History of the American Prison System

Topics: Prison, Punishment, Penology Pages: 11 (1728 words) Published: September 13, 2008
The history of U.S. prisons from the late 1700s to the late 1800s was marked by a

shift from a penitentiary system primarily concerned with rehabilitation to one concerned

more with warehousing prisoners. The failure of reform minded wardens to justify

rehabilitation caused state legislatures to set economic profitability as the new goal for

prisons. This resulted in a worsening of prison conditions during this period.

Early colonial criminal law was a curious mix of religion, English barbarity, and

pragmatism. The relatively small populations of the early American colonies probably

determined much of the character of the criminal law. As late as 1765, the majority of

Massachusetts towns had fewer than 1000 inhabitants and only fifteen had over 2500.

Pennsylvania had fewer than 50,000 inhabitants in the entire province until well after

1730.With populations so low, the colonists could neither afford nor probably felt the

need to institutionalize convicts. Correspondingly, the character of criminal punishments

was immediate and depended on self-policing in the communities. Some scholars have

even argued that membership in the local church was so stressed because it provided an

effective way of keeping track of community members and enforcing criminal

codes. Whatever the merits of this argument, there is little dispute that many colonial

criminal punishments depended on the criminal being recognized as a part of the

community. Most punishments were public and involved either quick, corporal tortures

or more prolonged humiliation. Among the punishments designed to deter crime by

inflicting pain, the colonials often used the whipping post, branding and maiming, gags,

and a device known as the ducking stool. The latter device was essentially a chair

connected to a pulley system where "slanderers, `makebayts,' `chyderers,' brawlers, and

women of light carriage were restrained and then repeatedly plunged into a convenient

body of water. Punishments designed predominantly to humiliate the offender included

public penance, the stocks, the pillory, and the scarlet letter. This group of deterrents

depended largely, if not exclusively, for its effect on the shame and embarrassment

arising from being punished in front of one's friends and neighbors. Indeed, strangers to

communities were much more likely upon conviction to suffer physical punishment and

banishment than the stocks or the pillory.

The 1790 law substituted hard labor as punishment for various crimes, ordered

that jailers segregate the sexes and separate convicts from debtors, and provided for the

construction of sixteen solitary cells in the Walnut Street jail for confinement of the most

hardened criminals. The total physical area of the refurbished prison was 400 by 200 feet

which was bounded by an outer enclosure. Convicts used 300 feet at the north end of the

enclosure for their exercise, while debtors and witnesses used 100 feet at the south. Three

buildings housed the convicts that were kept together at night. Spread through these

buildings were eight "night rooms" which measured approximately eighteen feet by

twenty feet. The debtors and vagrants were housed in a workhouse located just south of

the main enclosure. Surrounded by gardens, a separate building held the sixteen solitary

cells. Each cell was "8 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 10 feet high." The cells had an outer

wooden door, an inner iron door, and one window that was kept blinded and locked to

prevent any glimpse of the outside. This basic design was to be the model for all the

prisons created in America during the next thirty years.

It is important to note that the prison at Walnut Street was not based on the idea of

solitary confinement without labor. Only those convicts who formerly would have been

put to death and were...
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