British prison projects: the Hard Labour Bill and the Penitentiary Act

Keywords: William Eden, William Blackstone, the Hard Labour Bill, the Penitentiary Act 1779


The article analyzes the English prison projects: the Hard Labour Bill 1778 and the Penitentiary Act 1779. The author identified the reasons for their creation, sources, key points and their impact on the formation of penitentiary systems.

The American Revolutionary War made it impossible relocation of convicted criminals to the colony. His Majesty's Government had to rush to find a replacement for transportation. In the mid-70s of 18 century there were attempts to develop the foundations of new types of punishment that would replace transportation. Such an alternative would hard labor in special Houses of Hard Labor and Penitentiary Houses. The application of punishment by hard labour to criminals sentenced to transportation is developed in the Hulks Act 1776, the Hard Labour Bill 1778 and the Penitentiary Act 1779. The Hard Labour Bill and the Penitentiary Act were not about reforming prisons, but about developing a system of execution and serving a new type of punishment – imprisonment combined with hard labor.

The Hard Labor Bill for the first time enshrined the norms that, in 30-40 years, became the basis of the Pennsylvania system, the Auburn system, the progressive system: solitary confinement, the division of convicts into classes, the correction of the offender with the active participation of chaplain, the system disciplinary offence and sanction, initiation of post-penitentiary care, requirements for prison staff, control and supervision of prison activity by the public and judges.

The Hard Labor Bill has not been approved by Parliament. It has been slightly redesigned. The idea of a system of Houses of Hard Labor across the country had to be abandoned. Instead, William Blackstone proposed experimental Penitentiary Houses. It was approved in the Penitentiary Act 1779. An analysis of the main provisions of the Penitentiary Act shows that at least part of the regulation of the Penitentiary Houses and their conditions of detention were based on the Hard Labor Bill. Although the ambitious idea of creating a network of prisons throughout the country has been abandoned, Penitentiary Act 1779 has retained the general philosophy of imprisonment in combination with hard labor. Despite the lack of practical implementation, the 1779 Penitentiary Act was essential to further improve the operation of existing detention facilities and build new prisons throughout the country, but as a local initiative rather than a centralized reform.


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How to Cite
Sokalska, O. (2020). British prison projects: the Hard Labour Bill and the Penitentiary Act. Law Review of Kyiv University of Law, (1), 74-80.
State and law theory and history. Philosophy of law