The State of the Prisons Declared Prisons Public Knowledge

face of a prisoner

Rather than being a book to be read, The State of the Prisons was an artifact that declared the state of prisons to be public knowledge and hence of public concern. The book had 489 quarto pages made with excellent paper and presswork.^ A full-page dedication at the beginning of the book thanked the members of the House of Commons for encouraging the work and for the honor that they had conferred on the author. On the title page, John Howard included after his name “F.R.S.” (Fellow of the Royal Society). That appended credential indicated Howard’s scientific authority and associated it with his authorship of this book. The State of the Prisons thus impressed physically and with its institutional connections.

Howard made prison conditions public knowledge by widely distributing The State of the Prisons. Howard’s distribution strategy explicitly differed from commercial bookselling:

so zealous was Mr. Howard to diffuse information, and so determined to obviate any idea that he meant to repay his expenses by the profitable trade of book-making, that, besides a profuse munificence in presenting copies to all the principal persons in the kingdom, and all his particular friends, he insisted on fixing the price of the volume so low, that, had every copy been sold, he would still have presented the public with all the plates, and great part of the printing. And this practice he followed in all his subsequent publications; so that, with literal propriety, he may be said to have GIVEN them to the world.^

An obituary for Howard similarly noted, “all his publications he gave away a vast number of copies among his acquaintances in the most liberal manner.”^ Howard had many influential friends. The State of the Prisons quickly became widely known in England and around the world.

Most of The State of the Prisons almost surely wasn’t widely read. The book is largely organized by prison, and for each prison, includes many facts not connected conceptually or narratively. A scholar of Howard’s work described reading The State of the Prisons as “arduous.”^ Howard explicitly noted:

the collections {in The State of the Prisons} are not published for general entertainment; but for the perusal of those who have it in their power to give redress to the sufferers.^

The State of the Prisons doesn’t provide entertaining reading. But it also isn’t a technical book addressed to experts. The State of the Prisons made prisoners’ sufferings a public concern. In eighteenth-century England, that was a significant “re-dressing.”

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

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