Although prison is a term that one often likes to use when describing the facilities used to incarcerate convicted individuals, the word penitentiary more aptly describes this type of building. The push for penitientiaries instead of prisons began in England and Wales in the eighteenth century. Beginning in the eighteenth century, British society started to move away from corporal punishment and toward imprisonment with the hope of reforming the mind and body. These changes ultimately helped to pave the way for penitentiaries throughout the world and the rest of Europe.

With the United States winning its independence from England in 1776, the British did not have a foreign colony where they could imprison individuals without it costing a great deal of money. Thus, the convict system began in 1776 as a backlash to the loss of the American colonies. Henry Fielding, as quoted by Ignatieff (1978), thought, "It was necessary to find an intermediate penalty, combining 'correction of the body' and 'correction of the mind'." (pp. 45-46)

In 1777, John Howard published his breakthrough book, "The State of Prisons in England and Wales." This book provided critical information on the status of prisons and the prisoners contained there. After reading his book, the public's attention was turned toward the penal situation in England. John Howard, known as the father of the modern penitentiary, had stumbled upon something that was important in the public's eye.

According to McGowen (1995) there were two types of prisons in the eighteenth century: the jail and the house of correction. The jail of the eighteenth century was not too different from a jail in the late twentieth century. In addition, it was also the facility that housed individuals waiting for trial who could not afford bail and those sentenced for a short period of time. Barnes (1972) described the jail as follows:

The jails or prisons were chiefly used for the detention of those accused of crime pending their trial and for the confinement of debtors and religious political offenders. They were rarely used for the incarceration of the criminal classes. (p. 114)


ABINGDON JAIL (1804-1812)

Using John Howard's work as a basis, Jeremy Bentham, a health reformer, stepped into the prison forum. Bentham had concluded that there were in fact three types of prisons. His ideas had expanded upon what was previously thought of as the status quo. According to Bentham, the three types of prisons where the House of Safe Custody, the Penitentiary House, and the Black Prison.

The House of Safe Custody was similar to an eighteenth century jail. Bentham thought its sole purpose was to house debtors and those waiting for trial. The difference between a jail and the House of Safe Custody was that the House of Safe Custody did not imprison those individuals who had short sentence terms to serve.

The second type of prison Bentham established was the Penitentiary House. The Penitentiary House was a step above the House of Safe Custody. This is where the temporary imprisonment occurred. Bentham had separated the tasks of the jail by dividing those tasks between the House of Safe Custody and the Penitentiary House.

The Black Prison was the last type of prison Bentham established. This prison offered longer stays than the Penitentiary House. Semple (1993) describes the Black Prison as follows:

In the Black Prison, to strike terror into the hearts of its inmates, two skeletons were to lie slumped together one either side of an iron door, thus reminding them that they were indeed an abode of death from which there was no escape. (p. 29)

Not only did Bentham elaborate on the types of prisons, but he developed a specific type of architecture that was conducive to the prison environment. This type of architecture was the idea of the panopticon. Panopticon means a view that can see everything. Bentham proposed the idea of the panopticon to make it easier to patrol the prisoners.

Shortly after Bentham released his ideas of what a prison ought to be, there were several changes made within the convict system in England. The first major change was the trial period of the silent system in 1834. The silent system gave slightly more freedom to prisoners but any type of communication was completely forbidden. Prisoners were not confined to cells but they worked together on various outdoor projects. If the silence was broken, a severe punishment would be issued. This system eventually paved the way for the more popular separate system.

The second major change was the introduction of the separate system. The separate system was established between 1835 and 1850 and was promoted by the prison reformer Jonas Hanway. The separate system was a truly unique system in which each prisoner had his own cell and was confined there for extensive hours during the day. McGowen (1995) thought, "the separate system provided an opportunity for the prisoner to 'commune with his conscience'." (pp. 99-100) The separation system was popular and is still the main method of imprisonment throughout the world and England.


In 1842, the Pentonville prison was opened. This prison used the design of the separate system. McGowen (1995) thought, "Pentonville represented the apotheosis of the idea that a totally controlled environment could produce a reformed and autonomous individual." (p. 101) Not only did Pentonville fulfill the goals of the separate system but it also used the panopticon idea created by Jeremy Bentham. The panopticon design, in conjunction with the separate system, allows prison overseers to effectively separate prisoners while maintaining a careful watch upon each of them.

Toward the middle part of the nineteenth century and the birth of the industrial revolution, Joshua Jebb transformed the penitentiary into its modern day counterpart. Jebb was chairman of the Directors of Convict Prisons from the late 1840s until his death in 1863. During his reign as king of the prisons, Jebb made some lasting imprints that are still present in today. Jebb created a three-stage tier of imprisonment in the convict prison system that combined the separate system with the silent system.

