John Howard, Pioneering Social Scientist

face of a prisoner

In England in the 1770s, John Howard pioneered the creation of public knowledge about prison conditions. Access to prisons and jails in eighteenth-century England was relatively free. Howard’s innovation was to use that access not for personal communication but for creating public knowledge. That public knowledge consisted of Howard’s factual, written observations about prison conditions in a large number of prisons.

Howard began personally visiting prisons and jails in November, 1773. Echoing the Royal Society’s motto of ‘nullius in verba’ (follow no authority’s command), Jeremy Bentham described Howard’s prison visits:

He is set down at the door of a prison, makes enquiries under a certain number of heads which exhaust the subject, does his business and drives off again to another. His thoughts, his conversation, his writing are confined to this one object. …He is accurate to an extreme: takes nothing from report: and asserts nothing but what has come under the cognizance of his senses.^

Howard recorded names of prison administrators, their salaries or forms of income, the number and types of prisoners, fees imposed on prisoners, prison rules, sanitary conditions, access to alcoholic drinks, cell dimensions, conditions of darkness, dampness, and cold, religious teaching, and other prison facts. Despite the objective, descriptive, conceptually fragmented nature of his prison examinations, Howard, who preceded the development of social science, used the language of a criminal-court proceeding to describe his work:

The difficulty I found in searching out evidence of fraud and cruelty in various articles, together with other sources of distress, obliged me to repeat my visits, and travel over the kingdom more than once; after all, I suspect that many frauds have been concealed from me; and that sometimes the interest of my informants prevailed over their veracity.^

Howard pursued his work with the steadfast diligence of a government bureaucrat. He developed considerable expertise in prisons and prison administration. Howard’s technical expertise, as well as his theatrical skills, helped him to recognize and acquire true information:

Honest Gaolers receive him with open arms: dishonest (ones) tremble at his approach. He renders both sorts alike pliant to his purpose: the one by their hope, the other by their fear. … Practise has made him familiar with all their arts and all their ways: when he has addressed himself to any of them for the first time he has commonly been taken for a brother of the profession. He has at length acquired such a command over them, that in his last tour (for he has gone over England more than once) he has never been denied satisfaction in any single article.^

Howard did not visit prisons with an authoritative commission or for a particular, official purpose. The form of his knowledge-seeking was, however, authoritative and official in a new way. Prisons were his subject.

Country boundaries mattered little to Howard’s method. Just as he visited prisons in Britain, Howard also visited prisons in Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Turkey, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Howard by stealth broke into a prison in Lyon, France:

All access to this prison is strictly forbidden to strangers, the transgression of the order is punished with confinement in the gallies for life. … By dint of enquiries, {Howard} instructed himself in the several turnings and windings which led to the prison; and taking advantage from his personal appearance, which was well-calculated to assist the honest deception, dressed himself at all points like a Frenchman; and, with his hat under his arm, passed hastily by twenty-four officers, and penetrated into the very apartment where the English gentleman was confined, without impediment or suspicion.^

Like a scientist seeking to penetrate the mysteries of nature, Howard sought the truth about prison conditions. Country boundaries do not delimit truth. Howard embraced the ideal of universal knowledge in his practice of visiting prisons.

Howard was extraordinarily dedicated to his pioneering subject of study. Scholarship in Howard’s time mainly consisted of studying written texts and writing additional texts. Jeremy Bentham wistfully noted that Howard had done much more than verbal work:

My venerable friend was much better employed than in arranging words and sentences. Instead of doing what so many could do if they would, what he did for the service of mankind, was what scarce any man could have done, and no man would do, but himself. In the scale of moral deserts the labours of the legislator and the writer are as far below his as earth is below heaven.^

Howard did not directly serve prisoners. He wrote verbal records of his observations of prison conditions. To make these observations, Howard personally traveled perhaps 60,000 miles, spent ₤30,000 of his own money, endured horrible conditions, and subjected himself to great health risks. Howard died in 1790 while traveling in Russia to inspect hospitals. He was acclaimed world-wide as a philanthropist, social reformer, and friend of prisoners. He would be more accurately described as a theatrical proto-social scientist who helped to create a new book of public knowledge.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *