John Howard and the Penitentiary Act of 1779

Prison conditions in the 18th century were incredibly brutal. Dirty and crowded prisons were the norm in early England due to large numbers of prisoners – in particular, debtors. After the Black Act in 1729, crime laws were significantly tightened, and many crimes became punishable by death. This meant these debtors along with other less severe offenders made up a large portion of the prison population. However, these conditions were especially bad for the poor. Prisoners, rather than receiving salaries or benefits, had to pay for their own food and bedding, and were sometimes required to pay a fee before their release. This meant that inmates were forced to live on very little, and often to stay much longer than their sentence.

John Howard was a prison reformer and philanthropist during this time. When he became high sheriff of Bedfordshire, England, in 1773, he was deeply disturbed by those appalling living conditions endured by the prisoners he would supervise. This prompted him to travel across the country observing the conditions of other prisons, where he found no improvement. Howard’s distress over the prison situation in England led him to become one of a handful of people responsible for the creation of the Penitentiary Act of 1779.

The act was put in place in hope of reforming prison conditions in England. Howard’s reform emphasized solitary confinement, hard labor and religious instruction, which were aimed not only at deterring the people from committing crimes that would lead to their imprisonment, but to reform those who did become imprisoned as well. This changed the entire ideology of the prison system in England, from a “relaxed and informal prison regime” to “one which was obsessively and excessively regulated.”



“Background – Prisons and Lockups.” London Lives 1690 to 1800, April 2012, (21 January 2018)

Clark, Robert. “Penitentiary Act; Panopticon.” The Literary Encyclopedia, 28 October 2000, (21 January 2018)

“History – Historic Figures: John Howard (1726 – 1790).” BBC, 2014, (21 January 2018)


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