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With more than two million adults serving time in American prisons and jails, another five million adults under forms of correctional supervision such as probation or parole that threaten imprisonment for violators, and an incarceration rate of more than 700 people per 100,000 population, the United States leads the world in incarceration (Glaze, 2011). Although imprisonment has come to dominate American corrections, the prison as a form of punishment is a relatively recent historical development, emerging as part of a transnational conversation in the United States and Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and later in various forms throughout the rest of the world. To be sure, while neither the use of confinement nor the loss of liberty as punishment was invented in the United States, American penal innovation greatly influenced corrections on a global scale.
The history of corrections in America is one of failed reform. In response to the economic, political, and social concerns of each historical moment, reformers, politicians, and the American public have embraced various models of corrections emphasizing deterrence, retribution, incapacitation, and/or rehabilitation. But the reforms implemented to reduce crime, solve prison overcrowding, or reduce recidivism, for example, often generated additional problems, which combined with other contemporary concerns yielded further reforms. What follows is an overview of these shifting practices and goals in American corrections, from the colonial period through the present and in a transnational and global context.
Corrections In Colonial America
Punishment in English colonial America reflected the legal and cultural traditions of the mother country, with adaptations appropriate to local conditions and needs. Like their counterparts across the Atlantic, colonial courts meted out a variety of public, corporal, and humiliating punishments as a way of deterring crime. Depending in part on the type of offense, but more often on the status and history of the offender, punishments might include the stocks or pillory, the whipping post, flogging, ear cropping, the wearing of signs, branding, or standing in the gallows. Fines were commonly imposed for lesser crimes and first offenses and were sometimes accompanied by, or substituted with, a shaming or corporal punishment. The most serious crimes incurred sentences of banishment or even the gallows. The aim was not to reform the individual offender, but to produce such a grim spectacle to deter a fearful public from sinful acts of crime (Kealey 1986).
The types of corporal and shaming punishments employed throughout colonial America derived from the English criminal code. But although the harsh “bloody code,” as it later came to be known, was in force in the colonies, local conditions and British salutary neglect resulted in its less frequent and less intense application in America. The English criminal code enumerated 50 crimes that were punishable by death when it was introduced in 1688, and over the next century the number of capital crimes increased to more than two hundred. However, a practice of royal and clerical pardons resulted in only a fraction of those condemned in England being hanged, and in seventeenth-century colonial America, a shortage of labor discouraged the frequent use of maiming punishments or the gallows, resulting in an even lower rate of execution than in Britain (Morgan 1985; McLennan 2008; Rothman 1971).
As in England, criminals in the American colonies were not typically sentenced to indefinite or extended confinement in workhouses or jails, nor were such institutions equipped for long stays. Jails were used to ensure an individual’s whereabouts either until his trial or sentence was complete or until any monies owed might be recuperated, and workhouses were utilized most often for vagrants. For the most part, colonists saw little use for imprisonment as punishment, holding that it served neither as a public deterrent nor as a means of securing labor, but instead created a class of dependents that developing colonial economies were ill equipped to sustain.
Some colonists had come to view English punishment as sanguinary and unjust, advocating instead the use of confinement and hard labor. In Quaker Pennsylvania, William Penn’s 1682 “Great Law” reduced capital offenses to murder and designated imprisonment in the workhouse for most criminal offenses. The law and the experiment with imprisonment were short-lived, however; it was repealed in 1718 and the English criminal code was once again reinstated.
