The History of Prisons in America

A Brief Historical Look Back

Dr. kirk A James
Nov 19, 2014 · 35 min read

The idea of punishment for transgressing perceived societal norms could be extrapolated in biblical proclamations calling for an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. The biblical era espoused punishment as the principal response to crime; it was thought punishment would help to maintain the distinction between right and wrong, thus promoting a more just/moral society (Bonomi, 1986, Kann, 2005). As society advanced, this underlying belief continued to influence Americas approach towards crime and punishment. Criminal justice philosophers and scholars have identified three main components relating to punishment over several centuries beginning with the retributive (Post-Revolution), moving on to the utilitarian (Pre-Revolution), and finally the rehabilitative (Reform Era) (Smith & Natalier, 2005). They all represent distinctly varying ideologies regarding the response to crime; the reform era in particular would take on various transformations in the way it responded to crime and prisoners, going from a clinical/medical model of treatment, to a more antiquated approach (get-tough on crime). Yet despite the purported proclamation of scientific and cultural enlightenment, the punitive ideology representative of earlier responses to crime seems to have permeated the very fabric of the criminal justice system in the United States.

RETRIBUTIVE: Pre-Revolutionary America

Prior to the American Revolution, American colonies relied on sanguinary punishment such as public whippings, pillory, mutilations and even castrations in some cases (more in line with England’s abominable “blood codes”) to address crimes and other acts of civil disobedience. “Religion was clearly the salt that flavored colonial life and it permeated every aspect of life”…so it was no surprise that crime and sin were viewed synonymously (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p.13). The lack of distinction between crime and sin, informed and perpetuated a belief that it was thus the work of the devil and not worthy of further exploration. The answers were to be found in the religious paradigm that permeated life in the early colonies (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010).

Specific emphasis was placed on public displays of punishment as a means to thus deter further commission of crime in the mostly homogeneous colonies. Communities were self-contained with little turnover or change within the population. Thus the response and impetus of punishment served more as a deterrent and means of conformance, hoping to draw deviant individuals back into the fold (Hirsch, 1992). It was said that colonial authorities and their brand of punishment often mirrored that of “a stern father seeking to mend the ways of their wayward children” (p.5). In a public confession prior to being executed in 1789 for robbery, Rachel Wall’s public confession mirrored that of a disobedient child. She confessed not only guilt associated with the commission of crimes, but she also confessed to lying and stealing to her family, as well as breaking various religious verdicts such as holding Sabbath (Williams, 1993). Respecting the Sabbath during colonial times was considered sacred and to be upheld at all times. Friedman (1993) elucidated accounts of men being fined for being absent too frequently from church, or punished for behaviors deemed inappropriate, such as report of a sailor returning from years at sea and kissing his wife in public.

Children didn’t fare much better. It was reported that those who did not obey their parents could be “severely punished, or even executed (in rare cases). Respect for parental authority was considered a precursor to religious discipline and civic responsibility (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010).

Social control was loosely regulated by a few members within the colony who acted in a quasi law enforcement capacity as the formulation of a systemized form of social control had yet to exist, and really was not required given how close knit the towns were. In colonies considered “backcountry”, it was not unusual however to have breakdowns in the systems of social control. The response however was usually swift and severe by members within the colony upon the perpetrators to thus preserve a sense of community. And if the perpetrators happened to be from outside the community, the retribution would be exponentially more brutal (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010). In an act from 1792, it was stated that the punishment for those convicted of idleness (willingly not working) be whippings and hard labor (Vale, 2000). Generally speaking, it was said that there was a punishment or fine for just about anything-deemed offensive. Efforts to rehabilitate “offenders” were inconceivable as colonists had no real expectations of eradicating crime by curing or fixing offenders…the purpose was, in the end, primarily retributive” (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p.18).

The word “prison” is probably one of the few words that no matter in what vernacular it is spoken, it conjures up an axiomatic understanding or response in most people, yet its modern connotation isn’t as antiquated as most of us think. Prisons up until the 18th century were used primarily as holding institution for those accused of committing a crime or a public offense contrary to the religious zeitgeist (such as not holding the Sabbath). These individuals were usually held for a short term till a verdict such as public punishment or a fine was administered (Rotman, 1990). This earlier (utilization or lack thereof of prisons) can be partially attributed to the agrarian nature of society; People were needed to maximize productivity. Keeping large segments of the population in prison would severely handicap levels of production and thus compromise survival in the colonies; however, as the times were changing, so was the mindset regarding prisons.

By the late 1700’s a movement started to take root as a direct response to the shift in colonial way of life, the scientific revolution and the period known simply as the “Age of Enlightenment,” Fathers of the soon to be Republic were drawn to the work of French thinkers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Diderot, and specifically the work of Italian Cesare Beccaria whose initial anonymous essay on Crimes and Punishment, is considered the catalyst in birthing a new paradigm in response to crime in early America (Allen & Simonsen, 1995). This period placed greater emphasis on science verses religion, appropriateness of punishment in relation to crime, and was specifically critical of the death penalty. Seeking to find a middle path, the old ways was cast aside with its critics citing its barbaric and antiquated nature. “The rhetoric of the enlightenment suggested that misguided individuals could be persuaded to exercise moral restraint, good judgment, and self control” (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p.29). Criminals were no longer to be punished based on religious virtue or offenses deemed by the Bible to be against God, instead they would be judged by the commission of acts that were contrary to the welfare of their community.

