The Fleet Prison

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The Fleet Prison


By: Anonymous

Date: 1774

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Fleet Prison was built in London, England, in 1197 and was used primarily to house debtors and their families and those sentenced for contempt of court. The prison was not segregated, and both men and women were housed at Fleet Prison, often with their children. During the Middle Ages and well into the eighteenth century, prisons were operated for profit and the prisoners were required to pay for their lodging, food, and other services, such as the locking and unlocking of shackles and cells. At Fleet Prison, which charged some of the highest fees in England, there was a grille built into the prison walls to enable the prisoners to beg from within the prison. The donations of passers-by enabled prisoners to pay their keep to the warden of the prison. Some prisoners were able to live outside of the prison and take employment, as long as they paid fees for lost revenue to the prison warden.

Prisoners at Fleet Prison were often subjected to maltreatment, including extortion, physical abuse, and torture. The most infamous of its wardens was Thomas Bambridge, who became warden in 1728; he was eventually imprisoned himself in Newgate Prison for his barbarous treatment of the prisoners. Bambridge's abuses of power were discovered by a House of Commons committee that was convened to investigate and report on the state of Britain's jails.

In February 1773, John Howard (1726–1790), a devout Christian, was appointed high sheriff of Bedford, England. As part of his appointment, Howard was required to inspect the local prison, and he was appalled at the conditions that he found. He believed that the for-profit aspect of the prison was in large part responsible for the poor conditions and suggested to Bedford officials that the wardens be paid a salary. The officials did not want to pay more for maintenance of the prison, pointing out that the whole country used the same system. Howard decided to visit Britain's other prisons, including Fleet Prison, and he found the circumstances elsewhere to be as bad or worse. In March 1774, he presented his findings to the House of Commons, suggesting that the for-profit nature of the prisons exacerbated the poor conditions. On the basis of John Howard's testimony, the House of Commons passed the 1774 Gaol Act, abolishing jailer's fees and giving recommendations for the improvement of sanitary conditions and the health of prisoners.

Howard began a tour of foreign prisons in 1775. Upon his return, he made a second tour of Britain's prisons to find out if the 1774 Gaol Act had been implemented. Although Howard had sent copies of the act to every prison in Britain, he discovered that the wardens and justices failed to adhere to the act for the most part. In 1777, Howard published the results of his prison investigations inThe State of Prisons in England and Wales, with an Account of Some Foreign Prisons, and his revelations shocked the British public. Howard continued to tour and write accounts of prisons until his death in 1790. He is commonly acknowledged as a pioneer in prison reform.



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Fleet Prison and others like it were the precursors to the modern penitentiary. Prison reformers like John Howard, Elizabeth Fry, Jeremy Bentham, and Cesare Beccaria were instrumental in exposing the abuses and cruel treatment that were perpetrated in the name of justice. With the elimination of for-profit prisons in Europe came the genesis of the Pennsylvania penitentiary system. Under the Pennsylvania system, prisoners were kept in solitary confinement in individual cells where they were given handiwork to perform and Bibles to read. This combination of punishment through segregation, industry, and penitence was felt to be effective in reforming inmates and turning them into good citizens. The Pennsylvania system was very expensive to maintain, however, and it resulted in high rates of inmate suicide and insanity. It was replaced with the Auburn system in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the Auburn system, prisoners were forced to participate in hard labor and everyday routine as a group, working and eating in complete silence. Prisoners were allowed to read scriptures and exercise for an hour a day. Silence was enforced to keep prisoners from influencing one another and to provide opportunity for reflection and penance. Harsh corporal discipline was used to maintain order and silence in the institution. The Auburn system also marked a return to prison-for-profit as the institutions housed large factories to manufacture goods with prison labor. The profit from the prisoners' labor covered the costs of prison operations and often resulted in a profit. Although prisoners are now allowed to speak and corporal punishment is no longer the norm, modern prisons have their roots in the Auburn system and continue to maintain the practice of assigning prisoners to jobs or placing them in treatment programs.

The evolution of prison policy in western society is reflective of changes in moral and political ideals, and yet the approach to imprisonment has actually changed little since the days of jailers collecting rent at Fleet Prison. With the increasing trend to privatize prisons in the United States, the for-profit prison has returned. Ignoring John Howard's warning about the effect of profit motive on the conditions of imprisonment, modern prison corporations turn a profit by reducing the costs of housing and feeding prisoners, cutting rehabilitative programs, and using fewer guards and more locks to maintain order.



Ignatieff, M. A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Morris, N. and D. J. Rothman, eds.The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Basett, Margery. "The Fleet Prison in the Middle Ages." The University of Toronto Law Journal 5 (2) (1944): 383–402.

Sellin, Thorsten. "Penal Servitude: Origin and Survival." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 109 (5): 277–281.