Prison construction was among the most important infrastructural changes brought about by British rule in nineteenth-century India. Informed by the extension of liberal political philosophy into the colony, the development of the British colonial prison introduced India to a radically new system of punishment based on long-term incarceration. Unlike prisons in Europe and the United States, where moral reform was cited as the primary objective of incarceration, prisons in colonial India focused on confinement as a way of separating and classifying criminal types in order to stabilize colonial categories of difference. In Imperial Vision, Colonial Prisons: British Jails in Bengal, 1823–73, Mira Rai Waits explores nineteenth-century colonial jail plans from India's Bengal Presidency. Although colonial reformers eventually arrived at a model of prison architecture that resembled Euro-American precedents, the built form and functional arrangements of these places reflected a singularly colonial model of operation.
Defining Inmates and Environments in the Colonial Sphere
The history of the prison in colonial India is one of experimentation, adaptation, and transformation.1 Introduced by the British as part of a larger program that included railroads, schools, hospitals, and post offices, modern Western-style prisons first appeared in India during the late eighteenth century. The modern prison was a by-product of the optimism of the Enlightenment, arriving in India as a space of discipline and punishment that British colonialists perceived to be superior to the “barbaric” systems of the Mughal Empire.2 Yet, despite the lofty aspirations informing their introduction, prison buildings were often disordered and inconsistent. Superficially related to places of incarceration in other parts of the world, Indian jails were governed by the specificities of colonial time and space. They began as heterogeneous collections of buildings and underwent significant changes in design during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, colonial prisons were designed according to developing social and environmental theories prevalent in the colonial setting.
In this article, I explore the history of colonial Indian prison architecture during the nineteenth century. I examine physical spaces by analyzing existing plans alongside archival reports discussing prison construction history. Through this physical examination, I also consider the ways in which prisons were used, how the spaces were altered over time, and how prison architecture was transformed through experimentation. Ultimately, the prisons of British India were paradigmatic products of colonial modernity.
While the structure of colonialism implies that capitals and colonies were economically and ideologically connected to and engaged with one another, those connections were loose when it came to prison architecture. Colonial officials were certainly familiar with the dominant and progressive penologies developing in Britain and its colonies, and in the United States.3 However, the prisons they constructed in India incorporated local resources and precolonial building practices and did not fully embrace imported Western models. British colonial prison officials determined that such imports were impractical in an Indian setting.
Initially built as spatially and functionally flexible structures, early colonial prisons could have been used for many different purposes beyond incarceration, and many were even altered and repurposed while serving as prisons, often by the prisoners themselves. This loose relationship between function and form contrasts with the logic of prisons in Britain and the United States, particularly in the nineteenth century, when the central goal of incarceration shifted toward moral reform.4 Well into the nineteenth century, the small enclaves constituting colonial Indian prisons were adapted from older buildings or constructed as temporary ones, with other building types used as guides. It was not until late in the century that prison models employed in Britain and the United States had any significant effect in India. And even then, when more permanent and generously spaced compounds employing imported concepts (such as the radial plan) were built, colonial officials remained disinterested in their moralizing potential, preferring instead to treat prisons as emblematic of a system of social classification, one that saw the Indian population as predisposed to crime.
This system was grounded in a variety of assumptions and opinions about the people and places of India, and colonial officials committed themselves to studying and classifying these. The British occupied India through conquest, and they ruled through coercion; social relations between colonizer and colonized were determined by this situation.5 In the first half of the nineteenth century, the British saw native society as exotic and different, but not altogether dangerous. As anthropologist Bernard Cohn argues, Indians were represented as “misguided children.”6 Early colonial social evolutionary theories “yielded a crucial ruling paradigm: the Indian present was the [feudal] European past,” and with proper British guidance India's civilization could advance.7 However, this perception changed following the surprising and violent Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Indians were now seen as “treacherous and unchangeable,” and any “policies based on an assumption of change were proven wrong.”8 Since the society as a whole was now regarded as untrustworthy, colonial governance “required a strong hand capable of smashing any ‘sedition’ or disloyalty, combined with an acceptance of Indians.”9
When faced with the task of governing India's vast and daunting territory, with its large, diverse, and unfamiliar native society, British officials were poised between conflicting viewpoints, both anxious and confident about their position on the subcontinent.10 They approached the different aspects of social life in India with fascination. Numerous ethnographic studies were carried out, giving shape to “colonial knowledge” and its emphasis on the study of human difference.11 Historians and anthropologists including Cohn, Ronald Inden, and Nicholas Dirks have discussed the relationship between social classification and colonial governance.12 For these scholars, British emphasis on social categorization was a strategy to define Western identity in opposition to colonized others. A style of thought developed, following British colonialists’ engagement with categories such as race, caste, and religion, that linked seemingly disparate elements and dispersed forms to position Indian society as timeless and unchanging. And yet, particularly with conceptions of caste and race, British officials sometimes shifted their understanding in accordance with the needs of colonial control. The artificial structure of these imposed social categories was critical to shaping the colonial penal apparatus.
As a space of enclosure providing unlimited access to native subjects, the colonial prison eventually operated as a kind of laboratory where inquiries into categories of Indian social difference could be conducted. In the words of historian David Arnold, the prison in India functioned “not only as a place of confinement but also as a site of colonial knowledge, a means of acquiring insight into the material conditions of the population at large.”13 The colonial government experimented with diets, gathered statistical data, obtained cadavers for medical examinations, and tested new advances in medical treatment and vaccination, all within the enclosed space of the prison. While prisons in other parts of the world operated similarly, these types of inquiries were particularly important in India because they provided British colonialists with an opportunity to observe social differences among their subjects.14 Prison architecture became crucial for defining and, in effect, stabilizing an artificial landscape of colonial social categorization.