Benjamin Rush, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and known opponent of capital and corporal punishment, initiated discourse with interested reformers to discuss a new treatment of criminals and crime which had become more wide spread with means of production shifting from agrarian, to industrial. These shifts resulted in the formations of cities and a substantial increase in the population. Rush was quoted as saying, “distress of all kinds, when seen, produces sympathy and a disposition to relive it” (Kann, 2005, p.101). There “discussion resulted in the recommendation that criminals serve sentences as their punishment, rather than being subjected to capital or corporal punishment, as was the established custom” (Williams, 2007, p.17).

UTILITARIAN: Post Revolution America

To the Builders of this nightmare Though you may never get to read these words I pity you; For the cruelty of your minds have designed this hell; If men’s buildings are a reflection of what they are, This one portraits the ugliness of all humanity.


—— Anonymous on a Prison Wall (Allen & Simonsen, 1995, p.32)

The Industrial Revolution and the numerous changes including the emancipation of slaves and the influx of immigrants, was seen as an affront to the idealized nation that the early settlers had sought to create. “While the beginnings of commercialism brought new conveniences and luxuries, the nation was anti-urban at its core. Americans regarded London and other large European cities as cesspools of greed, poverty, and material excess” (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p.37). In light of this belief, it appears that the birth of prison as a means of punishment was an inevitability.

While many theories converged into the design of the new prisons, one would take precedence. The “Panopticon”, or the perfect prison as it was known, was designed by Jeremy Bentham and would become the model of prisons for the next century. Its design (a square wheel with cell blocks arranged like spokes around the hub) enabled total separation of prisoners while allowing a guard to be placed at a central location to thus observe all the prisoners in the various wings. The separation, isolation, and design as a whole were considered integral for rehabilitation and thus its intrinsic features were extensively argued amongst dueling reformers. Borrowing from Foucault, it was said that:

The features of separation and surveillance were intended to divide time, space, and bodies in such a way as to purify the pathological, prevent the spread of “disease”, and render each man arbiter of his own monitoring and control (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p.50).

There is some dispute to where exactly the first prison under the new auspice of carceral punishment was established, some have argued that the distinction belongs to a transformed copper mine in Simsbury, Connecticut (it should be noted that the conditions were so horrendous, riots ensued soon after its inception as a state prison), while others point to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (Allen & Simonsen, 1995); as this is not the focus, I will juxtapose the advent of the Auburn and Pennsylvania systems which in some ways captures the dueling zeitgeist of the era.

Pennsylvania system, penal method based on the principle that solitary confinement fosters penitence and encourages reformation. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, whose most active members were Quakers, advocated the idea. In 1829 the Eastern State Penitentiary, on Cherry Hill in Philadelphia, applied this so-called separate philosophy. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement in cells 16 feet high, nearly 12 feet long, and 7.5 feet wide (4.9 by 3.7 by 2.3 m). An exercise yard, completely enclosed to prevent contact among prisoners, was attached to each cell. Prisoners saw no one except institution officers and an occasional visitor. Solitary penitence, however, was soon modified to include the performance of work such as shoemaking or weaving. The Pennsylvania system spread until it predominated in European prisons. Critics in the United States argued that it was too costly and had deleterious effects on the minds of the prisoners. The Pennsylvania system was superseded in the United States by the Auburn system (Pennsylvania system, 2012).

Auburn system, was the penal method of the 19th century in which persons worked during the day and were kept in solitary confinement at night, with enforced silence at all times. The silent system evolved during the 1820s at Auburn Prison in Auburn, N.Y., as an alternative to and modification of the Pennsylvania system of solitary confinement, which it gradually replaced in the United States. Later innovations at Auburn were the lockstep (marching in single file, placing the right hand on the shoulder of the man ahead, and facing toward the guard), the striped suit, two-foot extensions of the walls between cells, and special seating arrangements at meals — all designed to insure strict silence. The Auburn and Pennsylvania systems were both based on a belief that criminal habits were learned from and reinforced by other criminals (Auburn system, 2012).

Auburn became known as the “congregate” system while Pennsylvania became known as the “separate” system as it espoused silence and separateness of prisoners at all times. While the two systems differed primarily regarding the time spent in solitary confinement, they maintained numerous similarities. They both strove to maintain discipline by enforcing stringent rules, which revolved around mandatory labor, silence and discipline (Rotman, 1990). “Convicts” were forced to wake, eat and sleep at predetermined times. Food portions were similarly uniform consisting primarily of bread, potatoes and “Indian meal” (a type of grain) made into mush or broth. It was said, “a half-quart of molasses to every four prisoners was permitted on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday” (Weld, 1839, p. 38). The mandated silence was thought to induce retrospection and thus foster penance, which was considered a prerequisite for change.

In 1821, Prison administrators at Auburn designed an experiment to test the efficacy of the Pennsylvania System. They took 80 of the men they felt were the most resistant to reform and placed them in solitary confinement, enforcing idleness for a period ranging from Christmas 1821 to Christmas 1823. While the design was criticized as certain facets did not accurately match that of the Pennsylvania system, the results were however conclusive. Most of the men became mentally or physically sick leading to the early termination of the experiment (Allen & Simonsen, 1995). Proponents of the Auburn system would also site its ability to produce income via its utilization of prison labor, and its classification of prisoners according to their crimes as factors to favor that model.

