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Prison Reform

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Although prisons for holding criminals were by no means a new concept, they certainly saw dramatic change and reform in the nineteenth century. Prisons were constructed on an unprecedented scale as more long-term facilities. Prison conditions were cramped and awful, with prisons used largely as temporary holding facilities rather than for long-term imprisonment. This is the story of the fight to reform Britain's prisons.

Prison Reform UK history

The changing roles of prisons can be demonstrated by three London prisons: Newgate, Millbank and Pentonville. Newgate had existed since 1188 and originally served to hold prisoners awaiting trial, or for short-term punishment. At this time prisoners weren’t segregated, with prisoners guilty of various crimes congregated together. This led to overcrowding, disease and unrest. By the 19th Century, the prison was far from fit for purpose, and a new prison was constructed on the banks of the River Thames; this was known as Millbank. Prisons began to take a role in reforming prisoners through hard work, Christian teachings and reflection.

Prison reform did not occur overnight and was often the result of changing public opinion combined with individual reform activists. Just as many before had acknowledged that public execution and transportation were cruel and inhumane, the conditions in prisons came to be seen as unacceptable. With the decline in other methods of punishment, prisons became more extensive, but this also resulted in poor conditions and severe overcrowding. Before professional prisons, much like parish constables, prison guards were unpaid and relied on inmates for income. Inmates needed to be paid to be unshackled, enter a cell or even be released, and relied on family and friends for this.

Prison Reform, Poverty in 19th Century Britain, Studysmarter.Poverty in 19th Century Britain, Wikimedia Commons.

Much like the police, the process was professionalised throughout the nineteenth century to avoid corruption and ensure prison guards treated inmates fairly. Yet again, this made prisoners more likely to be rehabilitated, whereas the previous ill-treatment only made prisoners more susceptible to being troublesome in the future. Prisons at the time were largely unchanged since the beginning of the 18th century and were in no way appropriate for an expanding, urbanised population.

Prison Reform 1800

The first prison reform acts were introduced in the 1820s by Home Secretary Robert Peel, who also created the Metropolitan Police in 1829. These Acts called for the segregation of prisoners, particularly women and men and in some cases children. They also advocated for adequate sanitary conditions, and proper food and abolished the need for prisoners to pay for their provisions.

Although these Acts represented a significant change in government policy and prison reform, they often went unenforced as prisons did not have the resources to enforce these reforms. It demonstrated that the awful prison conditions had been acknowledged and the overhaul of the prison system had begun, beginning with the construction of new prisons.

Prison Reform, Modern Cells and Gallery in Newgate Prison, London, Studysmarter.Updated Cells and Gallery in Newgate Prison, Wikimedia Commons.

Between 1842 and 1877, ninety new prisons would be constructed in Britain, the first of these being Pentonville. Pentonville saw several new reforms. Firstly, prisoners were segregated into individual cells. This was significant because previously all prisoners had been kept together. Men, women, children, murders, smugglers and thieves were all kept in the same areas making prisons dirty, overcrowded and unruly. This new method of separating prisoners was in line with the new thinking of the time. Apart from the practical advantages of separating prisoners, the idea was that once a prisoner was removed from bad influences (other unruly prisoners for example) that it would make it easier for them to be reformed. This changed from previous thought that criminals were hopeless cases, and the only solution was execution or transportation.

Arguments Against Prison Reform

The main arguments against prison reform can be divided into two categories:

  1. Those who believed the new reformers were too lenient and a burden on the state.

  2. Those who believed the reforms did not go far enough.

This provided a dilemma for lawmakers and reformers, as they didn’t want to isolate themselves from large sections of general public opinion. Although there was a general appetite for prison reform, some saw prison as too lenient, particularly in comparison to previous punishments.

As a result, strict discipline and rules were enforced within prisons. Those who believed the reforms were too lenient on criminals pointed out the expense of the separate system, as prisoners needed individual cells and therefore larger prisons. A counterargument was the need for fewer prison guards due to the innovative designs of the new prisons. There was also the argument that execution and transportation were the only way to ensure society could be rid of criminals, as attempts at rehabilitation could become fruitless.

Prison Reform, Condemned Cell for Inmates Awaiting Execution, Newgate Prison London, 1891, Studysmarter.Condemned Cell in Newgate Prison, 1891, Wikimedia Commons.