While attention to proving social difference between subjects and masters emerged as a strategy of rule, British officials were also concerned with differentiating India's physical environment from that of the West. The concept of “tropicality” became a necessary part of a rhetorical strategy to forge distinctions between India and Britain.15 Labeling parts of the globe as tropics created a seemingly natural distinction between East and West in the European mind. The view of India as tropical was also used to codify colonial assessments of Indian civilization, which the British argued was linked to climate and environment. The tropics were represented as places of plentitude and fecundity, where primitive people lived and where diseases like cholera, malaria, smallpox, and plague ran rampant, untouched by Western medicine. Although India's tropicality was ultimately elusive and conceptual—India is not fully tropical in terms of climate or environment, as it has no perpetual summer—the concept of tropicality was nevertheless applied and served as a powerful idea shaping colonial practice.16
Environmental factors weighed heavily on colonial officials charged with building prisons in India. This is most clearly observed in the prisons’ lack of cellular spaces, which were considered too costly and ill suited to the Indian climate, particularly in terms of ventilation. Heating belowground cells in winter would be too expensive, and in summer these cells would be too hot to occupy. Furthermore, the practice of solitary confinement was seen as too emotionally straining for the Indian subject.17 To the British mind, life in tropical India had made the native population weak and effeminate, unable to endure the physical and mental experience of solitude. Consequently, colonial prison architecture was governed by both real and invented beliefs about India's climate and environment, which further distinguished its architectural character and trajectory from Western prison design.
Ultimately, prisons and the colonial criminal justice system constituted an important part of imperial rule in India; prison architecture was the critical apparatus used to concretize colonial categories of difference. Prisons provided spaces that allowed British officials to codify their opinions about Indian subjects while at the same time experimenting with designs deemed suitable to the “tropical” environment they occupied. Like the railroads that crisscrossed the subcontinent, shortening distances and ordering the physical space of empire, the prisons that dotted the Indian landscape made British power all the more visible and understood.
In the following three sections, I focus primarily on jails built in the Bengal Presidency, a territorial colonial subdivision established in 1765, later known as the Lower Provinces. At its territorial peak in the mid-nineteenth century, the presidency extended as far west as modern-day Pakistan and as far east as Burma, Singapore, and Penang. The Bengal Presidency was also the center of British colonial governance in the nineteenth century. Some of British India's oldest jails were built there, since jails were viewed as necessary infrastructure for early colonial cities and towns. These jails provided spaces where the government could test and enact penal reforms and conduct controlled experiments in penal management.
In the first section, I analyze the architecture of early jails, beginning with the dawn of the nineteenth century; notable are these structures’ heterogeneity and spatial flexibility. In the second section, I consider the intermediary phase of prison architecture, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. While local district jails, along with even smaller lockups, predominated, officials altered these in order to transform their function and operation. An examination of the architectural reforms made to the Alipore and Presidency Jails—two of Bengal's oldest prisons, both in Calcutta, the colonial capital city—demonstrates how prisons were altered to tackle increasing concerns about criminal proclivity and racial difference. In the final section, I examine the 1872 plan for the Bhagulpore Central Jail, built in Bihar (a state in northeastern India that was a part of the Bengal Presidency during the nineteenth century), and a model plan for future district jails to be built throughout the presidency. These plans serve as evidence of how new designs were used in the development of the imperial agenda of visualizing difference. As the first prison in Bengal with a radial plan, Bhagulpore is critical for understanding the principles and the governing logic of the colonial prison type, not only within the presidency but also in colonial India writ large.18 Collectively, these examples illustrate what made the British colonial prison in India “colonial” and demonstrate the spatial and functional flexibility of Indian prison space. Two notes: I maintain the spellings of all place-names as they appear in the original records, and I use the terms prison and jail interchangeably, as the colonial archive does not distinguish between them.
A Typology of Early Colonial Jails
While the British were present in India since the early seventeenth century, it was not until the late eighteenth century that their legal authority rose and modern prisons began to replace earlier Mughal punishments. The East India Company, acting as agents of the British government, had been granted a series of rights by the Mughal emperor.19 In 1790, after inheriting from the Mughal government the right to administer criminal justice, Company officials took on the task of developing buildings to support their interest in a Western-style penal system; the earliest Company jails date to that year.20
Early jail buildings in India were spatially fluid. A structure could be built anew as a space of confinement, or an existing building could be transformed through renaming and the construction of additional space. Either way, there was little to distinguish these early prisons from other Company buildings, including military and administrative ones. Prisoners were allowed to adapt and alter interior spaces to replicate those of free life, thereby contradicting British notions of what a jail should be. Since prison life seemed to British officials no harsher than life outside, some criticized early jails for failing to be properly disciplinary. Yet despite their initial lack of design specificity or tight controls, British prisons became common features in provincial towns and districts—the administrative areas that subdivided the different presidencies. The landscape of the Bengal Presidency was dotted with small local and district jails capable of containing a few hundred prisoners at a time. By 1857 there were fifty-five jails within Bengal alone.21
Jail construction was thus a steady enterprise, yet the lived reality of these early jails was often incompatible with the efforts of the British to differentiate themselves from their Mughal predecessors. The initial prison population under the Company was small, which contributed to a lack of interest in prison management and supervision.22 In addition to the minimal jail population, the Company—still recovering from the financial burden of its military campaigns in the northwest region of the subcontinent, and having reached an agreement with the Sikh Empire for control over the Khyber Pass and surrounding areas—had little energy and few resources for improving the penal system.23 One administrator recounted the system's typical early failings:
It is only those who are familiar with the complexity of present-day jail administration, who can realise the hopeless nature of the task which confronted the prison builders of early Bengal. Their very ignorance alone saved the situation, backed as it was by the prevailing British sentiment of the day towards the rights of the proletariat. And their estimates of their requirements, influenced inevitably by the dictates of economy, displayed very little appreciation of the lofty sentiments which had inspired their undertaking. The buildings they designed were of the cheapest and most flimsy description, and so insecure as to necessitate the stringing of the prisoners at night to a massive iron chain, which not only limited their movements, but involved a loathsome pollution of the floors and atmosphere.24
Jails built during this early period comprised a variety of forms and types. One of the earliest-known collections of jail plans, sections, and elevations, drawn to record existing Company infrastructure, dates to 1823 and demonstrates this heterogeneity.25 The signature of John Hodgson, surveyor general of India, appears at the bottom of each drawing, indicating approval from the highest levels of colonial governance. Nearly thirty Bengal jails are represented in this collection. Along with the jails are plans of cutcheries, or administrative offices and circuit houses. As institutional spaces, jails were still closely linked, administratively as well as visually, to other Company buildings used for the execution of law and order. For example, the plan, section, and elevation for the jail at Midnapore in West Bengal represents many elements—such as the austere façade and layout—of its earlier incarnation as a precolonial fort (Figure 1). By contrast, the jail at Bhagulpore, built in Bihar in 1795, looked more like a jail as currently understood, replete with iron gratings on its exterior walls (Figure 2).
