Beyond Freedom: A Research Paper on the History of Prisons in America

I.         Introduction

            In the government of any country, city, town, or practically any organized culture and community, laws must be set in place to provide guidance, order, and control for its residents.  Violations of these laws, depending on the degree and gravity, are punishable by certain measures—the most common of which is physical confinement.  This curtailment of freedom takes place for a specific amount of time, in institutions that are integral parts of a country’s criminal justice system:  prisons, penitentiaries, or correctional facilities.

            A prison is a veritable holding place for law offenders, known as criminals, usually during trials, inability to post bail, and to serve the sentence appropriated by the courts.  Due to their nature and purpose to restrict, and the concept of punishment that accompanies the residence itself, prisons have been romanticized over centuries as the symbol of stagnancy, torture, and even death.  In reality, these aim to correct misdeeds and reform wayward individuals; however, the necessary amount of control and restriction may indeed produce conditions that have inspired countless fatalistic mindsets.

II.        An Early History of the American Prison System

            Coinciding with the birth of the American republic, the prison system was established in 1776—through an act provided for in the constitution of the then newly-organized state of Pennsylvania (Lewis, 1967).  Before this, America subscribed to capital and corporal punishment, a method inherited from the rules employed by the British.  The colonial period encouraged and applied various forms of torture to equate with violations, and these included whippings, flagellation, and mutilation.  The death penalty was considerably utilized as the equivalent of murder, yet was also seen fit as the punishment for adjudged crimes such as kidnapping, performing homosexual acts, and the denial of God (Johnston, 2008).  Jails of the era functioned as areas to confine people of various claims to crimes, such as those awaiting trial, debtors, and witnesses; there were no distinctions in location based on age, gender, and race, and were largely known to be breeding ground for corruption committed by sheriffs and jail officers.  Consideration for the prisoners’ physical needs was nonexistent, as was the common practice in most county jails.

            The arrival of William Penn and his eventual founding of Pennsylvania brought reforms and modifications to the existing penal code, maintaining the death penalty for homicide cases and substituting hard labor and imprisonment for other offenses.  Unlike his predecessors throughout history who gave no thought to the welfare of the imprisoned, Penn’s previous experience as a prisoner himself enabled him to change existing prison rules and uphold the more positive values of clemency and rehabilitation. No longer were convicted individuals made to suffer at the gallows, endure bloody punishments, and jail yard idleness; Penn introduced an organized prison system, controlled labor, and workshops to veer from the doom of the old jail tradition and focus on a more productive agenda (Lewis, 1967).

            Soon after, due to the growing population of prisoners, new jails were established, and some actually experienced the more important changes in the prison system.  Through the efforts of prominent Philadelphia citizens and the Pennsylvania Prison Society, segregations and vast improvements were made to the Walnut Street Jail, located behind the State House.  It then became a state prison, housing more convicts through an organized plan and design.  Later, more system changes took place—including the provision of one cell per prisoner, purposely to allow more individual space and productive time; technological advancements of the time, which included central heating, a flush toilet in every cell, and shower baths.  Such improvements were introduced in the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1822, and were introduced even before they were in various U.S. government offices.  Other conveniences, upgrades and programs, all known to be indicative of the Pennsylvania System, such as prison visits and assistance to ex-convicts were also initiated (Johnston, 2008).

III.      Sing Sing and Alcatraz

            Two of the most legendary prisons in American history are Sing Sing and Alcatraz, both iconic enough to be heralded as part of popular culture.

            Sing Sing prison, actually named Mount Pleasant Prison, was the brainchild of Elam Lynds, the warden of Auburn Prison in New York.  He found significance in emulating the practice of New Hampshire and Massachusetts which had prisoners quarrying stone.  Soon, one hundred Auburn convicts were transported to Sing Sing in 1825—and were only settled into their newly-constructed cell blocks in 1828.  Quarrying and other industries kept the prisoners busy, and their products sold to churches and shops in New York City.  But more than that, Sing Sing was more infamous for its electric chair, on which over six hundred men and women died from the 1890s to 1963.  Today, with a population of mostly blacks, Sing Sing involves its inmates in a host of program services including academic and vocational education, guidance and counseling services, recreational activities, and pre-release services (Half Moon Press, 2000).

            Currently uninhabited by people, Alcatraz Island used to be the setting of one of the most notorious prisons in the world.  Located in San Francisco Bay, the island served as a lighthouse, a military prison, and a federal prison only until 1963.  It was officially assigned as a military prison in 1907, but had been housing Civil War prisoners since 1861—mainly due to the island’s isolated position among strong water current of the Bay.  Soon, because of earthquakes that continued to plague San Francisco, civilian prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz for safety.

