During the colonial period most Americans lived under laws and practices that had been transferred from England and adapted to local conditions; Puritans rigorously punished violations of religious laws.
In 1682, Pennsylvania adopted “The Great Law,” which was based on humane Quaker principles and emphasized hard labor in a house of corrections as punishment for most crimes.
Until the 1800s, American society was relatively sparsely populated and predominantly rural.
With the Revolution, the ideas of the Enlightenment gained currency and a new concept of criminal punishment came to the fore.
The penitentiary, as conceptualized by the English reformers and their American Quaker allies, first appeared in 1790 when a portion of Philadelphia Walnut Street Jail was converted to allow separate confinement of inmates.
The penitentiary was conceived of as a place where criminal offenders could be isolated from the bad influences of society and from one another so that, while engaged in productive labor, they could reflect on their past misdeeds, repent, and be reformed.
The Pennsylvania System
As in England, Quakers set about to implement their humanistic and religious ideas in the new nation; in Philadelphia, their efforts came to fruition. Dr. Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin and others urged replacement of capital and corporal punishment with incarceration; in 1790, the group was instrumental in passage of legislation almost identical to England’s Penitentiary Act of 1799.
The existing three-story Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia was expanded for the solitary confinement of “hardened and atrocious offenders.”
The opening of Eastern Penitentiary in 1829 marked the full development of the penitentiary system based on separate confinement. Cellblocks extended from a central hub like the spokes of a wheel. Prisoners ate, slept, worked, and received religious instruction in individual cells and inmates did not see or interact with their peers.
The Pennsylvania system was based on isolation, reflection upon prior transgressions, and repentance.
The New York (Auburn) System
Faced with overcrowded facilities in 1816, the New York legislature authorized a new state prison at Auburn.
Influenced by the success of the separate confinement, New York decided on an experiment to test the effectiveness. It proved a failure; there was a marked increase in sickness, insanity, and suicide among the prisoners.
In 1831 Elam Lynds, a warden at Auburn, worked out a new congregate system of prison discipline where inmates were isolated at night, but congregated in workshops during the day; they were forbidden to talk or exchange glances on the job or at meals, and they were exposed to rigid discipline.
The New York system was more concerned with instilling good work habits and preventing recidivism than with rehabilitation of prisoner’s character.
Debating the Systems
Throughout this era, which system should be preferred was hotly debated. Underlying the debates were questions about disciplining citizens in a democracy and maintaining social norms in a society that emphasized individualism.
The Pennsylvania (separate) system aimed to produce honest persons; the New York (congregate) system sought to mold obedient citizens.
Both systems agreed that the prisoner must be isolated from society and subjected to a disciplined routine but they differed in the way the reformation was to be brought about.
Pennsylvania was looked back to an earlier craft-oriented religious society; New York looked forward to the emerging industrial age.
As prison populations increased in the US, the Pennsylvania system proved too expensive.
After the Civil War, southern legislatures passed “black laws” designed to control former slaves through the use of harsh punishments.
At the same time, southerners faced the task of rebuilding communities and their economy.
Because of the devastation of the war and depression in the agriculturally based economy, there were no funds to construct new prisons, even with an increasing convict population.
Faced with those challenges, and coupled with a large African American inmate labor force and the states’ need for revenue, the lease system and penal farms were developed.
Settlement in the West was not extensive until the California Gold Rush of 1849.
With the exception of California, penology in the West was not greatly influenced by the prison ideologies of the East.
Leasing programs were used extensively in California, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming; “following frontier traditions,” the care of convicts was placed in hands of a lessee.
The Reformatory Movement
By the middle of the 1800s, reformers became disillusioned with the results of the penitentiary movement, though its failure was seen as a result of poor administration rather than a sign of weakness of the basic concept.
In England, Alexander Maconochie urged the mark system of graduated terms of confinement.
In 1854 in Ireland, Sir Walter Crofton adopted practices similar to the mark system that came to be known as the Irish or intermediate system.
By 1870 a new generation of American penal reformers had arisen. Like Quakers, they were motivated by humanitarian concerns but also understood how prisons operated.
