Before 1850 the Home Office was not directly concerned in the administration of prisons, but it exercised increasing supervision of prison administration by the courts and local justices.
In 1802 an inspector of the hulk establishment was appointed to be responsible to the Home Secretary for the management of hulks on the Thames, at Portsmouth, Plymouth and elsewhere. The hulks served as prisons for convicts awaiting transportation but came to be used for convicts who were not transported but served their sentences in the royal dockyards or arsenals or in dredging work on the Thames. By the mid-nineteenth century the hulks were used for convicts excused from transportation on health grounds, and they were closed by 1859. The post of Inspector of the Hulk Establishment was in 1815 replaced by that of Superintendent of Convicts, an office held with that of Clerk for Criminal Business in the Home Office; and the Criminal Department of the office retained responsibility for administrative rather than executive work in connection with prisons until 1963.
The Home Secretary also acquired certain supervisory powers in relation to convict prisons and local gaols under the Prisons Acts 1823 and 1835, the Municipal Corporations Acts 1835 and 1837 and the Acts establishing or regulating the convict prisons of Millbank (opened 1821), Pentonville (opened 1842) and Parkhurst, a prison for juveniles. Reports from chairmen of gaol sessions and visiting justices, prison regulations, returns of prisoners and plans of prisons were required to be submitted to him, and he could alter the regulations if he saw fit. In 1835 he was authorised to appoint officers at convict prisons and inspectors of local prisons. A Surveyor-General of Prisons was appointed in 1846 to consider proposed prison building plans and alterations to existing plans, and in 1849 five inspectors of prisons were also appointed.
The gradual abolition of transportation to various parts of Australia from 1840 led to increasing pressure on the convict prisons, and in 1850 a body of directors of convict prisons was appointed to take over their management from earlier separate boards of commissioners and to take control of the hulk establishment; the office of superintendent had disappeared in 1847. The directors' responsibilities included the new prisons for public works at Portland, opened in 1849, and Dartmoor, reopened in 1850. In 1870 the directors also became responsible for the control of expenditure on convict services in the colonies formerly carried out by the Colonial Office.
In 1865 another Prisons Act gave the Home Secretary greater power over local prisons, including the right to close them if they were inadequate. The moves towards centralisation were completed in 1877 when the Prison Commission was established to take over the management and inspection of prisons formerly under local control which thereby became the property of the state. The Commission also took charge of the existing Prison Inspectorate under the direction of the Home Secretary. It took over the work of the administrative Prison Department of the Home Office which had come into existence by the 1870s.
The separate establishments of the Prison Inspectorate and the directors of convict prisons came to be known as the Prison Department of the Home Office, and after 1877 this title also encompassed the Prison Commission. In 1881 the staffs of the Prison Commission and of the directors were merged, and it became customary for the two bodies to have a single chairman. The Prison Act 1898 virtually completed the merger by providing that commissioners should ex officio be directors. Thereafter the Prison Commission acquired greater autonomy, until in 1963 a Prison Department of the Home Office was again formed with the functions previously discharged by the Criminal Department of the Home Office and the Prison Commission. It assumed responsibility for the Voluntary Advisory Nursing Board.
In 1984 a committee was set up, with Peter J Prior in the chair, to investigate arrangements for dealing with alleged disciplinary offences by prisoners. It reported in 1985. In 1990, following disturbances at HM Prison Manchester (Strangeways) and elsewhere, an inquiry was set up under Lord Justice Woolf to examine the events leading up to disturbances and the action taken to bring them to a conclusion.