Elizabeth Fry

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Elizabeth Fry

The famous 19th century prisons campaiger Elizabeth Fry spent some time in Jersey in the mid-1830s, recuperating from an illness, and soon took an interest in Jersey’s prison, where she found conditions far from satisfactory.

Initially Mrs Fry, her husband and children, spent time relaxing and enjoying picnics in the countryside. They were also given introductions to prominent local families. But soon Mrs Fry was pursuing here interest in prison conditions and found that none of the recent improvements in England had been implemented in Jersey.

Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners at London's Newgate Street Prison in 1923, ten years before she first came to Jersey

Open letter

She wrote an open letter setting out what she believed needed to be done:

To the Authorities of the Island of Jersey, who have the Direction and Management of the Prison and Hospital
Gentlemen
”Having been requested by a number of persons of influence and respectability in this Island to make known to the competent authorities my views on the subject of your Prison and Hospital, I have decided on the present method of doing so, as the most easy to myself, and the most likely to be accurately understood; and I trust you will excuse me if the interest I feel in the unfortunate inhabitants of those, and similar institutions, should induce me to take the liberty of offering some strong and decided observations on their condition and management.
”I shall vegin by remarking that the great and leading objects of Prison Discipline are in a very material degree overlooked. In order to attain the salutary penal effect of imprisonment, together with the reformation of offenders, and to prevent the contamination of association and example, I beg to observe that in addition to the restraint and confinement of a prison, the following objects are necessary:-
1 A full sufficienty of employment, proportioned to the age, sex, health and ability of the offender.
2 As much wholesome privation of those comforts and enjoyments, which they might be able to obtain when at liberty, as is compatible with the preservation of their health and strength.
3 A proper system of classificationh, consisting, in the first place, of a total separation of the men from the women (which latter always to be under the superintendence of one of their own sex) and next, a complete separation of debtors from criminals, and of the tried from the untried (and were your prisoners numerous) of great criminals from misdemeanants. But in the present case it might suffice to separate any very bad offenders from the rest, and except at stated times, and under the constant observation of the Gaoler, or Turnkey, no visitors whatever should be admitted to the tried criminals, but in cases of special emergency.
4 A fixed and suitable dietary for criminals, under the management of a Gaol Committee, who ought to contract regularly for the articles of food; and in no case should the prisoner be allowed to supply himself, or be farmed out to the Gaoler, or to any other person whatsoever.
Elizabeth Fry
5 An absolute and total prohibition of spirits, wine andall fermented liquors, with a penalty for its infringement, except when specially ordered by the medical attendant, (or a moderate portion of beer or cider might be allowed daily to those who work hard or are ot strong in their bodily health) – also a prohibition of cards and all other gaming.
6 A suitable prison dress, with sufficiently marked distinction, which has been found by experience to have a humbling and beneficial effect on the minds of the prisoners generally.
7 A complete code of rules and regulations, for the direction and government of the Gaoler and other officers of the prison, of the nature of those contained in an Act of Parliament, lately passed in England for the Government of Gaols.
8 A law or regulation that should be imperative on Visiting Magistrates, or Gaol Committees, regularly and frequently to visit the prison, and minutely to investigate the details of its management.
9 And lastly, but of primary importance, the due and stated performance of Divine service, and regular religious and other instruction of the prisoners; every criminal who stands in need of it, being taught to read and write.
Elizabeth Fry
”By the system at present pursued, nearly all the above regulations and restraints are wholly omitted. The criminals, instead of being kept to employment, are constantly idle. Indulgences of nearly every description, and money, may be introduced to those who can procure them.
Prisoners of all descriptions are mixed up together, or at any rate allowed frequent intercourse, male and female, criminal and debtor, the hardened offender with the unpractised youth; and all of them (with the exception of the cases of solitary confinement alluded to) exposed to communication with the public through the grating.
And in addition to these serious evils, your Gaoler is only remunerated according to the numbers his prison contains, and the quantity of spirits, wine and other fermented liquors sold to the prisoners; consequently, however conscientious the individual may be, it necessarily involves his own personal interest to make the prison agreeable to its inmates that their stay there may be prolonged, and others induced to come in; and my observation had led me to conclude, that this circumstance powerfully operates in increasing the number of your prisoners, and the duration of their stay.
I wish to add, that after having carefully examined the building and the ground appertaining to it, I am of the opinion that these crying evils might be obviated, and the needful improvements introduced, and a House of Correction (which I consider indispensable) superadded to the present Prison, without any very considerable expense, especially with the assistance of a person from the Prison Discipline Society of London: and further, that if the Gaoler and his wife received a moderate salary for their attention to the male and female prisoners, it would not prove more expensive than upon the present plan, more especially if coupled with productive labour on the part of the prisoners, and that it would essentially contribute to its improvement.
Elizabeth Fry on a prison visit
I am well aware that your Island is not subject to the Acts of the British Legislature; but as the important improvements in Prison Discipline, which have taken place of latter years in the dominions under its control, are the productions of men of large experience, and have been also substantially introduced into the most enlightened European States, and the United States of America; I trust you will not object to adopt the progressive wisdom of the age, from whatever quarter suggestions may arise, and I have therefore taken the liberty of appending some abstracts from Acts of Parliament on the subject of Prison Regulations, and which bear upon most of the points to which I have adverted
I am, etc. Etc
Elizabeth Fry

Given the lack of urgency shown by the States over the years towards the building of prisons, it is hardly surprising that Mrs Fry paid two further visits to the island and put pressure on the Governor, Lord Beresford, who reported to Lord John Russell, Home Secretary and later Prime Minister, that the prison was “in the most neglected state, exhibiting almost every defect in arrangement which a prison is capable of displaying, and suffering under the absence of many common essentials, such as clothing, suitable bedding, soap etc”.

Mrs Fry had a meeting with Lord Russell and a Home Office investigation followed, which highlighted the dispute between States and Governor over who should pay for the prison. In 1837 the House of Correction demanded by Mrs Fry was built and a female block is believed to have been built at about the same time.

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