Other variations in jail design included the construction of spaces that could be altered over time. Sometimes these were modeled on other building types. The jails at Mymensingh (today a city in Bangladesh), built in 1814, and Chuprah, built in Bihar in 1802, demonstrate the heterogeneity of early colonial jails (Figures 3 and 4). The jail at Mymensingh was built as a Mughal diwani jail, or debtors’ prison. When the Company's legislative control increased, officials changed its configuration to accommodate, along with debtors, the larger number of inmates now convicted of civil and criminal offenses. The original diwani jail was a building of 30 feet by 20 feet with a perimeter wall enclosing an area 90 feet by 90 feet. However, by 1823 the jail had a 247-by-225-foot perimeter wall that was attached to the old jail, along with two new buildings constructed inside the wall to confine inmates. Meanwhile, the Chuprah Jail was modeled on the plan of British army barracks, where many identical buildings were built around a central structure operating as the darogah's, or superintendent's, house. The central building was situated on an axis that served as the main thoroughfare of the complex, leading officials directly to and from the main gate. From this axis one could reach storerooms, water well, and women's wards. The uniform, single-story bungalows that served as the male wards framed the axis and held approximately forty-five prisoners each, providing 20 square feet per man. This model's popularity derived from its likeness to other colonial institutions, building on well-established knowledge of plans and construction techniques.
Still other jails in Bengal were adapted from existing buildings not originally intended for incarceration.26 The Baraset Jail in West Bengal was converted from an old cadet barrack.27 Similarly, the Berhampore Jail in Murshidabad in West Bengal, which contained prisoners under trial and occasionally convicts working on the station roads, had once been the mess house for European soldiers. The ground plan suggests that little differentiated this single-story, bungalow-like structure from other cantonment buildings of the time (Figure 5). Descriptions of the jail reveal that minimal efforts were made to change the building from mess hall to prison; the exterior retained aesthetically pleasing architectural elements such as Venetian doors and an arched veranda on both elevations. The main point of difference between the earlier mess hall and the later jail appears to be the addition of a pucka (fired-brick) wall (9 feet high, 198 feet long, and 129 feet wide) to enclose the building. But perimeter walls were a luxury in the colony, and some jails in remote areas of Bengal—like those in Pubna, Noakhally, Chybassa, and Cherrapoonjee—lacked permanent exterior walls around their yards.
Convicts often adapted prison spaces and conditions to their advantage, finding opportunities to maintain social relationships with those outside. According to the travel memoir of George Annesley, Viscount Valentia, who observed the jail in Bhagulpore in the early nineteenth century, prisoners spent much of their time outside the jail laboring on the roads and were thus able to keep their families with them during the day and in nearby huts at night.28 Along with social contacts, prisoners were able to purchase their own food using monetary allowances provided by colonial officials.29 In this system prisoners were free to save the money they received, send it home, or use it to bribe officials or to purchase food for cooking.30 Analyzing the colonial prison experience, British prison reformers noted how similar life inside the prison was to life outside, and for some, prison life was better.31 Social relationships were replicated and caste rules were followed. Prisoners wore physical emblems to signify caste as well as the corresponding dress and hairstyles.32 Lower-caste prisoners were made to do the work expected of their caste, such as sweeping.33 Consequently, the spatial logic of early prisons deviated from the norms British officials hoped would govern their institutional system; instead of being subjected to an uncomfortable experience of confinement, prisoners appeared to challenge that experience significantly through adherence to deeply entrenched social practices and distinctions. And since early jails were largely constructed as or adapted from generic colonial buildings, they lacked architectural features that might indicate their carceral function.
Yet there were certain distinct patterns visible among British jails as early as the late eighteenth century. The ground plan of the district jail of Murshidabad, along with that of the jail at Bhagulpore, illustrates the most common spatial organization of early prison buildings (Figure 6, see Figure 2). Murshidabad had been the capital of Mughal Bengal, so it seemed logical to the British, as India's new rulers, to build a district jail there. (The location they chose, however, was a swampy tract, which would prove troubling for drainage.)34 The plan for Murshidabad, which appears in a report on the state of colonial jails and hospitals prepared by the district magistrates in 1841, was ideal not only for its simplicity but also for its adaptability. The jail combined a 12-foot-high pucka perimeter wall with a long, rectangular pucka building located in the center of the yard. Thick interior partition walls divided the building into twelve wards, and some walls extended to the outer wall, creating a smaller courtyard in front of each ward. Despite these divisions, the individual wards were, for the most part, open spaces with similar dimensions, averaging between 8 and 9 feet in width and 44 feet in length. As generic spaces, the wards could serve a variety of functions. For example, Ward 1 was used as a medical storeroom, while Ward 2 was for condemned prisoners. A second story provided additional accommodations; the rooms over Wards 1, 2, 3, and 4 functioned as a hospital, and the rooms over Wards 11 and 12 confined the female prisoners. Many colonial administrators admired the versatility and efficiency of this pattern, and so it was employed with some frequency in prisons across Bengal as late as the mid-nineteenth century.35
Nevertheless, given their widespread variances in organization, early British jails in India were often inefficient. Many were plagued with structural problems that made them insecure and prone to fires or jailbreaks.36 The jail at Champaran in Bihar is a good example of a building that required constant repairs; renovation was encouraged just two years after its initial construction in 1838 (Figure 7).37 The jail's plan, featured in the 1841 magistrates’ report, followed a barrack plan similar to that of the Chuprah Jail, where six wards surrounded a darogah's house, with a 10½-foot outer wall enclosing the 370-by-270-foot compound. However, unlike jails such as Murshidabad, built from pucka, the majority of Champaran, including the darogah's offices and the outer wall, was built with soft, sandy kutcha, or unfired mud brick.38 After a visit to the Champaran Jail on 23 August 1840, G. D. Wilkins, the joint magistrate of Champaran, expressed dismay at the mud wall, which afforded little defense and allowed for “constant intercourse between prisoners and their friends.”39 Wilkins saw the ineffectualness of Champaran as a problem of architecture. He suggested that prisoners were able to maintain social relationships because the jail failed to provide the necessary separation between prison and nonprison communities. Wilkins's observations point to what colonial administrators believed to be the main problems with early colonial jail buildings: their spatial flexibility and lack of adequate internal organization.
