Elizabeth Gurney Fry was born in England in 1780. Elizabeth was raised in a wealthy influential Quaker family and at 17 she chose to work with those less fortunate members of Society. In Elizabeth's time, methods of handling women in conflict with the law had altered little since the Middle Ages. For instance:
- Women prisoners were still whipped in public until 1817 and in private until 1820;
- The ducking stool was used in the north of England until 1809 to punish "scolding" women;
- Branding was not abolished until 1799, and in its last year was done on the face, not on the hand or breast; and,
- The last women was burned at the stake in 1789.
Prison conditions were deplorable:
- In some of the smaller prisons, the women were not separated from the men and in others, men who were labeled "lunatics", or in danger from other men, could be placed in the women's section for the jailer's convenience. Consequently, many babies were born to the inmate mothers, who lived in the prison;
- In some smaller prisons, female prisoners were kept for the domestic or sexual convenience of the jailer;
- Prison fees were hard on women because they were often friendless and penniless; and,
- In some prisons, the doors between the men and women's sections were unlocked at night. Prostitution was often the only way a woman could supplement the meager prison diet.
These were the conditions in existence at the time of Elizabeth's Fry's first visit to Newgate Prison in 1813. Appalled by the conditions of the women prisoners, Elizabeth immediately organized a sewing bee to make baby clothes for the Newgate children. Soon after, she returned to the prison with food, hampers, soap, and bibles.
Elizabeth's Fry's Achievements:
- Introduced reforms by encouraging women to care for themselves and their children;
- Convinced authorities to set up schools inside the prison so the women and their children could be provided with basic education;
- Provided materials so the women could knit and do needlework and found a market for their goods;
- Insisted that women prisoners be kept in separate quarters from men prisoners and that they be supervised by other women;
- in 1882, Elizabeth Fry helped open the first halfway house for female ex-convicts; and,
- Visited prisons in other parts of the United Kingdom and Europe where she set up "Ladies Committees" so the work could continue in her absence.
Elizabeth's Fry Advocated:
- Total abolition of capital punishment;
- Work for prisoners paid at standard rates and deposited in prisoners' accounts, available upon release;
- Classification of prisoners; and,
- Classes to teach reading and writing, in preparation for life and after prison.
Elizabeth Fry's influence was evident in the British Prison Act of 1823, which ordered jailers to separate the sexes and hire female guards for female prisoners. Elizabeth Fry's philosophy towards prison reform was innovative and far ahead of her time. She advocated as much freedom for prisoners as possible. She wrote:
"As man is a social being, and not designed for a life of seclusion,
such a system of prison discipline should be adopted as may be
best to prepare those under its corrections for re-entering active life
and all its consequent exposures and temptations."