Britain’s system of pardons provided many condemned prisoners with reprieve in the form of banishment. These men joined the masses of convicted young larcenists on a journey across the Atlantic to the British colonies in America or the West Indies. With the passage of the Transportation Act of 1718, banishment became the leading punishment for property offenses, the most common form of crime in Britain. In some jurisdictions, banishment made up more than half of the sentences for all convicted criminals. Between 1718 and 1775, as war approached, more than 50,000 British convicts were transported to American colonial shores. Transported convicts made up roughly one quarter of all British immigrants to the American colonies during this period, and one half of all English immigrants. Convict transportation, some in England argued, not only solved the problem of crime at home, but also helped to solve the problem of labor in the colonies. On the other side of the Atlantic, especially in the Chesapeake where the majority of convicts debarked, many colonists resented serving as England’s dumping ground for rogues, anxious about the crimes that these felons might – and did – commit. More enterprising colonists saw an opportunity for cheap labor. Shippers carried convicts and indentured servants in the same hold and auctioned their labor to the highest bidders in the colonies for profit and to defray the cost of transport. Like indentured servants, though commonly at a fraction of the price, convicts sold into penal servitude were contracted to labor roughly 7 years before being freed. But whereas indentured servants were more easily absorbed into colonial society upon expiration of their contract, penal servants faced persistent stigma. Colonists tended to identify penal servants more closely with their black slaves than with white servants, passing legislation that restricted penal servants’ legal rights to testify in court, vote, and even receive freedom dues, a customary land grant provided upon expiration of the term of indenture. As war with the American colonies loomed, British convict transportation ceased in 1775, leaving both the British and the fledgling United States to seek new solutions to the problem of corrections (Ekirch 1985; Grubb 2000; Morgan 1985).
The Birth Of The Prison
Historians have offered several explanations for the birth of the prison in Europe and America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Perhaps most famously, Michel Foucault situated the shift from corporal punishment focusing on the body to disciplinary punishment centered on the soul within the context of a growing population and increasing class tensions, an industrializing economy, and the emergence of human sciences. While the humanitarian concerns of reformers worked to gain public acceptance of the prison, Foucault argued, it was the demands of the modern industrial age for disciplined bodies that led imprisonment to become the dominant form of punishment in the west (Foucault 1977).
Foucault emphasized the increase in access to the internal life of the citizen implied by this shift. While early colonists and Europeans left determinations about the soul to God, their nineteenth-century successors believed they could impel internal change through control of the prisoner’s body. With convict transport cut off during the American Revolution and increased social and economic dislocation as a result of industrialization, the promise of reforming delinquents into productive laboring classes through imprisonment was appealing to England’s upper classes who grew anxious about rising crime and a growing population (Ignatieff 1978). Reformers, such as William Allen, Elizabeth Fry, John Howard, and Jeremy Bentham, supported the use of imprisonment on religious, humanitarian, and utilitarian grounds, as a means of correction and reformation. The Penitentiary Act of 1779, influenced heavily by Howard’s 1777 report on The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, authorized construction of two new prisons, which would attempt to reform convicts through the use of solitary confinement, disciplined labor, and religious instruction. The Act went largely unenforced, however, especially as by 1787 convict transportation had resumed, this time to colonies in New South Whales (Australia) and Van Deiman’s Island (Tasmania). Similarly, in France, legislation drafted in the wake of the French Revolution providing for the construction of prisons largely went unfulfilled. Just as in the United States, it would be another several decades before Europe embraced a penitentiary system.
The American Penitentiary
In the United States, the 50 years following independence marked both the rise and the institutionalization of the penitentiary. Although the forms and aims of corrections changed dramatically in only half a century, it is important to remember that the shift from public corporal punishment to a reliance on imprisonment was gradual and incomplete. Legally sanctioned public executions were carried out well into the twentieth century, and corporal punishment remained a mainstay of prison discipline throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Moreover, calls for the reform of American corrections had many different motivations, from religious and humanitarian concern to intellectual and cultural shifts, class anxiety, and social and economic changes. Imprisonment was one of many efforts to bring moral and practical order to society, including schools, almshouses, and asylums.
The first wave of reform came in the 1780s, as many states, led by Pennsylvania, revised their criminal codes to reduce the number of capital offenses. By the eighteenth century, first-degree murder remained the only crime punishable by death in most northern states. America’s ruling intellectual and elite classes were guided by Enlightenment concepts of rationalism, humanity, and the social contract, and these ideas also influenced their notions about effective corrections. As in Britain there was anxiety among the elite over social instability and the unruly lower classes, but part and parcel of the work of forging a new nation was establishing a system of punishment that aligned with the new republican ideals. Many reformers who opposed capital punishment did so not only on humanitarian grounds, but argued that it was ineffective, unchristian and even dangerous for society. The alleged effectiveness of shaming punishments in the colonial era relied on a close-knit, face-to-face society where the scorn of neighbors and friends was humiliating to the offender and, crucially, onlookers could imagine themselves in the convict’s place. But with the demographic changes and the increase in mobility and size of the population that took place after the American Revolution, shaming lost its effectiveness. Further, capital punishment, Thomas Jefferson wagered, did little to maintain loyalty between a citizenry and its government. Moreover, Benjamin Rush argued, such public displays of violent execution had a brutalizing effect on spectators, spurring further criminal activity. Early American juries often failed to convict defendants who faced punishments they deemed too harsh for the crime, even when they believed the defendant to be guilty. Thus, reformers opposed the widespread and public use of capital punishment, embracing instead the proportionality advocated by Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria as most efficacious. Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments, translated into English in 1767, was widely read by America’s intellectual classes (Masur 1989; McLennan 2008).
