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John Howard
by Brenda Ralph Lewis

The 18th century, into which John Howard was born on 2 September 1726, was marked by what he came to recognise as an extraordinary brutality and an indifferent attitude towards life. Human rights, though not a new idea at this time, barely existed and criminals in particular were regarded, as treated, as loathsome pariahs unworthy of mercy or consideration. This was hardly surprising at a time when over 100 crimes were subject to the death penalty and the punishment ranked just below that was transportation.

Nevertheless, beneath the patina of cruelty, consciences stirred and one of them belonged to John Howard. He was born in Hackney, London into a family well enough off in trade to allow John to travel in Europe after 1742 on a legacy left him by his father. Fourteen years later, in 1756, after a brief marriage to a woman 27 years older than himself, he left England again, this time bound for Portugal. During the voyage, Howard's ship was captured by French privateers and its crew and passengers were taken to France. As prisoners, they were subjected to such cruel treament that after being released on parole, Howard wasted no time informing the Commissioners of Sick and Wounded Seamen of the sufferings imposed upon them.

Though his conscience was roused by this episode, John Howard's career in philanthropy did not include prison reform until he had seen to other matters requiring his zeal. Sanitary improvement was one, elementary education for children of all Christian sects was another. The disgraceful conditions in British prisons came next, after his appointment as High Sheriff of the County of Bedfordshire on 8 February 1773. Howard's first shock was to discover that even those who were found not guilty or were acquitted on trial were confined to prison until they had paid their jailer a for their release. This, it seems, was the jailers' only income and Howard suggested that a proper salary would cure the problem.

This, though, was only the start. There was a lot more wrong with Britain's prison system than the bribery it encouraged. Jail fever and smallpox ravaged prison populations held in close and insanitary confinement. Unspeakable conditions existed on the hulks moored in rivers which served as 'floating' jails. Tirelessly, Howard travelled the continent, gathering information as he inspectedprisons and houses of correction in several countries. He was not welcome everywhere. In 1775, he failed to get into the Bastille, the famous prison in Paris where the French Revolution was to begin four years later. 'Though he knocked hard at the outer gate, and immediately went forward through the guard to the drawbridge before the entrance of the castle', he was not permitted to enter the Bastille proper and later on was marked out by the French as a dangerous intruder. Consequently, the sale of his pamphlet 'State of the Prisons', originally published in 1774, was banned in France. His efforts made an impression in Britain, however, and in 1774,two acts of Parliament had been passed abolishing jailers' fees and setting up systems for supervising sanitation and proper health inside prisons.

Howard was willing to run risks during his ceaseless investigations, and he employed a measure of guile as well. In order to inspect a prison in Toulon, in the south of France, he disguised himself as a fashionable Parisian, the sort of curiosity-seeker the authorities would not suspect of any serious intent. In 1775,he deliberately chose a ship with the worst bill of health he could find for a voyage from Smyrna to Venice so that he would have to be placed in quarantine when he got there. He was imprisoned in two 'lazaretti', for six weeks, ample time for him to observe the filthy conditions in which lepers were kept. In 1789, hearing that Russian military hospitals were in a scandalous state, Howard set out to see for himself, but here, his dangerous lifestyle caught up with him. He died on 20 January 1790 of camp fever at Kherson, in southern Russia.

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