History of Corrections & its Impact on Modern Concepts

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  • 0:02 Vigilante Justice
  • 1:35 Corporal Punishment
  • 3:16 Transportation & Servitude
  • 5:23 Houses of Correction
  • 7:36 Prisons in the U.S.
  • 9:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Today's corrections system is much different than the early punishment system. This lesson outlines the historical development of the United States' corrections system and explains its impact on modern concepts.

Vigilante Justice

Can you imagine an era when stealing was punished by chopping off the offender's hand? Or when an offender could lose a finger for interfering with a neighbor's crops?

Our early corrections period reaches from 2,000 B.C. all the way through the 19th century. Many different cultures influenced the development of corrections during those early times, so many different philosophies and practices were used.

Two important changes shaped the evolution of corrections during this early period. The first was a shift from vigilante justice to government justice. In ancient times, vigilante justice was common. It meant a victim or a victim's family would seek revenge for a crime. This practice was based on the criminal punishment philosophy of retribution, which simply means that a criminal should get what he or she deserves. It's based on the adage 'an eye for an eye.'

Eventually, organized governments stepped in through government justice. The newer philosophy was that the government 'owned' the crime and bore the responsibility for punishing the criminal. A crime committed against one citizen was considered to be a wrong committed against all of society. This remains the overall philosophy regarding crime and punishment in most of the world to this day.

Corporal Punishment

The second shift was from physical punishment to psychological punishment. There were many different ancient and barbaric forms of torture used as criminal punishment. This practice is generally known as corporal punishment and includes any kind of physical punishment meant to inflict pain or discomfort.

There were numerous forms of corporal punishment, including amputation, beating, shackling, dunking and locking into stocks or pillories. However, most societies settled on flogging, which is whipping or caning. It was popular in British, Spanish, Dutch, German and French settlements and is still used in parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Corporal punishment is based on the punishment philosophy of deterrence. In other words, if people are humiliated, or injured, they will not commit another crime.

By the 18th century, corporal punishment was largely replaced with psychological punishment. Prison became more popular. The early prisons of the 16th and 17th centuries were used more like jails, where criminals were held for a short time while awaiting their trials or awaiting their punishments. The 18th century prisons were a bit closer to what we know today. They were correctional facilities used for long term confinement of criminals, who had been convicted of a crime and were serving a sentence.

Transportation and Servitude

Prison wasn't the only type of psychological punishment option used at that time. In 18th century England, criminals were often sentenced to transportation. This meant offenders were banished from England and deported to the new British colonies in America or to other countries. However, this practice ended when the colonies won independence and formed the United States. This practice was based on the punishment philosophy of incapacitation, meaning that a criminal can't commit crimes if he or she doesn't have access.

Two other punishments were commonly used during this time. The first was hard labor, which was a sentence of time to a work house, where inmates performed manual labor all day, every day. The second was penal servitude, where criminals were sentenced for a period of years to the military or to plantations where they worked and did not have access to the outside world. Penal servitude became especially popular in Spanish-speaking areas of the world. Hard labor and penal servitude were types of incapacitation and psychological punishment, but you can see how both had elements of physical punishment as well.

Of course, the ultimate form of incapacitation is capital punishment. This is the death penalty. In early times, executions were public and carried out in many different ways, including burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, drawing and quartering or impaling.

Capital punishment used to be allowable and common for all sorts of crimes, like stealing or cutting down a tree. These days, capital punishment has been abolished in more than 140 countries. In those that continue to allow it, most have tight restrictions on the type of crime and the method of execution.

Houses of Correction

We know that incarceration, or confinement in prison, eventually emerged as the most popular form of criminal punishment. Let's take a look at how that happened.

In the earliest European prisons, which operated more like jails, all types of offenders were held together in one large room. This meant that children were with adults, and debtors were with murderers. The facilities weren't maintained, and the prisoners weren't cared for. Many died from disease while awaiting their punishments.

However, by the end of the 17th century, prisons in and around London began to operate as houses of correction. In the U.S., we call these correctional facilities. Correctional facilities focus on restoring offenders and returning the offenders to society. This evolution largely began with Bridewell Prison, which was England's first correctional facility. Bridewell was innovative because it was the first prison to use an inmate classification system and separate cells.

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