But as states turned away from the use of public corporal punishment, it was still unclear how exactly convicted criminals should be punished. Pennsylvania embarked on a brief experiment in restriction of liberty, sentencing convicts to hard labor on public roads. These work gangs were meant to serve as a warning to onlookers of both the penalty for crime and a reminder of the power of the state to punish. In fact, the laboring gangs often drew mocking mobs and crowds of sympathetic spectators who sometimes provided convicts alms. Concerned about the corrupting influence of the convicts on the public and chagrined by the jeering crowds, local leaders scrambled for an alternative, revising the state’s criminal code once again in 1789 to provide for sentences of imprisonment at hard labor in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail. Opposition to imprisonment as punishment was relatively minor but was made both on religious and republican grounds. Strict Calvinists believed that only biblical punishments could be justly imposed. Others argued that imprisonment threatened Americans’ property rights because it would require raising taxes to maintain convicts in confinement – a breach of the social contract. Still, critics of the prison were relatively few (McLennan 2008; Meranze 1996; Masur 1989).
In 1790, the Pennsylvania legislature established Walnut Street as the state prison and ordered the construction of the penitentiary house on the grounds of the jail to include 16 solitary cells for the most hardened criminals. Most convicts and those still awaiting trial were held in the jail’s large rooms at night and spent their days in the yard, shoemaking, nail making, weaving, or stone sawing to defray the cost of their imprisonment and to earn small amounts of money for use upon release. Conditions were stark; inmates frequently grew ill, and as the jail’s population swelled, so too did tensions, idleness, and violence. New York City’s Newgate Prison, built in 1796, faced similar troubles. Inmates at Walnut Street, Newgate, and other early American prisons protested their forced labor and squalid living conditions through disobedience, work slowdowns and stoppages, destruction of tools and machinery, and even open rebellion.
By the second decade of the nineteenth century, overcrowding, inmate violence and escapes, as well as administrative and financial disputes forced authorities to acknowledge the failure of these early institutions and spurred the second wave of reform. Evolving and competing penological philosophies, coupled with economic, social, and political concerns in Jacksonian America, led to the development of two distinct institutions and systems of imprisonment at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and Auburn Prison in upstate New York. Both prisons became models of a new type of penitentiary, replicated across the country and around the world. Perhaps more important than the differences between the systems was the fact that they marked the institutionalization of incarceration as the American response to crime.
Classification and segregation of convicts at Walnut Street was legislated in 1790. However, the implementation of this practice was limited by the physical structure of the prison. With only 16 individual cells, the remaining convicts were housed together, in groups of 20 to 30 per cell. As Walnut’s inmate population gradually swelled, the state legislature succumbed to public pressure and authorized the construction of two penitentiaries – Western State near Pittsburg in 1818 and Eastern State in Philadelphia in 1821 – that would be large enough to accommodate every inmate in solitude. Designed by the famous architect John Haviland, the impressive Eastern State Penitentiary opened its gates in 1829. It was built on the theory that removing the fallen individual from all potentially negative influences, functionally isolating him completely, would furnish him with the necessary conditions for reflection, repentance, and finally, redemption. To facilitate the reformation of the criminal in this introspective manner, Eastern housed inmates individually for the duration of their sentence, providing only a Bible, occasional handicraft work, and his conscience to occupy his time. As such, each of the initial 250 cells boasted plumbing, heating, and an adjacent private exercise yard surrounded by 10-foot high walls. The vaulted ceilings in each cell were meant to encourage spiritual reflection and the thick walls between cells served to prevent communication. Visitors and correspondence were strictly forbidden, the only exception being calls from the minister. (Teeters and Shearer 1957).