With its ability to produce income via industry, most states would make Auburn the prison model over the next half century. From 1825 to 1869, 35 prisons would be built from the North to the South with Auburn as the prototype. It was said that “bigger and cheaper” was the motto. The medieval design and share enormity, coupled with the discipline enforced, was said to foster despair by making people feel small and insignificant, thus serving as a deterrent to future crime (Allen & Simonsen, 1995).

The advent of these two systems is credited with such innovations as separation and classification of individuals according to the nature of their crimes, sex, and age (specifically separation of children from adults) among others. Yet even in this new paradigm of responding to crime, the sheer violence of the “bloody codes” was not forgotten. It was said that every brutality imagined in the early colonial days outside of “mutilations” were utilized to maintain prison order (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010). Various reports over the following few years served to illuminate conditions of what had been deemed an “advance system.” In some institutions it was reported that as a form of discipline, offenders were suspended in the “air by their toes or thumbs.” An investigation into Pennsylvania prison practices found that water was allowed to freeze on the heads, hands and feet of individuals as punishment during the winter months (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p.54).

The level of brutality being carried out in the prisons had reached a new level of low. After visiting the Pennsylvania prison, Charles Dickens (1842) wrote:

In its intention, I am well convinced that it is kind, humane and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who devised this system of prison discipline, do not know what it is that 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 suffers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge what they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature (p.124)

As the economy and idealism that precipitated the period of “enlightenment” began to wane, the south began to adopt a new perspective regarding the penal system, basically disregarding the Auburn model:

The South adopted a punishment philosophy based on impending economic needs. Their system was based not on philanthropic ideas, but on the idea that the “possession of a convict’s person is an opportunity for the state to make money; that the amount to be made is whatever can be wrung from him” (Cable, 1884: 586). This philosophy took the form of the convict lease system, which served as a slavery model for rebuilding a war-ravaged economy and infrastructure (e.g., railroads). (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p.57)

There existed less oversight in the leasing system; “inmates” were sent anywhere in the United States that demanded their labor. Vagrancy laws and ambiguous ones such as insulting gestures (such as a Black man holding up his face as he passes a White person) were enforced primarily against poor Blacks leading to what some consider the first prison boom (Alexander, 2010, Oshinsky, 1996). Their treatment and living conditions were deplorable. The working conditions arguably worse, led Friedman (1993) to conclude that inmates were treated more like insects than human beings. Mortality rates were significantly higher than that of regular incarceration…especially that of the “negro” prisoner. “A large portion of the prison population in the South was composed of plantation blacks who had no influence or resources, and they were treated with no mercy” (Allen & Abril , p.42). This prompted Tannenbaum (1938), writing an expose of prison conditions in the South to preface her writing with this caveat: “please reader, do not read this chapter unless you can steal your heart against pain” (p.74). This would be one of many exposes that sought to illuminate the conditions of the prison system in the south in hopes of changing the conditions, but it was not to be.

While the pain was great, the profit was greater. Companies flocked to utilize this new cheap mostly “negro” labor (Alexander, 2010; Todd, 2005,). McKelvey (1936) noted that “while prisoners of the North may have grown pale and anemic gazing through the bars in a tower, the southern counterparts dragged his chains through long years of hard labor, driven by brutal torture, often times to his grave” (p.172)

The voice of dissent and outrage regarding the system began to grow, as did the levels of crime. The euphemism that blanketed the new Republic post Revolution began to shred amidst the harsh realities that accompanied such rapid social, economic, industrial and population growth. This was especially apparent for soldiers who served in the Revolutionary war (and wars to come), many turned to crime in an effort to sustain, the economy that was unable to provide adequate jobs and other levels of support (Hirsch, 1992).

Various oversight reporting agencies and commissions began to report that the system was actually increasing recidivism rates. “It was concluded that the likelihood of recidivism was far greater than the odds of reform” (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p. 54). Many questioned the rational of prisons, including David Rothman (1990) who has researched the history of prisons extensively in the United States. He was quoted as saying: “if nothing else, penal institutions were convenient because they housed the strange alien hordes” such as “negroes”, immigrants and other challenges to the status quo (p. 59). Advocates of the early penitentiary defended it as a “human enterprise” able to turn men and women who would offer nothing to society, into a financial gain for the state (Hirsch, 1992). While the latter was a palatable explanation for many, a change was again on the horizon. The new nation struggled with the age-old question of punishment or rehabilitation for those that violated its sanctuary.


The growth of America in light of the Industrial Revolution (and later mechanization) was unparalleled, but unfortunately, so was the high levels of crime (and subsequent prison overcrowding). Progressivism started to take root, many argued as to what extent government should play in addressing these new societal ills (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010). At its core, “Progressivism embraced the notion that government would be the outstretched hand that made rehabilitation possible” (p.61). A Social-Structural paradigm inclusive of biological and psychological theories became the dominant lens in viewing crime. The unequal distribution of wealth, and the realization that one third of the nation lived beneath the poverty level in 1900 became more prominent in discourse as it pertained to crime (Bok, 1992).

