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Prisons: History

American Revolution

The Declaration of Independence cited a list of abuses related to the prisoner trade, including complaints that the Crown had obstructed justice, sent swarms of officers to harass the people, deprived many of the benefits of trial by jury, transported persons beyond the seas for pretended offenses, and committed other offenses. However, Thomas Jefferson's clause protesting slavery was deleted at the request of Georgia and South Carolina.

During the War for Independence both the British and the rebels held large numbers of captured enemies in existing and makeshift prisons. The British held New York City throughout the war and converted it into a huge prison camp holding thousands of captives. Rebel churches, abandoned sugarhouses, and other structures were made into prisons. The British also employed several antiquated naval vessels as prison ships in New York harbor. As many as 11,500 persons perished on the H.M.S. Jersey alone—more than the total number of Americans who died in battle.

Captured British soldiers were kept in crowded dungeons, prison ships, and an abandoned copper mine in Simsbury, Connecticut, that was known as Newgate. The Americans also held many Tories (persons who were considered to have sided with the Crown), some of whom were Quakers who had disavowed violence and slavery. Several members of the Society of Friends in Philadelphia were exiled to the wilderness or hanged.

One of the effects of the war on Britain was to disrupt the prisoner trade to America, cutting off convict transportation, servant trafficking, and the African slave trade. As a result, English jails became terribly overcrowded, prompting one English prison reformer to conduct a comprehensive study of prisons throughout the kingdom. John Howard's treatise The State of Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons (1777) established an agenda for future prison reform.

Following the loss of the American colonies, Britain established Australia as a penal colony and withdrew from the international slave trade. Indentured servitude was also ended.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: History - Early Jails And Workhouses, The Rise Of The Prisoner Trade, A Land Of Prisoners, Enlightenment Reforms