those who would one day see the result. I will not go into details here. I plan to write about it at much greater length when the programs are eventually shown. But I thought I would reflect now on the sheer power of architecture to affect the human spirit, and a few other things.

Let us take the cells marked with the words “First Night.” They stood near the ground floor part of the prison wing where the officers have their desk and try to supervise the impossible numbers of prisoners in their charge. Suicide is a terrible problem in British prisons—more than one hundred a year in a prison population of a bit less than ninety thousand. Quite a few others try and are prevented. And despair among the newly arrived can be especially strong, hence the special cells for the first night behind the iron door. These rooms are in a building designed to oppress its inhabitants. The architecture of Victorian prisons was designed to show an exterior so forbidding that nobody would want to enter them, and all who saw them would imagine with trepidation what life must be like within. Inside the effect is more direct. The cells themselves, with their solid doors, their bleak bare brick walls, arched ceilings and high windows, make the inmate feel entombed and powerless.

I am a severe penal conservative. I believe that criminal justice systems should operate by deterrence, and that those who have, in effect, volunteered for imprisonment—usually by committing a second offense—should be treated in such a way that it will deter others from following their path. By that I mean what Winston Churchill once referred to as “the hard coin of punishment,” austere living under authority, loss of liberty, hard work, combined with the chance of education and training for a useful life thereafter. Of course, in our increasingly chaotic prison estate they do not get this, or anything like it. They are instead warehoused, amid violence and pretty much uncontrolled drug abuse. Law and authority are not in charge. I tremble for the fate of any gentle, innocent person, or even a gentle, guilty person in such places. If the program makers had been able to replicate the true reality of prison life, I would never have agreed to undergo it.

It is of course right for us to care about prisoners. We have plenty of biblical warrant for doing so. But whenever I hear criticisms of prison conditions I also insist that those who make them remember first how foul it is to be the victim of any crime. I think people are responsible for their own actions. I think that the belief that such things as poverty and poor housing cause crime, of themselves, is an insult to the poor and badly housed who for the most part endure their conditions without becoming predators on their neighbors. On the other hand, I think Western society’s abandonment of strong married families, fatherhood, and male authority in general has often left young men bereft of the guidance and authority that they need to lead good lives. So I suppose you could say that I do accept that there are sociological reasons for crime, just not the ones which modern societies worry about. And I am sure that the dismal government schools in several modern western societies, and the abandonment of any effort to control drug abuse, must make crime, disorder and loutishness more likely. If you wish to reform prisons (and who does not?) then you should deal with the evils which bring people into them. Meanwhile, there will still have to be prisons, actually a liberal idea which replaced the transportation for life, indiscriminate hanging, flogging, and similar penalties which were what we had before.

But that thought does not absolve any Christian person, or any thoughtful person, from being concerned about prison conditions, and about the nature of modern punishment. I came away from my days in jail full of thought, and hugely educated, and just as dissatisfied with my own country’s broken penal system as I was before, only in more detail. But my basic opinions stayed the same. We must build strong fortifications to protect the weak and the kind from the strong and the predatory, and prisons may be the form they have to take. But we must always remember, when we do so, that miscarriages of justice, and other things, do happen to the most unexpected people, and that we should never forget either Bob Dylan’s plea for “each unharmful gentle soul misplaced inside a jail,” or Elizabeth Fry’s soft, infinitely disturbing warning that “When thee builds a prison, thee had better build with the thought ever in thy mind that thee and thy children may occupy the cells.” And think of how that first night might be for you.