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Respecting Prisons, and the Treatment of Prisoners

            Each line of the pen of this great philanthropist is, worthy a plate of gold. So disinterested and active a friend to his fellow-creatures in distress, as Mr. Howard, no other nation can boast: thus, particularly the poor prisoner, all men must revere his memory. The singular example of disinterested patriotism and public spirit here displayed, in behalf of some of the most miserable, but unseen, unknown, and therefore disregarded, part of our fellow-creatures, demands the particular attention, and sincere acknowledgement of all who have the feelings of humanity.

            The subject more immediately attracted our author's notice, when he was sheriff of the county of Bedford in 1773, on many innocent, or acquitted, and unprosecuted prisoners, after having been confined for months, dragged back to gaol, and locked up again, for sundry fees to the gaoler, clerk of assize, &c. More scenes of calamity, which he was anxious to alleviate, on further enquiry, presented themselves to his view; and, to gain more perfect knowledge of them, he visited most of the county-gaols in England. To inspect the bridewells, which had before escaped him, he travelled a second time into all the counties, examining houses of correction, city and town gaols. In many of them, as well as in the county gaols, he beheld a complication of distress; but his attention was principally fixed by the gaol-fever and the small-pox, which he saw destroying multitudes, not only of felons in their dungeons, but of debtors also. [Note: In the year 1772, the gaol-fever raged in Old Newgate to so alarming an height, that many persons who had business there died of infection. In consequence, a new ventilator was made, and other precautions used to prevent its again spreading. Among those was a pipe to carry the fumes of vinegar into the Sessions-house during the trial of the prisoners. A malignant fever broke out in Dublin, 1776, occasioned by a criminal infected with the gaol-distemper, being brought into the Court of Sessions without cleansing, produced very fatal effects, and alarmed the whole city. Among others who fell victims to the violence of the contagion, were Fielding Ould, Esq. High Sheriff; the Counsellors Derby, Palmer, Spring, and Ridge; Charles Caldwell, Esq. Messrs. Bolton and Ereven; with several attornies and others, whose business it was to attend in Court]

            On this subject he was examined by the House of Commons, in March, 1774, and most deservedly received their thanks; an honour which reflected on themselves. To this were owing two humane bills, brought in by Mr. Popham, and which passed that session, "For the relief of prisoners who should be acquitted, respecting their fees;" and "For preserving their health, and preventing the gaol-distemper." But as there are still many disorders that ought to be rectified, and the gaol-fever is not yet totally eradicated, Mr. Howard now submits the results of his enquiries to the public, hoping that he "shall not be deserted in the conflict," and that the present Parliament will finish what the last had so laudably begun, Their attention encouraged him to extend his plan, repeating his visits and travels over the kingdom; at first, no doubt, with great danger of infection, from which vinegar and change of apparel (with God's blessing) happily preserved him; but afterwards with less hazard and caution, partly from use, and from the alterations made in some gaols by the last of the forementioned acts.

            The distress in prisons, which our author justly imputes to the inattention of sheriffs and magistrates, originates, he observes,

            First, from want of necessary food, some bridewells having no allowance at all, and finding twelve debtors only in all England and Wales, (Middlesex and Surrey excepted,) who had been able to obtain their groats. [Note: Or aliment, to which they have a right from their creditors by the 32d of Geo. II. but the means of procuring it is so very expensive, as to be generally out of their reach.]
            Secondly, from the demands of gaolers, &c. for fees.
            Thirdly, the extortion of bailiffs.
            Fourthly, the defect of water and air.
            Fifthly, the want or offensiveness of sewers.
            Sixthly, to their being in many gaols and in most bridewells, no straw allowed for prisoners to sleep on.

