The practice of detaining accused offenders can be traced back to the days of early civilizations and governments around the globe. As late as the eighteenth century, the punishment imposed on offenders did not include imprisonment. It was not until fairly recently that the practice of incarcerating offenders for the purpose of punishment began to be used. This practice came as the answer to demands for change in crime and punishment. Was the development of these institutions really the answer to the unnecessary brutality?
Before the use of prisons as punishment, there was a dual system of punishment based on the offender's social status and the economic interest of those inflicting the punishment. If members of nobility were found guilty of offenses against the laws and customs of their society, they were either fined or forced to forfeit some or all of their land. For more serious crimes they could be drawn into forced labor or banished, usually for life. On the other hand, if the members were of the lower classes their punishment was more severe, especially if they committed a crime against the upper classes. Their punishment usually included (but was not limited to) torture, mutilation, branding, flogging, and execution. It was usually administered in public and unmatched in cruelty. The type of punishment awarded to a commoner was based more on supply and demand of labor than the nature of the crime committed. "When oarsmen were needed for military or merchant ships, or when there was a need for production of goods, offenders were sentenced to work in ships galleys, workhouses, or houses of correction. In times of surplus labor, capital punishment, banishment, or transport to the colonies of America or Australia became the option of choice" (Stanko, Gillespie, and Crews 36).
Initially incarceration was only used as means for temporarily holding criminals while awaiting trial or prosecution. The conditions usually varied from foul to comfortable, but the latter was usually reserved for the higher ranking offenders. Inhabitants usually consisted of anyone from debtors and petty offenders to dangerous criminals. "Indiscriminate mixing of the old with the young, men with women, and the mentally ill with criminals created a hellish environment. Inmates were literally at the mercy of their jailers, most of whom ran their facilities for profit" (Morris and Rothman 35). Jailers could charge fees for anything from food, fuel, and bedding to "iron fees" in order to improve the prisoner's conditions, and before an inmate could be released all debts with the jailer had to be cleared. Because most of the burden of the cost was placed on the prisoner, the poor were at the mercy and desire of their keeper. It was only through the process of private charity that the poor were able to afford some of these luxuries to aid in their survival.
It wasn't until the second half of the eighteenth century that the idea of using prisons as the main means of punishment began to be encouraged. This was due largely in part to noted European social philosophers, scientist, and scholars beginning to reject the brutality of the current system of punishment for humanitarian reasons and in the interest of social reform (Emsley 264). These enlightenment thinkers included names like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Beccaria, and Rousseau who reflected the mainstream thought of their era and took a scientific approach to religious, political, economic, and social issues of their day. It was Cesare Beccaria who, in his Essays on Crime and Punishment, incorporated the principles of the Enlightenment into a foundation for the development of a new penal policy (Morris and Rothman 114). The English philosophers John Howard and Jeremy Bentham expounded on his ideas by building on the British workhouse model to develop the ideas for the first penitentiary.
The first institution did not arise in Britain; however, it actually surfaced in the American Colonies. It was developed as a result of the opposition of capital and corporal punishment by the Quakers in Pennsylvania that was further encouraged by the American Revolution and the widespread rejection of British colonial justice system ("Prisons and Executions-The U.S." 1). The reforms of criminal penalties led to the immediate problem of what was going to substituted for the death penalty. Their answer was to renovate the recently built Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia into the world's first penitentiary by adding a cell house and sixteen solitary confinement cells for the hardened offenders. This new facility rejected the "wretched conditions of the gaols [workhouses] and opposed the public degradation of the prisoners while working on chain gangs, but advocated that solitary confinement and hard labor were the most effective means for reforming criminals" (Tappan 586). This followed Beccaria's belief of depriving criminals of their liberty to compel them to repay society through their efforts of hard labor (Emsley 263). This marked the end of brutality and the beginning of a new era penal system.
