History of the prisons in the United States
History of Prisons in the United States
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History of Prisons in the United States
Prisons and corrections facilities in the United States have undergone a series of transformational processes to make it function more effectively. Imprisonment is one of the most common options presented before the court for dealing with people who have committed criminal offenses. Being an emerging country, the United States has also aimed to provide rehabilitation of offenders as some form of criminal punishment practices before the American Revolution. Penal incarcerations were the most common means of punishment that has been considered in England during the early 1500s. This paper would shed light on different aspects of developments in the United States prison system and would evaluate the effectiveness of punishments given to offenders.
History of the United States Prison Systems
From the very inception of North American colonization era, the purpose of these imprisonment facilities changed drastically after penitentiary movement all across the globe. The purpose of these facilities was also subjected to scientific and political development during the course of the US history. The Jacksonian, Reconstruction, and Progressive era have notable reforms as part of imprisonment and infrastructure development. Nevertheless, the very status quo of penal incarcerations has remained the core mechanism for criminal proceedings and subsequent punishments.
North American Prisons in 16th and 17th Century
With the arrival of European settlers, their system of imprisonments and prisoners detention facilities also arrived within the North American region. During the very beginning of settlement, Christopher Columbus has also brought at least four convicts. However, by the end of 1570, Spaniards have also constructed the very first imprisonment facility in the North America. The race of conquering the New World has become an ambition of almost every nation in European region thereby turning towards convicts to fill in the crew requirements. As per Gottschalk (2006), convicts were quite indispensible for English settlements in the North American region.
During the 16th and 17th century, it is widely evident that the sanctions for various criminal behaviors were made as public events and were designed for public defamation of convicts. It also deterred other from committing the very same heinous crimes as well. Common punishments at that time include the pillory, the duck stool, branding, whipping and the stocks. However, at this time, most of the offenses are being catered with a death sentence. During this time span, prisons are made for keeping convicts before or during their trials. Moreover, offenders awaiting punishments were also placed there. More precisely, prisons were not used as a mode of punishment at that time; rather, prisons were a transitioning stage for convicts towards their sentence. The concept of segregated jails and prisons for boys and girls, children, debtors, and murderers was not present at this time. Also, the maintenance of prisons and vigilant control was absent thereby leading to the emergence of fatal diseases; like, jail fever.
During the 1550s, England has witnessed vagrancy on the verge. In 1557, the most vital development was the formation of building the prototype for correctional facility, commonly referred to as the London Bridewell. As per the development of Bridewell prison system, the offender could be imprisoned in terms of custody ranging from weeks to several years. Houses of corrections were usually an important part of Poor Law machinery that is actually intended to induce habits for prison labor. Nevertheless, vagrants were the first offenders that have been subjected to these correction facilities (Hirsch, 1992). Afterwards, it has extended towards petty offenders and most importantly, disorderly local poor population. At the end of 17th century, they were saturated into the newly developed imprisonment system under the supervision of local Justices of Peace.
18th Century – An Era of Bloody Code
Although the time span of the 18th century is termed as the era of Bloody Code, there has been increasing opposition to various death sentences set forth by the colonialists except for the most serious offenses. The opposing arguments for death penalties were based on it’s very counter-productive nature whereby jurors who do not reach towards the guilty of offenses for thieves and leading them for no choice, but, execution.
By the mid of 18th century, imprisonment has been altered with a new outlook of hard labor. It has been seen as the most appropriate alternate for death sentences for petty offenders. Transportation was another important way for taking care of convicted offenders. Most of the convicts were shipped to the British colonies including Australia, America (by the end of 1776’s American War of Independence) and Van Diemen’s Land. At the verge of American Revolution in 1779, the transportation of convicts was made quite impractical thereby leading to the passing of the Penitentiary Act. The act has mandated the formation of two London imprisonment facilities having strict labor hours and controlled clothing and communication means. However, upon curtailment of different transportation sanctions were also put forward upon failure of Penitentiary Act. The alternatives include hard labor and for the offenders unable of labor, a separate facilitating of the house of correction was put forward during the very same timespan. These changes have led towards development of prison hulks from the beginning of 1776 till their phasing out by the end of 1857 (Christianson, 2000).
Some of the prison hulks were ships that were quite commonly anchored in the Thames, at Plymouth and Portsmouth. People who are sent to prison hulks were usually employed in different hard labor activities during the day. Afterward, they are loaded and put in chains onto the ships at night. This appalling and dreadful condition of the hulks was mainly due to the lack of maintenance and control in open tides. These aspects have led towards the end of common practices. Nonetheless, it has created an impression among public that incarceration along with significant hard labor can be viable punishment for the offenders. In 1777, John Howard condemned the current imprisonment system as a condemnable, filthy, disorganized and barbaric system. He has induced the government towards various reforms in imprisonment facilities by the installation of outside inspection, better quality food diet, hiring of paid staff along with providing items of necessity for them. On the other hand, Jeremy Bentham along with other penal reformers has believed that the prisoners should face a more severe regime and it should not detrimental to prisoner’s health and wellbeing. Apart from that, penal reformers have also put forward recommendations for separate men and women imprisonment facilities. In this regard, Bentham has designed ‘panopticon’ having a centrally placed observer for keeping an eye on all inmates. It has become the model for prison for the next five decades (Johnston, 2000).
Prison Reforms and State Punishments
During the first half of 19th century, the United States has gone through a phase having stated punishments. Based on the changing dynamics of American society, capital punishments were considered quite inappropriate for a number of crimes. During the mid of 19th century, imprisonment has greatly replaced the capital punishments as most of the serious offenses besides that of murder charges.
At the very same time, ideas of penal reforms have also resurfaced by a number of motivated reformers. Most of these reforms are largely based on different religious groups including the Evangelicals and the Quakers through personal redemption. The 19th century has also witnessed the emergence of state prison. The very first national penitentiary facility was constructed at Millbank, London. It has a total of 860 prisoners that were kept in separate cells. Most of the work in prison was quite simpler including weaving and picking coir.
In 1842, Pentonville imprisonment facility was made based on Panopticon design having separate confinement facilities. However, by the end of 1877, the Prison Commission began controlling prisons in a centralized fashion. The Prison Act of 1898 has allowed reformation of major roles of prison regimes.
Criminal Act 1948 and Emergence of Prisons
By the end of 19th century, the need for juvenile delinquents has become much pressing issue thereby leading to separate correctional facilities for them by the introduction of borstal system as part of Prevention of Crime Act 1908. Afterward, the Criminal Justice Act 1948 has abolished the penal servitudes, flogging and hard labor. The system has provided a comprehensive approach for treatment and punishment of offenders. By 1990s, the prisons have been privatized thereby leading to innovative imprisonment measures incorporated within the traditional imprisonment systems (Howard League, 2015).
All in all, the historical development of the United States prison has gone through a number of reforms with enhancement in consideration of inmates’ health and diet. However, the conditions need further improvement regarding better hard labor services.
Christianson, S. (2000). With liberty for some: 500 years of imprisonment in America. UPNE.
Gottschalk, M. (2006). The prison and the gallows: The politics of mass incarceration in America. Cambridge University Press.
Hirsch, A. J. (1992). The Rise of the Penitentiary: Prisons and Punishment in Early America (p. 46). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Howard League, (2015). History of the prison system – The Howard League for Penal Reform. Retrieved 12 September 2015, from http://www.howardleague.org/history-of-prison-system/
Johnston, N. B. (2000). Forms of constraint: A history of prison architecture. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
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