            These evils affect their health and lives. Among those which are pernicious to their morals, the complaints of debtors and felons, men and women, young beginners and old offenders, being confined together; and in some few gaols idiots also and lunatics. [Note: viz. Hull and Swaffham Bridewells, and Lancaster gaol.] No one, therefore, will wonder at the havoc made by the gaol distemper, of which many dreadful instances are here enumerated; or, at the general spread of wickedness, by the confined and discharged. The same humanity with which we treat our prisoners of war Mr. Howard wishes us to extend to our own unhappy countrymen. This part of his subject naturally leads him to mention the dreadful hardships he himself suffered at Brest and Morlaix, when he was taken prisoner in a Lisbon packet, in the last war; and his own sufferings, as he observes, on that occasion, probably increased his sympathy with other prisoners. To the above grievances he adds several bad customs prevalent in gaols, and these are, the demand of garnish or footing, "pay or strip;" the frequency of gaming; the loading prisoners with heavy irons; the varying the towns where quarter-sessions and assizes are held, so that prisoners must walk in irons, and sometimes to towns that have no prison; [Note: At Wells there are assizes and no prison; at Ryegate there is no prison, yet quarter-sessions; and the quarter sessions of Surrey are held at four different towns, Ryegate, Guildford, Kingston, and Southwark] gaol-delivery being in some counties but once a year (at Hull it is only once in three years; it used to be but once in seven) the fee still demanded by clerks of the assizes and of the peace,[Note: Some of these gentlemen (in particular the clerks of the western circuit) have started a new demand for the Judge's certificate of acquittance] and for which acquitted prisoners, contrary to the express words of the act, are still detained; the non-residence of gaolers, debtors crowding the gaols with their wives and children; and some gaols being private property. Of all these complaints instances are given.

            The whole number of prisoners in England and Wales, in the spring of the year 1776, was, "Debtors, 2437, Felons, &c. 994, Petty Offenders, 653; total 4084." To these adding twice the number of dependents (the usual average,) the whole number of the distressed is 12,252. To obviate all the grievances, Mr. Howard discusses the proper situation, plan, structure, and management of prisons, which, he insists, should be airy, and built, if possible, near a river or brook, or else on an eminence, raised on arcades, &c. But for further particulars, important as they are, we must refer to his plan and books, observing only, that we hear with concern, that New Newgate has "some manifest errors," not specified indeed, and it is now too late, save only that "the prisoners, without more than ordinary care, will be in great danger of the gaol-fever;" and that that Chelmsford new gaol seems to exceed in splendour, but in other articles, more essential, to fall short of his ideas. Of the opulent county of Essex we must add, with as much pain as Mr. Howard observed it, that "there had been no Divine service for above a year past, but to condemned criminals;" of Cornwall, that "the chaplain's salary has been lately reduced from 50l., to 30l.; and of Huntingdonshire, that "Mr. Brock, the late chaplain, who officiated constantly twice a week, and had a salary of 20l. was dismissed. He would have continued his attendance without the salary, but an order was made expressly forbidding it." Can these Worshipfuls be men or Christians! If they are either, they would recollect, that by an act of the 13th of his present Majesty, each county is empowered to appoint a chaplain, "with a stipend not exceeding 50l." Little did Parliament foresee that any gentleman would be so mean as to retrench, or rather withdraw, a much smaller pittance, and even refuse gratuitous duty.

            The other county-gaols which have no chaplains ought also to be specified; they are Westmoreland, Cambridgeshire, Rutland, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Sussex, Monmouthshire, and five Welsh counties. Are these counties poor in purse, or poor in Christian spirit? Yet one of them boasts a University.

            We must add, that though the act 32d of Geo. II. expressly requires a table of fees, signed by the justices, and confirmed by the judge, &c. should be hung up conspicuously in every gaol, and declares all other fees illegal, and the demand punishable by a penalty of 50l. to the person injured; yet no less than fifty-seven instances are mentioned, in which this is neglected: though the act 24th Geo. II. in like manner requires the three clauses against the use of spirituous liquors, to be also hung up and renewed, under the penalty of forty shillings every default; this, too, is neglected in forty-two gaols; and fifty-seven instances occur, where water, so essential to health and comfort, is not accessible to prisoners. In many places, notwithstanding the late act, there has been no amendment, no cleaning, white-washing, &c. To show what misery prevails in some prisons, particularly in such as are private property, and also to give a specimen of the author's manners, we beg leave to quote the following:

