There were many reasons as to why prisons were reformed in early nineteenth century England. These reasons fall into four main groups; overcrowding, poor conditions, reformers and changes in laws. One of the reasons for prisons being reformed was that they were overcrowded. Around and during the nineteenth century there was a population explosion in Britain. In 1750 the population was a mere 11 million, which grew to 16 million in 1800 and then increased to a massive 27 million in 1850.
In the space of 100 years the population in Britain had more than doubled.The Industrial Revolution also led to a change in population density, as there were more jobs available in the ever-growing industrial cities. People migrated to cities such as Manchester and Liverpool from rural communities as the emphasis changed from agricultural to industrial and manufacturing industries. To cope with the volume required, small cramped housing was built. More people per square kilometre meant that there were more opportunities to commit petty crime.
Also many of the jobs people flocked to the city for were poorly paid and many had to resort to crime to stay alive and feed their families.When new families arrived in the cities they were often considered outcasts, provided with the worst homes in the area and separated from their families became lonely and isolated from support. These people usually went to Public Houses to meet and make friends. Both alcohol and the social part of Public Houses were linked to crime. Criminals provided a social network and easy friendship. The petty crime provided the extra money needed and the appeal of the alcohol then led to more alcohol-related crimes. With an increase in crime, because of the above, many prisons couldn’t cope with the volume required.The Bloody Code was designed to protect public property and frighten people into being law-abiding citizens.
You could be hanged for over 200 offences including poaching, rioting about the price of food and stealing from a shop. However such a code didn’t lead to more people being hanged. Juries decided capital punishment was too harsh for some crimes such as petty theft and juries would not convict. If the judge liked the accused’s face or the criminal had powerful friends then he or she could have the sentence reduced or even walk away free. Eventually the Bloody Code was abolished with the help of the Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel.Public executions were not working as they caused riots if there was a disagreement over the sentence. It was difficult to control the large crowds and there was a danger of escape if the crowds liked the criminal.
Furthermore ideas about capital punishment were changing and many disagreed with such an inhumane punishment as hanging. The downgrading of capital punishment led to more live convicted criminals to be housed in gaols. An alternative to imprisonment in Britain was transportation to one of the colonies such as America and later, Australia.The U.
S. A. achieved independent status in 1776 and refused to accept criminals as immigrants and whilst Australia offered a solution from 1778, it was a short term one. Some considered the transportation barbaric as many died en route and low grade criminals were separated from families and support but compared with the conditions in the prisons in Britain, some may view transportation as a luck escape. Prison conditions were appalling.
They were usually converted castles and old out-dated buildings. They were dark, damp and rife with infectious diseases.Gaol fever killed many inmates before their sentence dates and when judges and juries were also infected in 1577 there was some improvement but no attempts at rehabilitation were considered. Accommodation was mixed with no consideration given to privacy or protection for the woman against male inmates. Prisons were run as in-house businesses and more often corrupt with warders charging for food and favourable conditions.
If payment was not made a sentence would be lengthened. This led to an increased number of prisoners including debtors created by the system itself.The conditions of the prisons and poor government understanding of the system drove Reformers in the 19th century. There were two main driving forces. Firstly reformers considered the prison system to be cruel and unfair. They were usually from a Christian background and considered the lack of rehabilitation to be a waste of life especially when the inmates included impressionable youths. The second group of reformers objected to the structural conditions, over-crowding and corruption, which led to an ever-growing volume of prisoners often debtors.
John Howard, High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773, visited every prison in England, Wales and then Europe. His life work became a hard-hitting report, which condemned the conditions and the work of the local magistrates, in sending people to languish in them. The High Sheriff of Gloucester in 1780, Sir George Paul, accepted the damning report on his local prison and realised only a purpose-built structure would improve conditions. He worked with architects to provide not only a structure but also a regime that allowed for education, useful employment and religious contemplation.This became a model for others and between 1842 and 1877 ninety new prisons were built in Britain which still form the core of our system. Elizabeth Fry came from a Quaker background and addressed the issues of female inmates. She was influenced by a visit to Newgate gaol and wrote about her experiences in “Observations On Visiting, Superintendance And Government Of Female Prisons” in 1827.
She had a high profile for her bravery in entering such situations and was invited to discuss the issue with Queen Victoria.Her ideas featured in Sir Robert Peel’s Gaol Act of 1823. Peel’s Act however was often ignored and Fry felt didn’t go far enough. She was aware that proper measures would be costly. It is important to note that the changes in law followed pressure from Reformers not government initiatives.
Overall prisons were reformed because of overcrowding, poor conditions, reformers and laws. There were too many prisoners in overcrowded conditions. The number of prisoners had increased as industrialisation had allowed a growth of population centred on cities.City life brought new crimes and new opportunities for crime so industrialisation led to inflated crime. The abolition of the Bloody Code meant more live sentenced prisoners and alternatives had to be found such as Transportation. This short-term solution ceased, as colonies became independent. The prison conditions were damp, overcrowded with disease and corrupt with no effort made to rehabilitate.
However it took reformers such as John Howard, Elizabeth Fry and Sir George Paul to pressurise government for changes in laws that led to the necessary reform.