Law Hall of Fame logoBorn in 1746, John Howard was the kind but lonely British gentleman who is believed to of had an epiphany which would change the world for the better.


He was a virtual unknown at the age of 50, an internationally famous 10 years later.

Captured as a passenger on a British ship by the French, then at war with England, he was imprisoned for two months.

In 1773, he was appointed sheriff of Bedfordshire.

Whence he began his inspection of his prisons, he began a lifelong journey which culminated in his well-deserved title is the father of prison reform.

Howard (pictured) was shocked to discover that the jailer was expected to extract board and lodging from the prisoner who, if they couldn't pay, got more time. He complained to the local judges but they replied that it was common practice.

He described prisons in Britain in the late 1700s as follows:

John  Howard"One may judge of the probability there is against the health and life of prisoners crowded in close rooms, cells and subterraneous dungeons for 14 or 15 hours out of the four and 20. In some of the caverns, the floor is very damp. In others, there is sometimes an inch or two of water and the straw and bedding is laid on such floors, seldom on barrack bedsteads. Where prisoners are not kept in underground cells, they are often confined to their rooms because there is no court belonging to the prison, which is the case in many city and county jails. Prisoners confined in this manner are generally unhealthy. Some jails have no sewers or vaults, and those that have, if he be not properly attended to, they are, even to a visitant, offensive beyond expression. How noxious than do people constantly confined in these prisons?"

"Loading prisoners with heavy irons which make their walking, and even lying down to sleep, difficult and painful, is another custom which I cannot but condemn. Even the women do not escape this severity."

From 1696 until 1851, the British had the novel idea of taxing windows. Howard noted that jailers sought to avoid the window tax by blocking the windows of the jail cells, careless as to the impact upon prisoner health.

Howard's efforts to make the prison conditions more clean and humane is credited with eliminating typhus fever from the prisons.

He lobbied the government and they were so impressed that they summoned him to the bar of the House of Commons to acknowledged, a rare tribute. He was rewarded with a Gaol Act in 1774, presented by the government of Robert Peel, in which incorporated outwards four principles of prison management:

  1. Sanitary accommodations for all prisoners;
  2. The elimination of private jails and a requirement that the management of jails be the exclusive jurisdiction of the government;
  3. The implementation of a reformation program in regard to all prisoners; and
  4. A regular inspection program.

The law also required that every prisoner, if not given a separate cell, should have a separate bed (jail cell post-Howard, circa 1850 pictured).jail cell circa 1850

Howard continued his reform inquiries even spending his own fortune to advance the cause.

In 1777, he published The State of Prisons in England and Wales, with an Account of some Foreign Prisons.

Howard took his reform program overseas and visited prisons as far away as Russia and Turkey. He contracted typhus fever in Russia and died in 1790, where he was buried.

His contemporary, the Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797), said of him:

"John Howard has visited all Europe - not to survey the sumptuousness of palaces, or the stateliness of temples; or to make accurate measurements of the remains of ancient grandeur, to form a scale of the curiosity of modern art; not to collect medals or collate manuscripts - but to dive into the depths of dungeons and plunge to the infection of hospitals; to survey the mansions of sorrow and pain; to take the gauge and measure of misery, depression and contempt; to remember the forgotten, to attend to the neglected, to visit the forsaken, and compare and collate the miseries of all men in all countries. His plan is original; and it is full of genius as it is of humanity."

His legacy lives on with John Howard societies in several countries, including the USA, New Zealand, England and Canada, carrying on his tradition of care and respect to those incarcerated.

References and Further Reading

  • East, Norwood, Society and The Criminal (Springfield, Illinois: Charles Thomas publisher, 1951), pages 235-237.