Moves towards a modern penal system

In 1895 a report by a government committee on the prison system concluded that the purpose of imprisonment should be to punish, but should also aim to reform the prisoner.

Better people?

It was felt that men and women should be better people when they left prison than when they went in.

These principles were endorsed by Parliament in the Prisons Act of 1898. Rules for a more enlightened prison regime were laid down. For instance, the use of the treadmill was abolished, and isolation in prison cells could not be imposed for periods longer than a month.

Modern penal system

The 1898 Act marked the beginnings of the modern penal system. Later legislation abolished hard labour and instead recognised that labour within prisons should have a constructive purpose.

The 1895 report also acknowledged that young offenders should be treated separately, and not be mixed with older prisoners.


Eventually, this view was embodied in the Prevention of Crime Act of 1908 which introduced a separate system of prison establishments for young offenders which became known as borstals.

Young offenders under the age of 21 were placed in an environment of hard physical work but also received technical and educational instruction to prepare them for their release.

Did you know?

The word borstal comes from the village of Borstal in Kent, where the first prison for young offenders was set up in 1902.

Related information

Historic Hansard

The House of Commons debates the Second Reading of the Prisons Bill 1898

The House of Lords debates the Second Reading of the Prevention of Crime Bill