These problems were accompanied by many others. Colonial descriptions of the Champaran Jail present it as overcrowded (British administrators often described jails as filled to or beyond capacity).40 Other problems at Champaran included insufficient mud sentry boxes, offensive and rotten privies, and a poorly constructed hospital that felt wet and damp to its occupants. By extension, this hospital was blamed for the rampant dysentery among the prison population—an example of how colonial buildings were framed within British rhetoric about the sickly tropics. Colonial administrators represented many of the jails in Bengal, especially those in cities and towns removed from Calcutta and its surrounding areas, as fundamentally flawed in their design. Such observations were sometimes used to make a case for reforming penal architecture elsewhere in the colony.
Yet reform was a slow and difficult process, and many East India Company officials were hesitant to take on the necessary improvements, preferring instead to maintain the status quo. For example, the unmodified Champaran Jail remained in use until the end of the nineteenth century. Critiques of the disorganization and architectural failings of early British jails first came to a head in the 1830s, with the Report of the Committee on Prison-Discipline, issued in 1838. Loosely modeling their work on Benthamite principles, the authors of the report made recommendations for the systematic classification of prisoners, the removal of prisoners’ luxuries, the replacement of money allowances with food rations, the replacement of outdoor road labor with intramural work, and the implementation of a system of solitary confinement. When the governor-general of India, George Eden, 1st Earl of Auckland, received the report, he was reluctant to approve the additional costs it implied. The Company had recently become involved in another military campaign in the northwest and could not justify extra costs to fix its Indian jails.41 Thus, the Indian prison system and its heterogeneous collection of buildings were maintained as they were—transformed only when the British government stepped in, replacing the East India Company as ruler of India in 1858.
Beginning in the 1850s, prison reforms were enacted across India on a large scale—they were no longer just discussed and theorized by reformers. Prison reforms came to the forefront of colonial policy at this time for multiple reasons, the first and most obvious of which was the shift in governance following the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. That rebellion and the earlier Santhal Rebellion of 1855 were two of the many uprisings that threatened colonial enterprise at midcentury. This turbulent political climate forced British administrators to evaluate more arduously the cause of crime in India as well as its recent upswing.42 British authorities began to reform the jails with an eye toward studying the nature of social differences in India. The shift in governance also raised the issue of public image back home. As possessions of the British Crown, India's prisons became more susceptible to scrutiny by the metropole. England had recently undergone a series of prison reforms, and this reforming energy was extended to India, resulting in the drafting of the Indian Penal Code in 1860.43
Within the colony, the management of Indian jails was criticized even before the uprisings and the shift in ruling power. In the official reports, governance of Indian jails was characterized as disorganized, with authority vested in local magistrates already overburdened with other responsibilities. One strategy of reform was to consolidate the general management of provincial jails in a single office. In most presidencies, the position of inspector of jails was created, later to be renamed inspector general.44 Another strategy involved the Indian Medical Service. The issue of prisoner health had been mostly ignored in the first half of the nineteenth century, with the exception of the damning critique of prisoner health services in a book written by the secretary of the Bengal Medical Board, James Hutchinson.45 In the 1850s, bereft of a professional prison medical service, the British government turned to the IMS and began to appoint doctors to replace the magistrates who had been jail superintendents or provincial inspectors.46 The medical profession's involvement in the prison system would play a huge role in the reorganization of prisons around the study of social and environmental differences within the native population. Most notably in Bengal, this medical turn ushered in the fifteen-year reign of Inspector General Dr. Frederic John Mouat. Mouat was an erudite official responsible for introducing numerous penal reforms in Bengal. These combined circumstances fixed the 1850s as the moment when the colonial prison system began to undergo its first major transformation.
Architectural reform was a critical component of this transformation. The jail structures built in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had fallen into disrepair; they were vastly overcrowded, and they incubated disease.47 Nevertheless, it was financially impossible to build new jails, so colonial administrators started by remodeling existing structures to cope with the overcrowding. Their efforts included expanding extant buildings, creating purpose-built kitchen facilities, organizing spaces for housing the different classes of prisoners (notably in the introduction of central jails servicing six or eight districts—large facilities intended for hardened criminals), and allocating space in prisons for the production of goods such as blankets, oil, sacks, and ropes (originally for sale in the free markets, later used in the other branches of colonial government). While these changes helped ease overcrowding, the remodeled buildings often remained unsanitary and poorly ventilated. Further, they did not reflect the classificatory system that British officials so desired, wherein prisoners’ social contacts would be limited to those of similar criminal backgrounds. Still, this period of development was critical to the formation of later prison plans: it gave birth to the idea that a primary function of prison architecture is to support a system of social classification.
This need to classify and order was a component of the larger project of empire building. Power in colonial India, as Bernard Cohn reminds us, was dependent on a visual program.48 Transforming the prison into a site of colonial knowledge aligned architecture with practices of surveillance that were most fully articulated in the decades following the Sepoy Rebellion. Surveillance was not an exclusively colonial practice, but it took on new meaning in the British colony, where authorities attempted to understand groups that defied liberal conceptions of social order. The British were most comfortable in India when everyone, themselves and their subjects, played their proper roles in the “colonial sociological theater,” as Cohn calls it.49 Criminals were seen as outside of civilization, dangerous others who threatened the advancement of colonial progress. Prisons allowed surveillance of this threatening population and thus facilitated efforts to repair a problematic social order. Monitoring criminals’ behaviors and actions would provide insights into groups that operated outside approved social boundaries, and the continued observation of these groups could produce knowledge to facilitate still greater social control of the indigenous population beyond the prison yard. In the remainder of this section, I consider two Calcutta prisons—the Alipore and Presidency Jails—that were adapted as central jails; these demonstrate early efforts to produce knowledge through a classificatory architectural apparatus.
