David decides to remain with Miss Betsey until he finishes his novel. In the meantime, he makes trips to London both for pleasure and to confer with Traddles, who managed David's business affairs while he was abroad. Traddles also receives all of David's fan mail, including requests to use David's name to practice law, in exchange for a cut of the profits. David, however, declines these offers to avoid encouraging corruption.
David's refusal to take advantage of the years he spent training as a proctor is a sign of his integrity (though he also has no need to profit off it, since he's now earning a comfortable income as a writer).
While visiting Traddles, David notices that Sophy is often writing in a book that she quickly hides upon seeing David. Eventually, Traddles shows David a piece of paper full of "extraordinarily legal and formal" handwriting, explaining that Sophy is learning to work as his clerk. Sophy is embarrassed, but Traddles is proud to have such a skilled and helpful wife. In fact, he says, he can hardly believe how happy and lucky he is when he sees Sophy going about her daily routine. Although there are still many things they can't afford, Traddles and Sophy often take pleasure in walking past shops and discussing what they would buy: they even plan which house they would move into if Traddles became a judge, and "parcel it out" as if they owned it already.
Traddles' and Sophy's window-shopping illustrates the growing connection between class and consumerism in nineteenth-century England. A comfortably well-off middle-class family could showcase their status with their purchases, so Traddles' and Sophy's fantasies about what they will buy one day indicate their aspirations to move up the social ladder. As their interest in houses demonstrates, this consumerism is also tied to nineteenth-century domesticity: in practice, creating a proper household required a certain level of income.
David remarks that Traddles can always find ways to enjoy life, regardless of his circumstances, and asks whether he still draws skeletons the way he used to. Traddles admits that he does, and laughs, in a "forgiving way," about "Old Creakle." David then takes out a letter Creakle has sent him, explaining that his fame has caused Creakle to "discover" that he always liked David. Mr. Creakle is now a magistrate, and has invited David for a tour of the prison he oversees, so that David can see for himself "the only true system of prison discipline." Traddles agrees to accompany David on a tour, as David comments disapprovingly on the fact that Creakle feels so much "tenderness" for prisoners after having abused and abandoned members of his own family.
Creakle's reappearance underscores how far David has come since his days as a student, and how much he has moved up in the world; he's now famous enough that his old enemy Creakle is trying to improve his own situation by currying favor with David. As David's remark about Creakle's "tenderness" demonstrates, the episode is also an opportunity for Dickens to vent his frustration with the prison reform efforts that took place over the course of the nineteenth-century; although Dickens himself was a social reformer, he thought that the money invested in prison reform would be better spent on the "deserving" poor (that is, lower-class people who had not committed crimes and were attempting to find work).
When the day of the tour arrives, David and Traddles go to the prison, which is an imposing and expensive building. Once inside, they meet several magistrates, and Mr. Creakle greets David and Traddles warmly. There is a conversation about prison conditions that David finds irritating, because he thinks the money would be better spent on schools or housing. The group then begins its tour, and David observes to Traddles that the prisoners are better fed than many workers. This David, says, is explained as a necessary part of "the 'system.'" When David asks what makes this system so effective, the magistrates say that the "perfect isolation of prisoners" encourages them to repent. David suspects, however, that the prisoners are able to communicate with one another, and explains that this later proved to be the case.
Given that David Copperfield is a novel about personal growth and transformation, it may seem strange that David himself is so cynical about the possibility of prisoners reforming. Again, this is partly a reflection of Dickens' frustration with the priorities of nineteenth-century reformers; as David notes, the need amongst the lower classes for schooling, housing, and even food was urgent, so spending money on improved prison conditions seemed irresponsible to some.
As the tour goes on, David feels that most of the prisoners are simply parroting what they have learned, which passes for penitence. In fact, he suspects that some particularly self-centered men take pleasure in the attention they receive for expressing remorse. Having heard that "Twenty Eight" and (especially) "Twenty Seven" are model prisoners, David tries not to form a final opinion until after seeing them.
David's remark about the backhanded pride involved in public declarations of guilt strongly recalls Uriah Heep's use of "humbleness" as a way of asserting authority. This isn't an accident, since one of the prisoners does in fact turn out to be Uriah. It's significant, however, that this latest form of humility involves only Uriah's criminal action and not his social class. This shift corresponds to the broader idea that what is objectionable about Uriah isn't his ambition (a quality David shares), but his moral charcter.
