How contraband found its way into the Scrubs

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One of the big issues with the modern justice system is the easy availability of drugs in English prisons. According to reports drugs such as cannabis, crack cocaine and spice. In a 2018 report for Ministry of Justice it was found that 1 in 5 prisoners tested positive for some form of illegal substance.

Attempts to control what is allowed inside prisons have a long history, going back at least as far at the 1877 Prison Act. Under this legislation it became illegal to bring, or to attempt to bring, ‘any spirituous or fermented liquor or tobacco’ into English or Welsh gaols.

Even in the late 1800s it was difficult to control the flow of contraband into prisons. Prisons required contact with the outside world; food, medicine, laundry, and other goods all had to come and go, brought in my external partners, and there was always a steady stream of new inmates, police and prison staff, and visitors.

In October 1888 John Carr was brought before the Hammersmith Police court charged with bringing tobacco into Wormwood Scrubs. The Scrubs had opened in 1875 but it wasn’t fully finished then. The builders finally left in 1891, just five years before the man who had played a key role in its creation – Edmund Du Cane – retired. Du Cane oversaw the shift in control of prisons from local administration to a national service, formalized by the 1877 act, and it is fair to say that the late Victorian prison was very much his creation.

He believed that prisons had to be a deterrent to criminals and he moved away from the beleifs held earlier in the century that prisoners could be (or should be) reformed. His motto was ‘hard bed, hard fare, hard labour’ and the resulting ‘mark system made it very hard for prisoners to resist the strict enforcement of petty rules. He would have had no truck with those smuggling tobacco into his prisons.

By the 1880s the Scrubs was a local prison filled with petty offenders serving short sentences. John Carr was accused of bringing in money as well, another item prohibited under the standing orders of the gaol. The main witness appearing against Carr was a young lad working for Pickford’s the carriers (and today’s modern home removal firm). Thomas Embers, a van boy, testified that Carr had got him to carry the goods in. However, while it was pretty clear Carr was guilty of something the magistrate was less sure that the charge had been brought under the correct act.

In his view Carr should have been charged under section 39 of the 1877 act rather than section 38 (which is the clause that the governor’s representative had cited). Either way Carr was committed to face trial for his crime, although bail was allowed. The boy was cautioned and told that he would have to find  sureties for his good behavior in future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 04, 1888]

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