A realist, John Howard derived satisfaction from the modest improvements he was able to achieve and he appreciated that change would come, but slowly.

(1726 – 1790)

Biography By Gordon Hay

John Howard must have been a strange and complex individual who could not have been everyone’s ‘cup of tea’. Born in 1726 and though not of the nobility, he aspired to a gentleman’s esteem. Having been left a comfortable fortune and all the family’s property he was generous and caring to the tenants on his estate at Cardington in the county of Bedford, England. Still, he was a difficult and lonely man who, despite a great reputation, was to some extent a personal failure. He failed as a parent to his only son and he lacked those qualities which would have enabled him to establish close personal relations of friendship. Despite his expectation of esteem he opposed the collection of funds during his lifetime for the construction of a monument in his honour.

Though deeply humanitarian he was opinionated and self-righteous. His refusal to compromise with the one other member of an advisory committee named by the government was partly responsible for the failure of the government in England to construct an improved prison facility. Non-conformist, devout and narrow-minded in adherence to his own interpretations of Christian doctrine, he could nonetheless be tolerant and catholic to those who held different theological views. As long as they were involved in good works to combat human suffering and wickedness, they were accepted. Even so, an unwillingness to share his particular cause may explain why his reforming zeal never became a movement.

There can be no question that John Howard merits the accolade of being the father of prison reform. However, it is difficult to understand how he came to make this cause his life’s work. At age 50 he was unknown, at age 60 he was an international hero. There is little in his early life to explain it. It is true that he personally experienced prison. At the age of 40, curious to see the effects of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, he set out for Spain regardless of the fact that England and France were engaged in the Seven Years War. The ship in which Howard took passage was captured by the French and he was imprisoned. It would be two months before an exchange of prisoners obtained his release. Despite this experience, the more critical event for John Howard would seem to have been his appointment as High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773. It was a political sinecure without qualifications and it came as a surprise when Howard took the responsibilities of the appointment seriously and embarked on his inspection of prisons. For the next seventeen years he was committed to the task – travelling thousands of miles by horse and carriage not only throughout Great Britain but including seven trips to the continent, even to Moscow and Constantinople. It was in the Crimea that he died in 1790, having contracted typhus in visiting Russian military hospitals. His grave is there at Kherson. He had given his personal fortune, his health and his safety to the cause of prison reform. In 1781, Edmund Burke, in paying tribute said, “He dived into the depth of dungeons, plunged into the infection of hospitals, surveyed the mansions of sorrow and pain, took the gauge and dimensions of misery, depression and contempt, remembered the forgotten, attended the neglected, visited the forsaken, and compared and collated the distressed of men in all countries.”

A realist, John Howard derived satisfaction from the modest improvements he was able to achieve and he appreciated that change would come, but slowly.

Let us briefly recall the social and moral context of the time. Reynolds, Galnsborough and Hogarth were active in London, as were Handel and Dr. Johnson. The economic scene was still dominated by agriculture and commerce although the first signs of an industrial revolution were appearing. It was an age of aristocracy pre-dating both the American and French Revolutions. The majority of people unfortunate enough not to belong to the aristocracy, frequently led lives of degradation and grinding poverty. It was a side of life that Hogarth depicted in his paintings. The first stirrings of Christian social conscience to alleviate the lot of the poor and down-trodden were being espoused by John Wesley. Execution was the prevalent means of dealing with breach of the law. In Mediterranean countries there were galley slaves, and the use of torture to obtain confessions of guilt was not confined to the inquisition in Spain. Transportation of criminals, first to America and later to Australia, was being practised in England. Prisons were ‘holding tanks’ where the majority of persons were held, either for debt or to await trial. Dens of iniquity, prisons were damp, dark and evil. Airless and unsanitary, they bred contagion and disease. Typhus and small pox were rampant. There was little or no government funding. Prisons were operated for financial gain – an opportunity for extortion which most gaolers exploited to the full. Prisoners paid for the privilege of walking unchained. Even if declared not guilty by the court, a prisoner would not be released until the fee for food and lodging had been paid. It was one of Howard’s recommendations that ‘gaolers’ be made salaried officials paid by the county. This suggests a policy whereby the operation of prisons should be a charge on the public purse and not a charge on the imprisoned – a policy without public support in Howard’s day. Not surprisingly, those who suffered imprisonment came chiefly from the poor and labouring class. Once imprisoned, one was fortunate to escape.

John Howard’s achievement derives not so much from personal courage and prison visitation, important as these were. On one occasion, because of the reputation he had with the imprisoned, he was able single-handedly to intervene and quell a riot in the Savoy military prison in London. Rather, his reputation rests on the meticulous recording and reporting of what he saw, in order that the general public might be made aware. His book, The State of Prisons in England and Wales, had three editions in his lifetime. With each new edition there was an appendix with the updated statistics of his findings. That he provided this information honestly, in factual and simple terms, refraining from all embellishment and exaggeration, gave credence to his work. He was not perceived as some “raving crackpot” and those in authority held him in esteem, respected his opinion and attended to his arguments. Only in France did his honest criticism get him into trouble with authority. There, he was declared ‘persona non grata’.

A realist, John Howard derived satisfaction from the modest improvements he was able to achieve and he appreciated that change would come, but slowly. He was the first to address a social problem by means of detailed analysis and he had all the problems of the pioneer. Though, in the main, his recommendations were simple and effective, they were not generally adopted until the latter part of the 19th century. In the early 1800’s when Elizabeth Fry visited Newgate, conditions were no better than those John Howard described fifty years before. A major problem was the gap between legislation and implementation. Having parliament pass a reform bill was one thing, having parliament provide the money for inspection to enforce legislation was quite another. Even when genuine improvement in prison conditions did take place, it is difficult to know whether the motive was concern for the prisoners or concern to reduce the potential spread of disease to those outside the prison.

What were the reforms John Howard advocated? Clean, healthy accommodation with the provision of adequate clothing and linen; segregation of prisoners according to sex, age and nature of offence; proper health care: these were his priorities. There should be a Chaplain service because he was of his age in believing that spiritual starvation was a major obstacle to reformation of character. Finally, he was a firm believer in the work ethic and the need for prisoners to be provided with work in order that the sin of idleness could be combatted.

When compared with the prisons which John Howard visited the Canadian prison of today is a much improved institution. Nevertheless, the problems of idleness, meaningful employment, proper health care and adequate segregation have never been fully resolved. Since many of the changes desired by John Howard have been achieved why is it that the suffering from incarceration and the need for rehabilitation are still important? Howard’s ideal prison is comparable to a hygienic and well-run zoo and it illustrates the limitations of his thinking. Only physical suffering aroused his sympathy. His age lacked the knowledge to appreciate the psychological damage of incarceration. More concerned with people than with ideas, at no time did he attempt to deal with the cause of crime. Although opposed to torture, he did not condemn the death penalty and he did not foresee today’s use of imprisonment for long-term sentences.

And yet he recognized what is surely the greatest obstacle to improvement, public attitude. In his book The State of the Prisons he says, “Those gentlemen who, when they are told of the misery which our prisoners suffer, content themselves with saying ‘let them take care to keep out…’, forget the vicissitudes of human affairs; the unexpected changes to which men are liable; and that those whose circumstances are affluent, may in time be reduced to indigence, and become debtors and prisoners.”