History of Corrections in America

The end of the 19th century saw the world embark on a mission to reform the penal system meant to improve the prisons as well as ways of handling the inmates. This would see a redefinition of the goals and philosophies of the penal system making the prisons more conforming to the political and social changes taking place in the outside world. The reforms that took place both across Europe and the United States were aimed at transforming prisons into rehabilitative institutions.

Although America borrowed the term corrections system from the United Kingdom, the introduced system was a remarkable improvement compared to the prevailing system across Europe. This difference arose from the view that the penal system had to balance between the society’s needs and the welfare of the criminals. This is what would lead to the introduction of the solitary confinement and also the establishment of the first penitentiary which was built towards the end of the 19th century.

Solitary confinement is believed to have been inspired by the Quaker’s beliefs in penitence as the first step towards redemption. Penitentiary system was a break from the past where criminals would be subjected to all manner of public humiliations such as flogging, torturing as well as body mutilation all in the name of punishment. To further individualize confinement, the auburn model (also referred to as the Sing Sing model) was introduced, this, according to Carlson & Garrett (339) “featured two back to back rows of multitiered cells arranged in a straight, linear plan.

This type of architectural design was based on the notion that incarceration should be able to dominate and completely overhaul a person’s behaviors and attitudes through the use of silence and stiff punishment for those that break the set rules. This was also followed by the use of corporal punishment and hard labor. The end of the 19th century was also seeing major changes, with the prisons being viewed as betterment facilities thanks to the effort employed by a British, John Howard (DeLacy 15).

Similarly in the United Kingdom and across Europe in general, penal system has undergone major changes, from the days of public pillorying to the modern times of privately controlled prisons. A look at this system of imprisonment in the United Kingdom in the 17th centuries indicates that prisons were not used as facilities for meting out punishment through solitary confinement and hard labor, but rather they were regarded as holding facilities for the criminals awaiting trial or punishment. Towards the end of the 17th century however there emerged prison as they are seen today with the first being the London Bridewell.

These facilities however usually were regarded as discriminative and as perpetuating class wars in the United Kingdom. They were mainly used to incarcerate the local poor criminals. The 18th century also would see wider changes as the public sentiments against the death penalty began to rise. Jurors were reluctant to pass guilty verdicts to ensure the criminals evaded death sentences in the belief that it had failed in its deterrent powers. Imprisonment and hard labor were the new modes of punishing offenders.

The government then started disposing criminals to oversea colonies especially to the United States and Australia. Later this would be replaced by prison hulks after America gained its independence in 1776. (Knafla 108) It is this era that would see the rise of activism towards reforming the prison system especially by John Howard who termed the then system as barbaric. They wanted changes introduced that would ensure that prisons conformed to the rehabilitative and reformist philosophy that they were meant to be. This too was a system that would receive its fair share of negative sentiments. (Bakken 35)

It is the period between the mid 19th century and mid 20th century that would see immense reforms of the penal system in the United Kingdom and across Europe. This was as a result of the “pressure to reform existing methods of punishment and to find a more enlightened, humane and effective answer to punishing crime. ” (Morris & Rothman 178). These changes were also as a result of the expansion of the field of knowledge in philosophy and criminology that spread in Europe. Indeed a look at Europe during this era indicates a widespread shared penal philosophy.

These could be seen in the architecture, inmate’s behaviors as well as the population. The first quarter of the 20th century evidences penal practices that can only be referred to as extreme, there emerged the use of concentration camps coupled by the violation of individual liberty amongst the inmates. The changes brought to the prisons towards the end of the 19th century outlined the reformation as the key role of the correction facilities. The introduction of the Prison Act of 1898 abolished hard labor and instead centered on productive labor that would see prisoners earn a few coins which they would use upon their release.

This period would see also the introduction of the juvenile prison program with the separation of the juveniles from the rest and the punishment meted out for some crimes that were associated with the young was reduced. Pick pocketing, for instance, an offense punishable by death, was made a non capital crime. Others were transported overseas. However, the end of the 19th century would witness the establishment of reformatory and industrial schools that would act as reform centers for the juveniles.

The end of 19th century would lead to the introduction of a more reform approach based juvenile system that was different from the usual prisons. Women too were not left out of the 19th century reform movement. This was an era that would see the mixed prisons abolished and women separated from the male prisons ending years of sexual exploitation. For years, the prison management had run prisons like brothels, exposing the few number of females in the prisons to sexual exploitation (Zedner 329). Penal servitude was eradicated in the 1948, this saw the penal system overhauled with clear guidelines on the proper punishments for the offenders.

Further reforms would be seen in 1993 when the government granted the prisons more autonomy through the Prison Service. It was also in this era that would see the introduction of private prisons amidst much controversy. The concept of private prisons in the United States arose in towards the end of the 20th century when the corrections corporation of America was contracted by the Tennessee state to carry out incarceration services. This however is a single event in a sting of reform policies introduced in the prisons department.

Just as the penal system in England was bogged down with claims of excesses and inhumane treatment of criminal, the United States has overtime embarked on a series of reforms aimed to address the existing criticism. The first juvenile court was held in 1899, this paved the way for juvenile prisons in 1904. By then, juvenile programs were meant for those aged between 16 and 30 years and were committed to indeterminate sentencing with options of a parole. Women prisons arose in the 19th century. Before that, like the case of the United Kingdom, there existed mixed prisons to cater for the small number of female inmates.

The first women’s prison was constructed in 1874 and by the end of the first quarter of the 20th century; there were over 20 women prisons in the United States (Weiss & South 46). Both the United Kingdom and the United States have had a parole and probation program in their penal systems. Decisions on parole are reached at by the parole board which examines whether an inmate, upon his or her release from prison before completing the sentence, stands to endanger the public’s security. The idea of parole first cropped up in the United Kingdom towards the end of the 18th century although by then it was carried out through transportation.

It was later to be introduced into the penal system where large sentences depending on the inmate’s behavior would be reduced. (Sieh 328) Currently, they are being used as a means of decongesting the overcrowded prisons as well as encouraging good conduct amongst the inmates. Probation programs originated from England but were first introduced to the United States in the mid 19th century. Today, they are seen as a core component of the penal system as alternative to incarceration for the petty offences.