Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies, Health and Prison After Care in England and Ireland

Dr Holly Dunbar (University College Dublin)

Prison After Care

In the nineteenth century, prison after care in England and Ireland had many similarities. The two countries were under the same administration due to the Act of Union in 1801, although not all legislation created in England was applied directly to Ireland. Prior to 1850, the prison populations in both countries were small.[1] As transportation was phased out from the 1850s, more people were kept in prisons. In response to this, philanthropic systems of after care developed and these offered some immediate assistance to those leaving prison. By 1872, there were 34 small Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies in Britain.[2] In 1877, recognising the need for assistance on release from prison, the government allowed for these societies in both countries to apply to the Home Secretary to become ‘certified’ and receive a maximum of £2 per prisoner they helped.[3] In Ireland, aid societies developed more slowly and by 1880 there were just four.[4]

Supporting Ex-Prisoners

The societies did not position themselves as health providers or health promoters to discharged prisoners. However, their work was integral to supporting the health of ex-prisoners and their families by providing them with food, shelter, clothing, work, emotional support, and minor medical treatments such as dentures or spectacles. For example, in 1903, the report of the Seventeenth Conference of British Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies summarised that in that year 232 pairs of boots had been bought for men, along with 113 shirts and 86 jackets, while 101 ex-prisoners had been given food and lodgings.[5] Similarly, 129 pairs of boots and 151 shawls had been bought for female ex-prisoners, a further 77 had been found accommodation and 117 were given meals.[6]

Welfare Reform

Healthcare offered to discharged prisoners from Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies was in addition to welfare provided by the state in England and Ireland. The New Poor Law was introduced to England in 1834 and in 1838 a Poor Law Act, which was similar to the English legislation, was applied to Ireland. The Poor Law systems were closely tied to medical care provision and from 1851, outdoor relief to the sick in Ireland was offered by the Medical Charities Act.[7] In the 1930s and 1940s, new interest in social healthcare provisions in Ireland resulted in the 1947 Health Act, which provided a more comprehensive model of healthcare. In England, there was also greater interest in the quality and quantity of health provision during the 1940s. In 1948, Aneurin Bevan, the Secretary of State for Health, implemented the National Health Service.[8]

Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies in the 20th Century

Despite these major welfare reforms in England and Ireland, Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies continued supplying clothing, housing, minor medical treatments and referring ex-prisoners to institutions for medical care well into the 1960s. In the twentieth century, aid societies were more numerous. By 1960, there was one Catholic Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society, one Jewish Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society, and thirty-eight non-denominational societies in Britain.[9] After Ireland had formed an independent state in 1922, it was reported that there were eight Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies, but not all of them were active and the bulk of the work was carried out by the Roman Catholic Male Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society and the Female Catholic Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society in Dublin, which were both supported by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.[10] In England, Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies were made redundant by the incorporation of after care into the Probation Service in 1966.[11] In Ireland, similar developments in after care in the 1960s led to a more centralised, state-run system of after care.[12] Modern welfare reforms also provided ex-prisoners with access to medical care through the National Health Service in England and via a medical card in Ireland. However, these provisions did not fully allow ex-offenders to overcome the obstacles to good health that they faced when leaving prison. From the 1970s, there was a move towards charitable involvement. As with earlier discharge organisations these groups were sometimes partially-funded by the state and provided ex-prisoners with hostel accommodation.[13]

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Image Credit: Rear View of a Silhouette Man in Window by Donald Tong, 11 August 2016 (CC0). 

[1] V. Bailey, ‘English Prisons, Penal Culture and the Abatement of Imprisonment, 1895-1992’, Journal of British Studies, 36:3 (1997), 285-324, p. 285.

[2] Colonel G. D. Turner, ‘Aid For Prisoners on Discharge’, The Police Journal: Theory, Practice and Principles, 3:1 (1930), 13-19, p. 13.

[3] P. Lowry, ‘The English Prison Welfare Service’, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 17:1 (1973), 29-41, p. 29.

[4] J. Alcorn, ‘Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies,’ Journal of Statistical and Social Inquiry of Ireland, 8:58 (1881), 217-223, p. 218.

[5] Annual Report of Proceedings at the Seventeenth Conference of Prisoners’ Aid Societies held at the Offices of the Reformatory and Refuge Union (London, 1893) (Modern Records Centre (MRC), University of Warwick).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, p. 16; V. Crossman and P. Gray (eds), Poverty and Welfare in Ireland 1838-1948 (Dublin, 2011), p. 15.

[8] Crossman and Gray (eds), Poverty and Welfare, p. 72.

[9] Report on the Committee of Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies (1960) (MRC).

[10] Names of the Certified Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies in Soarstat Éireann (National Archives of Ireland).

[11] M. Davies, Prisoners of Society (London, 1974), p. 5.

[12] M. Flynn, ‘Prison After-Care in the Irish Republic’, Irish Jurist, 6:1 (1971), 1-17, p.17.

[13] Davies, Prisoners of Society; Flynn, ‘Prison After-Care’.