Thursday, 12 June 2008

Elizabeth Fry and women’s prisons

Women’s prisons were probably worse than men’s. There was the same chaotic mixing of those awaiting trial and those convicted. Women prisoners were just as dependent on the gaoler for everything. Women’s prisons usually had male gaolers, who often exploited the women.  Women convicts were the outcasts of society. The ideal woman at the time was an angel, a homebuilder, wife, mother, gentle and virtuous. Women in prison had obviously broken this code. Few people pitied them. However, there was no shortage of women prisoners. In general, far fewer women that men committed crimes. However, for some offence, like drunkenness, numbers of men and women were roughly equal and they were not far behind for murder. Four times more women were in prison in 1800 than today in proportion to the population.

What did Elizabeth Fry do?

Born May 21, 1780, Norwich, Norfolk died October 12, 1845, Ramsgate, Kent She was a Quaker philanthropist and one of the chief promoters of prison reform in Europe, who also helped to improve the British hospital system and the treatment of the insane. The daughter of a wealthy Quaker banker and merchant, she married (1800) Joseph Fry, a London merchant, and combined her work with the care of a large family. Unstinting in her attendance of the poor, she was acknowledged as a "minister" by the Quakers or Society of Friends (1811) and later travelled in Scotland, northern England, Ireland, and much of Europe. Quakers believe that there is something of God in everyone and that has drawn many into working with prisoners.

Just before Christmas 1813 Elizabeth Fry visited the women’s section of Newgate Prison. She was shocked with what she saw. There were 300 women crammed into three rooms. Some were ill but could not afford treatment. Some were freezing but could not afford to pay for bedding. Some were fighting’. There were many children among them. She never forgot the sight of two women fighting over a dead baby’s clothes. She returned the next day with baby clothes and clean straw bedding. After these had been handed out she began to pray and many of the convicts joined her.

She did not return to the prison until 1816. The chaplain and the gaoler both warned against going in. This time she appealed to the women to do something for their children. Her lack of fear and her directness made a huge impression and they started a school for the prison children. Elizabeth Fry formed a group of mainly Quaker women to visit the prison daily and make changes in the way it was run. A matron was appointed to run the women’s section, the women were supplied with materials to work at sewing and knitting to be sold and Bible readings were held. In 1818 Elizabeth Fry gave evidence to a Parliamentary Committee. This reported that her efforts had made the women’s section in Newgate an orderly and sober place.

What influence did Fry have in her lifetime?

Her fearlessness in working with women prisoners, her religious motives and her success made her famous. Her book, Observations On Visiting, Superintendence And Government of Female Prisoners, was published in 1828. She was always being asked to address meetings and was summoned to meet Queen Victorian in 1840.

The Gaols Act of 1823 took up some of her many ideas – gaolers had to be paid, prisoners were to be separated into categories and women had to have female gaolers and warders. However, the Act did not go as far as she wished in forcing prisons to try to reform their inmates. Her own reforms cost money and she knew that many prisons would not take them up unless they were forced to.

Even in her lifetime her suggestions were increasingly acted upon throughout most of Europe. Later in her life she travelled widely in Europe. Everywhere, especially in France and Ireland, she was welcomed and listened to with respect.  This was, however, not the case in England. The latest trend in punishment was through strict isolation or hard labour and Fry spoke out against the Separate System. She argued that her reforms gave women a sense of dignity and perhaps an honest skill but did not break people’s spirits. Edwin Chadwick was very critical of this saying that the reforms of Howard and Fry encouraged people to get into prison: “the prisons have been so reformed…as to attract vagrants and others who preferred their comfort to labour”.

Her long-term influence

By the time Elizabeth Fry died in 1845 things had moved on. Upper-class women could no longer wander casually into prisons and begin to meddle in how they were run. However, three ideas are still present in British prisons that owe their origins to Elizabeth Fry:

  1. Separate women’s prisons with a female staff.
  2. Volunteer prison visitors.
  3. A belief that prison is a place from which people can emerge as better individuals than when they went in: the idea of rehabilitation.


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