Saturday, 19 March 2011

Prison reformers: John Howard

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 Evangelicals 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. Sir William Eden[1] 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[2] 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. Howard, Sir George Paul, Elizabeth Fry and Jeremy Bentham were the most influential.

Crime 17

John Howard (1726-1790) was an English philanthropist and reformer in the fields of penology and public health. [3] 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. As part of his duties, he inspected Bedford Gaol 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. In 1774, Howard persuaded the House of Commons to pass two acts that stipulated first that discharged persons should be set at liberty in open court and that discharge fees should be abolished and secondly, 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.’ Howard continued to travel widely, touring Scotland, Ireland, France and the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, often-visiting local prisons. He was influential in legislation in 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. The Penitentiary Act was an ambitious piece of legislation, designed to impose a national scheme for the punishment of offenders that could serve as an acceptable substitute for the temporary suspension of transportation occasioned by the American revolutionary war .[4] 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.

The power of Howard’s representation of prisons and prison life in The State of the Prisons in England and Wales published in 1777 has led to a one-dimensional view of Hanoverian prisons grounded in their filth, petty corruption and insecurity and as places of contagious moral degeneration.[5] It neglected the attempts by early-eighteenth century legislators and some magistrates to introduce a measure of penal reform. Legislation in 1700 and 1720 allowed magistrates to levy county rates to meet the cost of building new gaols and, before Howard’s intervention there was a sporadic prison rebuilding programme. Howard’s influence consisted less in the novelty of his ideas as in the powerfully made case for reform that contributed to an existing debate on prison conditions. Elizabeth Fry, for example, was critical of his failure to address the issue of rehabilitation. Success was ultimately the result of the work of others especially Dr John Coakley Lettsom and James Neild, both of them Quakers.[6] It also galvanised widespread if embryonic local reform initiatives like those in Gloucestershire.

Howard commented favourably on local prison building in Hertfordshire where local magistrates used their power to raise county rates to build a new prison that was opened in 1779 and on the work of Lancashire magistrates in the 1770s that resulted in the reconstruction of Lancaster gaol.[7] The late-eighteenth century saw a vigorous local movement for reform led by local magistrates that resulted in improvements in both the management and fabric of local gaols funded by ratepayers.[8]


[1] Draper, Anthony J., ‘William Eden and leniency in punishment’, History of Political Thought, Vol. 22, (2001), pp. 106-130 and Bolton, G.C., ‘William Eden and the convicts, 1771-1787’, Australian Journal of Politics & History, Vol. 26, (1980), pp. 30-44.

[2] On Beccaria see Bellamy, Richard, (ed.), 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.

[3] Brown, James Baldwin, Memoirs of the public and private life of John Howard, the philanthropist, (T. and G. Underwood), 1818, 2nd ed., 1823 and Field, John, The life of John Howard: with comments on his character and philanthropic labours, (Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans), 1850 remain useful sources. See also, Howard, D.L., John Howard: prison reformer, (C. Johnson), 1958, Gibson, John, John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, (Methuen), 1971, Ireland, Richard W., ‘Howard and the paparazzi: painting penal reform in the eighteenth century’, Art, Antiquity and Law, Vol. 4, (1999), pp. 55-62, Porter, Roy, ‘Howard’s beginning: prisons, disease, hygiene’, in Creese, Richard, Bynum, William F., and Bearn, J., (eds.), The health of prisoners: historical essays, (Rodopi), 1995, pp. 5-26 and Morgan, Rod, ‘Divine philanthropy: John Howard reconsidered’, History, Vol. 62, (1977), pp. 388-410.

[4] Throness, Laurie, A Protestant Purgatory: Theological Origins of the Penitentiary Act, 1779, (Ashgate), 2008 and Devereaux, Simon, ‘The making of the Penitentiary Act, 1775-1779’, Historical Journal, Vol. 42, (2), (1999), pp. 405-433.

[5] England, R.W., ‘Who Wrote John Howard’s Text: The State of the Prisons as a Dissenting Enterprise’, British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 33, (1993), pp. 203-215 suggests that Howard played little role in writing his book but that the three (or possibly more) men who gave Howard extensive editorial help was not acknowledged since they were active Dissenters against the Church of England.

[6] See Neild, F.G., ‘James Neild (1744-1814) and prison reform’, Journal of the Society of Medicine, Vol. 74, (1981), pp. 834-840.

[7] DeLacey, Margaret, Prison Reform in Lancashire, 1700-1850: a study in local administration, (Stanford University Press), 1986, pp. 70-152

[8] This was not without opposition, see Brown, Susan E., ‘Policing and Privilege: The Resistance to Penal Reform in Eighteenth-Century London’, in Goldgar, Anne and Frost, Robert I., (eds.), Institutional Culture in Early Modern Society, (Brill), 2004, pp. 103-132.

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