The Alipore and Presidency Jails were built in the Alipore district, only a few miles from Fort William in Calcutta, the center of British military strength in India. They were two of the oldest British jails in India.50 The Presidency Jail dated to the late eighteenth century, while construction on the Alipore Jail began in 1810. Both were transformed into central jails, the Presidency in the 1860s and the Alipore in the 1870s. An 1825 map of the city of Calcutta and its environs illustrates the relatively short distance, just over two miles, between them (Figure 8).51 Institutional buildings such as the hospital and orphan schools, as well as recreational and residential spaces and the soldiers’ burial grounds, stood near the jails, indicating their centrality within colonial life. The Alipore Jail was within walking distance of Belvedere House, home of the lieutenant governor of India beginning in 1854. Some of the most hardened criminals in India were housed within these jails, and their location at the center of an important institutional landscape in Calcutta was no coincidence. British officials monitored these criminals in a capital port city and could send them directly to far-flung penal colonies if need be.
Along with being one of the oldest jails in India, the Alipore Jail was one of the largest. It consisted of three rectangular buildings joined together to form a U-shaped complex that was broken into twelve large wards enclosed by an exterior wall. In the center yard was a water tank, 213 feet by 164 feet, that adjoined the jail's two cook rooms; in a far corner of the compound was the reservoir that held water for drinking and washing. The initial cost of construction was 100,397 rupees, a fairly large sum at the time, while the nearby hospital, situated outside the jail within its own walled yard, was built for 27,599 rupees one year later.52
Alipore was the site of a particularly violent prisoner uprising in 1834, which brought attention to the jail and was a critical impetus for the establishment in 1836 of the Committee on Prison-Discipline, which handed down its report in 1838. Although this report included many recommendations for architectural improvements to India's jails, little was done at the time to enact these. British officials in Bengal revisited these suggestions only in the 1850s and did not begin to execute them until the 1860s and 1870s. One key recommendation in the committee's report was to segregate different types of prisoners. Interest in such segregation was articulated in the 1860s in a set of rules for the superintendence and management of the jails in Bengal. According to these rules, “The object of classification is to prevent the contamination by depraved prisoners of prisoners not so depraved, and to attempt to insure that a prisoner shall go out of Jail, if unreformed, at least not worse than he went in.”53 Plans for the Presidency and Alipore Jails from the mid-nineteenth century focus on the reorganization of prison interiors to isolate civil, under-trial, female, and European prisoners (a class of prisoners that included both British and other Europeans) from the general population. Presidency was considered particularly flawed because the female prisoners were not properly secluded and the men were not classified according to their crimes.54 Alipore was equally troubling because the more dangerous prisoners were free to socialize and gather with the general population, since the jail lacked the proper internal divisions.55 Officials encouraged the construction of high partitions to divide the main interior spaces of Alipore into distinct wards that would enable prison officials to separate the different types of inmates. This approach was eventually applied to all Indian jails, and it was determined that any new jails to be constructed would be required to follow a similar system of classification.56 Other recommendations encouraged the erection of great central jails and the construction of solitary confinement cells for enhanced discipline.57
These collective reforms illustrate mid-nineteenth-century concerns regarding the legibility of jail space. The solution for making jails more easily readable would be the imposition of a system that ordered bodies. The existing social structure—for example, the adherence to caste hierarchy practiced in early jails administered by the British—could no longer be tolerated, authorities said. Instead, jails should be built to order prisoners according to a “rational” conception of space based on inmates’ degrees of criminality.
The 1865 plan of the Alipore Jail, which appeared in Mouat's annual administrative report, represents early efforts to rationalize jail space (Figure 9).58 Significant changes were made to the jail following the 1838 report of the Committee on Prison-Discipline. That report recommended dividing the interior with partition walls and ensuring that no more than fifty prisoners be contained within each division. As seen in the plan, the number of wards had more than doubled, solitary cells were added, and separate wards were created for female and civil prisoners. Solitary cells were added to the older areas of the complex, positioned at the arm ends of the U-shaped structure. However, these cells were rarely used in the manner such cells were employed in European and American prisons; the cells built at Alipore in the 1850s were too small and did not provide enough space for ventilation, so prisoners could not be confined in them for long disciplinary periods.59 Elsewhere in the compound, new sections were built to separate female (European and native), nonlaboring, and civil prisoners from other prisoners. An outer passage created by a corridor was bounded by the 758-by-590-foot exterior wall, while the walled edges of the internal divisions provided easy access to these new sections. The general prison population was housed in the three rectangular buildings that formed the U-shaped structure (Figure 10). As one of the largest prisons in India, Alipore also functioned as a holding place where habitual prisoners sentenced to transportation, or deportation for life, would await their ships; these prisoners were separated from the general population so that their habitual criminal natures could not “contaminate” others. Thus, for the first time, colonial prison architecture promised to be a great mediator, intervening between jail officials and inmates and providing spaces for stabilizing criminal identity and preventing contamination. Prisoners were grouped with those of the same gender who had similar criminal proclivities and similar sentences.
While these modifications provided a means of mass categorization, prison officials, having improvised the new arrangements from older models, still had difficulty supervising all parts of the Alipore Jail.60 British officials could now control the locations and groupings of Indian criminals, but they were eager for more total classification. Although they had found ways to separate distinct groups (such as women and civil prisoners) from the general population, they were troubled by the continuing lack of classification within that larger population. Part of the problem was that even with alterations, the existing structures were generally ineffective. In the words of one administrator, Alipore was a central jail bereft of a central jail's facilities.61 Ideally, these would have included adequate sleeping wards with proper ventilation, means of separating the several classes of prisoners who worked in discrete stations during the day but ate and gathered together at night, cells for punishment and protection, and decent subsidiary buildings.62 On account of these concerns, Alipore would be further improved in the 1870s, when members of the general population were classified according to age, health, dangerousness, and habitualness. Further divisions were then made within the existing wards to facilitate increased classification.63
Similar alterations were part of the Presidency's reorganization. Located in the lush urban parkland of the Calcutta Maidan, the Presidency originally housed two separate jails, the Great Jail and the House of Correction, within the same walls (Figure 11).64 The two were consolidated in 1865. A plan of the 870-by-630-foot jail, drawn just before consolidation and included in the same report as that discussing the Alipore, demonstrates a clear vision of the future of colonial classification within the prison system—inmates grouped according to race, gender, and crime (Figure 12). The jail was home to both men and women, as well as natives and Europeans, and the plan represents these groups separated from one another in roughly equivalent spaces. Colonial officials viewed the segregation of female prisoners as a major improvement, a move to ensure the protection of female bodies. Larger British colonial imperatives were reenacted here as “white men saving brown women from brown men” through spatial ordering.65 The female wards and yards were located in a walled section of the Great Jail, self-contained with privies and a cook room. The entrance to the ward was flanked by a sergeant's quarters to provide supervision and protection from the male population. Also in the Great Jail were private spaces for prisoners under remand and for debtors. Solitary cells were built in the walled section immediately to the west of the female ward. All of these segregated spaces had their own cook rooms and privies to limit the need for prisoner interaction during the day. Although the section for Europeans is not as clearly identified on this plan as it is in later versions, we know that separate accommodations were provided, since spaces for the general native population are clearly noted. The native population was for the most part housed in the House of Correction and would remain on that side of the jail even after the two sections were consolidated. Following these adaptations, the Presidency became a model for other Bengal jails. Those that could not be entirely rebuilt could, at the very least, be retrofitted on the inside to ensure limited social contamination.