The National Prison Association met in Cincinnati—it issued a Declaration that advocated a new design for penology: a philosophy of inmate change, and indeterminate sentences. Fixed sentences, lockstep, silence and isolation were seen as debasing, humiliating and destructive to inmate initiative.
Elmira Reformatory—1876 at Elmira, New York; Zebulon Brockway appointed superintendent.
Brockway believed that diagnosis and treatment were keys to reform and rehabilitation.
Individualized Treatment and the Positivist School: The progressives were benevolent and philanthropic people who aimed to understand and cure crime through a case-by-case approach and promoted positivist reforms; progressive programs can be epitomized in 2 words: conscience and convenience.
Three basic assumptions shared by most positivists:
Criminal behavior stems from factors over which the individual has no control.
Criminals could be treated so that they would lead crime-free lives.
Treatment must be focused on the individual and their specific problem.
Allowed offenders to be treated in the community under supervision
Indeterminate Sentence and Parole: Although the idea of parole release has been developed in Ireland and Australia in the 1850s, and instituted at Elmira in 1876, it didn’t catch on in the US until the mid-20s.
The Rise of the Medical Model
Even before psychiatry began to influence American society, the idea that criminals are mentally ill was current in correctional circles.
Not until the 1930s were serious attempts made to implement what was known as the medical model of corrections.
Under the banner of the newly prestigious social and behavioral sciences, the emphasis of corrections shifted to treatment of criminals as persons whose social, psychological, or biological deficiencies had caused them to engage in illegal activity.
Howard Gill tried to create a”community” of inmates within secured walls. He helped design Norfolk in the style of a college campus, staffed with guards and educators, psychiatrists, and social workers providing treatment programs.
Rehabilitation as the primary purpose of incarceration took on national legitimacy in 1929 when the new Federal Bureau of Prisons was authorized by Congress to develop institutions that would ensure the proper classification, care, and treatment of offenders. Sanford Bates was a proponent of the new medical model.
Karl Menninger observed that criminal acts are “signals of distress, signals of failure…the spasms of struggles and convulsions of a sub marginal human being trying to make it in our complex society with inadequate equipment and inadequate preparation.”
From Medical Model to Community Model
The move toward community corrections was aided by the inmate riot and hostage taking at New York State’s Attica Correctional Facility in 1971.
The bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War
The hostilities were viewed as demonstrating that prisons are counterproductive and unjust.
Community corrections called for a radical departure from the medical model’s emphasis on treatment in prison. Instead, prisons were artificial institutions that interfered with the offender’s ability to develop a crime-free lifestyle.
The reintegration idea was dominant for about a decade until the late 1970s.
It gave way to a new punitiveness in criminal justice in conjunction with the rebirth of the determinate sentence.
The Crime Control Model: The Pendulum Swings Again
In the 1960s, the public became concerned about rapidly rising crime rates, while at the same time, studies of treatment programs challenged their efficacy and the Progressive assumptions on which treatment programs were based.
Critics attacked the indeterminate sentence and parole, urging that treatment be available on a voluntary basis and not tied to release.
Proponents of increased crime control called for longer sentences, especially for career criminals and violent offenders.
James Q. Wilson summarized the “new realism” in regard to treatment programs and crime rates when he declared that efforts to understand and curb the rise in crime had been frustrated by our optimistic and unrealistic assumptions about human nature.
According to critics of rehabilitation, reportedly high recidivism rates proved its ineffectiveness.
Critics have also challenged as unwarranted the amount of discretion given to correctional decision makes to tailor the criminal sanction to the needs of each offender.
The Emergence of Crime Control
As the political climate changed in the 1970s and 80s, with the crime rate at historic levels, legislators, judges, and officials responded with a renewed emphasis on a crime control model of corrections.
Critique of the rehabilitative model led to changes in sentencing structures in more than half of the states and the outright abolition of parole release in many.
New determinate sentencing laws incarcerated offenders for longer periods of time; the thrust was toward incarceration risk containment.
Where Are We Today?
As the U.S. enters a new century, the time may be ripe for another look at correctional policy.
The optimism that once suffused corrections has waned.
The financial and human costs of the retributive crime control policies of the 1990s are now being scrutinized.