The significance of Elizabeth Fry’s prison reforms for today

21 July 2023

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Gaols Act of 1823 which mandated sex segregation in prisons. Christian campaigner Elizabeth Fry was instrumental in obtaining this change to the law. Carys Moseley comments on her significance and legacy today.

Elizabeth Fry was a Christian woman who campaigned in the early 19th century to improve conditions for women prisoners. She pushed for sex segregation in prisons to reduce the risk that women would be sexually assaulted. She also worked tirelessly to improve treatment of female prisoners and to facilitate their rehabilitation.

But her legacy has been under threat for some time due to the rejection of a Christian vision for society.

Elizabeth Fry’s early life

Elizabeth was born into the Gurney family, a family of bankers who were Quakers living in Norwich, in 1780. Her mother died when she was twelve. Being one of the older girls, Elizabeth assumed responsibility for the care and education of her younger siblings. When she was twenty, she married fellow Quaker Joseph Fry, who was a banker. The couple moved to London, living in East Ham and West Ham. The couple had eleven children.

The visit to Newgate Prison influenced by Louis XVI’s former bodyguard

Fry’s Christian conscience on social affairs was moved by listening to various Quaker preachers. Her friend Stephen Grellet encouraged her to visit Newgate Prison in the early 19th century. Grellet (born Etienne de Grellet) was the son of a counsellor of Louis XVI of France, and had become that king’s bodyguard at the age of 17.

At the French Revolution he was imprisoned and then fled the country, ending up in the USA where he became a Quaker. On his travels to England he made known to Fry his concern about conditions of women in prison.

The problems in Newgate prison

Fry was deeply moved by the plight of women and their children in Newgate prison, which she visited in 1813. The prison was overcrowded. Inmates had to cook and wash for themselves in their cells. They would sleep on beds of straw in those cells. Fry’s immediate response was to come back to the prison providing food and clothing.

Newgate prison was important at the time as the place where prisoners would stay before being put on ships bound to Australia for deportation. It is possible that this accounted for the poor conditions of the prisons, as the authorities understood many of the inmates were not going to stay for very long.

Initiative for prison reform

After experiencing some personal financial difficulties, Fry resumed her focus on improving the plight of Newgate prisoners in 1817. Her approach was to take the initiative on reforms rather than expect the authorities to do everything. So, true to the entrepreneurial ethos of her Quaker banking family, she raised money to fund a school for the children inside Newgate prison.

She was also very shrewd in her understanding of the psychology of these women prisoners. For example, she got them to vote on rules of behaviour she herself had proposed they adopt. This was instead of trying to force more discipline in the prison. Of course, this suited her purposes, but at the same time it handed an element of responsibility to the prisoners themselves.

Developing prisoners’ skills for work outside prison

The following year Fry formalised her initiative by starting the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners. Women prisoners were given the means to learn practical skills such as sewing, needlework and knitting which could get them paid work once they left prison. This set a precedent that was soon followed in other prisons.

Fry combined this initiative with her wider campaign for rehabilitation of prisoners as opposed to focusing on punishment. This was innovative in an era when on the one hand capital punishment was very frequently handed out as a sentence, and on the other many offenders including women were sentenced to deportation to Australia. Thus, society was used to being rid of offenders completely. Fry’s promotion of rehabilitation required a more forgiving attitude to prisoners, one that simultaneously required those helping them to examine their own character.

The first woman to give evidence to a Parliamentary committee

Fry’s approach became influential in London in particular, and she travelled to the north of England, Scotland, Ireland and France to promote it.

The House of Commons appointed a committee to look at evidence on London’s prisons. Fry gave evidence before it in 1818, the first ever woman to give evidence to a Parliamentary select committee.

Prisoners welcomed twice-daily Bible reading

The Commons committee was very impressed by how Fry organised Bible readings twice a day for the women prisoners. Here is what she told the committee:

“Our habit is constantly to read the Scriptures to them twice a day. Many of them are taught, and some of them have been enabled to read a little themselves; it has had an astonishing effect.”

Fry implied that the prisoners were unusually welcoming of this opportunity to read the Bible, remarking that many had never read it before, having not been taught the Gospel previously.

“I never saw the Scriptures received in the same way, and to many of them they have been entirely new, both the great system of religion and morality contained in them; and it has been very satisfactory to observe the effect upon their minds. When I have sometimes gone and said it was my intention to read, they would flock up-stairs after me, as if it were a great pleasure I had to afford them.”

Fry reported that the governor of the Newgate prison was pleased with the results:

“We have had considerable satisfaction in observing, not only the improved state of the women in the prison, but we understand from the governor and clergyman at the penitentiary, that those who have been under our care are very different from those who come from other prisons.”

The case for single-sex prisons

Fry campaigned for women to be housed in single-sex prisons. In the Commons select committee, she hinted that the reason was to prevent sexual sin. She supported male and female prisoners working and eating together during the day, but strongly objected to them sleeping in the same rooms at night.

