Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Three prison reformers: Sir George Paul, Elizabeth Fry and Jeremy Bentham

Sir George Onesiphorus Paul was made High Sheriff of Gloucester in 1780 and reacted to the local prisons with much the same disgust as John Howard.[1] 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. 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. 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. The gaol had a house of correction for minor offenders, a gaol for prisoners on remand awaiting trial, and a penitentiary for those who had committed serious offences, with male and female sections for each. 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.

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Ground plan of Shrewsbury Prison 1831

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 and 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, fewer women than 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.

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was a Quaker philanthropist and one of the major promoters of prison reform in Europe, who also helped to improve the British hospital system and the treatment of the insane.[2] The daughter of a wealthy Quaker banker and merchant, she married Joseph Fry, a London merchant in 1800 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.

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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.

Her courage in working with women prisoners, her religious motives and her success made her famous. [3] She was often 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 but this was not the case in England. [4] Fry spoke out against the Separate System arguing that her reforms gave women a sense of dignity and perhaps an honest skill but did not break people’s spirits. Edwin Chadwick was highly 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.[5]

Elizabeth Fry died in 1845 and upper-class women could no longer wander casually into prisons and meddle in how they were run. However, three ideas still present in British prisons owe their origins to her: separate women’s prisons with a female staff; volunteer prison visitors and a belief that prison is a place from which people can emerge rehabilitated.[6]

The late-eighteenth century gave rise to a prison that was never actually built, at least not exactly as its creator intended: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, designed by the British philosopher in 1791 to serve as a place of incarceration intended to control prisoners by making them feel that they were under constant surveillance. According to Michel Foucault, whose Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) used the idea of the Panopticon as a model for less tangible forms of social control, the Panopticon was the basis of all discussions of prison reform during the first half of the nineteenth century. [7]

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Jeremy Bentham’s design for a ’panopticon’ style prison

The French Wars between 1793 and 1815 involved government departments in the organisation and administration of large numbers of prisoners on British soil. Even though central government became increasingly involved in penal administration and reform, Benthamism and Quakerism were two of the main pressures for penal reform during the early decades of the nineteenth century. However, there were important differences between Bentham’s and Fry’s ideas and those of their supposed supporters.[8] Both Bentham and Fry supported the classification of prisoners, productive labour in prisons and the maintenance of healthy prison conditions. Their supporters, however, were more pragmatic concerned with solitary confinement and hard labour as the focus of their desire to deter crime. In many respects, this was a generational difference. Bentham and Fry were reformers, like Howard, concerned with the salvation of prisoners while Benthamites and Quakers active in the 1830s were largely concerned with reducing levels of crime and by 1835 they had largely rejected Bentham’s and Fry’s prison reform ideas.[9]


[1] Whiting, J.R.S., Prison reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820: a study of the work of Sir George Onesiphorus Paul, Bart., (Phillimore), 1975 and Cooper, R.A., ‘Ideas and Their Execution: English Prison Reform’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 10, (1), (1976), pp. 73-93

[2] Fry, Elizabeth Gurney, Fry, Katharine and Cresswell, Rachel Elizabeth, Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry: With Extracts from Her Journal and Letters, 2 Vols. (J. Hatchard and Son), 1848, Kent, J.H.S., Elizabeth Fry, (Batsford), 1962, Hatton, Jean, Betsy: the dramatic biography of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, (Monarch), 2005, Skidmore, Gil, (ed.), Elizabeth Fry: a Quaker life: selected letters and writings, (Altamira Press), 2005, Isba, Anne, Excellent Mrs Fry: The Unlikely Heroine, (Continuum), 2010 and Summers, Anne, ‘Elizabeth Fry and mid-nineteenth century reform’, in ibid, Creese, Richard, Bynum, William F., and Bearn, J., (eds.), The health of prisoners : historical essays, pp. 83-101.

[3] See Fry, Elizabeth, Observations on Visiting, Superintendence And Government of Female Prisoners, (J. and A. Arch), 1827.

[4] For example, Elizabeth Fry inspected the state of Irish gaols in 1826; see comments in Fry, Elizabeth and Gurney, Joseph John, Report addressed to the Marquess Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, respecting their late visit to that country, (Cumming), 1827.

[5] Ibid, Finer, S.E., The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick, p. 165 citing an unpublished manuscript for the Constabulary Commission Report of 1839.

[6] Downing, Kevin and Forsythe, Bill, ‘The Reform of Offenders in England, 1830-1995: A Circular Debate’, Criminal Justice History, Vol. 18, (2003), pp. 145-162 and Forsythe, W.J., The Reform of Prisoners, 1830-1900, (Routledge), 1987.

[7] For Bentham’s vision see, Bentham, Jeremy, Panopticon or the inspection house: Containing The Idea of a New Principle of Construction applicable to any Sort of Establishment, in which Persons of any Description are to be kept under Inspection: And In Particular To Penitentiary-Houses, Prisons, Houses Of Industry, Work-Houses, Poor ..., (T. Payne), 1791 and Panopticon: Postscript: Containing Further Particulars And Alterations Relative To The Plan Of Construction Originally Proposed; Principally adapted to the Purpose of a Panopticon Penitentiary-House, 2 Vols. (T. Payne), 1791. Semple, Janet, Bentham’s prison: a study of the Panopticon penitentiary, (Oxford University Press), 1993 and Schofield, Philip, Utility and democracy: the political thought of Jeremy Bentham, (Oxford University Press), 2006, pp. 80-83, 109-111, 254-260 provide critique.

[8] Cooper, R.A., ‘Jeremy Bentham, Elizabeth Fry and English Prison Reform’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 42, (4), (1981), pp. 675-690.

[9] Moore, J.M., ‘Penal reform: a history of failure’, Criminal Justice Matters, Vol. 77, (1), (2009), pp. 12-13 has some interesting if brief comments on Howard and Fry

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