The office of high-sheriff became a different thing in the hands of such a man as Howard from what it had been before. It was no longer a mere honorable office, all the drudgery of which was performed by the undersheriff; it was no longer the mere right of going in state twice a-year to meet the judges, and of presiding during the gayeties of an assize-week; it was a situation of real power and laborious well-doing. Already alive to the existence of numerous abuses in prison management - as well by his general information respecting the institutions of the country, as by his own experience of prison life in France seventeen years before - he had not been a month in office before all the faculties of his heart and soul were engaged in searching out and dragging into public notice the horrible corruptions and pollutions of the English prison system.
Within Mr. Howard's own cognizance as sheriff of Bedfordshire, there were three prisons - the county jail, the county bridewell, and the town jail, all in Bedford; and, as a matter of course, it was with these that his inquiries commenced. Various abuses struck him in their management, particularly in that of the county jail, the accommodations of which, whether for the purposes of work, health, or cleanliness, he found very deficient. But what roused his sense of justice most of all, was to find that the jailer had no salary, and depended for great part of his income on the following clause in the prison regulations All persons that come to this place, either by warrant, commitment, or verbally, must pay, before being discharged, fifteen shillings and fourpence to the jailer, and two shillings to the turnkey.' The effect which this and similar exactions from prisoners in the Bedford jail made upon him, will be best learned from his own statement prefixed to his Account of the State of Prisons.' The distress of prisoners,' he says, of which there are few who have not some imperfect idea, came more immediately under my notice when I was sheriff of the county of Bedford; and the circumstance which excited me to activity in their behalf was seeing some who, by the verdict of juries, were declared not guilty-some on whom the grand jury did not find such an appearance of guilt as subjected them to trial - and some whose prosecutors did not appear against them - after having been confined for months, dragged back to jail, and locked up again till they should pay sundry fees to the jailer, the clerk of assize, etc. In order to redress this hardship,' he continues, I applied to the justices of the county for a salary to the jailer in lieu of his fees. The bench were properly affected with the grievance, and willing to grant the relief desired; but they wanted a precedent for charging the county with the expense.'
With a view to find the precedent required, Mr. Howard undertook to visit the jails of some of the neighboring counties, that he might inquire into the practice adopted there. His first visits were to the jails of Cambridge and Huntingdon; and in the course of the same month - November 1773 - he prosecuted his tour through those of the following counties in addition - Northampton, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stafford, Warwick, Worcester, Gloucester, Oxford, and Buckingham. In each and all of these jails he found abuses and grievances; different, indeed, in one from what they were in another, and in some fewer and less shocking than in others, but in all disgraceful to a civilized country. In all of them, the income of the jailer was derived, as at Bedford, from fees exacted from the prisoners, and not from a regular salary; nay, in one of them the sheriff himself drew fees from the prisoners; and in another, that of Northampton, the jailer, instead of having a salary, paid the county L40 a-year for his office. To enter into the details of his investigations of the abuses of the various prisons above enumerated, as these are given in the first edition of his
Account of the State of Prisons,' would be impossible; suffice it to say, that Mr. Howard's reports on the various jails he visited are not mere general assertions that this or that jail was defective in its arrangements, but laborious and minute accounts of the statistics of each - containing in the briefest possible compass, every circumstance respecting every jail which it could possibly be useful to know. Indeed no parliamentary commission ever presented a more searching, clear, and accurate report than Howard's account of the state of the prisons he visited.