It wasn’t the money that was the issue for Howard, the son of a wealthy upholsterer, it was the principle. In what 21st century contemporaries would term ‘corruption’, Howard existed in a time where prisoners paid the jailers directly for food, a bed and use of facilities. Having been imprisoned himself following the capture of his ship by the French, Howard was privy to the realities of an overcrowded and disease-ridden prison system. Eventually traded for a French prisoner in a British jail, he was released. Albeit not without sentiments of anger and disgust.
He was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, a role that included supervision of the county jail. Howard grew to be outraged and shocked at both the conditions and the management of the prison system. With a deep social conscience, Howard sought change at the highest levels.
Taking his concerns to the House of Commons, Howard advocated for the abolishment of jailer’s fees and improvements to conditions for prisoners. Said to have been thanked by lawmakers for his ‘humanity and zeal’, Howards efforts were instrumental in the passing of the 1774 Gaol Act. This Act was a visionary piece of legislation that put prisoner’s rights and wellbeing into focus.
Howard did not stop there, rather he is said to have travelled some 80,000km in his lifetime to visit prisons and continue to advocate for prison reform. 80,000km undoubtedly provided ample material for his seminal work ‘The State of the Prisons in England and Wales’ (1777).
Continuing his efforts of social reform up until his death of typhus in 1790, John Howard established a legacy of social conscience, compassion and resolve. From prisoner to prisoner rights advocate, Howard left his mark on the most vulnerable of people. The Howard Association was established some 76 years after his, undoubtedly testament to the strength of his legacy and the value of his determination. The Howard League was later opened in New Zealand in 1924.
Today the Howard League for Penal Reform in New Zealand advocates for prison reform and criminal justice. Two and a quarter centuries on from his death, John Howard is still inspiring change and advocating for humanity.