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It was originally the case that gaol was the British spelling of the word that Americans write "jail". (It is pronounced the same.) These days, "jail" is almost universal, and "gaol" looks as old-fashioned as writing "to-day".
Actually getting sent there- British punishments
The court case is over, the jury has returned and delivered a guilty verdict. The judge goes off to consider the sentence, considering the mitigating circumstances, if any.
He (or she) returns and then delivers the sentence. They will usually throw in a bit about how evil the crime is. The final line is "Take him/her down".
The convict is driven off to prison in a prison van (sometimes known as a "Black Maria", despite the fact that most prison vans are now white). Photographers will (in fact and fiction) point their camera through the (raised) windows, trying to get a photo.
As a rule, British punishments tend to be somewhat more lenient than those that cover the whole United Kingdom. You rarely have someone actually receive life without parole (there's 38 prisoners with that sentence as of July 2011). These days, when someone is sentenced to life in prison, the judge will recommend the convict serve a minimum of a certain number of years. Murder is an automatic life sentence, but the judge can set the term.
There are some punishments Britain has that aren't common in the rest of the world, such as:
- ASBOs- Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, introduced in 1998. Think of it as a restraining order against yobs, restricting them from going to certain places or doing certain things. This can also happen to old people as well.
- Referenced in Doctor Who with the line, "It's all very calm around here... I thought they'd all be happy-slappy hoodies. Happy-slappy hoodies with ASBOs. Happy-slappy hoodies with ASBOs and ringtones ..."
- A better way to describe them would be a restraining order which is much easier to hand out but may not be requested by a private citizen.
- These were brought in to Ireland as well, replacing the previous Juvenile Liaison Officer (JLO) system.
- Suspended sentence- You get a sentence of two years, but the judge states that it is suspended for four years. Provided you do not get another conviction within that period, you will not have to serve a sentence.
The Actual Prisons
There are many different versions of these, depending on the setting (some of these appear elsewhere in UK-made and foreign programmes).
Ball and Chain
Medieval British prisons. Prisoners end up in rags, manacled to a large metal ball. They are fed bread and water by evil guards. It's your stereotypical dungeon (no, not a place you do BDSM).
Crowded, with dozens of people in a cell. A particular sub-type is the "debtors' prison", where you went to work your debts off if you couldn't pay them. (These were also present in the United States).
The Glasshouse - Military Prison
A possible setting for works dealing with British soldiers. These started in the 1840s with Aldershot prison - it was called the Glasshouse because of its greenhouse roof, and the nickname spread to all military prisons. Individual prisons tended to be infamous for the particular punishment drills they favored, usually hard physical labor like literal rock-breaking or "the well drill," where soldiers dug out wells and then filled them in so they had a place to dig the next well. Discipline was famously strict if not downright brutal. Today this setting is an anachronism, as British soldiers who are to be imprisoned for more than three months are transferred into the civilian system.
The modern British prison tends to be in a Victorian era building. There are usually two or three people to a cell. These cells tend, in fiction, to have a number of Page Three Stunna pics present.
The prison warders (who often call you by your last name, like you're in the UK Armed Forces) will yell at you, if they're not actively supplying you with drugs.
- Narcotics are quite a problem in UK prisons.
- Prison Rape occurs and gets referred to in UK drama (as in Life On Mars), but it's not that common.
- There is also a problem with self-harm and suicide. A highly notable case was the successful suicide of Harold Shipman, the most prolific Serial Killer in recorded history. Not that anybody felt particularly sorry for him.
The UK has one of the highest rates of incarceration in Western Europe, but the rate is far below the US.
Prison overcrowding is a particular issue at the moment. This has led to...
The UK's prisons are now officially over capacity, resulting in about 19,000 inmates being released early to make room. The release is only up to 18 days early, subject to restrictions before the sentence is concluded and only for sentences under four years.
However, a number of early release prisoners have committed further crimes or gone on the run after being recalled, giving the media another stick to beat the government with.
Famous UK Prisons
- Wormwood Scrubs is probably the most famous.
- HM Prison Manchester, formerly Strangeways.
- Barlinnie Prison is perhaps the most famous in Scotland.
- Holloway is pretty much the canonical women's prison for fictional purposes.
- Belmarsh, a high security London prison used to house terrorists among others.
- Ford, an open prison in West Sussex. Security and the prison regime is less harsh in open prisons and they are used to house prisoners who are considered low risk because of the nature of their crime or for a sustained record of good behaviour in a more secure institution.
- The Maze (now closed), famous for IRA terrorists with associated hunger strikes.
- Dartmoor Prison, noted for its isolated location, deliberately chosen to discourage escapes. Escaped convicts roaming the moors are a feature of several famous works of fiction, probably the best-known of which being The Hound of the Baskervilles. Fun fact: Dartmoor is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, and it is therefore currently part of the private holdings of Prince Charles.
- Broadmoor Hospital, technically not a prison (it is administered by the National Health Service), but it is the highest-security psychiatric facility in the UK. Most of the patients have been either been convicted for or were found to be unfit to stand trial for violent crimes. Famous patients include Peter Sutcliffe and Ronald Cray