The Pathos of Politics (113-8) United Kingdom

 United Kingdom

Neglect and disorder were the dominant features of an 18th-century English prison. Upon entering, the noise and smell of the place was overwhelming. Some prisoners lived in ease while others suffered in squalor. Evidence of authority was hard to find.

Prisons were at the time largely self-financing operations. Wardens were parasites: living off fees from inmates for food, bedding, and other amenities.

Jailers typically treated prisoners like customers. Those who could pay were cultivated, while those who could not were neglected. Poor prisoners lived in horrid conditions.

Many wardens demanded payment before prisoners were released. This spelt a prolonged stay even if the captive was innocent or had served his sentence.

In larger prisons, the position of jailer was so lucrative that it was widely sought. Rapacity was kept in check only by the freedom of prisoners to petition magistrates. Wardens did not want trouble. A riot was bound to attract unwanted attention.

Even if jailers had the desire for tighter control, they could hardly afford it. Prisons had barebones staff.

Hence, prisons were largely self-governed. Prisoners often developed their own elaborate rules and procedures for keeping order. In larger jails they had their own courts, to hear complaints and settle disputes. The order in prisons mirrored society at large to a surprising degree.

The only constant in English criminality from the late 18th century onwards was the nearly uninterrupted rise in crime and number imprisoned. This reflected the acceleration of inequity under industrial capitalism and government indifference to the well-being of the underclass.

English prisons were especially full of debtors. The imperiling power of a creditor over a debtor long ran as a source of public complaint. That so many innocent families were confined in sickness and hunger aroused widespread sympathy.

Still, sanctimonious authorities regarded imprisonment for debt as a worthy sanction for ensuring responsible conduct in business. At the least, it seemed a necessary evil.

Waves of reform changed the way English prisons were run. The imperial crises that arose with the American Revolution provoked far-ranging questioning of English morality and institutions.

Nothing but a real reform can save us from ruin as a nation. Were our prisons new modeled, it would be one considerable step toward reform of the lower orders of the people. ~ English lawyer and civic activist Josiah Dornford in 1785

 John Howard

John Howard was appointed sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773. One of his responsibilities was the supervision of the county jail. What he found horrified him.

Howard visited other facilities and found much the same. His interest became an obsession. After touring the prisons of his own country, Howard explored those in the rest of Europe.

Howard’s extensive survey resulted in The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777). It was grim subject which managed to capture public attention. In it he advocated what the Dutch had already managed to achieve, to his considerable admiration: prison as a clean, orderly institution.


A small group of evangelical Quakers concurred with Howard, though for different reasons. They believed that all people had an “inner light,” and that personal reform was possible. To the Quakers, criminal incorrigibility was not the product of human nature, but of mistaken punishment. Part of their proposed solution was prisons which were orderly and quiet.

England achieved better prisons to a large extent by rebuilding ones that existed and building new ones. Imprisonable crimes were burgeoning in the early 19th century, and thereby so too the prison industry.

Victorian imprisonment embodied several curious contradictions. Arrive in prison as the result of a minor offense, and you would be treated more severely than had you committed one of the great crimes. Commit a grave offense (short of murder), and you would be punished ostensibly more with an eye to reformation than had you been modest in your crime. Commit no offense at all, other than destitution, and as pauper, you would have workhouse food markedly less generous than that which Her Majesty granted to convicted felons. ~ English penologist Seán McConville

In the late 19th century, prison committals declined. While wardens congratulated themselves for their reformative efforts, skeptics pointed out that the falling numbers owed to shorter sentences and curtailed use of imprisonment, including leniency in paying fines late.

Despite a growing population, crime was down. The general prosperity of the late Victorian era naturally reduced criminal need.

It may have helped that the more hardened cases had for decades been transported to the convict continent of Australia (162,000), and a relative smattering (30,000) to the rowdy colonies in America. That ne’er-do-wells provided the foundation of the white population of Australia tinged the culture and politics of that country.

Though there were fewer prisoners, imprisonment became more punitive in late-19th-century England. The 1865 Prison Act insisted on hard labor as a substitute for whatever other corporal punishments may have previously been on offer. This was a common modus operandi of 19th-century European prisons, which were essentially forced labor camps.

Much inhumane treatment in England came courtesy of Colonel Edmund DuCane, the government’s chief penal advisor. With fallacious financial calculations and ill-considered judgments ascribed as “scientific,” and swallowed whole by gullible government leaders, England embarked upon nationalizing its prison system, and instituting a level of severity that made medieval punishment look like it had mollycoddled criminals.

At the turn of the 20th century, England established preventative detention: keeping habitual offenders behind bars out of proportion to their misdeeds. Winston Churchill was instrumental in limiting it to the “worst class of professional criminals,” having investigated and found that grotesquely long sentences were being imposed on petty thieves for stealing food and trivial bits of property.

In the 1990s, the United States, predictably acknowledging no historical provenance, revived the practice of unjustly institutionalizing criminality on minorities and poor whites: prolonged punishment irrespective of crime.

As one reads history, one is absolutely sickened not by the crimes the wicked have committed, but by the punishments the good have inflicted. ~ Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for 2 years for sodomy in 1895

Into the 21st century, Britain allowed its prisons to deteriorate. Prisoners were housed in crumbling buildings infested with cockroaches and rats. Understaffing and overcrowding allowed a culture of violence to bloom, which only worsened from the mid-2010s as the government did nothing to address the problems.