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The Age of George III

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Prison conditions in 1818

The industrial revolution put new pressures on society, leading to violence. Collective living led to collective organisation, which helped to create social disorder on a larger scale. The Penal Code was severe with almost two hundred capital offences and other punishments including transportation. This actually encouraged more serious crime as evidenced by the idiom, "I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb". Prison conditions also left much to be desired, as T.F. Buxton, a humanitarian reformer and Evangelical, noted in his description in 1818 of the effect of imprisonment upon prisoners

If convicted, beyond the sentence awarded by the law, he may be exposed to the most intolerable hardships, and these may amount to no less than the destruction of his life now, and his soul for ever. And in the violation of his rights, you equally abandon your own interest. He is instructed in no useful branch of employment by which he may earn an honest livelihood by honest labour. You have forbidden him to repent and reflect, by withholding from him every opportunity for reflection and repentance. Seclusion from the world has been only a closer intercourse with its very worst miscreants; his mind has lain waste and barren for every weed to take root in; he is habituated to idleness, reconciled to filth, and familiarised with crime. You give him leisure, and for the employment of that leisure you give him tutors in every branch of iniquity. You have taken no pious pains to turn him from the error of his ways, and to save his soul alive...

In short, by the greatest possible degree of misery, you produce the greatest possible degree of wickedness; you convert an act, perhaps of indiscretion, into a settled taste and propensity to vice; receiving him, because he is too bad for society, you return him to the world impaired in health, debased in intellect, and corrupted in principles. (A. Aspinall and E.A. Smith [eds.] English Historical Documents, vol 2 [Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1969] p.385)

However, prisons were still dens of iniquity, even after Peel's reforms of the 1820s. As Home Secretary, he undertook an overhaul of the prisons and also a large-scale reform of the penal code, although much of the pioneering work was done by people such as Sir Samuel Romily and Elizabeth Fry. Peel introduced a series of pieces of legislation to reform the gaols, in the Gaols Acts of 1823, 1824 and 1825. However, the early legislation does not seem to have had much effect:

They have personally inspected the prisons in this metropolis and its neighbourhood, and have examined several of the visiting magistrates, chaplains, and officers of those and other prisons in various parts of the country, and whilst they have the satisfaction of believing that some of our prisons have of late been much improved, yet they cannot refrain from expressing their decided opinion that imprisonment in Newgate, Giltspur St. and the Borough Compter, in their present condition, must have the effect of corrupting the morals of their inmates, and manifestly tend to the extension rather than to the suppression of crime. (First Report of the Select Committee on Prisons, 1835, p. iii)

Things did beging to improve later although the introduction of the 'separate' system might not be considered an 'improvement'.


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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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