A prisons inspectorate report published this week suggests 5% of the prison population is from the travelling community – compared with 0.1% of the general population.
Travellers face their own particular challenges on the inside. Contact with family and friends is harder because visitors usually need to provide a fixed address. Appalling literacy rates mean most struggle to fill in the forms which can help ease a prison stay. And then there’s the confinement which is the very antithesis of a travelling life.
A gypsy woman called Cooper was committed to Brixton in the 1860s, where she developed ‘snow-blindness’ as a result of perpetually starring at her whitewashed cell walls.
The journalist Henry Mayhew came across her on a visit to the prison:
We were informed that the gipsy woman was very violent during her incarceration, and it does not require a great stretch of fancy to conceive the extreme mental and physical agony that must have been inflicted upon such a person, unaccustomed as she had been all her life even to the confinement of a house, and whose eye had been looking upon the green fields ever since her infancy; so that it is not difficult to understand how the four blank white walls for ever hemming in this wretched creature, must have seemed not only to have half-stifled her with their closeness, but almost have maddened her with the intensity of their snow-like glare.