An Affinity for Authority – Power Structures within the Prison

Good day, dearest reader!
Today we take a peek at the power structures of Millbank prison alongside Lady Visitor Miss Margaret Prior, as we dive into Sarah Waters novel ‘Affinity’.

When Miss Prior is first escorted through the gates of Millbank she is introduced to Millbank’s matrons, Miss Ridley a ‘youngish, pale and quite unsmiling’ (10) woman, Miss Pretty a ‘stout, heavy-browed woman’ (22) and Miss Jelf a ‘dark-eyed, kind-faced, earnest woman’ (24). These women are always addressed using their surname, alongside the polite title form ‘miss’ – a sign of both power and respect¹. Furthermore, the short description offered by Miss Prior, our protagonist, works to humanise the matrons and implies authority through Margaret’s noting of their person.

However, this is not a luxury the inmates are afforded. Each inmate is introduced with their full name and crime: Susan Pilling ‘thievery’ (21), Jan Hoy ‘child-murdering’,’ Phoebe Jacobs ‘thief’, Deborah Griffiths ‘pick-pocket’ and Jane Samson ‘suicide’ (23). The lack of polite address informs the reader of their lacking power but, they’re convicts after all, what do we expect?

Still, it could be argued that upon divulging the information pertaining to the inmates crimes, the matron’s have levied an unjust sense of personal power within the prison²; this is done by the removal of the inmates ability to chose if Miss Prior should know the reason for their imprisonment.

In an interesting turn of events, we actually see the polite form of address applied to the real-life inmate Mrs Maybrick, who we looked at last week. While, her counter part – a prison matron – has since faded into anonymity.

Further to the dehumanisation of the Millbank inmates, each prisoner is provided with a categorisation of ‘third class’, ‘second class’ or ‘first class’. Those in the lower classes are considered ‘incorrigible’ (22) and ‘trash’ (24), while those attributed to the rank of first class are considered mere ‘lambs’ (24). This suggests a form of synthetic personalisation³, as it is implied that each inmate may be understood solely as a reflection of their rank rather than as the individual they may have been while free.

Selina Dawes sitting in her cell in ‘Affinity’ (2008). Box TV.

When questioned on this dehumanisation by Miss Prior, a woman unknown to the prison system, she is met with a sardonic interrogative: ‘Do you think us harsh?’ (16). Such an exchange with a Lady Visitor works to indicate a power dynamic that places even those visiting the prison, regardless of their societal station, below that of the matrons. A fact that could indicate an unhealthy power dynamic within the prison.

These complex authoritative power structures exhibited by the matrons and witnessed by Miss Prior, aren’t a thing of the past. Examples of such power structures can still be seen in our prisons, schools and factories – it’s almost as if Foucault was right⁴.


What do you think?
Is the power system within Affinity reflective of the real-life nineteenth-century prison system?


Warters, S. (1999). ‘Affinity’. London: Virago.
1. Brown, P. Levinson, S. (1987). ‘Politeness’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Wooldredge, J. Steiner, B. (2016). ‘The Exercise of Power in Prison Organisations and Implications for Legitimacy’. US: Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.
3. Fairclough, N. (2001) ‘Language and Power’. 2nd ed. Essex: Longman.
4. Foucault, M. (1977). ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’. Trans Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage.

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