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...
References: Abadinsky, H (2006). Probation and Parole: Theory and Practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson custom publishing.
Morris, N (1995). The Oxford History of the prison: The Practice of punishment in western society. New York, NY: Oxford University press, Inc.
Retrieved June 20, 2008, Web site: http://www.unicor.gov/about/organization/history/prison_work_programs.cfm
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