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The 18th Century prison reform movement was a product of the Quakers who, led by William Penn during the late 17th Century, approached the issue of incarceration and prisoner rehabilitation from the perspective of their particular religious tenets, none of which are written down. Quakers believe in the inherent goodness of all individuals, and that those who sin are still worthy of being saved. Their approach to prison is entirely one of rehabilitation within more humane prison conditions than generally existed, then or now. Penn, along with John Bellers, were fierce opponents of capital punishment, although Penn was more accepting of it in the case of murder.
One of the main proponents of prison reform among the Quakers during the 18th Century was John Howard, who wrote The State of the Prisons in England and Wales in 1777, which argued, in Section III, "Proposed Improvements in the Structure and Management of Prisons," in which he argued:
"No condemned malefactor may be secretly put to death; nor murdered in a prison directly or indirectly; much less ought those to be destroyed there whole sentence does not affect their life. Their destruction is not only unjust; it is inconsistent with prudence and sound policy. They ought no doubt be useful at home or abroad; if proper care were taken in prison, to keep them healthy and fit for labour . . ."
Another major proponent among the Quakers for prison reform was Elizabeth Fry, whose focus on women's prisons drew attention to the serious deficiencies in how female prisoners were housed and treated.
It is important to point out that, during the years in question, the average prisoner was more likely guilty of owing money than of any particularly egregious crime against humanity, although such individuals certainly were represented among prison populations. The 18th Century, however, did witness an increase in crimes against individuals for whom incarceration was an appropriate response. As one historian noted, "the rise of trade, the development of early capitalism, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution transformed the economy, and all of these made crime more prevalent, or at least more obvious to the public." [Jack Lynch, "Cruel and Unusual: Prisons and Prison Reform," www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Summer11/prison.cfm]
The prison reform movement of the 18th Century was overwhelmingly a product of Quaker beliefs in the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of man as taught by Jesus Crisis. As Matthew 6:14-15 stated, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." The Quakers being strong adherents of the word of the Bible, their advocacy of prison reform was entirely consistent with their relgious beliefs.
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