John Howard was born in England in 1726, and while England remained his home base, he traveled extensively throughout his life; he died in 1790. Before John Howard reached 29 years of age, his father, mother and wife had passed away. Through these combined unfortunate circumstances, John Howard had little in the way of familial ties yet a significant financial legacy left by his father. A man of great conscience, John Howard was in essence a young man in search of something he could look upon as his duty.
It was then in late 1755, that he heard of news of a devastating earthquake in Portugal; and using a portion of his legacy he decided to set out by merchant ship to assist the quake victims. The ship on which he was travelling was however overtaken by the French as this trip coincided with the beginning of the Seven Year’s War (between England and France). John Howard then became a prisoner of war and experienced firsthand the revolting conditions of a French dungeon.
He was later released to England on a form of parole, and provided information to authorities that eventually resulted in the release of some of his fellow surviving prisoners. Many years later John Howard stated that, if it had not been for the sufferings he had personally endured and witnessed, he would not have spent some seventeen years of his life trying to alleviate the miserable situation of prisoners.
The seventeen year chapter of John Howard’s life and work that we base our societies name and philosophy on essentially began in 1773 with his appointment as High Sheriff of Bedford. John Howard used this appointment in a unique way, he began investigating and documenting the inhumane conditions and policies of prisons in England and much of Europe. On his visits to the Bedford jail he was shocked by the stench, filth, starvation and the incidence of jail fever and small pox. He cringed at the spiked collars and chains worn by a number of the felons, and at the general treatment the prisoners received by the jail-keepers.
These conditions galvanized John Howard into pressing for parliamentary action. He produced detailed reports to the legislature which resulted in bills being passed to improve the conditions of all jails throughout the United Kingdom.
John Howard, fully aware of how slow public opinion would change, recorded his findings along with practical recommendations, in a book entitled, “State of Prisons in England and Wales with Preliminary Observations and an Account of some Foreign Prisons, 1777”. Two years later the Penitentiary Act was passed John Howard became the member of the First Penitentiary Commission. However by 1781 he resigned from the Commission through sheer discouragement, feeling that very little reform had been accomplished. How distressed he would have been if he had realized that 70 more years would pass before the implementation of any section of the Penitentiary Act.
John Howard continued his visits to prisons in other countries, and wherever he went, he was admired for his courage in speaking out boldly about shocking conditions. With fearlessness and determination he made his last trip to Europe with full knowledge of the rampant typhus plague, and how prison conditions had aggravated the plague. By that time the benefit of his labor was already being felt throughout Europe. His activities and reports inspired the House of Commons to pass laws aimed at the eradication of conditions which Howard brought to light. His writings encouraged practices that brought prison systems several steps closer to becoming humanitarian and more effective.
The issues that John Howard advocated for on behalf of prisoners included; medical care, the provision of food, that jailers not be allowed to profit from their prisoners, that prisoners be released when so ordered by the courts and not required to pay a fee for the privilege, that the young be separated from the old hardened prisoners, that separate general specific accommodations be provided, and that work and activity be allowed.
For those unmanageable prisoners, he urged punishment by solitary confinement and bread and water diet, rather than torture or physical punishment.
It was his factual documentation and his recommendations that inspired governments of several European countries to restructure their penal system. This meant that humane conditions would eventually become the right of all people who were incarcerated.
We have inherited the legacy of John Howard, although we use different methods for these different times. The John Howard Society was formed in recognition of John Howard, and continues to work toward improving the conditions within penal system. A great deal of work today is also in the area of “after-care”, which is assisting ex-offenders in the community.