She also wanted only female staff to look after women prisons, with no men around. There is little doubt that the motivation here was to prevent sexual relations between male prison staff and women prisoners. This is what she said:

“There is one very important thing which ought to be stated on the subject of women taking care of women. It has been said that there were three things which were requisite in forming a prison that would really tend to the reformation of the women; but there is a fourth, viz: that women should be taken care of entirely by women, and have no male attendants, unless it be a medical man or any minister of religion. For I am convinced that much harm arises from the communication, not only to the women themselves, but to those who have the care of them.”

Fry’s proposals on single-sex imprisonment were enacted by the Gaols Act of 1823, a piece of legislation partly influenced by her campaigning. Unfortunately, her other ideas on prison reform were not so successful at the time. These would have to wait some time.

Transportation of women prisoners

As stated earlier, capital punishment was often used for lesser crimes in this period. This may well have contributed to official indifference to and callousness regarding the condition of prisoners. Fry worked within the constraints of the contemporary system by trying to get women condemned to death deported to Australia instead.

She enlisted other women to visit the ships destined for Australia to help female offenders. Her assistance did not stop at the ports. She campaigned for improving their welfare after they had arrived in Australia.

Relieving homelessness and promoting nursing

Elizabeth Fry did not confine herself to helping improve the lot of women prisoners. She also opened a homeless hostel in London and started a society for helping the homeless and visiting the poor in Brighton. Later in 1840 she opened the Protestant Sisters of Charity, a training institution for nurses for the poor. This was soon renamed as the Institution of Nursing Sisters.

Nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale later took some of Fry’s nurses to the Crimean War with her to look after wounded soldiers.

Widespread admiration for Elizabeth Fry

Fry’s tireless campaigning earned her widespread admiration from the highest levels of society. She had several audiences with Princess (later Queen) Victoria, who helped fund her. Her friend Stephen Grellet promoted her work to Emperor Alexander I of Russia. In 1819 the Russian Society for the Care of Prisoners was set up, inspired by her work.

The aforementioned Gaols Act of 1823 was passed by Robert Peel, a Christian MP who also pioneered modern policing. King Frederick William IV of Prussia visited Fry at work in Newgate Prison, having previously received her at his court when she toured continental Europe.

What is Fry’s significance for today?

The fact that Fry was able to gain influence and support from the ruling classes of her day shows how Christian values flowing from the plain reading of the Bible were considered central to reforming the most challenging parts of society in a more charitable and forgiving direction.

However, such a vision depends on holding onto a comprehensive Christian ethic, and not reducing morality to the prioritisation of individual rights. Fry’s work is suffused with notions of responsibility and needs, not rights and wants. As the above-quoted paragraph shows, she taught the women in Newgate Prison to read the Bible for themselves. She told the Parliamentary committee that she taught them “nothing but the general Scripture doctrine”, without favouring one particular interpretation. As the MP questioning her put it, “nothing but the morals of the Scripture – their duties towards God and man”. Fry concurred with this, thus showing that she saw her work as a mission to enable transformation of these women’s lives that would then transform society.

The undermining of Elizabeth Fry’s legacy

Elizabeth Fry’s legacy is being undermined today because the single-sex nature of prisons is being undermined. In Fry’s day women prisoners lived alongside men as well as sleeping alongside each other at night. This led to the proliferation of sexual sin and its negative effect on people’s character. Today it would be considered offensive to even hint that prisoners should not have sexual relations with each other.

Today, because the Ministry of Justice has approved a Transgender Prisoner policy, a ridiculous situation has arisen whereby women are to be housed in institutions that cannot be called prisons, but instead are called Residential Women’s Centres. The real purpose of this is to get round the likelihood of trans activists suing the Ministry of Justice and demanding the right for male prisoners to be housed with women.

The lobby against sending women to prison

The result of this has been greater support for the already existing lobby calling for certain categories of female offenders not to be imprisoned at all. Women offenders are now treated more as victims with the result that their criminality is being obscured from view.

The way women’s prisons are talked about, you would think they were domestic violence refuges. They are not. People are sent to prison precisely because they have committed crimes deserving of punishment.

Why single-sex prisons should be the norm

The underlying hint in Fry’s evidence to Parliament is that prisons should be single-sex and women prisoners should not share sleeping quarters with each other. Today we could add other reasons. For example: the obvious risks of placing convicted sex offenders with women; preventing children from being born in prison; preventing prostitution from being organised in and from prison; preventing the production of pornography in and from prison. The fact that nobody is talking about these reasons for single-sex prisons today is a reflection of the turn away from Christian morality in public institutions.

In light of all this it would be a mistake simply to think of Elizabeth Fry’s achievements as being of merely historical interest. The key is her vision for rehabilitation into society. I think the reason the debate about single-sex prisons and indeed single-sex spaces isn’t being resolved today is the lack of a clear Christian vision for what society should look like. Nobody wants to admit that a rights-based case for single-sex prisons can only go so far. For the hope of rehabilitation to be truly possible, the case for a Christian vision of society needs to be made.

A Christian view of prison

Properly Christian justice involves three Rs: retribution (punishment), restitution (compensation to the victim) and rehabilitation. Fry brought the last of these into focus, and did so in a manner motivated by the gospel.

We want to see prisoners meet God and be changed by this. Ministries such as those of Paul Song show how this can be done today.

Elizabeth Fry’s pioneering work is something we can be thankful for and inspired by, as we look today at the needs of offenders and society in relation to criminality.

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