A philanthropist and social reformer, Howard was dedicated to prison reform and public health improvements.
John Howard was born in Hackney, in east London in 1726, the son of a partner in an upholstery business. On his father's death in 1742, he inherited considerable wealth and settled on an estate in Bedfordshire.
In 1773, he was appointed high sheriff of Bedfordshire and supervision of the county jail became of one his responsibilities. He was shocked by the conditions he found there and visited others in England, where the situation was no better. Jailers were not salaried but lived off fees paid by prisoners for food, bedding and other facilities. This system meant that poorer prisoners lived in terrible conditions. Many jailers demanded payment before prisoners were released, meaning that some stayed in jail even if they were innocent or had served their sentences.
Howard's concerns led to two 1774 parliamentary acts - one abolished jailers' fees, the other enforced improvements in the system leading to better prisoner health. Howard, however, felt that the acts were not strictly obeyed. In 1775, he embarked on a tour of prisons in Europe visiting Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, Flanders, some German states and Switzerland. He travelled on a similar route two years later, and in 1781 added Denmark, Sweden and Russia to the list. He visited Spain and Portugal in 1782. At a time when travel was uncomfortable and frequently dangerous, he travelled nearly 80,000 kilometres, making seven major journeys between 1775 and 1790, the first two of which are described in his book 'The State of Prisons in England and Wales... and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons'.
While examining Russian military hospitals, Howard contracted typhus in Kherson, Ukraine, and died there on 20 January 1790.
In 1866, the Howard League for Penal Reform was founded in his honour.
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