Using Bentham’s panopticon as a model, Haviland designed the prison with a central rotunda from which one jailer could monitor activity on all of the seven radiating cellblocks. An imposing stone wall surrounded the prison, 12-ft thick at the base and 30 ft high to keep the public out and the convicts in. The thick-walled design of the prison’s cells and the administration of the facility all served to enforce a strict rule of silence. Even so, inmates subverted authority by tapping messages to one another on pipes. Although such a focus on the redemption of the soul promised a more humanitarian form of punishment, to keep order, jailers again turned to the body, this time behind the prison’s thick walls (Meranze 1996).
Construction began on New York’s Auburn Prison in 1816. Like Newgate, it was initially patterned on Walnut Street Jail. Reformers and legislators believed that the problems at these early prisons stemmed from overcrowding and that more space would solve the matter. By 1819, however, the situation had not improved at Newgate and Auburn had developed its own problems. In response to a particularly heinous riot at Newgate in 1819 the legislature took action, authorizing corporal punishment in the prison and ordering the grading of prisoners by offense, housing the most hardened criminals in solitary confinement. That same year, construction began on what would become Auburn’s distinctive cellblock: two rows of individual cells, measuring 7 ft long, 3 ½ feet wide, and 7 ft high, were placed back to back and stacked five-stories high inside of a larger building. Construction was completed in 1821. The first 80 men selected for the new punishment of solitary confinement were locked in their cells on Christmas Day of that same year. There they were meant to remain for the duration of their sentence. Over the first year, jailers were alarmed by high rates of illness, injury, death, and insanity among these men. In 1823, New York’s Governor pardoned all survivors and New York abandoned the sentence of solitary confinement.
A new system of penology began to develop at Auburn during the 1820s. Prison administrators and reformers found value in silence and seclusion but regarded the complete and total isolation of inmates as unnatural and inhumane. Thus, the new Auburn boasted common dining and work facilities. Still isolated from the outside world and forbidden to have contact with their families, prisoners left their cells during the day to work and eat in silence among their fellow inmates. They marched in lockstep, a form of walking developed at Auburn to prevent communication among inmates during movement, with each man holding his arms just under those of the man in front of him, and turning his heads to one side, to face the guards while marching in unison. The Auburn system incorporated the advantages of convict labor – inmates learned skills and the value of hard labor, vital to their reform, while contributing to the cost of maintaining the prison – into a silent system. Indeed, an important part of Auburn’s promise to the state was the reform of inmates at little or no cost to taxpayers. Because inmates worked and dined in communal spaces, cells were only used for sleeping so could therefore be made smaller, thus costing less to build and maintain. The construction cost in the 1820s and 1830s for a prison modeled on Auburn was $91 per cell, whereas in an institution patterned on the Pennsylvania system cost an astronomical $1,650 per cell (Conley 1980; Lewis 1965).
From the beginning, inmates worked to supply prison needs. In addition to providing physical labor for the construction of the prison itself, inmates worked on the institution’s farm to supply food, in the kitchen to cook meals, and did basic general maintenance. Auburn’s very small female population, first admitted in 1825, performed much of the sewing, ironing, and laundry. Before long, private industry had infiltrated the prison and convict labor was contracted to the highest bidder. Inmates worked in the production of barrels, hats, chairs, tools, locks, shoes and boots, clothing, carpets, buttons, combs, harnesses, brooms, clocks, buckets and pails, wagons, and even rifles. The introduction of mulberry trees in the late 1830s to begin silk production speaks to the diversity of industry in the prison and the extent to which prisoners were now considered part of the low-skilled pool of cheap labor that also included women, children, immigrants, and African-Americans (McLennan 2008).
Both the Pennsylvania and the Auburn systems were considered reformist and modern, and the merits and disadvantages of both were hotly debated by reformers and penologists. Thousands of visitors from across the country and around the world flocked to the two prisons; emissaries from Europe and Latin America toured the institutions, taking note of the system best suited for their nations. Notable travelers included Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 and Charles Dickens in 1842. Blueprints and notes on the American penitentiaries could be found as far flung as China, Japan and, Mexico, and Peru (Botsman 2005; Salvatore 1996).