Robert Hunter was a leader in the fields of social work and charities in the early part of the 20th century. He in 1904 published a book titled Poverty, in which he explored social conditions in the inner cities. He concluded that many of the perpetrators of crime are nothing more that the exploited mass of capitalism, and their trajectory towards crime is nothing more than opportunistic in the face of poverty. Irrespective of the perceived epistemology that lead one to crime, it was generally agreed by penologists that individuals should be reformed while incarcerated. A new system was thus needed, the old system once again appeared flawed, and ill equipped to facilitate the required change (Hunter, 1904).

A pillar associated with early republicanism and the foundation of distributive justice is the ideal of individual meritocracy (Hirsch, 1992). It is an ideology that called for individual advancement based on merits. This ideology led to an embrace of a new system credited to Alexander Maconochie and Sir Walter Crofton (Putney & Putney, 1962). Maconochie while in charge of a British Penal Colony designed a system that would be later refined by Crofton. This system initially called the “mark system,” allowed individuals to earn their freedom if they worked hard and demonstrated good behavior, in stark contrast to the determinate (fixed) sentence of the time which many argued gave no incentive for “convicts” to change or abide by rules and regulations. Crofton further expanded this system by necessitating certain stages be completed as a prerequisite to release:

The first stage was composed of solitary confinement and monotonous work. The second stage was assignment through public works and a progression through various grades, each grade shortening the length of the stay. The last stage was assignment to an intermediate prison where the prisoner worked without supervision and moved in and out of the free community. If the prisoner’s conduct continued to be good and if he or she was able to find employment, then the offender retuned to the community on a conditional pardon or “ticket-of-leave.” This ticket could be revoked at any time within the span of the original fixed sentence if the prisoner’s conduct was not up to those standards established by those who supervised the conditional pardon. (Allen & Simonsen, 1995, p.51)

This new system gave birth to the idea of parole, and was adopted during the American Prison Congress of 1870. This gathering featured over 130 representatives from various countries, and representation from most states within the United States (McKelvey, 1977). It was noted “the conspicuous absence of the Eastern Pennsylvania freed the convention from the usual acrimonious debate over the rivalries of the fathers” (p. 89). It nonetheless remained acrimonious, as various presenters jockeyed for their ideas to be the prototype for which all others would follow. One such proposal did just that in lighting the path for the others. The New York delegation was represented by

Zebulon Brockway, his speech was titled “Ideal for a True Prison System for a State”. Brockway had a long and respected career in the prisons and was considered somewhat of a visionary (Allen & Simonsen, 1995). His revolutionary speech proposed:

That a nonpolitical commission, such as that recommended in New York, be created and given full power to build and control juvenile reform schools, district reformatories or houses of correction, reception prisons for male adults in which each convict would be examined and the incorrigibles retained for life while the others would be transferred to industrial or intermediate reformatories, and lastly reformatories for women. He recommended that discipline be by grades and marks and that these be administered in connection with indeterminate sentences so as to release each prisoner as soon as he was reformed. Brockway’s paper, with its inspiring ideals full of revolutionary significance, soon became the center of a stormy discussion; in the end the declaration of principles approved most of his recommendations (McKelvey, 1977, p.90).

The Declaration of Principles at its core was the adaption of the scientific treatment of offenders based on the medical model. Instead of focusing on the nature of the offense, this new paradigm would instead focus on the nature of the offender. This archetype switch would serve as a catalyst for the reform movement, and its reformatory built in upstate New York (Allen & Simonsen, 1995). Elmira as it would be known would become the model for the reform movement. When it opened:

It rejected 19th century penology’s holy trinity of silence, obedience and labor. Elmira’s goal would be reform of the convict, and its methods would be psychological rather than physical. Instead of coercing with the lash, Elmira would encourage with rewards. Mass regimentation would yield to classification and individualized treatment. Instead of fixed sentences to fit the crime, the indeterminate sentence would be adjustable to fit the criminal. Rather than outright release after the offender “paid his debt to society,” the new parole procedure would assure he did not begin running up a new tab (Garcia, 2011, p. 122).

Its first superintendent Zebulon Brockway led Elmira Reformatory and the path that followed. Brockway experimented with privileges for good conduct as an attempt to maintain inmate compliance and discipline. Sending inmates to halfway type housing was utilized as a prelude to release; this was an attempt to reorient the individual to society after their incarceration. Greater emphasis was also placed on preparing the inmate for release by providing educational and vocational trades (McKelvey, 1977). Brockway reasoned that the old way relied on a “mystic morality” which was not quantifiable, and was thus un-measureable in regards to accessing the efficacy of punitive and retributive approaches in penology (Petersilia & Reitz, 2011). Brockway stated the following:

To treat a prisoner as a patient, to study his symptoms and make the applications they require, to punish him for what demands punishment, to teach him, to reform him, to raise him, and to cure him — these are all parts of a system which has any promise of success (p. 346).

This new scientific application was primarily intended for first time male “offenders” incarcerated between the ages of 16 and 30. It was thought that this age range was less hardened in criminal behavior and thus more susceptible to reform. The new medical model approach, “assumed that offenders were sick and attempted to “cure” them (Rotman, 1990). The female population at the time was largely overlooked due to their relatively small numbers; it would be over a decade after the establishment of Elmira that female reformatories such as “the Hudson house of refuge for women convicted of certain misdemeanors, chiefly those involving sex morality”, and later succeeded by Albion and Bedford Hills would open their doors (McKelvey, 1977, p.165).

