Penal Reformers Demand Better Conditions for Prisoners

By the late 1700s, the industrial revolution and urbanisation had led to a surge in petty crime, and prisons were seriously overcrowded. In 1786, the government started transporting convicts to North America. Around 50,000 criminals were sent to the British colony of Virginia to work on plantations, or to Jamaica and Barbados, to be sold as slaves or servants. But when the American War of Independence broke out, North America was replaced by Australia as the destination for many British offenders. The first fleet set off in 1786, with 775 prisoners, followed by another three large fleets between 1787 and 1791.

John Howard Calls for Sweeping Reforms

In 1777 High Sherriff of Bedfordshire John Howard published his influential jail reform book, State of the Prisons in England and Wales. Having studied prisons for 17 years, he argued that the system was in need of urgent reform, describing conditions as disorganised, barbaric and filthy. He proposed that they should be healthy and disease-free, and that jailers should no longer be permitted to charge prisoners. He called for paid staff and better food for inmates. His book led to the separation of men and women and better sanitation, and the Howard League for Penal Reform was named after him.

“Mill for Grinding Rogues Honest”

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that prisoners should be subjected to a regime which was punishing without being detrimental to their health. In 1791, his designs for the ideal prison, which he called the Panopticon, were published. One of its key features was a watchtower which allowed a single guard to observe prisoners without them knowing. According to Bentham’s theory, prisoners’ behaviour would be controlled by their own belief that they could be under surveillance at any moment. He described his Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example” and “a mill for grinding rogues honest”. Although the Panopticon was never built as intended, it became the model for, among others, the Pentonville and Millbank prisons.

Millbank, the First State Prison

Built in the late 1700s Millbank in Pimlico, central London, was the original state prison. The first inmates – all women – arrived in June, 1816, and the first men arrived a year later. By 1822, Millbank held 452 men and 326 women. Sentences of between five and 10 years were offered as an alternative to transportation to Australia to offenders considered most likely to reform. Although it had integral sanitation, flawed drainage caused many deaths through contamination. The marshy nature of the site and inmates’ extremely poor diet led to widespread disease, and Millbank would soon be denounced by the government for its overcrowded and squalid conditions.





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