Europe embraced the Pennsylvania system perhaps because it offered a clearer alternative to the workhouse model that Auburn more closely resembled; Holland and England had employed workhouses in corrections in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Spierenburg 1987). The Pennsylvania system was also met with some popularity in Latin America, where, however, lack of funds and local racial and ethnic ideologies resulted in only its partial implementation. But it was the Auburn system that came to dominate American penology, in no small measure because it fell in line with the new ethic of production ushered in by industrialization. The Auburn system allowed for not only a self-supporting prison system but one that could turn a profit.
As the century wore on, the drive for profit and the strict imposition of silence at Auburn and other prisons built on the Auburn model resulted in the widespread use of physical punishment. Inmates were whipped; given “baths” (bound hand and foot, with necks braced, and placed in a barrel while a steady stream of ice water dropped from a great height onto their heads); forced to wear the 40-lb iron “yoke” across their necks; or were “bucked” (hung upside down in their cells until they passed out). Just as reformers in the early nineteenth century railed against the brutish sanguinary punishment of the colonial days, reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries clamored for the abolition of these inhumane practices.
An Era Of Reform
In the antebellum South, prisons and other state-supported institutions were less common than in the North. Where they did exist, state prisons were typically smaller models of the Auburn system that embraced contract labor, usually in agriculture rather than in workshops. Their inmate population was almost exclusively white. Masters commonly punished slaves in private and on the rare occasions when slave punishment was carried out by the state it was usually corporal and administered in public. Even after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery and despite the rewriting of legal codes such that the numbers of convicts in Southern states increased dramatically, the Southern penitentiary remained largely the domain of whites. Racist pseudoscience supported popular beliefs that blacks were inherently deviant, beyond reform, and thus not well served by a stint in prison. Instead, white southerners argued, lacking the institution of slavery for their management, blacks needed to be taught labor discipline. A combination of this type of paternalism, anxiety, and racism coupled with pressing economics drove the development and institutionalization of a system of convict leasing in the South. Moreover, the language of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery in the United States and its territories made a provision for involuntary servitude for parties duly convicted of a crime. A post-Reconstruction backlash against black economic and political gains resulted in the criminalization of large numbers of African-Americans, many of whom were then rented out to private firms or individuals for farming, mining, or other hard labor, with all revenue returned to the state. The lease system offered little economic motivation for the renter to protect the health or life of the prisoner, and convicts faced grueling work under brutal conditions. Death rates among leased convicts in the South were extremely high, leading reformers to argue that the lease system was worse than slavery. Yet convict leasing persisted in most Southern states well into the twentieth century. Eventually convict leasing gave way to the chain gang; rather than renting labor to private hands, the state retained it (Curtin, 2000). So horrific were conditions even into the second half of the twentieth century that some inmates engaged in self-mutilation, the most common form of which involved severing the Achilles tendon, or heel stringing, so as to avoid forced labor (Perkinson 2010).
In the North, the inhumanities of the prison system and convict labor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were more understated, tucked behind the thick stone prison walls and out of the public eye. State budgets for prison building and maintenance in the post-Civil War period were tight; new prisons were built with small, cheap cells and older institutions fell into disrepair. Plagued by overcrowding, prisons often slept two to three inmates per cell, far from the reform ideals of silence and isolation espoused in the early nineteenth century. Dense and decrepit living conditions had severe health and psychological consequences for inmates. Moreover, with little centralized oversight for most state prisons, wardens often relied on corporal punishment to keep order and drive labor. Reverend Enoch Cobb Wines and Theodore Dwight’s 1867 Report on Prisons and Reformatories of the United States and Canada, commissioned by the Prison Association of New York, highlighted the deplorable conditions in American prisons and called for an overhaul of the system such that prisons might more genuinely work to reform the convicts sentenced within. The report served as the catalyst for an historic meeting of the First National Prison Congress in 1870 in Cincinnati. There, delegates from more than 24 states as well as from Canada and South America adopted a Declaration of Principles that viewed crime as a moral disease to be treated through revised sentencing that could provide rewards for good behavior, education and industrial training for prisoners, the abolition of contract labor, the scientific collection of criminological data, and the professionalization of prison staff. Influenced by innovations in penal reform in Australia and Europe, namely, William Crofton’s “Irish System,” the Declaration of Principles called for the provisions of early release, or parole, and indeterminate sentencing. The Principles made clear that it was in society’s interest to rehabilitate the convict, and it was the goal of the prison to remake the delinquent as a productive, self-respecting citizen (Rotman, in Morris and Rothman, eds., 1995).