“In these proposed “prison science” laboratories, offenders were not to be referred to as “prisoners” or “convicts”, but instead as “inmates” (Towner, 1886, cited in Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p.72). It was believed that the new “inmate” designation would instill greater character and accountability in these individuals. The vernacular and work of the staff was to also mirror that of the medical profession. Daily activities were quantified and thus measured allowing staff to track and reward each satisfactory stage completed. “Once satisfactory progress had been demonstrated (primarily in educational, vocational, work and compliance with the rules and regulations), the offender would be released to enter into a period of community supervision known as parole” (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p. 73).

Parole coupled with the indeterminate sentence, was the carrot on the stick that penologists envisioned would lead individuals to the well of reform while incarcerated. The application however failed to replicate the theoretical expectations. Guidelines for intermediate sentencing were either non-existent or not followed. What was intended to create uniformity and thus eliminate disparities in sentencing did the opposite. “Indeterminate sentencing without guidelines fueled sentencing disparities, with offenders of identical legal status serving sentences of different lengths” (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p. 80). Calculating prison wardens who were constantly in search of new ways to control their increasing populations and the ensuing violence as a result of overcrowding, began to utilize the threat of denying early parole or release as a means of maintaining control in their prisons.

The process for releasing individuals on parole was also severely flawed (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010; Rothman, 1980; Simon, 1993). Parole’s original conception, involved a team of behavioral experts who would serve as a parole board. Their duties were to appropriately review facets of the offender’s institutional record, as well as the offender’s insight into the crime and plans for the future, including job prospects. However, the parole boards were comprised mainly of politicians, friends of politicians and various other individuals without the envisioned established criteria (Rothman, 1980). This hotchpotch group would become responsible for determining the fates of hundreds of individuals each year. The parole board would meet a few times a year with the actual interview lasting no more than 5 minutes (Rothman, 1980). With no formal guidelines to follow, the meetings would focus on factors ranging from “the physical appearance of the offender”, to whether they had secured employment, or “questions seeking to elicit verbal assurances of good behavior from the offender” (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p. 81). Once individuals were released in this arbitrary and capricious manner, they were mandated by parole stipulations that warranted work, honest conduct, and avoidance of unsavory characters (Pisciotta, 1994).

Individuals once released were mandated by parole officers to stay away from individuals or communities that were held in criminal repute, this was an almost insurmountable task as many of the individuals once released had no choice but to go back to the poor crime ridden communities of which they came (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010). The fallacy inherent within this stipulation would result in high levels of revocations and violations resulting in the “offender” being sent back to prison. Mays and Winfree (2005) classified these early years of parole as essentially a merry go round which always returned prisoners to the starting point, which unfortunately for them was prison.

The idea of probation would meet a fate similar to that of parole. Probation was intended as an alternative to prison for crimes not considered to be too egregious. The theory was that the individual would be better served with community rehabilitation rather than placement in a prison, which had the potential of nurturing criminal tendencies (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010). Unfortunately like its sister agency parole, probation officers were under skilled, underpaid and overworked. Documents show that probation officers were sometimes responsible for caseloads totaling almost 300 individuals (Rothman, 1980). “The ability of probation officers to provide informed decisions to judges and supervision to offenders was predictably impeded” (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p. 82). Contact between probation officers and offenders, were mandated as much as once weekly depending on risk factors. However, in many cases the contact “was rare and, in some jurisdictions, amounted to no more than ten minutes a year…Consequently, pre-sentence investigations were compromised of few facts and much speculation and were described as dossiers of gossip” (p. 82)

Even in light of the less than glowing reports, certain facets of the reform ideology, chiefly the concept of indeterminate sentencing, education, and parole, soon transitioned to State Prisons. They would go on to be staples (some would argue more in theory than practice) of penology in and outside of America to this current day, yet the reformatory period is generally considered a failure. Some attributed this failure to:

The same physical environment and the same underpaid and poorly qualified personnel found in prisons were also found in reformatories, those institutions were soon reduced to the junior prisons with the usual routine. The same old “prison discipline” was still the most dominant feature in any penal program (Allen & Simonsen, 1995, p. 53).

The same old “prison discipline” mirrored some of the past brutalities that the reform movement wanted to distance itself from. Reports began to surface condemning the reform movement as using science to mask inhumane practices/torture. It was concluded from a study of reformatories in three states that: “the reformatory offered little more than scientific jargon and justification for practices that were neither new nor humane (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p. 78). Enoch Wines (1880), a prominent reformer of the time, condemned the movement for it’s over incarceration and unfair sentencing of Blacks compared to Whites. Leaders of the reform movement were not spared, an article detailing prison abuses called out reform leaders for lacking the ability to discern “between punishment and abuse.” It also condemned their practices as a disgrace to society and further condemned the states that allowed such horrific practices (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010). These reports only began to scratch the surface of what was to come.

