Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Prison reformers: Howard and Paul

Individual reformers had criticised the system of criminal punishment based on capital punishment and transportation since the 1770s. They had two motives:

  • Prisons were cruel and unfair. Many of the reformers were Christians who pointed out that convicts were God’s creatures too. People’s lives were being wasted, languishing in gaols when they could change their ways and become decent citizens.
  • Goals were inefficient. Over half of the prisoners were either debtors or had served their sentence but could not afford to pay the gaoler the release fee. At Newgate Prison in 1729 the release fee was 34p. It was also obviously not right that someone sentence to gaol should stand a good chance pf dying of yyphus.

Sir William Eden published the influential Principles of Penal Law in 1771 and John Howard The State of the Prisons in England and Wales in 1777. In spite of the enthusiastic reception given to the work of Howard, much influenced by the writings of Cesare Beccaria[1], and the boost given to reformers, change remained slow and continued to depend on the zeal and initiative of private individuals rather than on any government direction. John Howard, Sir George Paul and Elizabeth Fry were the most influential.

John Howard

Born September 2, 1726, Hackney, London, died January 20, 1790, Kherson, Ukraine, Russian Empire . He was an English philanthropist and reformer in the fields of penology and public health. On his father's death in 1742, Howard inherited considerable wealth and travelled widely in Europe. He then became High Sheriff in Bedfordshire in 1773.

  1. As part of his duties, he inspected Bedford jail and was appalled by the unsanitary conditions there. He was also shocked to learn that the jailers were not salaried officers but depended on fees from prisoners. He also found that some prisoners had been acquitted by the courts but were kept in prison because they had not paid their release fees.
  2. In 1774 Howard persuaded the House of Commons to pass two acts that stipulated (1) that discharged persons should be set at liberty in open court and that discharge fees should be abolished and (2) that justices should be required to see to the health of prisoners. Years afterward, however, Howard complained that the acts had not been "strictly obeyed."
  3. Howard continued to travel widely, touring Scotland, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, often visiting local prisons. He was largely responsible for a parliamentary statute of 1779 that authorised the building of two penitentiary houses where, by means of solitary confinement, supervised labour and religious instruction, the reform of prisoners might be attempted. This act, however, like those of 1774, was never effectively enforced.

He spent the last years of his life studying means of preventing plague and limiting the spread of contagious diseases. Travelling in Russia in 1790 and visiting the principal military hospitals that lay en route, he reached Kherson in Ukraine. In attending a case of camp fever that was raging there, he contracted the disease and died.

Sir George Onesiphorus Paul

Sir George Paul was made High Sheriff of Gloucester in 1780 and reacted to the local prisons with much the same disgust as John Howard. Howard’s report on Gloucester prison was damning. Paul realised that he could not alter this and that the only option was to build a new prison. The Gloucestershire Act 1785 gave him the power to do this. He worked with an architect, William Blackburn, to turn his ideas into reality.

  1. The new prison had to be secure. The wall was 5.4 metres high with spikes on top. The buildings were arranged so the gaolers could easily see what was going on.
  2. It had to be healthy. People believed that disease was caused by bad air, so the gaol was built to suck in fresh air through large gateways, with open portcullises. The large, heated cells were reached by open balconies. Howard had admired the ‘lazarettos’ – isolation wards for health checks at the entrances of many Mediterranean ports. Paul put such a ward at the entrance to the gaol.
  3. Prisoners were separated into those awaiting trial and those convicted, with male and female sections for each.
  4. Paul paid attention to the rules, as well as the building. There was a paid Governor, a chaplain and a surgeon who visited the sick each day and inspected every prisoner each week. Prisoners were to be reformed through work, education and religion. Of they could not read they were taught and given religious books. Staff had to keep detailed journals on what prisoners said and did. They had to wear a yellow and blue uniform and keep clean; they were not allowed pets or to play games. They were, however well-fed and not kept in irons. They spent long periods on their own, thinking about their life of crime. This separation of prisoners from each other was later taken further but at Gloucester it was only for the first nine months of the sentence.

Paul’s prison and rules became a model for other prisons.


[1] On Beccaria see his writings edited by Richard Bellamy On Crimes and Punishments and Other Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1995. Bellamy’s introduction provides a brief biographical study as well as examining the significance of Beccaria’s writings.

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