The architectural reforms of the mid-nineteenth century were intended to facilitate the ordering of difference. The British commitment to order was informed by a political strategy of governing without assimilating and a simultaneous commitment to the Enlightenment endeavor of knowing the world more fully.66 In other words, knowledge was equated with power, and, as historian Thomas Metcalf argues, India was “ ‘known’ in ways that would sustain a system of colonial authority, and through categories that made it fundamentally different from Europe.”67 The prison was transformed into an ideal space of administrative infrastructure where the British could develop and articulate new categories of difference. However, the Alipore and Presidency Jails still belonged to an earlier era where functional specificity was largely absent from design. The British needed to draft new plans for new jails to ensure that built spaces could provide and maintain that social order. Beginning in the 1870s, a vision of what that penal form should look like was codified, followed by the construction of multiple new buildings. This vision presented an ideal pattern for the organization of criminal bodies, although it often fell short of expectations in its execution.
By the 1870s, British jails had been part of the landscape of Bengal for nearly one hundred years. British officials had invested time, money, and energy into their prison buildings and experimented with different managerial strategies. The increased attention paid to prison architecture brought with it a set of expectations laid down by the British government: a prison should be of a permanent nature, with as large an interior area as possible, a 15-foot-high enclosure wall to prevent escape, and barracks two or three stories high (with the ground floors for work, the upper stories for sleeping) and positioned favorably toward the winds (for proper ventilation). Sleeping wards should be situated so that when funds allowed they could be partitioned to spatialize difference, with special enclosures for female, under-trial, and civil prisoners and those requiring solitary confinement.68 Even cooking facilities were to be redesigned to accommodate religious and racial differences, as reflected in an 1874 drawing for a proposed cooking range with distinct Hindu, Muslim, and European sections (Figure 13). In the decades that followed, new reports would amend these expectations, but it is this impulse to make the architecture of Bengal jails consistent that is particularly noteworthy, signaling a dramatic shift in colonial policy since the 1850s.
Another notable change in jail management occurred when Mouat retired from service in 1870. This changing of the guard was coupled with an increase in funding, greater discretion in that funding's use, and a clearer sense of the objectives of the jail system in India.69 This period also witnessed the heightened involvement of the newly formed Public Works Department in the design and construction of jails. The PWD was created in 1855 to be the branch of the colonial government responsible for all public infrastructure. Projects that fell under PWD control included the construction of irrigation canals, railways and their accompanying buildings, roads, post and telegraph offices, housing for civil servants, civic buildings, courthouses, police stations, and jails.70
As architectural historian Peter Scriver argues, the PWD found little time to dwell on grand notions of “architecture.”71 The PWD's institutional formula combined economic pragmatism and consistency to produce infrastructure that was functional but not necessarily visually stimulating. Or to put it another way, instead of striving to develop an architectural language specific to India and reflective of the power of empire (as with those institutional structures that adopted the Indo-Saracenic style), PWD designs from the 1870s and 1880s were most valued by colonial officials when they provided durable and healthy buildings with portable, interchangeable parts.72
This condition of colonial economy offered little opportunity for the profession of “prison architect” to emerge in India. Indeed, there were few professionally trained British architects interested in travel to or long-term residence in India during the nineteenth century.73 In Britain, meanwhile, architects specializing in prison design had been around since the late eighteenth century, beginning with William Blackburn.74 Lacking a surplus of architects, India looked to its engineers—military, civil, and mechanical—for the majority of the PWD's design work, including prison design. Military engineering was particularly important in shaping the early architectural direction of PWD prison plans.75 Of course, it was not only in India that military engineers were charged with prison design; nineteenth-century Britain's best-known prison architect, Joshua Jebb, was himself a Royal Engineer, and his vision for the “model prison” of Pentonville, near London, was profoundly important in the development of prison architecture worldwide. The crucial difference in India, however, centered on the subordinate status of public works engineers within colonial bureaucracy. From an economic perspective, the importation of high-ranking engineers such as Jebb for low-level jobs was impractical.76 Nor was employing natives a desirable option for imperially minded bureaucrats, despite the fact that there were skilled native engineers in India. Thus, the training of British-born colonial engineers at the subordinate level became the priority in India. Schools and colleges were established to provide the PWD with engineers, and the vast majority of recruits were British.77 Once trained, these subordinate professionals would oversee the design and construction of all varieties of public works, including prisons.
As Scriver notes, these professionals were not expected to innovate; rather, they were expected to prepare designs that would effectively maintain and protect colonial interests.78 Those designs were to provide basic guidelines for the buildings, leaving room for alterations when it came to the actual construction. As a part of the bureaucratic apparatus, the PWD's involvement was important in shaping the architecture of the colonial prison system, lending it legitimacy and encouraging the construction of more uniform, rationally planned buildings.
