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.
Copyright ©1996, 1997, 1998 Britannia Internet Magazine.
Design by Unica Multimedia