The ‘star class’ in English convict prisons, 1863-1914

Bethell, Ben (2020) The ‘star class’ in English convict prisons, 1863-1914. Doctoral thesis, Birkbeck, University of London.

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Abstract

Introduced in 1879, following over a decade of mounting anxiety about ‘contamination’ in English convict prisons, the ‘star class’ was an administrative division for first offenders intended to ensure their segregation from other prisoners. Conceived primarily in terms of criminal pedagogy - the notion, that is, that prisons functioned inadvertently as ‘schools of crime’ - ‘contamination’ was an elastic term whose meaning extended to a spirit of insubordination among convicts, and with it the potential for ‘mutiny’; to convicts’ everyday employment of ‘filthy’ language; and to the vexed issue of sex between male prisoners, complicated by the presence in convict prisons of men sentenced under the sodomy laws. It also encompassed the forced association of hitherto ‘respectable’ offenders - not least, so-called ‘gentleman convicts’ - with members of the reviled ‘criminal class’. Secondary background checks on prospective ‘star men’ were often extensive and narrowed still further the division’s constituency, leading eventually to a population in which men convicted of offences against a female person predominated, but in which ‘white collar’ property offenders were also concentrated. At the same time, the principle that ‘star men’ and ordinary convicts should receive uniform treatment was gradually eroded with regard to prison work, with more congenial forms of labour routinely assigned to the former. Among these was printing, the principal trade at Maidstone convict prison, which opened in 1909 and was designated a star-class establishment, fulfilling a long-standing operational objective (it would remain so until 1939, and the star class itself would survive until 1967). Thus, a form of social privilege, albeit highly circumscribed, endured within the convict system, its formal egalitarianism notwithstanding: ‘gentlemen’ were spared both the full rigours of penal labour and the company of common thieves, but at the cost of their being classified with violent and sexual offenders.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Copyright Holders: The copyright of this thesis rests with the author, who asserts his/her right to be known as such according to the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. No dealing with the thesis contrary to the copyright or moral rights of the author is permitted.
School/Department: School of Social Sciences, History & Philosophy > History, Classics & Archaeology
Depositing User: ORBIT Editor
Date Deposited: 13 Jul 2020 10:43
Last Modified: 13 Jul 2020 10:43
URI: http://bbktheses.da.ulcc.ac.uk/id/eprint/469

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