Elizabeth Fry and the Prisoners

One of the saddest sentences in the obituaries for Merle Haggard that appeared after his death this week was “He spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement”. Somehow Haggard turned his life around and eventually became a successful country music star Elizabeth Fryinstead of spending much of his life in prison,. Not many prisoners are as lucky. We now know that spending time in solitary leads to mental and psychological consequences that often last for a lifetime. But deciding what kind of punishment is appropriate for men and women who have committed crimes is a problem that has not yet been solved.

Public shaming, such as having people wear a red letter to let all their neighbors know about their crime was a favorite punishment during the eighteenth century. Anyone who has read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter will remember Hester Prynne and the red letter “A” for Adulteress that she was sentenced to wear. As society became more urban, public shaming was less effective—people didn’t care so much what their neighbors thought of them.

Countries then turned to harsher punishments. In England the death penalty was given for crimes such as stealing even small items. But this did not deter crime either and sometimes encouraged people to commit larger crimes. If you could be hanged for a theft,

Prisoners in Newgate prison. Date: 1735 Source: Painted and engraved by William Hogarth 

you might as well kill any potential witnesses. Samuel Johnson wrote during the 1750s,  “If only murder were punished with death, very few robbers would stain their hands in blood; but when by the last act of cruelty no new danger is incurred and greater security may be obtained, upon what principle shall we bid them forbear?”

By the beginning of the 19th century, many people were calling for a change in the prison system, but few people had ideas about how this could be done. Most improvements in prison life have been the result of  the persistent work of individuals, many of them Quakers, who insisted that even people who break laws should be given a chance to reform instead of merely being punished. One of the earliest pioneers in this work was Elizabeth Fry.

Born into a prosperous Quaker family in England in 1780, Elizabeth Gurney would have been expected to be satisfied with life as a wife and mother. After she married another Quaker, Joseph Fry, she settled down to bear and raise eleven children. Many women would have felt this was quite enough work to keep her busy, but Elizabeth wanted to contribute more and wrote in her journal, I fear that my life is slipping away to little purpose.”

A visit to the notorious Newgate Prison convinced her that prisoners, especially the female prisoners, who often had their babies and small children with them, could be taught useful skills. She persuaded prison authorities to have female guards for the women prisoners and she founded the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate which ran a school in the prison and taught useful skills such as needlework.

At first many people opposed her work. The Home Secretary complained that she was removing “the dread of punishment in the criminal classes”. Eventually, however, she

Elizabeth Fry visiting Newgate Prison
Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners


found support among important people including the Prime Minister,  Robert Peel. Elizabeth Fry testified before a Parliamentary Committee, which influenced the Goals Act of 1823 which specified that women prisoners should be governed by women and that jailers should be paid a salary so they would not need to take money from prisoners.

Not all of Elizabeth Fry’s proposals have been accepted. She was a strong advocate for the abolition of capital punishment and she argued against keeping prisoners in solitary confinement, or as it was then called, the “Separate System”. Prison systems in Europe and America have never returned, however, to the cruel conditions that prevailed before her work started.

As a final tribute, since 2001 Elizabeth Fry’s picture has appeared on the British five-pound note, so probably far more people recognize her face than know what she did to earn the honor.