Although this may sound similar to modern prisons, the process was rather experimental and as a result significantly more extreme than that of modern prisons. For example, inmates would be constantly alone, essentially in constant solitary confinement, which is considered a punishment by modern standards. This would become the basis for those who believed prison conditions were still too harsh.

Even when in the exercise yard, criminals would wear masks so they could not see or speak to other inmates. At the chapel, they were confined to their own individual booths. This type of solitary confinement was found to be extremely mentally challenging and many inmates suffered mental problems and some even committed suicide. Hard labour and exercises were required, but strictly in silence. Cells and rations were basic, and work was intense.

Prison Reform Activists

Here are 3 notable prison reform activists.

John Howard

John Howard was high sheriff of Bedfordshire in the late 18th century. As part of this position, he had the opportunity to inspect prison conditions. He was shocked by what he saw and saw the current prison conditions as counterproductive in the rehabilitation of criminals and prevention of crime. As a result, he published a paper advocating the issues with the British Prison System and made suggestions for areas of improvement. Although Howard would die 30 years before major reforms would occur, his suggestions were far ahead of time and helped highlight the need for widespread reform. Many of his proposals for better hygiene, rehabilitation of criminals and separate cells would be included in later reforms.

Elizabeth Fry

Coming from a wealthy Quaker background, Fry was horrified by the conditions she witnessed in Newgate Prison in 1813, after visiting. She was shocked to witness predominantly unpaid male jailers, who often abused their position of authority to secure money and provisions. Fry began to work educating women in prison and advocated for reform, which would eventually give her a political voice, helping to secure the 1825 Gaols Act, segregating male and female prisoners and having them supervised by female guards.

Prison Reform, Portrait of Prison and Social Reformer Elizabeth Fry, Studysmarter.Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), Prison and Social Reformer, Wikimedia Commons.

Samuel Romilly

Unlike Fry and Howard whose criticisms were the prison system itself, Romilly was majorly critical of the Bloody Code and the Death Penalty. Romilly argued that more moderate punishments such as prison would result in more criminals being punished, and act as a better deterrent for crime. Romilly successfully campaigned for the removal of the death penalty for several minor crimes, and by advocating for the use of prison, inadvertently help usher in prison reform, with the need to build larger and better prisons.

In comparison to previous prison conditions, however, overcrowding, disease and ill-discipline had been minimised. As harsh as the new conditions were, they aimed to both punish and rehabilitate a criminal, although the effects of this are debatable. The idea of rehabilitation took even more significance when dealing with children. For the first time, children were removed from the general prison population, gaining their own specific type of prison for juveniles. These became known as borstals and were essentially guarded schools within prison conditions. This aimed to educate children, and hopefully lead them away from a life of crime.

Prison Reform - Key takeaways

  • The Prison Reform movement began in the late 18th century and lasted throughout the 19th century.
  • This period saw extensive prison reform and the construction of new prisons such as Pentonville in London, Strangeways in Manchester and Mountjoy in Dublin.
  • Prisons now aimed to rehabilitate criminals rather than harshly punish them.
  • The movement emerged from reformers such as Elizabeth Fry, John Howard and Samuel Romiley.
  • Fry and Howard had been outraged by the unsanitary, overcrowded and insufficient conditions in prisons, while Romiley argued that harsh punishments such as the death penalty wouldn't deter criminals in the same manner prison would.
  • All three advocated for the rehabilitation of criminals.
  • These calls for reform would result in the gradual reforming of prisons since the 1820s, beginning with Robert Peel as Home Secretary.

Frequently Asked Questions about Prison Reform

Prison reform generally refers to the movement in the late 18th and early 19th century that advocated for the reform of prisoners over punishment in the form of hard work, reflection and Christian teachings.

The prison reform movement created more sanitary hygiene conditions in prison, segregation of male and female inmates and professionalisation of prison guards. This became the basis for the modern British Justice system, with many of the new prisons built in the aftermath of the prison reform movement still existing today.

Elizabeth Fry visited prisons and educated women in prison. She also used her position to advocate for prison reform such as the segregation of male and female prisoners, resulting in the Gaols Act of 1825.

The prison reform movement started in the late eighteenth century, coinciding with calls to bring an end to the bloody code.

John Howard produced a paper on the issues in the British Prison System and what could be done to inspire reform. This helped highlight many of the issues previously unknown by the general public.


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