According to colonial administrators, prison architecture desperately needed the reforms brought about by the PWD. Assessing the status of jails in the Lower Provinces around 1875, one inspector general noted that “several of our jails are still little better than mud hovels, in which it is doubtful if any prisoners in the world, except Bengalees, would have the courtesy to remain 24 hours.”79 Official reports are filled with stories detailing the inadequacies of Bengal jails, such as their builders’ continued reliance on bamboo and mud instead of pucka.80 Natural disasters regularly showed the structural weaknesses of British jails. An earthquake destroyed the Cachar Jail in Assam in 1868, and instead of erecting a permanent building to replace it, officials constructed a few bamboo huts surrounded by a bamboo fence—a temporary and insecure solution.81
By the 1870s and 1880s, most early British jails in India had fallen into disrepair. Among these was the district jail in Murshidabad, which represented the most common pattern among early jail designs, now seen as outmoded and ill equipped.82 The Champaran Jail was another early building in dire need of updates and improvements. Over the years that structure had been plagued by overcrowding, bad water, poor ventilation, and a high rate of prisoner mortality.83 Attempts were made to classify prisoners, but officials remained fearful of inmate riots, particularly because the palisading used to partition the jail's yards was flimsy.84 However, in 1874 plans were made to rebuild the jail using pucka. By the end of the decade the old jail was mostly abandoned.85 A new jail was completed in 1882.86 Other prisons, including the district jail at Mymensingh, were rebuilt in the 1870s, and a growing push for permanence necessitated that all jails be redesigned as funds permitted.87 Ensuring security was a high priority. This transformation of old, temporary, and unhealthy structures into uniform, permanent ones required a consistent set of architectural principles, codified in the form of a standard plan to guide new construction.
A collection of PWD drawings from 1872, approved by the lieutenant governor of Bengal, represents the visualization of such principles while also revealing a shift in thinking about prison design.88 The collection's model plan for a district jail uses a radial scheme (Figure 14). Future prisons, such as the new district jail at Mymensingh, would follow this model.89
Radial prison plans first began to appear during the late eighteenth century. In Britain, Blackburn used them in several of his designs. While there was some variety within this type, all followed certain conventions. Western radial prisons typically employed a central hub from which the cell wings extended. The central structure governed the operation of the jail, with the governor's quarters and a chapel typically located there, often connected to the rest of the jail by passageways. A variation on this was Jeremy Bentham's well-known panopticon plan. The panopticon employed a circular plan with a tower at the center from which guards could observe inmates’ cells. This arrangement was intended to regulate prisoners’ behavior by instilling awareness in them that they were being observed at all times, even though it was impossible for the guards to observe all cells at once. In both a basic radial plan and the panopticon, architecture operated as a mechanism for controlling human behavior and reforming the prisoner's moral condition.
The decision to employ radial plans in India, nearly one hundred years after their development in England, was motivated less by concerns for moral improvement than by a desire for more centralized, better-connected prison spaces. The radial plan also served a particular function in colonial India, less panopticon than laboratory. While officials did not expect the morality of Indian prisoners to improve under constant watch, the radial plan facilitated the impression of separated and classified bodies and proved a useful way of organizing space, with different functions separated from one another.
A distinguishing characteristic of the colonial radial plan was its peculiar shape. The model plan from 1872 can be best described as an irregular ellipse. Colonial officials considered the elliptical shape superior to other shapes because, as one inspector general noted, its interior could be divided into “small segmental divisions in the direction of the minor axis without the necessity of narrowing the inner angle, which always [caused a] waste of room.”90 After parts of the ellipse were walled off, this divisibility was used for classifying and housing criminal groups of different sizes. The interior divisions were organized according to criminal proclivity, gender, and race, thus giving the appearance of an ordered and ideal prison community. The plan assigned the worst criminals to a central location, while lesser offenders were placed closer to the outer edges. Adhering to a nuanced view of criminality, the plan separated habituals—repeat offenders whose criminal nature was seen as hereditary by colonial officials—from prisoners of the “violent class.” It separated “moderately good” prisoners from moderately or thoroughly bad ones. Inside each walled division was a two-story building with a veranda on one side and a night privy in the back. Covered verandas were an important sign of reform. Although costly, they were necessary for cooling and ventilation in tropical climates, and they provided space from which guards could observe the prison wards.91 The lower stories of buildings were designated for labor, while the upper stories slept up to seventy-five prisoners. Also featured on the plan were walled divisions that housed women or Europeans, as well as distinct divisions for a cookhouse, solitary cells, a reception yard, and, at the very center, a hospital. Juveniles were separated from the general population to protect them from corruption.92 Although there were variations in the sizes of structures across divisions, all contained similar accommodations.
The division of criminals seen here was based on the assumption that Indian jails were “training schools of vice and crime.”93 For this reason, they required more elaborate levels of classification than did prisons in England.94 The spatial separation of different criminal types seemed to be the only recourse authorities had to inhibit contamination, given the belief that India's civilization was essentially unchanging. When extended to Indian criminals, this belief cast crimes as predetermined and criminals as unreformable. The 1877 Report of the Indian Jails Conference argued that “Indian society [is] based on status and custom, while Western civilization founds itself on contract, [thus] the effect of prison training on the future life of the English and Indian convict is widely different.”95 Prison discipline could not improve Indian criminals, since Indian society had never developed a social contract to regulate individual action. Whereas English convicts could be reformed, Indian criminals would always fall back on status and customs. The colonial prison aspired not to teach morality but to contain and control the uncivilized. It also provided a forum in which the state could practice strategies of control that might be useful over the vast space of the colony as a whole.
Nowhere was this view of the prison as a place to test strategies applicable to the colony as a whole more evident than in the planning and construction of radially planned central jails, perhaps the most radical consequence of PWD involvement.96 Although the topic was discussed in the 1838 report, no new central jails were planned in Bengal until the late 1860s and the 1870s, except for the conversions of the Alipore and Presidency Jails.97 The establishment of new central jails became a top priority in the 1870s, and reports from this period demonstrate acknowledgment of the role of architecture in creating an effective penal system.98 Contemporary observers also linked interest in central jails to the standardization and consolidation of the colonial prison institution. Following a trip to India in 1866, British reformer Mary Carpenter, who visited colonial jails as part of her inquiry into the status of women's education, advocated for a central jail system, believing it would bring colonial prisons more in line with European ones, such as those in Ireland.99
The Bhagulpore Central Jail in Bihar was the first constructed with the help of the PWD and according to the new standard set of principles (Figure 15). The general opinion was that jails like the Alipore, though converted and reformed, were defective in their ability to control and classify prisoners, as well as unhealthy and poorly ventilated.100 New central jails such as that at Bhagulpore would follow the radial plan, where air could flow more freely and produce a more salubrious environment for the ordering and classification of criminals.101 The jail was a huge space built to contain the worst criminals in Bihar. The two back walls were more than 1,100 feet long, while the two front walls were slightly shorter, since the entrance gateway and the jailer's house interrupted their overall length.102 Together these walls formed a rhombus-like enclosure. Inside the walls were wards based not on the cellular principle but on an open barracks plan consistent with earlier colonial jail buildings. Unlike Western prisons, where inmates spent much of their time indoors and alone, colonial Indian prisons were arranged so that inmates would be outdoors, where they would spend time socializing; this promoted better health and greater productivity. Solitary cells, present at the far edges of the plan, served an auxiliary function. The main difference between this plan and those of earlier central jails was that the radial arrangement further facilitated classification.
