BBC The Crank
A punishment used in Victorian prisons.
Elizabeth Fry
National Education network
Eastern State Penitentiary, constructed in the 1820s during the first major wave of penitentiary building in the United States.
Section and plan of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary.
Drawn by Willey Reveley 1791.
Aerial View
Since 2002 Fry has been depicted on the reverse of £5 notes.

Eighteenth Century Prison Reform

As High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1777, John Howard (namesake of the Howard League) condemned the prison system as disorganised, barbaric and filthy.

He suggested that prisons should be healthy and disease-free, and that jailers should not be allowed to charge prisoners. After studying prison conditions for 17 years he wrote a book called ‘State of the Prisons in England and Wales’. It was highly regarded by many reformers but few of his suggestions were put into practice. The Howard League for Penal Reform is still influential today.

Jeremy Bentham, and other penal reformers of the time, believed that the prisoner should suffer a severe regime, but that it should not be detrimental to the prisoner’s health. Penal reformers also ensured that male and female prisoners were separated and that sanitation was improved.

The panopticon

In 1791 Bentham designed the ‘panopticon’ (all seeing). This prison design allowed a centrally placed observer to survey all the inmates, as prison wings radiated out from this central position. Bentham’s panopticon became the model for prison building for the next half century.

In 1799 the Penitentiary Act specified that gaols should be built for one inmate per cell and operate on a silent system with continuous labour. The ‘Silent and Separate Systems’ were used either to keep a regime of silence or to keep prisoners in solitary confinement, the idea being that prisoners could not lead each other astray if they were separated and if they were alone they could reflect upon their lives and mend their ways. Unfortunately many inmates could not stand the solitude and committed suicide or went insane.


During the 18th century the number of crimes punishable by death had risen to about 200. Some, such as treason or murder, were serious crimes, but in other cases people could be sentenced to death for what we would think of as minor offences. For example, the death sentence could be passed for picking pockets, stealing bread or cutting down a tree. These were the kinds of crime likely to be committed by those in most desperate need.

In 1823 Sir Robert Peel reduced the number of offences for which convicts could be executed by more than 100. Lord John Russell abolished the death sentence for horse stealing and housebreaking in 1830.

19th Century

Ideas relating to penal reform were becoming increasingly popular thanks to the work of a few energetic reformers. Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker, was so appalled at prison conditions and over crowding that she founded a prison school for children held with their mothers and set up the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. She and her brother Joseph John Gurney later persuade Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel to introduce further prison reforms.

Capital punishment was now regarded as an inappropriate sanction for many crimes and shaming punishments, like the stocks, were regarded as outdated. By mid-century, imprisonment had replaced capital punishment for most serious offences except for murder.

Modern Prisons

The first national penitentiary was completed at Millbank in London, in 1816. It held 860 prisoners, kept in separate cells, although they could meet with other prisoners during the day. Work in prison  mainly consisted of simple tasks such as picking ‘coir’ (tarred rope) and weaving.

In 1842 Pentonville prison was built using the panopticon design and is still used today. It was originally designed to hold 520 prisoners, each held in a cell measuring 13 ft long, 7 ft wide and 9 feet high. It operated the separate system, which was basically solitary confinement. In the next six years, 54 new prisons were built using this template.

In 1877 prisons were brought under the control of the Prison Commission. For the first time even local prisons were controlled centrally. At this time prison was seen primarily as a means to deter offending and reoffending. This was a movement away from the reforming ideals of the past.

The Prisons Act of 1878 brought all prisons under the control of a national system run by the Prison Commission and later the Prison Department. As a result, prison commissioners were appointed to inspect all prisons and submit annual reports on the prisons to Parliament. The Act led to the closure of the worst prisons in the country and set the tone for the future by adopting John Howard’s principle of prisons being for reformation rather than punishment. It was believed that reformation and deterrence should now be the main objectives of prisons.

The Prison Act 1898 reasserted reformation as the main role of prison regimes. This Act set the basic rules of imprisonment that largely underlies today’s prison policy. It led to the gradual decline of the separate system, the abolition of hard labour, and established the idea that prison labour should be productive, not least for the prisoners, who should be able to earn their livelihood on release.

Thanks Ian Swift