Until the nineteenth century, apart from the King's Bench, Marshalsea and Fleet prisons, and, effectively, Newgate gaol, which were Crown prisons attached to the central courts, prisons were administered locally and were not the property or responsibility of central government. They were used for the correction of vagrants and those convicted of lesser offences, for coercion of debtors, and for the custody of those waiting for trial or the execution of sentence.
During the 18th and the first half of the 19th century, most convicted felons who were not executed were transported to the colonies, and the establishment of the hulks, floating prisons moored in the Thames at Plymouth, Portsmouth and elsewhere, in the late 18th century, to house convicts assembled for transportation, marked the first involvement of central government in the ownership and administration of prisons. As the nineteenth century advanced, the practice of transportation gradually declined and the government became closely involved in the setting up and administration of Millbank, (1816), Parkhurst (1838), Pentonville (1842) and Portland (1848) prisons.
However, the administration and maintenance of prisons was undertaken before 1877 largely in association with the courts of law. There were prisons for the central courts, while local justices were responsible for the county and borough gaols. Some central control was introduced by various statutes which gave the Home Secretary powers of supervision over convict and local prisons. He was empowered in 1835 to appoint certain officers at convict prisons and inspectors of local gaols; in 1846 a Surveyor General of Prisons and in 1849 five Inspectors of Prisons were appointed.
After 1850 the Home Secretary was also responsible for the appointment of a body of directors of convict prisons who superseded earlier separate boards of commissioners. The Home Office also controlled the hulks on the Thames, at Plymouth, Portsmouth and elsewhere which served as temporary or permanent places of detention for those sentenced to transportation. In 1877 the local gaols were brought under government management on the appointment of the Prison Commission.
The Prison Commission was established under the Prisons Act 1877 as a statutory board to administer and inspect prisons in England and Wales in accordance with the general or special directions of the Secretary of State. It took over the executive powers and the property rights of the Home Secretary, but considerable powers remained with the Home Office, including the appointment of a chairman from among the commissioners, of the Prison Inspectorate and of the senior officers of each prison, the approval of appointments of staff made by the commissioners and the regulation of visiting committees of justices. The commissioners were appointed by royal warrant on the recommendation of the Secretary of State and were salaried.
The commission was a body corporate of not more than five members and was empowered to hold property for the purposes of the Act. Its duties included the maintenance of all prisons, the appointment of subordinate prison staff, the inspection of prison buildings and the condition of prisoners, and the exercise of powers formerly vested in visiting justices and inspectors of prisons. It also submitted annual reports on every prison to the Home Office for presentation to Parliament, together with other returns. The reports included details of manufacturing processes carried on by prisoners within the prisons. The commissioners were assisted in their work by a central staff, by the Prison Inspectorate and by visiting committees of justices, which acted under regulations drawn up by the Home Office.
In 1881 the staffs of the directors of convict prisons and of the Prison Commission were merged, and under the Prisons Act 1898 the office of commissioner was made to carry that of director also. The commission thus became responsible for all prisons in England and Wales. It was closely associated with the Criminal Department of the Home Office and was frequently referred to as the Prison Department of the Home Office. The commission later took charge of borstal institutions (1908) and remand centres and detention centres (1948), and from 1877 to 1895 was responsible for maintaining the register of habitual criminals; in the latter year this was returned to the Metropolitan Police Office. The commission developed secretariat, establishment and finance branches, as well as an Industries and Stores Division concerned with industries in the prisons and borstals and a Works Division dealing with buildings.
The directors of convict prisons were abolished in 1948, and in April 1963 the Prison Commission was transferred to the Home Office as its new Prison Department. The former commissioners remained members of a Prisons Board. The Industries and Stores Division became a distinct section of the new department, but the common service divisions of the commission were merged with the appropriate divisions of the Home Office.