Word surfaced that Zebulon Brockway, the man that many considered the face of the reformatory movement, was also vigorously administering a type of paternal discipline indicative of earlier penal times. “Paddler Brockway” as he became known in the prisons amongst his victims, became infamous for administering beatings using “twenty-two by three inch wide leather strap that weighed more than one pound wet” (Blomberg & Lucken, 2010, p. 79) “Euphemisms, such as spanking of the patients, positive extraneous assistance, or harmless parental discipline, essentially gave scientific credibility to beatings and cruelty” (p.79). Prisoners who were not in the line with the rules and regulations of the reformatory were subjected to a diet consisting of nothing more than bread and water for months. Others would be subjected to the horror of a bathroom stall like cell with no windows, no bathroom; forced to endure the indignity of having to defecate and urinate in the same space one was forced to sleep, eat, and carry out whatever daily activities one does in the solitary confinement to survive (McKelvey, 1977). While these illuminations would give most pause, this was not the case as the reform ideology took root in American penology, precipitating the era that some would term “clinical penology.”

The Clinical Approach

Reform era influence are still present to this day in the form of parole and probation, juvenile courts and indeterminate sentencing (Pratt, 2009), but the era also spawned an ideological ethos leading to varying clinical approaches to understanding and addressing crimes that have also withstood the test of time.

While the “medical model” became synonymous with the early mechanisms of the reform movement, the psychiatric invasion would soon gain momentum. Fueled by the advent of Freudian thought in Western Society (Rotman, 1990), The early part of the twentieth century would bear witness, as psychoanalysis would breathe new life into the therapeutic model of rehabilitation. McKelvey (1977) reported that by 1926 most prisons had a psychiatrist or psychologist. Social psychiatry would influence a more inclusive view of the offender. So the ideology of causation and subsequent treatment, once again shifted from a myopic viewpoint that perceived the criminal perpetrator as sick and need of healing, to a more holistic approach which considered various factors in assessment and subsequent treatment (Rotman, 1990). In theory, this new approach appeared to be the right one in addressing the paradox that existed between crime, causation and appropriate punishment/treatment that penologist had grappled with over the past two centuries. Implementation of practice that fully incorporated theory would prove to be another story.

The paradigm shift in criminal causation prompted greater attention towards a social learning model inclusive of not only the social milieu of the “offender” prior to prison (which most viewed as negative), but also of the “offender” and his/her current environment. As a result, greater emphasis was placed on creating within the prison an environment that would serve to mitigate the negative aspects of their prior socialization, while also allowing for greater control. Prisons began to utilize sports and various other forms of recreation initiatives to attain this dual goal. In the winter months, musicals and theatre productions would be introduced, followed in later years by the introduction of movies and radio to prison life (McKelvey, 1977).

Thomas Mott Osborne was a man with many titles; chief among them was prison reformer and [former] Mayor of Auburn New York. He was also known to have a flair for the dramatic. As a young man from a privileged social and economic background, he often dressed as a vagrant to experience social conditions that would otherwise elude him (Tannebuam, 1933). Prior to his appointment as chairman of a state reform commission, he read a book by a former prisoner named Donald Laurie, which chronicled his experiences in prison. He was so moved by this book that he convinced prison authorizes to let him live for a week in Auburn Prison. He also demanded to be treated like all the inmates (McKelvey, 1977). His request was met with ridicule and cynicism by guards, inmates, and especially the press. Yet he was granted permission and would soon begin his quest to gain an inside perspective on the nuances of the prison and prison life.

A few days in prison garb, walking from cell to mess hall to work shop, and performing the routine task and role of an inmate, quickly won this warmly dynamic man the respect and confidence of his fellows. Among the host of suggestions he received, was that of trusting the prisoners to assume a share of the discipline and management of life within the walls… (McKelvey, 1977, p. 262)

Osborne’s unorthodox attempts at reform by voluntarily choosing to experience prison conditions firsthand concluded in the formation of the Mutual Welfare League. Osborne believed that prisons should be democratized, allowing for an easier transition upon release. He borrowed a motto from Gladstone in that it is “liberty alone that fits men for liberty” (Chamberlain, 1935). The League was thus established, espousing democratic principles. A leadership committee was established amongst the prisoners via secret ballot. The committee became active and controlled various facets of their own rehabilitation ranging from recreational to rehabilitative activities. Grievance committees composed entirely of prisoners were also created to address institutional and inmate grievances. Osborne however created numerous enemies by his attempts to democratize the prisons and empower men to take responsibility in their reform. Copious fallacious scandals, and various challenges from politicians and correction officers, would eventually bring about Osborne’s departure and the collapse of his Mutual Welfare League in 1929 (Chamberlain, 1935).

The following decades during and preceding the great depression bore witness to substantial increases in prisoners and prisons. The number of inmates in the U.S. prisons increased almost two hundred percent. More than ten prisons were also built, with most utilizing Auburn as the model (Allen & Simonsen, 1995). This period was also classified as the “Industrial Era” of prisons, which had its early roots in Pennsylvania’s Eastern Penitentiary and the production of “handicrafts” during solitary. Utilizing various facets of industry, prisons had essentially become self-sufficient entities. With no labor or commercial laws to restrict them, prisons maintained carte-blanch authority to produce and sell the products generated from their free labor force. Opposition though had been mounting beginning with the convict leasing system of the south, which many had argued created a disadvantage to those in the labor market. Things came to a head with the great depression, and the push for greater labor regulation witnessed under the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Hawes-Cooper Act of 1929 and the Ashurst-Summers Act of 1935, essentially crippled prison industries by regulating prison products in relation to sale and distribution. As the economy worsened during the depression, thirty-three states would pass laws essentially prohibiting the sale of prison products on the open market, thus dealing a further blow to prison industries (Allen & Simonsen, 1995).

