prisoners were placed in separate cells to stop disease -- 9/15/17

Today's selection -- from Eastern State Penitentiary by Paul Kahan. Prisons in the eighteenth century in both England and the colonies were inhumane institutions in desperate need of reform:

"[William] Penn's [humane penal] code was not long-lived; by May 1718, Pennsylvania was operating under the much harsher English Criminal Code, a system that lasted until independence. Death was the preferred sanction under the English Criminal Code. ... The shift toward execution [in the American colonies] made prisons unnecessary, and there was therefore little incentive to construct them between 1719 and the Revolution.

"Because prisons were rarely used, they were poorly funded in both the colonies and Britain; thus, conditions in eighteenth-century prisons, jails and workhouses were deplorable. Moreover, jailors extorted their living by charging inmates for food, clothing and liquor. The jails themselves were squalid, disease-ridden places where more inmates died from illness than from the hangman's noose. The buildings themselves were ramshackle, unsecured places that required prisoners to be shackled at night so they could not escape. There were even a few jails where 'the windows were left unbarred, or gaps in walls remained unrepaired, so escapes were frequent.'

Death row cellblock Eastern State Penitentiary

For this reason, a number of prominent thinkers and philanthropists began agitating for prison reform. These men argued that governments should not torture inmates, but instead could use prisons to punish and deter criminal behavior in a more humane way. The best known of these reformers was John Howard, an English aristocrat who investigated Europe's jails and published his observation in The State of the Prisons in England, and An Account of the Principal Lazarettos of Europe. This book exposed the shocking conditions prisoners endured while waiting for trial.

"Howard was born in 1726. His mother died when he was only five, followed by his father a decade later. His first experience with prisons came when he was captured by a French privateer. His experience as a prisoner of war fermented a desire to ensure that no one would ever have to suffer as he had. In 1773, Howard became sheriff of Bedfordshire, which was more of a 'social distinction than an occupation' because those elected normally delegated the actual work to an undersheriff. Recognizing that his new position gave him an opportunity to effect change, Howard examined the prison himself. He found innocent prisoners still imprisoned because of the debts they had incurred to the jail keeper, as well as horribly unsanitary conditions.

"Over the winter of 1773-74, Howard toured other English county prisons and was dismayed to find women and men incarcerated together, as well as classes of prisoners (debtors, those only indicted and convicts) undifferentiated. D.L. Howard, a sympathetic biographer, wrote that 'when Howard visited a prison, what offended him most was the evidence of disorder and inattention, the failure to post rules, the indiscriminate mixing of inhabitants, and the unregulated boundary between the prison and the community.' Howard's solution to these problems was to recommend that prisoners be placed in separate cells to eliminate the spread of disease, and that they be classified according to offense, to prevent 'hardened' criminals from passing on their trade to juveniles and debtors. Howard also strongly argued against jailors charging fees for basic necessities, recommending that they receive a regular wage. Finally, he argued that prisons should reform inmates through healthy food, labor and religious services. To achieve these ends, Howard 'formulated a system of prison discipline that borrowed from both workhouses and monasteries to include a regimen of hard labor during the day and solitary confinement at night.' "



Paul Kahan


Eastern State Penitentiary


The History Press


Copyright 2008 by Paul Kahan


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