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Punishments at Bodmin Jail

The life of a prisoner in the 18th and 19th centuries can only be described as punishing. Even though Bodmin Jail was built after the prison reform with individual cells and segregated male and female areas, there was overcrowding, a meagre diet and harsh conditions to survive.

Corporal punishment was the norm and it was believed that criminals had to be shown the value of working for a living, which meant they were put to work for hours every day, often doing pointless and menial tasks designed to degrade them and break their will; 'to sweat the evil out of them with honest toil'.

Picking Oakum

Picking oakum meant separating the strands of old rope so that they could be used again. The tar would be removed from old lengths of ship's rope, and the prisoners would have to uncoil, unravel, unpick and shred the rope into fibres. This work was very monotonous and unpleasant, often creating deep sores on hands and fingers.

The Treadmill

The treadmill, which was a device similar to the stepping machine you find in modern gyms, was often used both for work, and as a punishment for prisoners at Bodmin Jail. Prisoners would be expected to step on the device for 15 minutes at a time, grinding corn for use in the prison kitchens, before working for 15 minutes picking oakum. This cycle of work continued for 8 hours, six days a week, all in silence. It is said that the climbing on the treadmill was equivalent of climbing Mount Snowdon three times every day!

The Crank

The Crank, which consisted of a large post-mounted handle with a counter, was a pointless activity where a prisoner had to do on average eight thousand turns a day without any product of their hard work.  Gears turned round in a drum and each turn of the handle was recorded. To make it even more gruelling, the Warders could tighten the Crank via a big screw, making it harder to turn; hence the Warders became known as ‘Screws’.

Shot Drill

Another form of hard labour or punishment without reward was the shot drill, where a prisoner had to lift a heavy iron cannonball level with their chest, carry it a measured distance, put it down and repeat the task with another one. The Warders would shout orders whilst prisoners moved heavy cannonballs from one pile to another; hundreds at a time.

Stocks and Pillory

Putting an individual on display to show the public they had committed a crime was popular in the 18th century.

The Stocks were wooden or metal devices with foot holes, where the individual was seated and had their feet and ankles locked into the device so that the legs were held out straight.

A Pillory was also a wooden or metal device with holes, but it locked both the individual’s head and hands in place. It was not possible to sit while in a pillory and holding the position for a length of time was gruelling.

Anyone placed in the stocks or pillory would be expected to stay in the device for hours or even days depending on the severity of their crime, often when it was very hot or very cold outside. Their shoes would be removed, and members of the public could whip them as they passed, and it was not uncommon for the public to throw rotten fruit or vegetables, or even defecate on prisoners.

Flogging and Whipping

Male prisoners were often flogged as punishment, using a cat-o-nine tailed whip whilst tied to a frame. This multi-tailed whip was an implement for severe physical punishment and would leave deep marks on the skin.

Female prisoners would be strapped over a post with their feet restrained in a box and whipped, using a whip or with a birch. In Britain, both of these were finally abolished in 1948.