Item of the Day: State of Prisons (1777)

Full Title:

The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons.

Bound With:

Appendix to the State Prisons in England and Wales, &c. By John Howard, F.R. S. Containing A Farther Account of Foreign Prisons and Hospitals, with Additional Remarks on the Prisons of this Country. Warrington: Printed by William Eyres; and sold by T. Cadell and N. Conant in London, 1780.

Written by John Howard, 1726-1790. Includes table of contents, introduction, tables, and index. The immediate result of this publication was the drafting of a bill for the establishment of penitentiary houses, where by means of solitary imprisonment, accompanied by well-regulated labour and religious instruction, the object of reforming the prisoners, and introducing them to the habits of industry, could be pursued. Printed in Warrington by William Eyres, and sold by T. Cadell in the Strand, and N. Conant , London, 1777.

From Section I: General View of Distress in Prisons.

THERE are prisons, into which whoever looks will, at first sight of the people confined there, be convinced, that there is some great error in the management of them: the sallow meagre countenances declare, without words, that they are very miserable: many who went in healthy, are in a few months changed to emaciated objects. Some are seen pining under diseases, “sick and in prison;” expiring on the floors, in loathsome cells, of pestilential fevers, and the confluent small-pox: victims, I must not say to the cruelty, but I will say to the inattention, of sheriffs, and gentlemen in the commission of the peace.

THE cause of this distress is, that many prisons are scantily supplied, and some almost totally unprovided with the necessaries of life.

THERE are several Bridewells (to begin with them) in which prisoners have no allowance of FOOD at all. In some, the keeper farms what little is allowed them: and where he engages to supply each prisoner with one or two pennyworth of bread a day, I have known this shrunk to half, sometimes less that half the quantity, cut or broken from his own loaf.

IT will perhaps be asked, does not their work maintain them? for every one knows that those offenders are committed to hard labour. The answer to that question, though true, will hadly be believed. There are very few Bridewells in which any work is done, or can be done. The prisoners have neither tools, nor materials of any kind; but spend their time in sloth, profaneness and debauchery, to a degree which, in some of those houses that I have seen, is extremely shocking.

SOME keepers of these houses, who have represented to the magistrates the wants of their prisoners, and desired for them necessary food, have been silenced with these inconsiderate words, Let them work or starve. When those gentlement know the former is impossible, do they not by that sentence, inevitably doom poor creatures to the latter?

I HAVE asked some keepers, since the late act for preserving the health of prisoners, why no care is taken of their sick: and have been answered, that the magistrates tell them the act does not extend to Bridewells*.

IN consequence of this, at the quarter sessions you see prisoners, covered (hardly covered) with rags; almost famished; and sick of diseases, which the discharged spread wherever they go, and with which those who are sent to the County-Gaols infect these prisons.

THE same complaint, want of food, is to be found in many COUNTY-GAOLS. In about half these, debtors have no bread; although it is granted to the highwayman, the house-breaker, and the murderer; and medical assistance, which is provided for the latter, is withheld from the former. In many of these Gaols, debtors who would work are not permitted to have any tools, lest they should furnish felons with them for escape or other mischief. I have often seen those prisoners eating their water-soup (bread boiled in mere water) and heard them say, “We are locked up and almost starved to death.”

* IF the late act does not include Bridewells, it is required, by an act 7th James I. Cap.IV. that “the Masters and Governors of —Houses of Correction shall have some fit allowance— for the relieving of such as shall happen to be weak and sick in their custody.”

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Filed under 1770's, Legal, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt

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