As the money once generated by the industries began to wane, so did the euphoria and attempts at prison reform. It was said that prisons during this era often mirrored the cold and hardened nature of the prisoners it intended to change (Rotman, 1990). The Depression also affected the public and political perception of crime and the efforts of reform. No doubt influenced by such notorious criminals of the era like Bonnie and Clyde, “Ma” Barker and John Dillinger who reaped havoc across the Midwest robbing and stealing. Americans developed an exaggerated fear of lawbreakers some would title “convict bogey” (Allen & Simonsen, 1995). This would force Director of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) Edgar Hoover, to declare war on what he termed the “hoity-toity professors, and the cream puff school of criminology” (Allen & Simonsen, 1995, p. 49). Within this new era of “convict bogey” which would be further reinforced decades later by neo-conservative policies, it was concluded that prison inmates “could be dealt with only by locking and relocking, counting and recounting” (p.50).

Tough on Crime

The “get tough on crime” approach again ushered in a new (or some would say old) way of business witnessed by the birth of the super maximum-security prison Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz epitomized more than any prison of its era the prevailing zeitgeist. It was to be a prison that in every capacity suggested punishment. It was isolated (an island in the bay), and out of sight in contrast to other infamous prisons, which often sat in the middle of towns. Visitors were not permitted, which further added to its allure. Alcatraz was supposedly impossible to escape, which was certainly reassuring to a society suffering from “convict bogey” (Wellman, 2008).

The lack of income generated by the former industries coupled with the rising prison population (exacerbated no doubt by the Depression), reduced the meager attempts at reform behind prison walls even further; thus, resulting in a period of unprecedented prison riots starting in 1929 before curtailing shortly during World War 2. It would literally explode again as prisoners became increasingly less tolerant of the less than humane prison conditions throughout the country. Alcatraz would have its first riot in 1946 setting the tone for almost 200 more riots between 1950 and 1966 (Wellman, 2008). In a report by the American Prison Society on the riots, it reported the main causes as:

· Inadequate financial support and official and public indifference

· Substandard personnel

· Enforced idleness

· Lack of professional leadership and professional programs

· Excessive size and overcrowding of institutions

Political domination and motivation of management

· Unwise sentencing and parole practices (Allen & Simonsen, 1995, p. 60)

The violence that precipitated America’s prisons in the fifties and sixties was arguably a microcosm of the turmoil that shook America’s fabric as millions of people oppressed and marginalized throughout the country stood up and demanded equality. McKelvey (1977) stated:

As in the larger society, these uprisings not only protested deficiencies in housing, sanitation…but also challenged basic aspects of the system. Confronted by demands that they could not satisfy…officials hastened to suppress the protestors with force. The crescendo of violence however brought a series of investigations and prompted citizens and legal scholars alike to look again at the basic philosophy of the system (p. 350).

The American Prison Association essentially proclaimed the reform era a failure and thus began to reshape its charter and purpose. In 1954 it changed its name to the “American Correctional Association” and encouraged states to rename their prisons “Correctional Institutions” or facilities. A revised manual of correctional standards was also issued, “it suggested that prison officials administer discipline in adjustment centers, but most convicts continued to describe such centers as the hole” (McKelvey, 1977, p.327). The inherent brutality of the period “prompted fifty convicts to cut the tendons in their heels in order to escape labor assignments in the swamps’” (p. 323).

The prison pipeline was the information highway before the dawn of the Internet. News of riots and brutality in other prisons would serve as a unifying force and catalyst for further riots. Yet even with the turmoil of the period, official and public indifference remained, that is until two distinct events, albeit bi-coastal, created the perfect storm; Best extrapolated in the storied intersection of George Jackson, The San Quentin State Massacre, and the Attica Riots.

The Demand for Prison Rights

George Jackson for the better half of the 60’s had become a symbol of the deviant prisoner, and the revolutionary conscience and voice of prisoners from the West to the East. Jackson had been literally and figuratively shot into the spotlight after being charged along with two other prisoners (later collectively known as the Soledad Brothers) for the killing of a white guard at Soledad Prison in California. Even confined, his legend would continue to grow (Liberatore, 1996)

Jonathan Jackson the 17 year old ‘man-child” and younger brother of George Jackson, disillusioned with the justice system, would stage a “raid on the Marin County Courthouse, kidnapping Judge Harold Haley and several jurors while demanding the freedom of his brother George (he was not in court) and the “Soledad Brothers” (McKelvey, 1977, p. 354). Jonathan’s attempt would be thwarted, as he would be killed along with the Judge and two companions during a shoot out as he attempted to escape. The story made national headlines and George became the symbol of the prisoner revolutionary spirit of the 60’s and 70’s, no doubt enhanced by his advocacy of Black Nationalism and affiliation with the Black Panther Party (Liberatore, 1996)

The inherent lack of homogeneity in prisons, added to the mounting tension between mostly Black prisoners and their White prison guards. Many Black prisoners began to consider themselves “political prisoners”, victims of capitalism and racism. A belief that was further exacerbated as numerous civil rights and anti-war activists were incarcerated leading to more educated and politicized prisons. This belief was further fueled by nationalistic organizations such as the Black Panthers and Black Muslims, whose membership rose exponentially under the mounting racial tensions (McKelvey, 1977). George Jackson (Black Panther Party member) with his defiance and eloquence became the paragon of a political prisoner. Sentenced to a minor charge at 18, he would spend over a decade in prison “aggravated by numerous disciplinary infractions” resulting from his protest of prison conditions. His final protest would come on August 21, 1971 as he “was shot down, allegedly in a frantic dash across the yard for freedom” (p. 354). The circumstances of his death remain questionable to this day, but “the death of George Jackson provided a dramatic symbol of penal revolt…and was the most widely publicized incident of the mounting resistance that frustrated the correctional objectives of the American prisons” (p. 354).

