The History of the Howard League
Who was ‘Howard’?
John Howard was an English prison reformer living from 1726 to 1790. Over his lifetime, he spent some time in a French prison, the start of his lifelong interest and criticism of the prison system of the time. Howard was born to a middle class family and was apprenticed to a wholesale grocer in London, a career he felt no passion for. He eventually returned home to govern over his family’s land in Eastern England.
John Howard was appointed to the position of High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773. Part of his responsibilities as Sheriff was to oversee the gaols in his county, a job that was considered repugnant and therefore often left to the under-sheriff. However, due to his interest in the penal system he undertook this role himself and was horrified at what he found.
His passion for prison conditions and prisoner wellbeing led him to spend thousands of pounds of his own money while touring several hundred prisons in England, Scotland, Wales and elsewhere in Europe. He wrote on the conditions he found in these prisons and suggested improvements to what he considered unacceptable standards. He was considered an authority on prison conditions and was called upon to give evidence on these matters to a select committee of the House of Commons.
His work ‘The State of the Prisons,’ published in 1777, was a significant force behind the establishment of single-celling for the housing of prisoners in England.
The Howard League for Penal Reform:
In 1866, the Howard Association (which later became The Howard League for Penal Reform) was formed in England as a prison reform organisation. It took the name of John Howard as a way to honour his work as one of the pioneer prison reformers. There are various other organisations around the world who likewise take inspiration from Howard’s prison reform work and who are named after him.
The Howard League was first opened in New Zealand in 1924 by three founding members: including Blanche Baughan, Berta Burns, and one other. By 1928, there were eight different branches throughout New Zealand, including Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch, Oamaru, Dunedin, and two other unknown. The majority of these branches were disestablished by 1974, when the Howard League thought that the Justice Department understood the problems in the Penal system and were undertaking steps to move forward.
The Howard League for Penal Reform had been active in Christchurch for 50 years from 1924 to 1974 before closing down, believing that their work had been completed. It was revived and re-launched in February of 1998 after penal matters took a turn downhill and New Zealand’s prison population skyrocketed and has advocated for humane and effective reform of the penal system ever since.
In 2010, the Howard League Canterbury was joined by a Howard League in Otago and in 2012 another branch was formed in Wellington. These Howard League branches are independent agencies that receive no funding from government, and have no political affiliations. They have links with several local and international penal reform organisations.
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