Finally, the group arrives at Twenty-Seven's cell, and David is surprised to see that the prisoner is Uriah Heep, who greets both him and Traddles. Mr. Creakle asks Uriah how he is, and he replies that he is "very umble." One of the other magistrates then asks whether Uriah is "comfortable," and Uriah says he is, because he is better able to see his faults than he was outside prison. This moves the magistrates, as does Uriah's declaration that it is his "duty" to put up with things like overcooked meals.
Again, Uriah's claims of humility initially revolved around his class background rather than his misdeeds, as they do now. This change in the word's connotation underscores the novel's insistence that Uriah is problematic not because of his social climbing, but simply because of his villainy.
The magistrates call for Twenty-Eight to be brought out, and David sees that it is Littimer. One of the magistrates asks whether the quality of the cocoa has improved since Littimer complained about it, and Littimer says that it has, although he suspects the milk isn't entirely pure. After further questioning, Littimer says that he understands his "follies" now and is happy. He adds, however, that he knows David from his "former life," and wants to take the opportunity to warn him that he views all his crimes as the result of "having lived a thoughtless life in the service of young men." He also says that he tried to save a woman who "fell into dissolute courses"—that is, little Em'ly—and wants David to tell her that Littimer forgives her and hopes she will repent.
Under the guise of expressing repentance, Littimer is able to vent his resentment towards his former employers and others (like David) from a class higher than his own. His claim that these sorts of men led him astray is especially hypocritical given that he's in prison for robbing his last employer. The passage also reveals Littimer's resentment toward Emily, who refused to marry him, similarly framed as innocent concern.
Both the magistrate and Mr. Littimer express hopes that David will be affected by what the latter has said and repent. Littimer then exchanges a glance with Uriah and returns to his cell. Mr. Creakle asks whether there is anything more he can do for Uriah, and Uriah asks permission to write to Mrs. Heep again: he is worried about the state of his mother's soul and wishes she could be brought to the prison, which he views as the only place without "sin." He assures Mr. Creakle, however, that he himself is a changed man and could safely be let out.
Uriah's "wish" that his mother had also been imprisoned is first and foremost a way of currying favor with the magistrates by praising their system. However, it's also a reminder that Uriah lacks the one redeeming quality his mother has—namely, genuine love for her family. As David puts it, Uriah looks "as if he would have blighted the outer world […] if he could." In other words, there is an undercurrent of real resentment to Uriah's wish, and it seems likely that he would be happy to see is mother in prison purely out of spite.
Mr. Creakle asks whether Uriah has anything to say to David. Uriah says he does, reminding David that he once hit Uriah and saying he forgives him. Furthermore, he says he hopes that David, Mr. Wickfield, Agnes, and "all of that sinful lot" will see the error of their ways: in fact, he hopes that they could all "be took up and brought here [to the prison]." He then returns to his cell as the magistrates all congratulate him.
Uriah's desire to see David and his friends imprisoned is genuine, though it's not the expression of concern the magistrates take it for but rather a wish for revenge. Prison, in other words, hasn't changed Uriah at all; he is just as resentful as ever, and just as good at manipulating those around him.
David asks a magistrate what crime led to Uriah's imprisonment, and learns that he was the ringleader in a case of "fraud, forgery, and conspiracy." Littimer, meanwhile, robbed an employer: the magistrate says he particularly remembers this case because a "little woman" turned Littimer in. David guesses that he is talking about Miss Mowcher, and the magistrate confirms that she recognized Littimer while he was trying to escape in disguise, grabbed hold of him despite him "cut[ting] her face right open," and testified at his trial.
Littimer's crime, like Uriah's actions as Wickfield's clerk and partner, was a crime against his employer and supposed social better. Uriah, meanwhile, moved on from defrauding a private law firm to attempting to defraud the Bank of England—something that perhaps hints at the dangerous consequences of social unrest and class resentment for the nation as a whole.
As the tour ends, David feels it would be useless to try to convince Mr. Creakle that Uriah and Littimer are not repentant at all. Instead, he and Traddles simply leave the prisoners and the magistrates to their "system," which they hope will prove hollow sooner rather than later.
Part of what ultimately distinguishes the novel's villains from its heroes is the villains' inability to grow and change. Where David learns from his mistakes, Uriah and Littimer remain exactly the same even after going to prison.