Brixton’s First Psychologist

photo 1

Salver presented to Tony Norton to mark the end of his six years of service at HMP Brixton

Everyone remembers their first working day at Brixton prison.  Tony Norton arrived on Jebb Avenue early one morning in 1951 having just finished a psychology degree at University College London.  He’d served in the second world war, had been among the first to enter El Alamein when it was liberated but later became a prisoner of war.  He had decided to take a job in which another kind of prisoner was in his care:

A small door, set into a large wooden door in the entrance archway, opened to admit me to the gatehouse area which was closed off from the main courtyard by a metal gate a few yards to the rear.

After giving the gate officer my name, he asked me to stand in a spot where three or four other civilians were congregating, presumably awaiting enrolment as prison officers.  I told him I wanted to go to the psychology department at which, with commendable celerity, he pronounced, “Sir, you are the psychology department.”

photo 2Tony believed he was not only Brixton’s first psychologist, but the first psychologist in any prison in the UK.  Brixton during almost the whole of the twentieth century was London’s remand prison:

The prisoners fell into several different classes.  One class was composed of debtors who occupied a separate wing.  I believe they wore brown cloth jackets and sewed mailbags.  A small group of offenders were serving short sentences.  they wore light grey drab clothing, and some of them provided domestic work in this establishment.

A large class was composed of men remanded in custody while awaiting trial or reappearance in various courts in and around London.  I think this group numbered about ten thousand admissions or readmissions a year, with each entry monitored by one of the prison doctors.  These prisoners occupied separate cells in one large tiered wing where they remained for most of the day, apart from a half hour exercise period each morning and afternoon during which they walked in silence in a circle.  Food was served in the cells and consisted mainly of bread and porridge cooked in large vats in a central kitchen.  the men wore their own clothes, were allowed to smoke, and were allowed reading materials.

Cells were sparsely furnished with a wooden chair and table.  Now and then the peace of a wing would be shattered by a prisoner ‘smashing up’ his cell.  this was the relatively expected and tolerated climax of a man, kept in more or less solitary confinement, reacting to the stress engendered by his situation.  When the noise subsided and the man calmed down, he would be escorted to a darkened . . . cell for a time.  A number of cells with thick rubber floors and lowered ceilings were used to house men who talked of having blackouts or were at risk [of] convulsive episodes or self-injury.

Thanks to Susan Norton, Tony’s wife, who sent me a copy of his memoirs and gave me permission to quote from them, as well as to publish the accompanying photograph.

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