First, Jebb created terms of separate confinement. As part of the separate system, prisoners were confined to their cells for the duration of their sentence. Jebb continued with this type of punishment but he made the length of the separate confinement nine months long. Originally, he had wanted to make the length of confinement eighteen months long but the solitude took too much of a mental toll on the prisoners and occasionally even caused death.

The second stage of imprisonment Jebb instituted was the use of a public works prison. Prisoners were sent there upon completion of the nine months in separate confinement. Prisoners worked on difficult tasks that would benefit the public. These tasks varied in nature but, their ultimate goal was to make the prisoners work excruciatingly hard. McGowen (1995) described these stages as "imprisonment with hard labor had become a near universal substitute for flogging and other corporal punishments by the middle of the nineteenth century." (p. 146)

The third stage of Joshua Jebb's imprisonment was a conditional release. This release was contingent upon good behavior in the prior two stages of imprisonment. Once the prisoner was released, he was given a certificate demonstrating his good behavior and a few shillings and pounds.

After Jebb had established his three stages of imprisonment in the convict system, his counterpart in the local system, Edmund du Cane, had tried to introduce those stages as well. Edmund du Cane became chairman of the Directors of Convict Prisons once Joshua Jebb had passed away. Yet before Jebb died, he tried to consolidate the local prison system with the convict prison system. These two systems had ironically gone their separate ways in the late eighteenth century.

During Victoria's reign as queen of England, there were several key accomplishments that were made. This period became the golden epoque of prison history that has yet to be surpassed in any decade of the twentieth century. By the start of the this century, prisons began to erode into overcrowded buildings.

One major way that prisons began to erode was because of World War I. With Europe in constant battle, national budgets were devoted to the war effort. Thus, less money was spent on prisons. The Great Depression dealt another heavy blow to the slashing of prison budgets. National budgets were completely decimated while the world's economy was on its hands and knees. With barely any money to spend, prison budgets were the first to get slashed. However, during the Great Depression there were some key ideas that truly changed the organizational structure of the prison system.

When Alexander Paterson became head of the Prison Commission, he began to borrow ideas from other prison facilities, specifically the juvenile detention centers. The ideas that Paterson borrowed were called the Borstal elements. The first element was that he created, or rather borrowed, the idea of having multiple levels of security within the convict system. Thus, in 1936, the first minimum security prison opened. This prison was called New Hall. The other Borstal element Paterson borrowed that he established a housemaster (also called assistant governor). The housemaster's duty was to watch a specific section of the prison.

The final blow toward the decimation of prison development was World War II. With Europe literally destroying its self, all of the money was spent on the war effort. Britain took one of the hardest hands dealt during the war. With the country in shambles, money in the budget was spent on rebuilding England after the war. McConville (1995) described these factors as follows: The first was the vast and pressing program of repairing war damages; the second was the social and penal reformers' assurance that successive governments could not be blamed for wanting to believe . . . - that crime would yield to social amelioration, that it was part of the passing turmoil of wartime upheaval, and that the need for prisons would decline. (pp. 154-155)

During these thirty years of destruction and chaos, there were only a handful of prisons built. In fact, there were only four prisons built between 1900 and 1939. Before that, 42 prisons had been built in England before 1900. This meant that a majority of England's prisoners were being incarcerated in facilities that were over one hundred years old.

During the 1960s, things began to turn around in the English penal system in a positive manner. There were two distinct types of prisons within England. The first was local prison. The local prison was the jail or house of corrections. The local prison no longer housed those individuals waiting for their trials. The accused individuals were housed in separate dwellings. The second distinct type of prison was the convict prison. The convict prison was the facility at which Joshua Jebb, Edmund du Cane, and Alexander Paterson's goals were brought to life.

The modern English prison is overcrowded. According to the Penal Lexicon web site (4/14/97), "pre-trial and convicted prisoners were held in the police station because of a shortage of space in Liverpool prison." Due to overcrowding, the jail has now assumed two functions: 1) house those waiting for trial and; 2) house those serving out their sentence. Also, the Penal Lexicon web site reported that in 1994, England had a 100.6% occupation rate and had a total of 49,392 prisons that were being incarcerated as of January 1, 1994.

In present day England, the prison has evolved into two types of facilities that have goals of reforming the individual into a prosperous member of society, if their sentence or behavior allows it. These two facilities are local prison and the convict prison. With the help of people who are looking out for the best interest of those less fortunate than themselves, the prison has become a humane yet overcrowded facility apart from the real world.

This page was created by N. Jackson, 5/20/97, for History and Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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