            Because it seemed virtually impossible to escape Alcatraz, the attempts of several inmates, though mostly unsuccessful, became wildly popular.  Famous inmates such as Al Capone and Robert Stroud garnered much media attention that eventually made Alcatraz the icon it is today.  In 1963, the penitentiary was finally closed due to the relatively higher costs of maintenance.  Alcatraz inmates were thus transferred to a Marion, Illinois prison (OceanView Publishing Company, 2008).

IV.      Houses of Refuge in the United States

            The general demographic of prisoners were not limited to adult men and women; violators and criminals also included minors.  In 1825, the state of New York established the first house of refuge in the country, which were in fact private institutions still governed by public authority; however, the procedure and system of rehabilitation were left to the founders.

            Two distinct types of convicts:  individuals of both genders below the age of twenty, and those who have not been sentenced yet are adjudged necessary to be kept within close confines by way of precaution such as vagrants and orphans.  Because of its nature, purpose, and residents, a house of refuge applies a discipline considerably of less severity as a regular prison; its function is conceptually more on education rather than reform, and therefore no fixed amount of time is earmarked for any resident convict.  The heads of the institutions hold responsibility and judgment for their wards, and even continue to provide guidance after a child’s departure.  Much controversy was directed toward these houses of refuge, particularly within the concern for non-convicted adolescents admitted into the establishments.  This was objected to as against the U.S, Constitution, pinpointing the illegality of the power of judgment accorded to the managers of these houses.  However, the goals of the houses of refuge were apparent in nurturing children, to an extent; religion and morals are found to be at the core of each house.  In most, only two rules are given to a newly-arrived young convict:  to never lie, and to do the best he or she can.  The child is then classified into a group according to his or her age and known morality.  Eight hours a day are allotted toward labor, which in this case refers to useful and practical knowledge such as carpentry, shoemaking, and cloth-making.  Four hours are assigned for school work, and nine hours for rest.  Punishments are given, usually in the following forms, depending on the degree of disobedience:  discontinuance of leisure and recreational activities, solitary confinement, bread and water food limit, and, in major cases, corporal punishment (De Beaumont and De Tocqueville, 1964).

            Historically, graduates of houses of refuge return to society as well-behaved and productive citizens—a feat credited to the goals of private groups that conceptualized the idea of these institutions, whose purposes were to decrease the number of children expecting bleak futures.

V.        America’s Modern Prisons

            During the era-defining Great Depression in the 1930s, more reasons and causes for imprisonment were documented—as well as various societal attitudes about convicts.  During this time, America’s incarceration rate increased by one hundred percent, largely composed of African-Americans.  Reports of class systems and cultures existing within prisons were defined by race and socio-economic identifications.

            Unlike the early prisons where reforms and improvements were introduced, many American prisons in the late 1930s were still lacking in basic essentials and conveniences.  But one aspect appeared to have improved over the years, and that was the prison labor system; what had been defined a century back as a means to instill productivity and usefulness among inmates became a source of conflict, at least within the government.  The Hawes-Cooper Act, passed by Congress in 1929, allowed any state the authority to prohibit the sale and purchase of goods produced within the prisons of other states.  This law became effective five years later, during which majority of the states had already established their own legal rules that restricted the sale of prison products.  Carrying this further, the Ashurst-Summers Act of 1935 reinforced the prohibition of sale and transport of such products to any state; any deviation would result in a violation of the particular state’s laws.  This was validated in 1940 when Congress enforced a law that barred completely any sale and transport of prison-made goods.  Consequently, these acts resulted in a decrease in the relevance of prison labor and cause idleness among convicts (Law Library, 2008).

VI.      Conclusion

            While the United States is known the world over as the bastion of freedom and democracy, it is also respected for its ability to create and enforce laws that would keep the peace and order in communities.  The history of American prisons attest to this fact, and it is also evident how the U.S. government has arguably upheld the rights and welfare of prisoners.  One thing, however, mars the ideal picture and future of the American prison system:  the relative duration spent according to the violations or crimes committed.  Cases in point are the more publicized celebrities doing jail time; save for a few, they seem to receive long jail sentences and only actually serve a fraction of it—sometimes even mere hours.  Compare this to numerous accounts of regular individuals who have been incarcerated for non-violent offenses, for long periods of time.  Such an unbalanced system, however efficient, would still reveal a prejudiced social structure that shows preference for the privileged.


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