History of the united states prison system

Historial Origin of the Prison System in America. Harry Elmer Barnes. Follow this and additional works at: traneccalviri.ml
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His design was intended to ensure that the people who were locked up would never know if they were being watched by guards or not, which he felt would allow the prison to save money. Since the inmates could not be certain how many guards were present, Bentham reasoned, fewer officers would need to be hired to maintain the peace.

In the end, this prison was never built, but the concept of using prisons as a form of long term punishment did catch on. By the 19th century, prisons were being built for the sole purpose of housing inmates.

They were intended to deter people from committing crimes. People who were found guilty of various crimes would be sent to these penitentiaries and stripped of their personal freedoms. Now that the penitentiary was an actual things, there were issues to be addressed, dating back to the corruption and mistreatment that plagued earlier American and British prisons.

Jeremy Bentham was very clear in what he thought should be done, in order to prevent the same things from happening again: he believed that prisoners, though under a strict regime, should still be kept healthy. This was also the time where women and men were separated and sanitation was greatly improved.

In good old American fashion, this new type of institution lead to new inventions and new ideas on how they should be constructed and run. Perhaps the most revolutionary of these ideas came from that Jeremy Bentham, who not only had his ideas on organizational reform, but also on architectural reform. His Penapticon Writings of outline ideas and layouts still used in modern prison system.

The author himself was considered a liberal utilitarian philosopher woah, that's a mouthful , and believed that penitentiaries should have constant surveillance. His solution? A centrally placed observer have you seen Oz? Cells would radiate from this central location to optimize visibility, and this model was used for the next half century. During this time, however, the new prison was not the only solution. They were still not common, though the idea of imprisonment as opposed to death was.

The other solution?

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Prison hulks. Though these didn't have as much of an impact, they lasted from to , when they were finally abolished for many of the same reasons early prisons were disapproved of. So what were they?

History of Prisons

Prison hulks were basically a means of transportation for prisoners: ships were anchored in either the Thames, Portsmouth, or Plymouth. The prisoners unfortunate enough to be sent to these harbors were put to work in hard labor during the daytime hours, then chained into the ship at night.


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The conditions were absolutely unacceptable, with a lack of control and poor physical conditions being some of the many problems that these hulks faced. These flawed practices were what eventually lead to their demise.

U.S. Correctional System

Around this time, the Penitentiary Act also was put into effect in It determined that prisons should be built with one inmate per each cell, and that it should operate on the idea of continuous labor carried out in silence. The Penitentiary Act was the start of a series of reforms and refinements that would ensure the prison system would work effectively and humanely. Of course, there's still debate on whether this was achieved or not, but that's another argument for another article!

So shortly after the Act was put into place, the first national penitentiary was built in in Millbank, London. It held up to prisoners, who were, in accordance to the Act, held in separate cells. They were allowed to associate with other prisoners during daytime hours, while also maintaining a healthy work schedule of simple tasks such as picking "coir" tar rope and weaving.

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By the start of the s, nearly all states had gotten ride of the death penalty with the exception of 1st degree murder or other similarly severe crimes. With this diminishing of the presence of the death penalty came the development of more prisons, and thus a development of two ideas about the prison system and how it should be modeled:.

Prisoners were of course kept in separate cells, with the added intent of keeping them in those cells as much as possible for maximum solitude. This meant that prisoners had to eat, sleep and work in total isolation during their incarceration. However, unlike the other model, they were allowed to eat meals and work with other prisoners.

The catch? They had to due it in total silence, something that was rigidly enforced by the guards. Both systems have their merits and had their followers. While they may seem to differ severely, they did have similarities. They both sought to rehabilitate their inmates, and to varying degrees they both had a focus on isolation, the use of labor, and the importance of surveillance.

This allowed more wide-ranged use among other prisons around the country. Europe was keeping an eye on the US during this time, and became interested in the prisons that were starting to pop up around the states. The Pentonville Prison built in is a perfect example of how they implemented models born in the US. The Prison held only prisoners in separate cells, and implemented the panopticon system by having 4 separate wings of the prison radiate from a single point from which all cells could be easily watched and monitored.

The cells themselves were 13 feet long, 7 feet wide and 9 feet high, with the inclusion of a solitary confinement unit. The architectural and organizational model that this prison used inspired over 50 more prisons to use this template in the next 6 years. Even though American prisons served as models for Europe, they were not perfect: in , prison reformers Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight wrote a Report on the Prisons and Reformatories in the United States and Canada , which pointed out administrative corruption as well as prison abuse.

This document perhaps, in part, inspired the forming of the Prison Commission in , which allowed local prisons to be controlled centrally. This period of time also saw a change in the way the effectiveness of penitentiaries was viewed: while the past focused primarily on reform, the new goal seemed to revolve around preventing offending and reoffending.

But fear not! Reform was not lost, and this change was not a permanent one! The Prison Act of brought back the importance of reform and emphasized it as the main role of prison regimes. This act has penal-welfare context that is still alive and well in today's prison policy. The separate system of one prisoner per cell was also diluted, as well as the eventual abolition of hard labor.

But just hard labor; not labor in general.

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The Act established a new idea of productivity for the prisoners that would encourage a possible livelihood after release. The end of the 19th century saw the implementation of juvenile correction: people began to believe that youths should have their own prison establishments separate from those of adults. The very beginning of the 20th century saw the birth of the Prevention of Crime Act of see, I told you, the very beginning!

This introduced the borstal system, which revolved around hard physical work, technical and educational instruction as well as a strong moral atmosphere for incarcerated youths. They used the system to ensure that a young prisoner would have to work through a series of grades, based on privileges, until their eventual release. A Borstal System is an "English reformatory system designed for youths between 16 and 21, named after an old convict prison at Borstal, Kent" Britannica. New models for prisons were also popping up during this time: in , the first open prison was built at New Hall Camp near Wakefield.

The ideals behind this system might best be summarized by prison reformer Sir Alex Paterson, who said that "you cannot train a man for freedom under conditions of captivity". An open prison is "a penal establishment in which the prisoners are trusted to serve their sentences and so do not need to be locked up, thus extending the range of work and occupation they can safely undertake" thefreedictionary. Now, the 20th century is incredibly recent.

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19th Century Prison Reform Collection | Cornell University Library Digital Collections

The "First Great Experiment" was the creation of the penitentiary system. The "Second Great Experiment", which we'll focus on now, refers to the midth century. It basically postulates that the incarceration rate is highest at periods of economic stagnation where unemployment rates are higher than normal. This can be exemplified by the Great Depression, which had the highest incarceration rates in history thus far. In , federal and state prisons peaked at per , this means that people were imprisoned per every , in total population.

After this period, however, those rates rapidly dropped with the beginning of World War II. Why yes, yes it does! Many believe that rates decline during times of war because so many men and women are entering the military, and more jobs are created back on the homefront. In any case, unemployment and imprisonment went up after this war, too because soldiers were coming home and needed more jobs, and no new ones were necessarily being created like they are during wartime.

Lucky for us, however, the rate did not continue to increase and instead remained relatively consistent in following years. It wasn't until the 70s that they started to rise again, but we'll talk about that in a few paragraphs. While there had previously been regulatory laws and acts put into place, this one offered up a more comprehensive system for punishing and treating the incarcerated. While prisons were still the main form of punishment, other possibilities such as remand or detention centers as well as borstal institutions also became widely used.

The next major incident regarding the penal system didn't really happen until the s, when dissent and rebellion began to rise. There was a lot of agitation around this time, revolving around various issues including the Jim Crow system in the South, the Vietnam war and patriarchal institutions.