A History of the American Prison System

The earliest American prisons were a combination of “religion, barbarity, and pragmatism.” Major towns had so few people that colonists could not afford nor felt the need to institutionalize convicts, so punishments were immediate and local. In this early system corporal punishment and prolonged humiliation were exceedingly common, as they were designed to deter criminals from acting. Our prisons were initially heavily influenced by the notably harsh and extensive English criminal code. The leading philosophy at the time came from Christian Calvinist doctrines that taught that man was inherently evil and full of sin. This left no place for reform, only deterrence.

Eventually more humane punishments were pushed for, as French political thinkers like Montesquieu and Rousseau argued that people were able to calculate the costs and benefits of their actions. This idea resonated in America and lead to reforms due to writings from philosophers like Cesare Beccaria. These initial changes were the roots of convict labor as punishment, but attempts to control prisons were woefully unsuccessful. In one prison, “to keep order, the head jailer arranged for a deputy to stand beside the preacher with a lighted torch and loaded cannon aimed at the convicts and ordered him to fire should any man move.” At this time private, cellular imprisonment was implemented, and was a radical idea for the American colonies, though it had been implemented as early as ancient Rome.

Cellular imprisonment was remarkably successful, but ran into problems as populations expanded and prisons grew larger. Eventually larger penitentiaries were constructed in New York and Pennsylvania during the early 1800’s which improved the situation. New approaches like solitary confinement without labor were attempted, but had disastrous effects on the mental health of prisoners. In New York, the congregate system was devised, in which inmates slept in separate cells, but worked in common shops during the day. Extreme control was instituted over inmates as the prison attempted to maximize profit from the shops. The first warden of the Auburn penitentiary in New York, Elam Lynds, sought to break a prisoner’s spirit and turn them into “a silent and insulated working machine.”

In Pennsylvania, the warden took an approach of reform, ensuring that prisoners were taught to read and received work if they wished, but kept the inmates in a more solitary environment as his approach focused on individual attention. Ultimately the New York approach was adopted by the other states due to its economic advantages.

In 1867 Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight created a report that argued that prisons should target reformation, and that the current prison conditions offered no hope for this. Reformation was still regarded as a waste of time due to its economic cost. Those in charge of prisons also had little interest as appointments to prison positions were largely politically and economically motivated. A major part of this was the contract system, which allowed private individuals to hire prison labor to produce goods. The system was largely abused by contractors and guards.

Prisons shortly became overcrowded and more reforms were attempted with little return. Eventually reformatories became popularized with the social movements of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, which gave way to industrial prisons and the abolishment of corporal punishment. These led to correctional institutions similar to the prisons we have today, which allowed for a higher degree of freedom with less intrusive discipline. These modern institutions have a greater focus on reform, but almost solely for lower level offenders who can take classes or work basic jobs while in prison.

Using information and quotes from An American Resolution: The History of Prisons in the United States from 1777 to 1877 by Matthew Meskell.


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