The worst evil of being in prison is one can never bar one’s door.

STENDHAL (1783-1842)


VICTOR HUGO (1802-85)

He who opens a school door, closes a prison.

Ernest Hemingway's son, Gregory, died dressed as a woman in the women's section of the Miami-Dade county jail.

Invented in Jail

The modern toothbrush was invented in a prison in 1780 by William Addis. In Newgate jail for rioting, he was expected to clean his teeth by using a piece of rag and some soot scraped off the back of the chimney. Deciding that a scaled-down broom would do a better job, he drilled some holes in a bone salvaged from his dinner, scrounged some horsehair bristles off a warder, and made his first toothbrush. His timing was excellent, as refined sugar was just starting to be shipped from the West Indies and tooth decay was a growing problem, so on his release he put the brush into mass production. Addis toothbrushes became fashionable and made his fortune; brushes are sold under the Addis brand-name to this day. 
Other inventions which were first produced in prisons include: 
• The pocket calculator (the Curta mechanical calculator, developed in Buchenwald Concentration Camp by Curt Herzstark, 1943-5) 
• Vulcanised rubber (Charles Goodyear started the experiments which led to vulcanisation while in debtors' prison, in 1834) 
• The game of rackets (and hence squash), invented in Fleet prison and then somehow making its way to Harrow School c.1820. The rackets court at the University of Chicago was the site of the first artificial nuclear chain reaction in 1942. 
• A fingerprint recognition lock, patented in 2008 by a burglar jailed in Chongqing, China, who then installed them for free in the homes of people he had burgled, by way of atonement. 
• Solitaire (by tradition, invented by a prisoner in the Bastille).

Books written in prison include Mein Kampf, Don Quixote, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur and Wilde’s De Profundis. 

Paying for Crime

Prisons in modern California and dungeons in 12th century England have one point, at least, in common: both presented inmates with a bill for their accommodation.
Prisoners in the 12th and 13th centuries had to pay for their own food, accommodation and chains. One of the earliest known examples of this was in 1194 when a prisoner had to pay sixpence for the dubious privilege of being fitted with an iron neck-collar.

Even in the 18th century, before their trial prisoners had to pay the keeper for their board and lodging; even if found ‘not guilty’ you might run up a bigger bill than you could pay, and so be sent to prison as a debtor.  If you couldn’t afford to pay for your chains they were put on your tab, with the result that you might be banged up again for not paying your bill at the end of your stay.
Riverside County, California has recently reintroduced such a system: its county jail now charges inmates $140 a day.  County Counsel Pamela Walls noted that it may prove hard to collect reimbursements because ‘those defendants who are convicted of crimes and incarcerated typically have limited funds’ but Supervisor Jeff Stone remarked that ‘We're blazing a new trail here. In these very challenging economic times, I believe this can be a source of revenue. I believe this can return 3 to 5 million [dollars] a year.’ In one respect, though, California is more liberal than medieval England - Stone adds: ‘Of course, if a defendant is found innocent, he will not be charged for the time he served.’
An 18th-century warder at Newgate, William Robinson, ran the prison as a brothel. It seems to have been a win/win situation: male prisoners were happy to pay sixpence for access to women's cells and the women were eager for the visits as it might allow them to 'plead the belly', i.e. get a reprieve on the grounds that they were pregnant.
In 1776, 60% of all the people in prison were debtors. Whole families used to live in debtors' prison – when the Fleet prison was closed in 1842, it was discovered that some debtors had been there for 40 years.

In 1941 the senior German officer at Colditz Castle was Major English: the highest ranking prisoner was Colonel German.

A new law in China in 2013 means citizens could face jail if they don’t visit their parents.

Since smoking was banned in 2004, the main currency in US prisons is mackerel.


Vincenzo Curcio, an Italian Mafioso convicted of one murder and arranging seven others, flossed his way to freedom in 2000 by painstakingly using dental floss to saw through the bars. The jail, built in the 1970s, was designed with outside terrorist attacks in mind rather than breakouts, and as such the bars were made of low-carbon iron and extremely ductile.

Once Curcio had sawn through the bars, he tied bedsheets together, shimmied to the ground and scaled the jail fence. 

Dental floss is not the only unusual item which has been used to escape from jail. Steven Russell, who has become something of a celebrity with his repeated prison-breaks, once used a green felt-tip to colour in his white jump-suit in order to disguise himself as a doctor and escape from the Estelle Unit in Houston. 

Charles Gurmukh Sobhraj escaped from India’s Tihar jail in the early seventies by lacing sweets with poison, and offering them to his captor, while still in the subcontinent, five prisoners escaped from a prison in Pakistan in 1997 by throwing chilli power in the eyes of the prison officer. 

Ibrahim Krasmiqi escaped from high security, San Vittore jail in Milan using spoons to break through the crumbling plaster in his cell and bed sheets to scale the wall. 

Gangster John Dillinger reportedly once escaped from prison by carving a potato into the shape of a pistol. 


Don’t do drugs because if you do drugs you’ll go to prison and drugs are really expensive in prison.

In Melbourne, singing an obscene ballad is punishable by six months in prison.

Americans were so certain crime was caused by alcohol that, on the eve of Prohibition, some towns in Iowa sold their jails.

Big Ben has a jail cell for unruly MPs. It was last used in 1880 when an atheist MP refused to take the oath on a Bible.

The US has only 5% of the world’s population, but almost 25% of its prison population.