Origins of American prison systems

Topics: Prison, Penology, Criminal justice Pages: 5 (1595 words) Published: October 5, 2014
Prison systems have been an intricate part of American society for centuries. As early as the act of war, imprisonment has been used to incarcerate societal wrong doers until punishment was administered. American prison systems were initially modeled from British penal methods, as America is their daughter country. British law allowed for harsh punishments and conditions for prisoners. Punishments, such as stockades and/or whippings, were perceived as effective deterrents to crime. These penalties were always public, quick, and in a form of humiliation, as well as based on capital punishment. The current idea of prison as rehabilitation, as well as restitution and retribution, is also based on British influences. The penal system within the colonies was riddled with bad conditions and quick decisions, as well as keeping alive the tradition of detaining the prisoners until chastisement. Since these were all small settlements, based on their specific religious beliefs, criminal punishments depended on the criminal being an active member/church goer within the community. The colonists believed the doctrine that man is naturally sinful and evil and the focus of punishment was not for reformation but for deterrence. Payment for crimes were automatically harsh and this only increased with the number of offenses. Offenses as small as stealing bread to feed a hunger family would result in death. During the 18th century, the idea of harsh punishment for small crimes was beginning to be greatly opposed. As protest, to counter the harsh punishments, jurors would purposely find defendants not guilty of petty crimes that would lead to death. The idea of imprisonment with hard labor was proposed as a much better way to handle criminals. In addition to the colonies’ own criminals, Britain was practicing the use of transportation and prison hulks, which shipped unwanted British criminals to the colonies where, living on prison hulks, they work during the day and sleep, on the boat in chains, at night. The disgust at the treatment of prisoners did not cease because the prisoners were moved and thus began the British reform movement. The father of this movement is said to be John Howard, although not the only prison reformist, and ex prisoner himself and also a man of leisure, Howard set out to change the way British prisons treated their prisoners, as well as the living conditions. Howard is responsible for some of American penal systems policies, such as the paying the jailers from government funds, as opposed to prison labor, however, this did not end prison labor. Since the prison systems were not the only grievances the colonies had with Britain, a list was written including the colonies’ intent to become a separate nation. This, amongst other things, lead to the American Revolution, which gave America the freedom to make its own decisions. This brought about a change for the penal system in America. The, now, states then began replacing executions with confinements and building housing facilities to hold the criminals.

In Philadelphia, the first reform organization was formed, and began to spread the belief in rehabilitation, treating the prisoners’ problems instead of corporal punishment. The first jail followed soon thereafter, having sixteen cells and a warden who assigned prisoners to one of four categories of offense; all prisoners are sent to solitary confinement with a bible, in hopes of speeding up the rehabilitation process. Eventually the other states began to change their systems, more prisons were built and the uses of branding, whipping, and other tortures were being eliminated. Although not every state quickly jumped on board for penal change. The southern states, high in slavery, were opposed to housing their criminals because slaves couldn’t work from prison. Other states used different prison plans, such as the more commonly used Auburn plan, in which...
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