The American Correctional Society had often regarded the lack of public knowledge, and the general indifference most Americans shared regarding prisons, as primary reasons for a lack of public support in their quest to improve prison conditions. That would change as the San Quentin Massacre culminating with the death of George Jackson, served to put the issues of prisons back into the consciousness of Americans. As also evident by past prison riots in America, it would serve to create a ripple effect from the West to the East Coast.[1]

Attica State Prison while located thousands of miles away from San Quentin, mirrored its conditions and was thus fertile soil for the Black Muslims, the Black Panthers and its Puerto Rican equivalent, the Young Lords. These organizations had aligned themselves together after “participating in an inmate-led sociology class in the summer of 1971” (McKelvey, 1977, p.355). They declared “We are Men” and not animals to be beaten and tortured for pleasure (James, 2005). Their mission as exemplified by their manifesto declaration: “to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of prisoners here and throughout the United States” (Levinson, 2008, p.1232). The Attica Brotherhood echoed the sentiments of George Jackson; his death would serve as a catalyst for change.

The revolution there was triggered in part as a response to George Jackson’s murder at San Quentin because he was idolized by many of the Black inmates. They organized an all day fast and silence in his honor, which helped to create a new solidarity among prisoners from all the various racial factions. Emboldened by this mass cohesion, the leaders among the prisoners began to seek reform of the “barbaric conditions” that existed at Attica. When none of their recommended reforms was even considered by the administration, the prisoners took over the entire prison. For five days from September 9th to the 13th, 1971, more than 1200 prisoners rebelled and seized control of the prison, burning some of its buildings, and taking 39 hostages, both guards and civilian prison staff. The “Attica Manifesto” focused on prisoner oppression and dehumanization. “We are men. We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such,” was the call to arms by one of the rebellion leaders, L. D. Barkely. Their price for releasing the hostages was negotiated daily, as were national media alerts concerning the negotiations. This notoriety was in part the consequence of 27 high profile celebrities who came to Attica as “neutral observers” … (Zimbardo, 2007, p.224)

The subsequent massacre at Attica of prisoners and correctional officers by the State Police,[2] and the numerous illuminative reports that preceded it, served to further jolt the consciousness of the American people and Congress to the problem of prisons in the nation (Zimbardo, 2007). Numerous commissions and hearing would take place as a result of the confluence of violence at San Quentin and Attica; the hearings would further illuminate inhumane practices and conditions that festered and grew in prisons (Rotman, 1990). The subsequent reports produced by the various commissioned enquires, would lead to a renewed attempt at prison rights, improved prison conditions, and programming that could be substantiated through evaluative methods (Selke, 1993). Yet as the supposedly “modern” era of prisons advanced, the call for justice and humanity that was witnessed since the genesis of prisons in early colonial America would still echo loudly more than ever from within the “belly of the beast”; succinctly summarized best by the these lines of the Attica Manifesto:

We, the inmates of Attica Prison, have grown to recognize beyond the shadow of a doubt, that because of our posture as prisoners and branded characters as alleged criminals, the administration and prison employees no longer consider or respect us as human beings, but rather as domesticated animals selected to do their bidding in slave labor and furnished as a personal whipping dog for their sadistic, psychopathic hate . . . (James, 2005, p.305)


The Pre and Post Revolutionary response to crime while theoretically different mirrored of a lot of the retributive and punitive paradigms associated with biblical times (Grasmick & McGill, 1994; Evans & Adams, 2003). These punitive paradigms permeated and impeded the various attempts at establishing a criminal justice system that would indeed reform its inhabitants. Numerous reports would highlight the “inhumane treatment” of prisoners particularly in the South. The industrialization of prisons, and the over incarceration of blacks led many social activist to question the true impetus behind the criminal justice system. Yet, the American public would remain largely oblivious to this peculiar institution for nearly 200 years. It would take the massacre of George Jackson and the San Quentin riots to truly elicit a public response. The subsequent Attica Riots would serve as a literal and metaphoric window into the “belly of the beast”, igniting various public and private debates on the effectiveness of prisons.

The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended in a report preceding Attica that no new prison facilities be built. The Commission also strongly recommended closing all Juvenile facilities. The report would go on to state “the prisons, the reformatory, and the jails have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it. Their very nature insures failure” (Miller, 2009, p.731). Yet those bloody months leading up and culminating with the Attica riots, would change and in some sense humanize prison conditions. College programs would come into existence, and access to vocational and educational opportunities would also be made available. On the surface it appeared that the conditions that the reform movement envisioned necessary to foster rehabilitation was finally becoming a reality, yet beneath the surface social and political conditions were about to converge to create a period titled “mass incarceration”.

Dedicated to Eddie Ellis!

    Dr. kirk A James

    Written by


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