The State of the Prisons: 200 Years On

The State of the Prisons: 200 Years On

The State of the Prisons: 200 Years On

The State of the Prisons: 200 Years On


In 1777 John Howard wrote The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons. Two centuries later, this extraordinary document commemorates his achievements in campaigning for reform.
In the spirit of Howard himself, the Howard League for Penal Reform have compiled detailed observations of prisons from Sweden to South Africa, and from India to Nicaragua. The result is a valuable resource which includes unique insights into previously undocumented prison regimes.


Penal reform and prison realities


As to what is still wrong, I set down matter of fact without amplification; which would in the end rather impede than promote the object of my wishes; that is the corrections of what really is amiss. The journeys were not undertaken for the traveller’s amusement; and the collections are not published for general entertainment; but for the perusal of those who have it in their power to give redress to the sufferers.

(Howard 1929)

Between 1773 and his death at Kherson in the Ukraine in 1790, John Howard travelled, mostly on horseback, at least eighty thousand kilometres, and probably a great deal further, as a self-appointed inspector of prisons. While much of the journeying was in Britain and Ireland, his half-dozen ventures abroad took him across much of continental Europe. His method was simple and direct. He visited, at considerable risk to his health, prisoners at their place of confinement. Not for Howard the prison tour which, avoiding the darker recesses, steered clear of the conditions endured by all those confined. Howard’s accounts received such widespread attention at the time and are still read two hundred years after his death because he so precisely ‘set down matter of fact’. His general purpose was to humanize prison conditions and to provide prisoners with opportunities for personal reformation. He became keenly aware that there was much to be learned from practice overseas but his method remained essentially descriptive, allowing his meticulously detailed reports to speak for themselves. This volume is published as a tribute to the genius and humanity (borrowing Edmund Burke’s words) of what remains the most exhaustive enquiry into prison conditions in Europe. These essays on prisons across the world follow Howard’s . . .

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