Prison Reform: Brutality Behind Bars

TODAY MANY PEOPLE worry that our society is too lenient on prisoners. In the early 1800s, Elizabeth Fry worried about the opposite—and for good reason.

England’s prisons were infamous for filth, brutality, and extreme suffering. The idea was to punish not to reform prisoners.

In the women’s division, where Fry would direct her greatest reform efforts, inmates were usually crammed into one room: those tried and those awaiting trial, those guilty of misdemeanors and those guilty of capital offenses. Typically a woman’s children would accompany her to prison. Thus a woman who, with her children, awaited her trial for stealing an apple lived in the same crammed space as a woman who may have been convicted of murder.

All basic human activities—eating, sleeping, defecation—were performed in the same confined area. Women and children lived in destitute poverty and obtained clothes, alcohol, even food by begging or stealing. Many women simply sat around in a drunken stupor stark naked.

Most prisoners who were not cared for by families or charities remained clothesless or starved to death. Children often remained in the prison until their mothers died or were executed. They clung to their mothers and watched as they were led to the gallows and hung.

Elizabeth Fry was one of the few who sought to do something about all this.

Render them peaceable

Fry was born Elizabeth Gurney, daughter of a wealthy Norwich banker. When she was 18, she heard a sermon by American Quaker William Savery, and she rededicated her life to Christ and became a Quaker. In 1800 she married Joseph Fry, and she eventually raised eleven children. Family responsibilities, however, did not dampen her conviction, inspired by her faith, that she was called to help the downtrodden.

During her life, Fry worked with the homeless and helped establish a school for nurses. But her greatest legacy was prison reform, and she began that work with almost daily visits to Newgate prison beginning in 1811.

In 1816 she founded a women’s society, An Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. Its object was “to provide for the clothing, instruction, and employment of the women; to introduce them to a knowledge of the Scriptures; and to form in them, as much as possible, these habits of sobriety, order and industry, which may render them docile and peaceable whilst in prison, and respectable when they leave it.”

Fry had six reform goals:

  1. Women should be under the care and guard of other women. 

  2. Little communication should be allowed between inmates, and then only at specified times to instill discipline and to discourage women teaching each other how to commit crimes once they were released. 

  3. Inmates should not have to depend on family or friends for food or clothing. 

  4. Inmates should work and be paid for it, the earnings going toward their support. 

  5. Women should work and eat together but have some privacy and sleep separately. 

  6. Religious instruction should permeate all efforts.

Fry spent countless hours inside prison bars—in spite of the many warnings she was given about the danger. She taught women how to sew and quilt and how better to care for themselves and their children. She read the Scriptures daily to inmates and obtained Bibles for those who wanted them.

Fry also introduced education, discipline, and Bible instruction into the half-way houses released women would enter before they found jobs and fully re-entered society.

Dignitaries flock

Her efforts produced what seemed like a miracle: orderly, disciplined inmates who became known for their work ethic. So remarkable was the change at Newgate that local mayors, sheriffs, and aldermen visited Newgate and sought similar reform in their jails and prisons. Public interest was so aroused, Fry was invited to tell both the queen and the House of Commons about her work.

Her reform ideas spread. Dignitaries from all over Europe visited Newgate prison, and she was invited by many European governments to promote prison reform.

By Danny Day

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #53 in 1997]

Danny Day is a freelance writer from Dixon, Illinois.
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