Jabez Balfour was one of the occasional symbolic victims of nineteenth-century justice. Using extensive nonconformist connections he had established the rapidly expanding Liberator Building Society, which attracted the savings of working people anxious to become home-owners. On the basis of his financial success, he entered parliament as a Liberal MP and established himself as an authority on commercial matters. In 1892 his business empire collapsed and he fled to Argentina. The contrast between his public celebrity and the private suffering caused to thousands of thrifty citizens was so blatant as to force the state to make an example of him. The cumbersome extradition machinery was put into operation, and in 1895 he was brought back to England and sentenced to 14 years’ penal servitude for a series of frauds associated with the failure of the building society. After brief periods in Wormwood Scrubs and Parkhurst, he was sent to England’s version of Alcatraz, the island convict prison of Portland, “a heart-breaking, soul-enslaving, brain-destroying, hell upon earth” as he later described it. There he underwent the standard nine months of solitary confinement, broken only by an hour’s exercise a day, and was then allowed to associate with other convicts in the prison workshops, spending the nights in an unheated “corrugated iron kennel” measuring 7 feet by 4 feet. The routine was harsh and unbending, “unredeemed by any moment of recreation or leisure, other than the brief period allowed for reading”, and embittered by the endless “petty tyranny” of the warders and the periodic, humiliating strip-searches of the prisoners.
KeywordsPrison Population Prison System Young Offender Female Offender Penal System
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