Although the Walnut Street Jail would eventually fail and close down, it was a monumental step in the right direction for the world's penal system. It was the first to separate debtors for criminals, men from women, and remove children from the facility all together. It also shifted the burden of finance for food and clothing from the prisoner to the state. The legislation for this prison shifted the focus from physical punishment to reform based on the religious influence of the Quakers. "Inmates were given a bible and religious instructions to facilitate the contemplation of their errant and sinful ways. After due penitence and much discipline imposed to teach self-control, the offenders, so it was reasoned, might reform their evil ways and eventually be permitted to return to society as law-abiding citizens" (Tappan 606). The concepts of the Walnut Street Jail were adopted as Pennsylvania's official penal policy before it was replaced by the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh and the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
These two new facilities followed Jeremy Bentham's idea of Panopticon, a design in which the cells were arranged around central hub like spokes on a tire and the inmates could be constantly watched from a tower that they could not see into. "The possibility of being watched without the capability knowing instilled a sense of guilt and responsibility in the prisoner and creates a sense of powerlessness" (Stanko, Gillespie, and Crews 113). Inmates were housed in a single cell and were provide with a workbench and a bible. Each cell also had a small garden attached. The cells were separated by massive granite walls that prevented any type of visual or auditory contact. This prison design emanated its monastic influence and the architecture reflected the new treatment philosophy. Although designed on the best of intentions, this system proved to be expensive for the government and disastrous for the inmates. The total isolation and lack of human contact led to psychoses, other forms of mental illness, and ultimately suicide. Charles Dickens expressed his disgust with this penal system in his work American Notes of General Circulation:
I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is they are doing. I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers....I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body. ("Prisons and Executions-The U.S." 1)
Click on the image to zoom in Click on the image to zoom inPlan for the Panopticon (Rhodes 36).
The Panopticon design was not the only prison system that was being experimented with during this time. The state of New York built its rival penitentiaries at Auburn and later Sing Sing, and they were almost the exact opposite of the Pennsylvania system in design and operation. This system was developed on the philosophy that "only through extremely severe discipline, designed to break a prisoner's spirits, could one be expected to accept reformation" (Stanko, Gillespie, and Crews 48). The architecture of the Auburn prison consisted of a new inside cell design, and was surrounded by fortress like walls. This system featured congregate labor during the day and solitary confinement at night. It was also known as the "silent system" because the inmates were not allowed to talk or even look at one another. The inmates were forced to march in lockstep to their workstations, to the mess hall, and to religious services. At night they were allowed to read the bible and reflect on their sinful ways before bed. According to Louis Dwight it was "a model of neatness, industrialization, and subordination for its day" (Reckless 329).
http://www.missouripentours.com/history/images/decades/1830_2.jpgAuburn prison design in 1825 (Tappan 612).
These two prison models competed for popularity among prison reformers around the globe for many decades. Many European notables traveled to the United States to see how the systems worked, to study the architecture, and to discover the advantages of one system over the other. Most of these European reformers, to include Tocqueville and Beaumont, were significantly impressed with the Pennsylvania system and hoped to reproduce that same system in Europe because "they saw solitary confinement as more conducive to reformation" ("Prisons and Executions-The U.S." 1). The best example of this successful transposition came with the construction of the Pentonville Prison in England, later followed by Latin America and even Asia. Because this form of prison was very expensive to build and operate, most prisons in the United States and elsewhere around the globe tended to gravitate toward the New York style of prison because it was more cost effective and took a smaller toll on the inmate population.
The controversy between the New York and Pennsylvania prison had pretty much died out by 1860. Both plans had changed considerably by that time and the inadequacy of each as a means of deterrence and reform had come to be recognized. Isolation has been abandoned in the institutions that followed the Eastern Penitentiary scheme. The strict rule has gradually way to a more appealing freedom of association and interaction. A common cafeteria mess hall, though sometimes divided into separate units, has replaced the isolated cell feeding. The rule of silence is still applied in some prisons to discourage rioting. The quality and variety of food has greatly improved, especially in the institutions that operate their own canneries and farms. Prison architecture had also improved with the construction of larger cells and the added conveniences of adequate light, ventilation, and plumbing in each cell. Treatment and guidance programs by professionally trained staff have been developed. Space is now allotted for classrooms, recreation, religious services, interviewing, and counseling. Disciplinary practices have also changed, just a little more slowly.
Historically, penal objectives have been summarized by four key words: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation (Tappan 241). Retribution has long been the central purpose of the justice system and the objective of punishment. It is based on the ideas that the offender deserves to be punished for wrongdoings and the punishment serves to reaffirm society's strongly held beliefs and values. Incapacitation restrains the offender from doing further harm. Capital punishment prevents to possibility of future crimes. Corporal punishment makes the commission of future crimes more difficult. The development of prisons allowed for the isolation of offenders from society for as long as they are considered to be a threat. Deterrence is based on the idea that a painful penal experience will deter offenders from committing future crimes. This also assumes that observing the punishment of convicted offenders will serve as an example to others to deter crime. Rehabilitation rest on the principle that there is some deficiency in the criminal and with proper treatment it can be modified to change the criminal into a law abiding citizen. Did the development of the prison system achieve these objectives? No, it fell short on most of these aspects, but it also constantly being modified into a more efficient machine of reformation. The blame for this failure cannot be completely placed on the system because every individual has a conscience and they make the decision of whether or not to listen to it.