            "Chesterfield gaol, for the hundred of Scarsdale, is the property of the Duke of Portland, to whom, or to his steward, the gaoler pays 18l. 12s. a year. Only one room with a cellar under it, to which the prisoners occasionally descend through a hole in the floor. The cellar had not been cleaned for many months. The prison door had not been opened for several weeks when I was there first. There were four prisoners, who told me they were almost starved: one of them said, with tears in his eyes, "he had not eaten a morsel that day;" it was then afternoon. Their meagre sickly countenances confirmed what they said. They had borrowed a book of Dr. Manton's; one of them was reading it to the rest. Each of them had a wife; and they had in the whole thirteen children, cast on their respective parishes. Two had their groats from the creditors, and out of that pittance they relieved the other two. No allowance, no straw, no firing: water, a halfpenny for about three gallons, put in (as other things are) at the window. Gaoler lives distant." As the noble proprietor is also humane, when he knows the evil, he will doubtless redress it.

            Waiving, at present, farther particulars, we must now observe, that in pursuit of his grand object, this son of benevolence has travelled not only these three kingdoms, but also France, Flanders, Holland, and Germany, twice, together with Switzerland. Of everything peculiar to the prisons of these countries he gives an account; and in them nothing seems more striking than the cleanliness of most of them, and the utter exemption of them all from our gaol distemper. Dr. Tissot, at Lausanne, expressed his surprise at it, and added, "It was not to be found in Switzerland, nor had he heard of its being anywhere but in England." And Dr. Haller, at Bern, ascribed it to "our gaols being overcrowded." No French prisoners were in irons; no new prisons abroad have under-ground dungeons; all the German prisons are near rivers; they are exemplary in their care of legacies and donations; in most of them each criminal is alone in his room; all the felons have somewhat more to live upon than bread and water; and, on the whole, such are their cleanliness, industry, health, and decorum, as sometimes to put the visitor to the blush for his native country, and fully to prove that the design of reforming our own prisons is not chimerical.

            We shall dismiss this important work for the present, with our author's conclusion, which may serve as an epitome of his design:

            "If this publication shall have any effect in alleviating the distresses of poor debtors and other prisoners, in procuring them clean and wholesome abodes, and thereby exterminating the gaol-fever which has so long spread abroad its dreadful contagion, in abolishing, or at least reducing, the oppressive fees of clerks of assize and of the peace, and checking the imposition of gaolers, and the extortion of bailiffs, in introducing a habit of industry in our bridewells, and restraining the shocking debauchery and immorality which prevail in our gaols and other prisons. If any of these beneficial consequences should accrue, the writer will be ready to indulge himself with the pleasing thought of not having lived without doing some good to his fellow-creatures, and think himself abundantly repaid for the pains he has taken, and the hazards he has undergone. Nothing effectual will, I am persuaded, be done in reforming the state of our prisons, till a thorough parliamentary enquiry concerning them be set on foot, in which may be grounded one comprehensive statute, for their general regulation. Should this be undertaken (relying still upon that KIND HAND, which has hitherto preserved me, and to which I desire to offer my most thankful acknowledgments,) devote my time to one more extensive foreign journey, in which the Prussian and Austrian territories, and the most considerable free cities in Germany, would probably afford some new and useful light on this important national concern."

            Rome, who decreed a civic crown to the citizen who saved a single life, would certainly have rewarded the unprecedented labour of love, with a statue in the forum. But Britain has not been ungrateful. Mr. Howard has received from our legislators the greatest honour they can confer, in common with our Marlboroughs, our Hawkes, our Nelsons, and a long list of heroes. But vain and trifling are all human praises, when compared with the self-approbation of conscience, the blessings of many that were ready to perish, and the reward which this true and faithful servant shall receive from that KING OF GLORY, whom, in the person of the poor and destitute, he visited and comforted, when "sick and in prison."


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