The Declaration of Principles stood as the cornerstone of the progressive prison reform movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, guiding American sentencing and corrections policy over the century. It reflected the effort of Progressive Era reformers who, whether motivated by humanitarian concerns or social anxieties relating to mass immigration and the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the period, sought to improve society’s moral fabric by making it more efficient and less corrupt. Embracing a scientific, positivist approach to criminology, these progressives sought to model the prison on secular society, focusing on positive learned behavior rather than religion as the vehicle for reform. Progressive “new penology,” as it was called, left its mark on American corrections with innovations such as probation, parole and indeterminate sentencing, reformatories, and the juvenile court system (Rothman 1980; Sullivan 1990).
Penologist Zebulon Brockway, commonly credited with first implementing parole and indeterminate sentencing in the United States, is viewed as the father of the reformatory movement. Although “good time” laws that reduced time imprisoned for good behavior were in existence as early as 1817 in New York, such legislation was employed more as a method to control overcrowding rather than a tool to encourage rehabilitation of the offender. With the shift in Progressive Era penology toward reform based on learned behavior, parole took on new meaning and came into wider use in the late nineteenth century.
In 1876, Brockway was appointed warden at New York State’s brand new Elmira Reformatory for youthful male offenders, aged 16–30. After successfully lobbying the state legislature in 1877 for a law permitting indeterminate sentencing with parole, Brockway was able to implement the Declaration of Principles’ ideas for individualized, reward-based reform through a graded merit system at Elmira.
Inmates were classified according to their educational and work performances as well as general conduct and psychological makeup. Good behavior allowed promotion to a higher grade with greater privileges and eventually early paroled release. Poor behavior, on the other hand, would result in demotion to a lower grade, the loss of privileges, and longer periods of confinement. Young men in the lowest grade were subject to the older penal practices, such as wearing bright uniforms, being prohibited from receiving visitors or correspondence, and being required to walk in lockstep. Similar provisions for parole and indeterminate sentencing were soon widely adopted. In 1910, legislation enacted parole for federal prisoners; and by 1927, Florida, Mississippi, and Virginia were the only states without a parole system.
Through a program of (gendered and racialized) vocational training and an appropriate system of rewards, Brockway and other “new penologists” believed the criminal would be reformed and society would be well served. Progressive wardens across the country implemented programming that they hoped would inspire a sense of responsibility, self-worth, and citizenship in their inmates. Elmira’s inmate-written newspaper, the first of its kind, began publication in 1883. This period saw the introduction of inmate sports teams, musical concerts, lecture series, and later, films to break the monotony of the prison routine. At Sing Sing Prison, just north of New York City, warden Thomas Mott Osborne famously instituted an inmate self-governing organization, “The Mutual Welfare League,” which was responsible for organizing entertainment, managing the prison newspaper, and even maintaining discipline. For good work and behavior, inmates earned fake money with which to pay for the cost of living, including renting cells – the more desirable cells being more costly. By simulating free society in the interest of the prisoner, Osborne argued, the convict could be transformed into a responsible citizen (Rothman 1980).
In addition to these inmate-focused programs, Progressive prison reformers encouraged the professionalization of a prison staff and relied on the analysis of new penological experts. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed the professionalization of many fields, including medicine, law, and education. The burgeoning fields of sociology and psychology provided scientific and medical interpretations of criminality that reinforced reformers’ notions about rehabilitation. Extending the medical analogy, “new penologists” viewed the convict as a sick patient who would be released once cured. The prison thus functioned as a hospital, and its staff made up the nurses and doctors. Classification of inmates was based on psychological and sociological categories and allowed for individualized treatment. Progressive trends toward specialization and scientific management were apparent in American corrections with the creation of separate facilities for mentally disabled offenders, for women, and for juveniles and in the classification of men’s facilities as either maximum or minimum security.
Unsurprisingly then, progressive penology and the reformatory movement brought major changes to the administration of criminal justice for women. For most of the nineteenth century, female prisoners were so few in number that they garnered little attention from prison administrators. Moreover, because Victorian sensibilities regarded women as the moral sex, a female criminal was considered depraved and incapable of reform, much like black convicts in the South.
