The Underworld

Penal Reform


The System

Famous Crime





The years 1820-1840 were considered the Golden Age for penology in France. Within these two decades arose numerous reform movements sparked during the July Monarchy. The common goal of all reformers was to eliminate crime and improve current prisoners by rehabilitation. Some of the means to achieve this goal were...

  • Discontinue confiscation of property of convicted criminals
  • Reduce long term sentences to a maximum of fifteen years
  • Suspend the Provisional Courts
  • Change judges and public office position toelected positions as opposed to inherited or bought
  • Seperate convicted criminals from those who are awaiting trial (so as to avoid the corruption of the young and possibly innocent)
  • Prisons inspected at least two time a week for the maintenance of a clean and healthy environment
  • Guards chosen possessing "irreproachable morality"
  • Do away with life sentence
  • Imprison convicts near the scene of their crime as a constant reminder of what they had done
  • Public exposure of prisoners in chains and tied to stakes
  • Solitary confinement to take the place of the death penalty
  • Education of prisoners

To understand the desired changes, previous conditions of the system need to be known. During the 18th century prisons were primarily used only as places of transition: prisoners only remained in the prisons while awaiting their trials, or were on their way to the galleys, banishment, or execution. The prison was not the punishment, but with the beginning of extended sentences, it became apparent that these previous institutions were not suited for long term convicts.

Old-Regime Galley convicts, by Roger Viollet

This image illustrates the conditions of prisons during the 18th century. As can be seen, men, women and children are all held in the same cell. This was one of the major reform issues discussed, especially because of the affect adult convicts had on the young offenders. It can also be seen that these prisoners are not staying for a long time. There are no beds (which prisons of the 19th century had) and there are about ten people in the one cell (prison cells in the 19th century for the most part held only one). Perhaps half of these prisoners will be gone by the next day, either to the galleys, or to their death.

Under the new prison systems, prisoners would go to prison not to wait for their real punishment, but to be rehabilitated. Prisoners were to be under constant surveillance and live by a controlled, regimented schedual, including moral and physical labor. Reformers also believed in the education of prisoners, both religiously and literally, with reading and writing. Whether all of these practices were carried out is questionable. Although some ideas did effect the prison system, most did not effect it for the better. There is a drastic dividing line between this reform and its reality. Read on to see what it really was like for the inmates in prisons of Revolutionary France.