The Rise of Reform in the 19th Century

By the early 1800s, more attention was being paid to penal reformers’ demands for better conditions in the UK’s overcrowded, dirty prisons. The end of transportation to Australia and the use of old ships or ‘hulks’ to keep inmates was near, and the government started giving more consideration to inmates’ prospects after their release. But severe punishments such as hard labour and solitary confinement remained common for much of the 19th century, and conditions were squalid in many jails.

Elizabeth Fry

One of the 19th century’s loudest voices for prison reform was Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker who visited Newbank Prison in 1813 and was horrified by the overcrowded conditions, with women sleeping on straw, many of whom had not received a trial. She set up the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate, providing inmates with materials to learn to sew and knit, so they could earn money when they were released. Fry promoted the idea of reform to replace harsh punishment and persuaded the home secretary Robert Peel to introduce several major prison reforms.


Calls for Harsher Punishments

The American ‘separate system’, based on the principle of keeping inmates in solitary confinement to encourage them to reflect on their crimes, attracted the attention of some reformers and led to the creation of Millbank Prison in 1816 and Pentonville Prison in 1842. Surveyor general of prisons Joshua Jebb set an ambitious goal for prison-building, with one large jail opening every year. The designs of the new prisons were based on the theory of separation and hard labour for serious crimes, with treadwheels and cranks.

By the 1860s, the view that harsher measures were needed to tackle a surge in crime which was thought to be committed by the ‘flood of criminals’ released under the penal servitude system was widespread. The committee set up by commissioner of prisons Colonel Edmund Du Cane increased minimum sentences for many offences, with “hard labour, hard fare and a hard bed” as deterrents.

The Prisons Act

In 1877, prisons finally became a state-run service. Under the system’s first commissioner, Du Cane, HMP Wormwood Scrubs was built, and still stands on Du Cane Road in Acton, London. Wormwood Scrubs was built by prisoners, starting with the RC Chapel which became their dormitory, and all wings face north to south to make sure each cell receives sunlight for at least part of the day.

Shortly after the Prisons Act was passed, the worst prisons were closed and John Howard’s reforms were finally introduced. The concepts of therapeutic incarceration and decarceration (actively reducing the prison population) emerged, and reformation was introduced as the main purpose of imprisonment. Hard labour was replaced with productive labour and training to earn a living after release.


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