Viewed by prison administrators as nuisances, female convicts were usually housed together, tucked away in an attic or area adjacent to the men’s institution. There the women performed cost-saving labor such as sewing, laundry, and ironing but were generally left to their own devices, receiving little exercise or fresh air for their trouble. Neglect and abuse were common.
In the late 1860s, middle-class women reformers in the Northeast and Midwest became concerned with improving conditions for the growing number of incarcerated women. To protect them from abuses, reformers argued, female offenders should be housed separately in reformatories and looked after by female matrons. The reformers did little to account for female felons, who would remain in custodial settings. Rather their interests lay with “fallen women” such as prostitutes and unwed mothers. Not previously subject to state punishment, women charged with such moral crimes were seen as ripe for betterment and given indeterminate sentences by the courts, the length of which would be figured by their progress at the reformatory. Thus, reformatories focused on a “redeemable” population of young, almost exclusively white women convicted mostly of misdemeanant public order crimes. Custodial prisons, on the other hand, tended to hold older, more hardened, and disproportionately African American female criminals, women convicted of felony, violent, and property crimes.
Reformers sought to feminize the female reformatory to suit what they saw as women’s more passive nature, believing that fallen women could be rehabilitated given the proper conditions and training. Unlike male prisons, which held convicts behind metal bars and high walls, women’s reformatories tended to house small groups of inmates in cottages in rural settings. Progressives believed that in a familial arrangement, with exposure to the outdoors and fresh air, and under the guidance of morally exemplary matrons, fallen women could be redeemed. Reformatories reinforced traditionally accepted gender roles through the threat of incarceration in state penitentiaries, parole revocation, and the transfer of intractables – women who refused to reform – to asylums for the feebleminded. These institutions were often run by well-educated, professional women, such as Katharine Davis at Bedford Hills in New York, who later went on to serve as the first female Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Correction (Freedman 1981; Rafter 1990).
The Reformatory Movement, finally established by the early twentieth century, faded in the 1930s as support for Progressive reforms waned. During this period, national concern with prostitution diminished, feminist momentum slowed, and funding was sparse. As states closed women’s units in state prisons, the female felon population was transferred to reformatories, displacing the petty offenders who had been the focus of the Movement. With felons filling reformatories, misdemeanants were once again sent to local jails, and the system turned to a custodial model with remnants of the Movement: separate female facilities and differential treatment that locked women into gender roles (Rafter 1990).
The progressive efforts at classification and individualization had long-lasting effects on the application of criminal justice for youth. Prison reformers had long been concerned with the corrupting influence that hardened criminals might have on youthful offenders. But until the late nineteenth century, only piecemeal efforts were made to accommodate young people in the criminal justice system. All of that changed with the establishment of the juvenile court in 1899 in Chicago. This court created a completely separate system for juveniles charged with offending the law, and it attempted to decriminalize youth by removing them from criminal court. The separate court promised a more individualized approach to dealing with juvenile delinquency and with it a rehabilitative ideal that utilized probation over incarceration. The Chicago model quickly spread throughout the United States. By 1912, 22 states had juvenile courts, and by 1928, only two states lacked them (Binder 2001).
The juvenile court system also helped facilitate the more rapid adoption of probation for youth and adults. In the mid-nineteenth century, the practice of probation was born through the actions of religious and wealthy Bostonian named John Augustus. Between 1841 and his death in 1859, Augustus provided bail for more than 1,000 people in the Boston courts, convincing the judge to release offenders into his charge temporarily, during which time they could persuade the courts that they had been reformed. Massachusetts adopted probation for juveniles in 1878, and, following the establishment of a juvenile court system, other states quickly followed suit. New York was the first state to adopt probation for adults in 1901. Probation, along with parole and indeterminate sentencing, furthered the Progressive Era aims of individualizing punishment.
Despite these gains, prison reform of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fell far short of the Progressives’ professed goals. Their efforts to model prison after society were moderately successful. They succeeded in abolishing the rule of silence and the use of striped uniforms as well as in allowing for greater communication with family and in bringing educational and vocational training and some entertainment into prisons. But behind prison walls, physical abuses continued. Even at Elmira, a state investigation revealed in 1899 that inmates were whipped (Pisciotta 1994). Overpopulation and lack of funds persisted and were compounded by resistance to changes from poorly paid prison staff. In a bid for efficiency, Progressives created large prisons managed by a centralized professional bureaucracy (Rotman, in Morris and Rothman, eds., 1995).
