The Place and its Purpose

Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland

Prisons have a much higher proportion of men and women with mental disorders than the general population. This was also true in Victorian times, when ‘the liability of the criminal classes to an excess of insanity is very great, and much beyond that of the free population of the country’. The Prisons (Scotland) Act (1844) defined ‘criminal lunatics’ as ‘insane persons charged with serious offences’. From 1846 Perth Prison provided specialist housing for those not responsible on account of their insanity and in 1865 established a separate Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD). The then resident surgeon J. Bruce Thomson called inmates ‘prisoner-patients’ or ‘state lunatics’, ‘inasmuch as, having committed grave and heinous crimes dangerous to the public, they are placed at Her Majesty’s disposal, under the care of the State.’ Criminal lunatics became part of an integrated system during Victorian times, rather than anomalies in both justice and health care.

Predating Broadmoor, England (1863) and Dundrum, Ireland (1850), Perth was the only such facility in Scotland until The State Institution for Mental Defectives (now The State Hospital) opened at Carstairs, Lanarkshire in 1948.

During the 1860s Perth Prison had about 600 inmates and 60 staff, with accommodation for 35 males and 13 females in the CLD. In 1881 a separate female lunatics' wing opened, increasing capacity. Originally run by a board of management, Perth came under the Prison Commission for Scotland from 1877.

Offenders were admitted to the CLD not for the crime committed, but for the threat presented by their insanity. It contained, managed, and tried to make better, men and women with debilitating and dangerous mental disorders, prior to either transferring them to an asylum or prison or (from 1871) discharging them conditionally or unconditionally, after assessment of the risks posed to the community.

How do we know what the prisoner-patients had done and why? Crown lawyers conducted investigations called 'precognitions' prior to trial, amassing evidence from anyone who knew of the offence and the accused. Newspapers often mediated trial proceedings to the general public. Medically and legally qualified civil servants supervised admission, incarceration, and release. Physicians and surgeons collected histories before admission and kept detailed case notes as they tried to help sometimes dangerous, often damaged and vulnerable, but almost always complex and severely disordered patients.

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there" (L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

By examining the rich and varied history of the prisoner-patients, the exhibition's aim is to raise awareness of mental disorders inside and outside prisons because, regardless of circumstances, anyone's life can be tragically affected by them. Highlighting the treatment of prisoner-patients in a society with very different medical science, laws, welfare systems, conceptions of the rights of individuals and communities to those today allows us to reflect on the same issues now, and approach those suffering from mental disorders with better understanding and greater compassion.

Image of the General Prison at Perth
General Prison at Perth, NRS, RHP24487