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Victorian Crime and Punishment
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Punishment and Rehabilitation

An Overview of Rehabilitation and Reform

This ‘purpose' of prison was central to many reforms that occurred in prisons during the 19th century. The question being: -was prison there to punish, or to punish and reform?

Early Prison reformers such as John Howard believed that prisoners would not change their ways unless they were given a reasonable standard of living, fresh food and water and given work to do that would keep them occupied. They should be given Christian teaching and be made to attend chapel regularly. This shifted the idea of prison from a place of punishment to one of punishment and rehabilitation or reform.

Although many prison built incorporated these ideas by 1865 the emphasis had shifted again and many people had come to believe that criminals (particularly habitual criminal) were born ‘bad'. It was argued that the only way to ensure people did not reoffend was to make the prison regime so harsh it was a real deterrent. The emphasis in many prisons shifted from rehabilitation once more to punishment.

In the last part of the 19th century, after the 1865 Prisons Act and under Assistant Director of Prisons Sir Edmund du Cane, prisons were made even tougher. Hard plank beds replaced hammocks, food was deliberately boring and inmates had to work hard on the monotonous, even pointless tasks described above.

By the end of the Victorian many reformers were arguing that such measures hardened rather than deterred criminals and given the right environment a decent education and standard of living people would not reoffend, the root cause of crime for many people was simply poverty. The arguments still continue today.