John Howard and his Role in the Prison Reform

John Howard was the first prison reformer and eminent English philanthropist. Some people considered him a difficult and strange person. Moreover, he was widely known as the influential reformer in the sphere of public health and penology. Howard was a complex and lonely man, who suffered personal setbacks despite a great reputation. He lacked the necessary qualities that would have helped him establish a close personal friendship. Despite the expectation of people’s recognition, Howard opposed the collection of money to erect a monument in his honor. According to Purpura, the great efforts of the foremost prison reformer led to the passage of the Penitentiary Act in 1779 that created the first English penitentiary as well as four main reforms including a reformatory regime, inspections, sanitary and secure structures, and abolitions of penalties. Own experience of prison awakened in Howard a vocation for serving people, and the wide religious experience helped him make significant contributions to the world.


The renowned reformer was born into a wealthy family in 1726, and although he was not a nobleman, he aspired to the dignity and esteem of a gentleman. Howard inherited a considerable fortune from his ancestors and widely traveled. Despite the fact that the English philanthropist was a deeply humanitarian person, he was self-righteous and opinionated. Because of Howard’s refusal to compromise with the advisory committee’s member, the English government failed to establish improved prison facilities in the country. Narrow-minded, devout, and non-conformist in adherence to his interpretation of the Christian doctrines, John Howard could be tolerant and open-minded to individuals, who had different theological viewpoints. As long as people, who hold different views, were engaged in good work to fight wickedness and human suffering, they could be accepted. However, the reluctance to share the specific case with its particular cause can explain why Howard’s reformist zeal never became a full movement.

John Howard established himself as a rich man of good social standing. He was a horticulturalist and model landlord, who practiced the role of public official since he regarded it appropriate for his status. Despite the fact that Howard was a person whose behavior or views do not conform to prevailing ideas or practices, he became the main sheriff in Bedfordshire. His responsibility was to control the county gaol. Terrible conditions and human degradation that Howard revealed shocked him. These experiences prompted him to visit other English jails as well as European ones searching for humane prison conditions. During the mid-1750s, there were felons, common thieves, debtors, and religious dissenters in the prisons. The majority of the debtors were respected local merchants, who could not get out of jail until they paid off debts to creditors.

According to West, there can be no doubt that John Howard deserved to be called the honorable father of the prison reform. However, it is difficult to comprehend how he organized the whole work of his life. Despite the fact that the future reformer was an unknown personality at 50, at the age of 60, he became an international hero. There is little evidence to explain it. Howard personally experienced jail. At 40, he was curious to observe the effects of the Lisbon earthquake and decided to go to Spain despite the Seven Years’ War with great powers involved. The French captured the ship in which the reformer travelled and sent him to jail, where he spent several months. Howard was released after the prisoners’ exchange.

The most critical and significant event occurred in 1773, when John Howard was appointed as the major sheriff in Bedfordshire. It was a political sinecure since the man had no qualifications. It was surprisingly that Howard seriously took the appointment and immediately started to inspect prisons. For the next years, he was travelling thousands of miles throughout Great Britain and made some trips to the continent, including Constantinople and Moscow. He died in Crimea in 1790 during his visit and examination of the Russia’s military hospitals. He contracted typhus. His grave is located in Kherson, today’s Ukraine. Howard gave his personal safety, health, and fortune for the introduction of prison reform. The reformer dived into the depths of the dungeon, plunged into the infection of medical facilities, examined the large mansions of pain and sorrow, contempt, depression, and misery. Moreover, Howard always remembered the forgotten people, attended the neglected humans, visited the forsaken individuals, as well as compared the distressed men in all countries. Being a realist, John Howard got satisfaction from the modest improvement that he was able to reach. He appreciated even those changes that came slowly.

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John Howard’s important accomplishments derived not simply because of visiting jails and personal courage. In one case, because of the reputation he got during his imprisonment, he was able to intrude and suppress the rebellion in the Savoy prison located in London. Rather, Howard’s reputation was based on the meticulous reporting and thorough recording of what he saw, in order to notify general public. The book, The State of Prisons in England and Wales provided honest information using simple, factual terms refrained from exaggeration and embellishment. His work has earned the trust of people. Howard’s stories were not perceived as abnormal delirium and whoever was in power, respected him, his views and participated in debates. The reformer’s honest criticism led him to great troubles with the French authorities, and he was declared as the unwelcome person in the European country.A realistic and modest philanthropist John Howard was the first person, who addressed social issues by means of detailed and thorough research and analysis. He faced all the challenges of the pioneer. Despite the fact that, in general, Howard’s recommendations were effective and simple, almost no one sought to adopt them until the end of the 19th century. When the Christian philanthropist, English prison reformer, and social reformer Elizabeth Fry visited the Newgate Prison in London in the early 1800’s, the conditions of prisoners’ stay were no better in comparison to those that the father of the prison reform John Howard observed fifty years before. The gap between implementation and legislation was the main issue. The one thing was to force parliament to pass a reform bill. The other thing was to oblige parliament to give money for inspection to ensure compliance with legislation. Even when the improvement in the prison conditions took place, it was difficult to recognize whether the motive for enhancement was the concern for prisoners or concern to diminish the spread of serious diseases to individuals outside the jails. According to Goldgar and Frost, the local magistrates organized a vigorous movement for reforms in the latter part of the eighteenth century leading to the improvement in the management and structure of the local prisons, funded by taxpayers.

In his reforms John Howard favored adequate accommodation and clothing, provision of linen, and proper health care. One of his main priorities was to segregate prisoners according to the nature of offense, age, and gender. Moreover, the reformer believed that the spiritual starvation was the main obstacle to the character’s reformation. Finally, Howard was firmly convinced of the work ethic and the need to provide prisoners with work so that they could fight the sin of idleness.

Compared with the jails that John Howard visited many years ago, the Canadian prison of the present-day is significantly improved. However, the issues of adequate segregation, proper health care, meaningful employment, and idleness have never been completely resolved. Despite the fact that numerous changes desired by the reformer Howard have been achieved, the necessity for rehabilitation and problems of suffering from incarceration are still significant today. Howard compared his ideal gaol to the well-run zoo that supports hygiene. It reflects his limitative thinking. Only physical suffering caused sympathy. At his age, the reformer lacked the knowledge to assess the psychological damage of imprisonment. John Howard was more concerned with people rather than ideas and the causes of criminal acts. Despite the fact that he was against the use of tortures, he never condemned the death penalty. Moreover, he did not predict using imprisonment for long sentences.

John Howard made seven trips in the period 1775-1790, and some of them he described in the book The State of the Prisons in England and Wales written in 1973. The famous philanthropist sought to achieve reforms through personal initiatives by arousing the conscience of influential personalities and persuading them to act. He personally visited jailers to force them comply with the important rules that existed at that time. John Howard’s works significantly affected German, American and Russian reformers. Moreover, the father of the prison reform recognized that the human factor and the public attitude were undoubtedly the biggest obstacles to improvement and progress.  Today, no one can deny the Howard’s greatest role in the development of the penal reform. The significance of his work and life is reflected on his statue in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The extraordinary reformer was highly honored during his lifetime in the manner which his virtue deserved. The man received the gratitude of the Irish and British Parliaments for his outstanding service rendered to the mankind and his homeland.


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