During this period, the federal prison system expanded rapidly. Prior to 1891, federal offenders were mostly held in state facilities. Ground was broken on the first federal prison in Leavenworth, KY, in 1891 (though construction lasted 30 years) and the first federal prison for women was established in 1902 in Alderson, WV, modeled on the cottage-style reformatory.
By the 1950s, long years of tight budgets from the Depression into WWII had left prison facilities in poor condition. Overcrowding, lack of medical facilities, bad food, poor management, unprofessional staff, and endemic brutality led to a string of riots across the country in the 1950s. Experts charged that the problem stemmed partly from a lack of rehabilitative programming. Postwar optimism, economic prosperity, low crime rates, and a faith in psychological treatment encouraged the embrace of rehabilitation by both the public and correctional professionals. Prisons in the late 1950s and 1960s saw great changes in their physical environments. Common areas became more plentiful and more spacious; paint colors were selected to brighten the facility; gyms, libraries, and classrooms were added to prison grounds. The quality of food improved, educational and vocational programs were increased, and discipline was more relaxed, giving inmates an opportunity to form study groups and attend counseling and training sessions.
At the same time, demographic shifts, urban crisis, and new legislation and law enforcement practices changed the face of America’s prison population. As the number of incarcerated Americans grew, so too did the disproportionately high numbers of black, Latino, and Native American men, women, and youth who spent time behind jail and prison bars.
But despite the apparent improvements, mistreatment of inmates and poor conditions persisted. Led by the Black Muslims, a prisoners’ rights movement gained momentum in 1965 with the Supreme Court ruling in Cooper v. Pate. The ruling gave inmates standing in the courts and initiated federal involvement in state corrections to protect the rights of prisoners. Change in American prisons frequently depended on inmate initiative – through the courts or by other means. Inspired in part by tactics of protest employed in the civil rights movement, inmates across the country engaged in collective and individual acts of resistance including hunger strikes, work stoppages, and prison takeovers to call attention to their inhumane treatment. Inmate writing in the form of published memoirs, poetry, literature, and letters also helped to successfully garner the attention of the media, lawyers, and the general public. Facing public and governmental scrutiny, corrections staff felt under attack from inside and outside of the prison and clamored for greater protections and improved working conditions. Tensions mounted. Although for a variety of very different reasons, the general consensus was that American prisons were failing (Gottschalk 2006).
The crisis of corrections was manifest in the riots in the late 1960s and early 1970s, perhaps most famously at Attica in 1971. The political and public response was on the one hand concern over treatment of prisoners, but on the other, an urgent and loud call to stop coddling inmates and, fueled by fear of growing crime rates, to get tough on crime. The 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws established mandatory minimum sentencing that eliminated judicial discretion and set a pattern followed in many other states (most famously in California in 1994 with the “Three Strikes Law”) and on the federal level in the 1980s. The 1974 Martinson Report echoed this sentiment, arguing that rehabilitation did not work.
By the late 1970s, tougher laws, enhanced policing, and stricter sentencing had resulted in the rapid increase of the American prison population that showed no signs of slowing. Between 1970 and 1980 the prison population doubled, then more than doubled again over the next 15 years. This despite crime rates during the same period remaining stable or declining. Racialized fears of crime, shifting public sympathies to emergent victims’ rights groups, and strengthened and politicized law enforcement and corrections union organizing worked together by the 1990s to guard against effective political challenges to the tough on crime politics that maintained high incarceration rates, especially among low-income and black and Latino Americans (Gottschalk 2006). With more and more Americans receiving longer and longer sentences, the prison population grew at a seemingly exponential rate. To accommodate the ballooning numbers of inmates, the country witnessed a rash of prison building in the mid-1990s. The politics around deindustrialization, urban crisis, government spending, the cold war, and the string of recessions beginning in the 1960s expanded and entrenched the use of incarceration as the dominant form of corrections, despite the general consensus based on extensive bodies of research that prisons do not work to reduce crime.
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