PENOLOGY. Critically Assessment of the Suggestion that Prisons have moved on little from the Concerns raised in John Howard’s Famous Statement of 1777

With Reference to the Current Crisis of Prison Numbers

Term Paper, 2008

8 Pages, Grade: 50 Punkte = 3,00



With Reference to the Current Crisis of Prison Numbers, Critically Assess the Suggestion that Prisons have moved on little from the Concerns raised in John Howard’s Famous Statement of 1777.

When politician and prison reformer John Howard 1777 called prisons ‘filthy and corrupt-ridden places, not fit for human habitation’, he surely had no idea how much truth still would be in his words and how much this would still be an issue in the 21st century. This critique shall show the prison history from the late 18th century until today with special emphasis on the state and condition of the prisons and resulting from this the situation of the prisoners at that time within the prisons and the penal system.

John Howard (1726 – 1790), politician and prison reformer in late 18th century, was shocked by the unbearable conditions within the custodial institutions in England, which he got to know during his time as supervisor of the Bedfordshire county jail where he was appointed High Sheriff in the 1750’s. Alarmed by the horrible conditions there, he visited different prisons all over the country and decided to ameliorate the terrible situation the prisoners had to suffer during their incarceration. (BBC Homepage, 2008). Amongst others, prisoners had to pay the jailers for food, bedding, etc. as the jailers did not get any salaries from the state. Resulting from this, the living conditions for the prisoners were so bad that they sometimes had to stay in prison even if they were innocent or their sentence was already served just because they could not pay enough money to the jailers (The Howard League for Penal Reform, 2006; BBC, 2008).

This fact made poorer prisoners suffer longer than the ones who had more financial possibilities - a fact which is mirrored still today in penal custody, for example regarding fines for less serious delinquencies which cannot be paid and finally result in a prison sentence. To give some more examples of prison life in the 18th century, “The State of the Prisons” written by John Howard and first published in 1777, provides an excellent, if not the best, source of material in this field of research.

Key words of incarceration at this period in history can easily give us an impression of how it must have been to be a prisoner at this time: Howard speaks of a great error in the management of prisons, of miserable conditions, of diseases like pestilential fever or smallpox. He blames the officials, namely the sheriffs and gentlemen in the commission of peace, of cruelty and inattention. (Muncie, Sparks, 1991, p. 7-11).

Besides the work of Howard, a very close and well-reported insight view into prison life of the 18th century is presented by Cesare Beccaria (1738 – 1794) and by Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984). Beccaria, for instance, describes in ‘On crimes and punishments’ the situation in penal institutions of the 18th century as a situation, where the severity of punishment drives men to additional crimes to avoid the punishment for a single one (Beccaria, 1764/1963, p.43). Taking a look to the United States, one could argue to find an equivalent there in regard of the capital punishment, which too often seems to give an explanation for serial killings or the enormous cruelty of some cases of capital crimes, as if the perpetrators would think – why should I only kill one person and get the death penalty, when I can kill five more and get the same punishment? It does not matter for them, as it does not make any difference in the consequence of their deeds.

Beccaria talks about ‘keeping the proportion’ in punishment (p.42), which means that the crimes committed should be punished in a reasonable and appropriate way, a theory, which we nowadays know as bifurcation (Cavadino, Dignan, 2007, p.399). In ‘Discipline & Punish’, Foucault describes in full length the ways of public torturing and public killings in the 18th and 19th century (Foucault, 1975/1995, p.3-14); the last public hanging had been carried out in 1868. The only Western "civilized” country, in which a form of public killing still is performed, are the USA when executing their death row prisoners under the eyes of relatives and officials or even with television broadcast, the height of perversity is reached. Foucault puts it in the best possible way saying, that the death penalty in prisons occupied the place left vacant by the disappearance of public torture (p.117) – so how far away are we from 1777? In 1965, the death penalty had been abolished in the U.K. finally. But, despite all political correctness and policy of humanity, still today, torture is a means to extort confessions from suspects, while the only difference is, the torture or, call it police violence, is no official method any more, but tolerated anyway.

Additionally to torture, diseases, denial of bedding, food or even water and clean air, another grave problem was the mental state of the prisoners. At Howard’s time, mental care for prisoners was not on the agenda, a lot of suicide incidents occurred and mentally insane prisoners were kept like everybody else like animals in cages behind the prison bars. In 1784, Howard traces the situation of mentally ill prisoners back to the overcrowded and like he calls them ‘offensive’ prisons, where no care is taken of the mentally ill, although some of them might be lead back to a certain usefulness in their lives if medicated in the right way (Reed, 2003).

With his incessant engagement, Howard reached the requirement for all prisons to constitute a surgeon or a apothecary in 1774, but still today regarding mental health problems of prisoners, court assessments are inadequate and offer too few psychiatric beds or mental help to prisoners in need, and furthermore, they give too often poor identification during reception into prison (Reed, 2003).

Former Chief Inspector or Prisons (1995-2001), David Ramsbotham, reports about the horrible state of British prisons today. After he had carried out an unannounced inspection of HM Prison Holloway in 1995, he was shocked by the unbearable conditions in this penal institution, which he describes in his book as ‘filthy’ (Ramsbotham, 2003, p. 5), like a two hundred years before Howard named the state of British prisons. He also confirms Howard’s observations, when he describes the way prisoners are treated, locked up all day, doing nothing (compare Howard in Muncie and Sparks, 1991, p.8), being victims of extreme bullying, not receiving appropriate food at correct times (Ramsbotham, 2003, p. 1-2 & 6-7).

So, how far have we moved on until today within penal policy and imprisonment in particular? To answer this is the aim of this essay, an answer which requires the direct comparison of the specifically addressed problems in prison’s daily life by John Howard’s speech of 1777 to the situations and states of prisons in the U.K. nowadays.

Howard speaks of ‘filthy and corrupt-ridden places, not fit for human habitation’, a statement which addresses different aspects, like the aspect of hygiene, the political and finally the humane aspect in terms of a fair treatment of the prison inmates.


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PENOLOGY. Critically Assessment of the Suggestion that Prisons have moved on little from the Concerns raised in John Howard’s Famous Statement of 1777
With Reference to the Current Crisis of Prison Numbers
University of Portsmouth  (Institute of Criminal Justice)
50 Punkte = 3,00
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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penology, with, reference, current, crisis, prison, numbers, critically, assess, suggestion, prisons, concerns, john, howard’s, famous, statement
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Viola Abelius (Author), 2008, PENOLOGY. Critically Assessment of the Suggestion that Prisons have moved on little from the Concerns raised in John Howard’s Famous Statement of 1777, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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