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The Howard League

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

Reforming Prison with Evidence

Guest: Rob Preece, Campaigns Manager

Image: John Howard, Penal Reformer by Mather Brown oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1789 / Credit: NPG 97 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Hub is delighted to present an interview with Rob Preece, campaigns and communications manager at The Howard League for Penal Reform, continuing a series of Prison blogs and podcasts. Echoing reflections on the need for the UK to apply the evidence fewer people in prison is better for victims, people convicted of crimes and society at large.

The series began with London soprano, prison visitor and granddaughter of Howard League prison reformers Emma Dogliani in Calming Prisoners Through Song. It continued with Chris Daw QC, criminal barrister and author of Justice on Trial: Radical Solutions for a System at Breaking Point.

The Howard League's vision states:"Everyone wants there to be less crime. Everyone wants to live in a community where children grow and succeed. The Howard League pursues these goals by working to change a system that holds the country back. Through research, campaigning and legal work, we find and promote solutions that help people to unlock their potential and prevent them becoming victims of crime."

You can listen to the podcast of The Hub's interview with Rob Preece of The Howard League by clicking on the link below. Rob talks about what drives him to campaign for an evidence-based approach to prison in the UK. He argues passionately about "the waste of human potential" in the current penal system and calls for the removal of vulnerable children from the criminal justice system, highlighting that children in council care are especially at risk.

You can find out how to support the work of The Howard League via the Get Involved section at the bottom of this page.


A Proud Heritage of Prison Reform

Image: The State of Prisons in England and Wales by John Howard /

The Howard League is named after John Howard "the founder of British penal reform". Howard was a late-eighteenth-century prison reformer who, while serving as High Sheriff of Bedford, personally inspected the state of the prisons in the county. Appalled by what he saw, he decided to travel the country and in Europe, inspecting prison conditions in order to make recommendations for improvement to the House of Commons.

Howard's concerns led to two 1774 parliamentary acts - one abolished jailers' fees, the other enforced improvements in the system leading to better prisoner health. Howard, however, felt that the acts were not strictly obeyed. In 1775, he embarked on a tour of prisons in Europe visiting Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, Flanders, some German states and Switzerland.

He travelled on a similar route two years later, and in 1781 added Denmark, Sweden and Russia to the list. He visited Spain and Portugal in 1782. At a time when travel was uncomfortable and frequently dangerous, he travelled nearly 80,000 kilometres, making seven major journeys between 1775 and 1790, the first two of which are described in his book 'The State of Prisons in England and Wales... and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons'.

The image shows the second edition of Howard's report, published in 1780, a volume contained in George III's personal library at Windsor. It makes several recommendations to improve the conditions of prisoners, including: the introduction of single cells, open-air spaces for exercise, the separation of male and female prisoners and the abolition of a practise known as 'garnishing' whereby new prisoners would be forced to pay a fee for better conditions, and, if they could not afford it, faced abysmal treatment from fellow prisoners and even gaolers.

While examining Russian military hospitals, Howard contracted typhus in Kherson, Ukraine, and died there on 20 January 1790. In 1866, the Howard Association was founded in his honour. In 1921 the Howard Association and the Penal Reform League merged creating The Howard League for Penal Reform. The focus at that time was to end the death penalty, a campaign Emma Dogliani's grandparents were prominent in, in the 1930s. The Howard League celebrated the centenary of the merger in July 2021.


Listen to Rob on Prison Reform

Picture: Rob Preece, Campaigns and Communications Manager, The Howard League

/ Credit: The Howard League

Rob Preece has worked on some of The Howard League's most successful campaigns, including Books For Prisoners, which overturned government restrictions on prisoners receiving books from family and friends. A trained journalist, he engages with decision-makers and gives media interviews and presentations about the charity's work.

The League's recent efforts have focused on reducing the pipeline of people, particularly children entering the prison system, by encouraging police forces to use their discretionary powers to reduce the number of arrests. These efforts have contributed to arrests of children being reduced by around two thirds in the last ten years. This work continues.

In 2015, the Howard League won a Charity Award 2015 for the Books For Prisoners campaign, which was described as having “every aspect you could want from a campaign” by the judges.

YouTube video: Charity Award for Books For Prisoners campaign

featuring Frances Crook, then CEO of The Howard League

YouTube blurb: "The Howard League for Penal Reform has been presented with a prestigious Charity Award to mark the success of our Books For Prisoners campaign.

The campaign called on the government to overturn restrictions that prevented prisoners being sent books. It took months of hard work, hundreds of book donations, thousands of petition signatures and tens of thousands of "shelfie" tweets.

But we did it – and that means 85,000 people in prison can now receive books from loved ones."

You can listen to The Hub's interview with Rob Preece, campaigns and communications manager at The Howard League by clicking on the link below.


Get Involved

Current focuses of concern are the long term effects of Covid-19 that has seen prisoners locked up for up to 23 hours a day without meaningful activity and social interaction and a projected increase in prison numbers.

Rob says: "The number of people in prison in England and Wales doubled between 1990 and 2010, due to successive governments, red and blue ratcheting up sentences." Rob adds that new sentencing guidelines in The Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill and plans to recruit an extra 20.000 police officers, with more officers tending to lead to more arrests, will lead to an additional significant increase in prisoner numbers in the next five years.

The Ministry of Justice's Prison Populations Projections 2020 to 2026, England and Wales states: "The prison population was 78,838 as of Friday 20th November 2020. It is projected to increase in the short term to a pre-COVID-19 level of 83,200 by September 2021, then to keep increasing steadily to reach 98,700 offenders by September 2026."

You can support the work of the Howard League and join "our movement" by becoming a member and supporting its campaigns to encourage an evidence-based approach to reducing crime via fewer people in prison. You can find out how here: The Howard League: Get Involved.

* You can send books to prisoners in UK prisons via the Send Books to Prisoners website.


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