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And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely

Acts 16: 23


JOHN HOWARD (1726-1790), was appointed High Sheriff of Bedford in 1773. His duties included the inspection of the county prison. Howard had been imprisoned by the French when he was captured overseas in 1755, an experience which may have contributed to his interest in prison reform. He was appalled by the conditions he found at Bedford Gaol, where prisoners were malnourished, diseased and held in confinement even after their sentences had been served. He reports:


There are prisons, into which whoever looks will, at first sight of the people confined there, be convinced, that there is some great error in the management of them: the sallow meagre countenances declare, without words, that they are very miserable: many who went in healthy, are in a few months changed to emaciated objects. Some are seen pining under diseases, Ďsick and in prisoní; expiring on the floors, in loathsome cells, of pestilential fevers, and the confluent small-pox: victims, I must not say to the cruelty, but I will say to the inattention, of sheriffs, and gentlemen in the commission of the peace.[fn1]


Howard submitted details of the insanitary conditions to the Justices of Bedford. His plea for change was rebuffed with a remark that the whole of England used the same prison arrangement. Faced with such a gruesome proposition, Howard sought to validate the claim and continued with his inspection routine. He compiled his findings in The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777). His research was used by Parliament to pass the 1774 Gaol Act, a set of laws which sought to preserve the health of prisoners, improve their living conditions and change the management of penal institutions. He is credited as the nationís first prison reformer.


Newgate Prison

Elizabeth Fry was born in Norwich in 1780, to Quaker parents. She continued in the same lively faith and ordered her life in the service of others. She visited Newgate Prison, London, for the first time in 1813. On writing her biography, her daughters described the scene at Newgate that Elizabeth would have witnessed:


[T]hese four rooms comprised about one hundred and ninety superficial yards, into which, at the time of these visits, nearly three hundred women, with their numerous children, were crowded; tried and untried, misdemeanants and felons; without classification, without employment, and with no other superintendence than that given by a man and his son, who had charge of them by night and by day. Destitute of sufficient clothing, for which there was no provision; in rags and dirt, without bedding, they slept on the floor, the boards of which were in part raised to supply a sort of pillow. In the same rooms they lived, cooked, and washed.[fn2]

It was some years after Fryís visit before she began the work for which she would later become famous. In 1817 she formed an association whose aim was the improvement of the female prisoners inside Newgate. Fry was moved with compassion and with the support from the Society of Friends the association supplied clothing to the prisoners and established a school and a chapel in the prison. The goal was to form in these women the habits of order, sobriety and industry through a study of the Scriptures, through simple schooling and by gainful employment. While the work of John Howard led to reform of the prisons, Elizabeth Fry worked for the reform of the prisoners.


Life on the Inside

Prison and the justice system have changed with the times and the Howard League of Penal Reform continues to lobby for change. Modern jails would not be recognised by John Howard, even though he had great concern for the prisonerís dignity. Todayís prisons often include a gymnasium, library and a television lounge. Often there is a sterility and cleanliness akin to a hospital ward and inmates are provided with three meals daily. Such an institution would appear palatial to the Bedford Justices of Howardís day. Also the softer treatment of young offenders is a recent development that would have been inconceivable in the eighteenth century.


During the formative years of adolescence, young minds exposed to prison life are deprived of the healthy diversity required for proper development and are instead shaped by the criminal values and habits of their fellow prisoners. This realisation has led to alternative methods for reform. A recent trend is to take teenagers out of prison, where they might become hardened and more expert criminals, and discipline them through adventure training, outdoor pursuits and in camps run along military lines. A few regard these activities almost as a holiday, since they lack an element of punishment and focus primarily on the development of character, teamwork and self-reliance.

Prison Overcrowding

Organisations like the Howard League campaign for prisonersí welfare. The trend of reform is towards lighter sentencing and more lenient treatment of offenders. This liberal approach attracts opposition from the tabloid press, which usually sides with victims and calls for more rigorous sentences.


The Ministry of Justice is hard-pressed to satisfy these opposing points of view. The result is a prison population which continues to expand, along with costs for its maintenance. A recent note published by the House of Commons Library puts the prison population in England and Wales at 85,494 as at October 2010,[fn3] while for the same year the average cost to keep a prisoner was £40,000.[fn4] The poor state of the nationís finances has forced the government to find ways to reduce prison spending by reducing either costs or the prison population. It is a problem that was unfamiliar to governments in previous centuries. Prior to the reforms of the nineteenth century, the welfare of prisoners was a matter for friends and family and with a larger number of crimes subject to capital punishment there was little long-term planning for those held in confinement.


Hung for a Sheep, Hung for a Lamb

Englandís bloody code prevailed from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The code was a set of statutes describing offences punishable by death, and included offences which today are regarded as relatively minor, such as stealing. There was a time when one could be hung for stealing a sheep; rustling sheep from farms in England today Ė an increasingly common felony would not draw such a penalty. The eighteenth century was a dangerous age for thieves. The sentence was not always executed swiftly, and many remained in custody for years waiting for retribution or reprieve.


The death sentence, the ultimate punishment without mercy, prevented in practical terms the offender repeating his crime, though some would argue that it was a poor solution, as it offered no opportunity for the criminal to repent and reform. The rights which a murderer denied his victim were thereby removed also from him a life for a life. This basic expression of justice both prescribes and limits the penalty (Deuteronomy 19: 21):


And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.


The Soul that Sinneth It Shall Die

British law and the wider society once endorsed the death penalty, usually carried out by hanging. When Christian values prevailed, support for the death penalty was drawn from the Mosaic code, though the category of offences considered as capital crimes varied widely. In addition to murder, Godís law for Israel listed mainly sexual and religious offences as punishable by death.


Punishment for infraction of the Law was the natural consequence of the responsibility that accompanies free will. For even human reasoning does not excuse those who choose wrong even though they can do right. In punishing wilful intent the application of Godís justice was intended to preserve good and destroy evil, correcting waywardness and reinforcing the moral boundary for the nation of Israel. During the time that God has permitted the Gentile nations to govern themselves, He has not given them any direct revelation as to how to formulate their laws and they have been free to judge cases according to their conscience. The British legal system, while not divinely sanctioned, is a product of successive generations of judges and legislators whose minds have been educated along Biblical lines. The Christian principles that operate within it should not be blamed for the imperfections and failings of the men and women who administer its practices and rulings.


A Cry for Reform

The flaws and cruelties of the death penalty became apparent to Elizabeth Fry during her work among the inmates of Newgate prison. To pass a forged banknote in 1818 was a crime punishable by hanging. Harriet Skelton was imprisoned at Newgate for this offence. On meeting Skelton and learning of the motives behind her crime, Fry appealed for a reprieve. The reason for her pity is given in her biography:


Among the rest was a woman named Harriet Skelton; a very child might have read her countenance, open, confiding, expressing strong feeling, but neither hardened in depravity, nor capable of cunning; her story bore out this impression. Under the influence of the man she loved, she had passed forged notes; adding one more to the melancholy list of those, who by the finest impulses of our nature, uncontrolled by religion, have been but lured to their own destruction.[fn5]


Fry appealed to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, who had the power to grant a reprieve. Her appeal failed and Skelton was hanged. The case was widely discussed and added to Fryís influence as a voice for reform. Support for a change in the law was popular, as the injustices of the bloody code were publicly recognised. Policemen, judges and juries often exercised what power they had to avert a guilty verdict when there were extenuating circumstances.


Even though Fryís circle of influence extended to Queen Victoria and other notable figures in high society, the abridgement of capital crimes was only partial. The death penalty was not officially abolished in Britain until 1969.

To Be Continued




Citations to Web pages are correct as of the dates retrieved, but sites may expire or be moved.

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[fn1] John Howard F.R.S., The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (Warrington: William Eyres, 1777), 7.

Howardís report is available electronically at Google:

<> (retrieved 31 July 2011).


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[fn2] E. Fry, K. Fry, R. Cresswell, Memoir of Elizabeth Fry with Extracts from Her Journal and Letters (Philadelphia: J. W. Moore, 1847), i. 226.

This memoir and biography of Elizabeth Fry is available online here:

<> (retrieved 31 July 2011)


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[fn3] Gavin Berman, Prison Population Statistics, (House of Commons Library, 25 May 2011).

The report is available from the UK Government website:

<> (retrieved 31 July 2011).


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[fn4] Figure cited by Ann Beasley, Director General, Finance, for the Ministry of Justice. In answering questions from the Public Accounts Committee, Beasley discusses the cost of British Prisons. Her answers begin after Question 25. The minutes of the meeting are available online here:

<> (retrieved 31 July 2011).


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[fn5] E. Fry, K. Fry, R. Cresswell, Memoir of Elizabeth Fry with Extracts from Her Journal and Letters (Philadelphia: J. W. Moore, 1847), i. 337.

<> (retrieved 31 July 2011)


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