Walls on the inside of the jail enclosure produced three main divisions. In the western division was the hospital, comprising two buildings, each 160 feet by 298.8 feet; a storeroom; a cook room; a room for the inspection and preparation of the deceased for funeral arrangements; and a well. The eastern division was more complicated, being further divided into five distinct sections. The wards and hospital space for women occupied three sections, a ward for Europeans occupied one, and a ward for boys or juveniles occupied the final one. One hundred women could be housed within this jail, along with five Europeans and thirty juveniles, and each ward contained barracks for sleeping, along with a cook room and a workshop. These divisions had now become standard; they replicated efforts to classify and separate prisoners observed in the model plan of 1872, with those considered most vulnerable pushed to the edges to prevent their contamination by hardened criminals. The central division was for adult male prisoners, aimed at limiting their access to women, Europeans, and juveniles they might corrupt. The interior of the central division was organized along radial sections. These did not form a complete circle but were built as six separate units detached from the center. Each of the six sections contained barrack spaces, workshops, cook rooms, and privies; most had two workshops. Each section had two 197-by-24-foot barracks, each capable of confining seventy-two prisoners. These were detached and enclosed by the radial walls. The six different sections divided the male population further while providing comparable accommodations for all.
While this plan offered an improved vision for the future of the colonial jail system, its construction history presents a different reality. Building this enormous project was a slow process, and the Bengal Jail Department frequently ran into financial problems. The barracks were the first structures built, and they were nearly ready for occupation before the year's end in 1872, but with no system for guarding them, prisoners were lodged in temporary quarters for some time after the barracks were completed.103 Once occupied, these barracks turned out to be very damp, and engineers had to find a substitute material for the original mud floors.104 By 1876, it was determined that the radial arrangement was causing ventilation problems.105
Despite this troubled history, plans for the Bhagulpore central jail and the model district jail signal a shift in colonial penology, and they set the tone for prison architecture in Bengal and the rest of India. As the Report of the Indian Jails Committee (1919–1920)—produced by an all-India committee established to analyze the history and progress of colonial jails—would later state, the introduction of a standardized system of central jails “exercised an important influence on prison work in India,” providing “better means of employment” and effecting “greater economy and uniformity.”106 The construction of these prisons would continue for the remainder of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.107 The new Alipore Jail, opened in 1913 and still in use today, was loosely modeled on a radial plan similar to that of Bhagulpore or the model district jail, although its size was greater and its entrance gateway more impressive (Figure 16). The Dum Dum Central Jail, built in a northern municipality of Calcutta, dates to the late 1920s, when it was converted to a jail from a colonial ammunition factory. Jail buildings currently in use there maintain the 1870s preference for two-story barracks with verandas on one side (Figure 17).
Jails built in presidencies beyond Bengal also follow these models. Multiple divisions for classifying prisoners can be observed in a 1911 photograph of a jail built to the west in Rampur, then a part of the United Provinces (Figure 18). Taken from a high vantage point, the photograph presents a clean and ordered view of prison space. Likewise, a plan published in conjunction with the 1919–20 Indian Jails Committee report expands the dimensions of the colonial radial plan, proposing that it now hold up to 1,500 inmates within an enclosed area of 23¼ acres, thus granting 75 square yards per inmate (Figure 19). This plan placed an even greater emphasis on separation and classification than had earlier ones, establishing separate accommodations for different classes of offenders within the space of the radius. The jail was divided into two semicircular groups of buildings. A central garden passage and kitchens separated the habituals’ barracks from the cells of the casual offenders. Women and under-trial prisoners were placed far away from the area where men were confined, and a separate entrance to the female section of the jail further ensured the women's security (Figure 20). This plan became the model for twentieth-century colonial jails all over India; its reliance on the radial plan and its classificatory purpose was indebted to the reforms of the 1870s. Prisons built across India, in Punjab, West Bengal, and even Bombay, adopted this plan.108
Ultimately, the majority of Bengal jails were built anew beginning in the 1870s, marking this decade as a significant moment of architectural reform within the history of colonial jails in India. Central jails on radial plans became standard for housing habitual criminals. Viewed from their exteriors, these jails seemed more impressive and formidable than earlier ones; they were certainly larger, and their interiors offered a clearer articulation of their specific purposes. The radially planned central jail promised to maintain and secure the worst members of India's criminal population, who, though believed incapable of moral reform, could still be effectively controlled by architecture. Or, at the very least, the architecture was meant to give this impression.
The jails designed and constructed in India during the 1870s tell us much about the colonial penal system under the British Raj. As the material expression of social and environmental theories, they reveal the colonizers’ obsessive need to classify and their underlying insecurity regarding their ability to maintain control over their Indian subjects. These jails also demonstrate the elasticity of the prison as an institution transformed according to evolving circumstances. Several decades of experimentation in the subcontinent resulted in prisons with loose ties to the Western world, with physical and operational formats decidedly different from those of Western prisons. The architecture of these jails, also the product of years of failure and experimentation, was inextricably linked to the colonial project and the management of empire. Colonial prison buildings were never meant to encourage individual reforms; rather, the buildings were designed as spaces of containment and control where the British could house a population that upset their notions of rational behavior and social order. Or, to put it another way, they offered a means of organizing subjects in accordance with the colonial worldview while also psychologically quelling the fears of imperial rulers.
As part of a larger global history of modern social institutions, colonial Indian prisons are linked to other prisons around the world in that they make visible the influence of architecture in shaping experience. In the case of colonial India, the prison came to symbolize British rule to colonial subjects in the most physical way possible. The prison mapped the locations of prisoners in accordance with colonial notions of difference. It guided the movements of prisoners to prevent exposure and contamination in accordance with colonial social categories. Eventually, it came to mediate the transactions of prisoners and to stabilize criminal identity as it was understood within the colonial landscape.