Skip Content

Howard League blog · 28 Jan 2019

My link to John Howard via Bedford prison

I did some television interviews on Bedford prison last week, discussing the inspection report that had revealed a prison in turmoil. The inspectorate found conditions in the prison to be so dangerous that it took the rare step last year of invoking the Urgent Notification protocol to demand immediate action. The inspection report was finally published on 22 January and it makes for desperately awful reading.

I am going to do something I have never done before, and that is to talk a bit about my own history, and relate how I am linked to John Howard via Bedford prison – but that will be at the end of this blogpost.

John Howard’s statue stands proud in the centre of Bedford to commemorate his work for reform. He visited the jail in the 1770s when he was appointed high sheriff of the county. He was so appalled at what he found that it launched his life-long mission as a prison reformer. John Howard found that the sick establishment infected the local community as typhoid and cholera seeped out from the fetid and foul jail.

Like many city jails, Bedford has a history going back centuries. It was in that jail that John Bunyan had spent twelve years and written The Pilgrim’s Progress a hundred years before. The prison now standing was built in 1801 although it has been added to over the two centuries.

Today the prison is overcrowded, holding more than 100 men above its capacity, despite the promise to deal with the violence, squalor and lack of control highlighted by the inspectors. The over-burdened, under-resourced and rat-infested jail has been infecting the local community for several hundred years, in John Howard’s time with sickness and today with the increase in crime and homelessness and drug addiction caused by incarcerating people in a failing institution.

So for my story. My mother’s second husband was sent to Bedford jail for a short time. He was a troubled man and alcoholic. I remember my mother trailing across the country on a succession of buses to visit him. He took his own life.

Six men have died by suicide in Bedford prison in the last three years. That means families devastated and staff traumatised by finding men hanging.

More than a third of the prisoners are on remand. Most of the rest are sentenced to only a few weeks or months.

All for what? So that courts can feel they are doing something, anything. Even if they know that sending men, some of them teenagers, to Bedford prison for a few weeks makes them more likely, not less, to commit more crimes and mayhem. More likely to be homeless. More likely to lose their families and jobs (if they have any). More likely to be a burden for years, possibly for life. And, more likely to die by their own hand.

Yet we keep doing it and have been doing it for centuries. Who is it that is really dangerous and inflicting the real damage on the social fabric – the poor lost souls inside Bedford prison or the decision-makers who are responsible for the system?


  • Frances crook says:

    Thank you

  • Rona Epstein says:

    What a superb article Frances! Very powerful and true, if only your words of wisdom would be heeded!

  • Claire Durtnall says:

    Dear Frances
    You make a compelling and common-sense argument for change in our sentencing system. The judiciary and public need to understand that the status quo in our failing prisons cannot continue. A society is judged by how it treats its vulnerable members – and that includes prisoners.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation