The problem with prisoners | Inveraray Jail

The problem with prisoners

When it comes to crime and punishment some things never change. Most criminals who are sent to prison accept their punishment and serve their time with a view to getting released at the earliest opportunity. Then there are the troublemakers.

As it is today, so it was in the 19th century, and the records at Inveraray Jail chronicle the misdeeds of a number of problem prisoners. They include one Malcolm MacArthur who, it seems, had a taste for the high life that appeared to take little account of the fact that in June 1849 he was behind bars. The Governor’s journal for that month recounts how MacArthur: ‘…demanded wine from the Warder. On being told that he could not get wine but if he wished for water he might come out and take it, the prisoner struck the Warder with a clenched fist on the right side of his mouth which cut and bled him and immediately seized on the Warder (apparently in a fit of madness).”

Two weeks later the hapless Warder was attacked again by MacArthur and again the Governor intervened to put handcuffs on the prisoner. A month after that incident MacArthur called the Governor to his cell, complained of being unwell and demanded to know if his meals were being poisoned. With such a violent disposition and an apparent persecution complex, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that eventually MacArthur was declared insane and moved to a lunatic asylum in Mussleburgh.

The restraint jacket, which was used for particularly violent prisoners.

During this mid-19th century period staff at the jail comprised only a Governor, Malcolm Thomson, a series of Warders and a Matron (Janet, the Governor’s wife).

Another prisoner who caused Governor Thomson some grief was a Hugh McInnes. In November 1851 McInnes quarrelled with the Warder, who took him to the cramped exercising gallery rather than the larger airing yard where he wanted to be. Clearly in a foul mood, the prisoner then complained about the size of his food portion and became insolent to the Governor over a letter he wanted to send to a friend.

Thomson wrote in his journal: ‘I then told him I would punish him for his insolence and conduct when he got very abusive.’ However, things seem to have gone from bad to worse.

”This morning when his corn and bread was at his cell door he threw the enamel can along the lobby, squared with his hands and threatened all violence and would not return to his cell,’ wrote Thomson. ‘I then sent for Archibald McKay, Sheriff Officer, and it was with force that he, the Warder and myself put handcuffs on him. He then commenced singing and roaring for some hours.’

Archie McLellan, a murderer who was considered to be insane

Trouble at Inveraray Jail sometimes came in small packages. James McLachlan was just 15 when he was locked up in 1851 under sentence of Transportation to Australia for theft. He seems to have been possessed of a hardness and cunning beyond his years and made a bold and temporarily successful escape attempt from the prison. However, in the early hours of the morning, cold tired and hungry, he knocked on a nearby farmhouse door and, with the alarm already raised, word was sent to Governor Thomson and McLachlan was soon back in his cell.

It wasn’t long before the young lad ran into more trouble, threatening violence and ordering the Chaplain to get out of his cell. The Governor’s solution was to clap him in handcuffs and demand that he apologise to the Chaplain. Two days later the apology came and the handcuffs were duly removed.

McLachlan merited a further entry in the Governor’s journal less than a month later when he swore and threatened violence towards him. Said Thomson: ‘I shortly thereafter put handcuffs on him behind, and on doing so he gave me a kick. I tightened the handcuffs on him for two and a half hours when he pled earnestly that if I took them off he would conduct himself according to the rules of the prison in future. I took them off and gave him his work again.’

Eventually Governor Thomson was able to leave the prison service to enjoy what sounds like a well-deserved retirement on a pension of £32 per annum. One of his replacements was Alexander Robertson who was the Governor from 1880 to 1889. He was in charge when a John Clark, described as the most destructive prisoner ever confined at Inveraray, appears to have gone berserk.

In August 1882 Governor Robertson states in his journal that Clark: ‘…has from the first time I saw him been in a very excited state of mind.’ Things came to a head and Robertson writes: ‘Clark has today become quite furious and destructive in his conduct. He has broken the whole of the panes (21 in number) in his cell windows, broken to pieces the cell stool, chamber pot and lid, dust box, food dish and spoon and torn the gas pipes out of the wall. I have put handcuffs on him to prevent him doing any injury to himself and reported the matter to the commissioners. I find that Clark has also destroyed his wooden pillow.’

Disruptive prisoners like Clark, McLachlan, McInnes and MacArthur could be made to endure a range of punishments, including being placed on a diet of bread and water and being made to sleep on a wooden bed instead of in a hammock. Violent prisoners would be placed in handcuffs but, perhaps surprisingly given the perceived harshness of Victorian times, corporal punishment was not an option available to the Governors. Given the difficult nature of some of their charges, it’s easy to imagine that at times they must surely have wished it was…

You can find out more about these problem prisoners when you visit Inveraray Jail. See them in their cells and talk to the prison staff whose job it was to deal with them.

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