Prison Reform: History, Issues & Movement

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  • 0:04 Prison as Punishment
  • 0:53 History of Prison Reform
  • 2:37 Current Issues
  • 4:38 The Prison Reform Movement
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dawn Young

Dawn has a Juris Doctorate and experience teaching Government and Political Science classes.

Since colonial times, people have fought to improve the conditions of prisoners in the United States. This lesson discusses the history of prison reform, the improvements reformers have fought for, and the groups that have been instrumental in the struggle.

Prison as Punishment

When the American colonies were first established, prisons were some of the first buildings built. However, they were used to hold people awaiting trial, not as punishment. Early American punishments tended to be carried out immediately after trial. Most misdemeanors were punished with fines, more severe crimes were punished by public shaming or physical chastisement, and the worst crimes were punished with death. Long-term prison time was generally reserved for people who could not pay their debts.

However, as cities grew bigger, many of the old ways of punishment became obsolete and people began look at prisons in a different light. Thus began the use of incarceration as a punishment. As soon as this happened, prisoner abuses began and prison reform was born. Prison reform is any attempt to improve prison conditions.

History of Prison Reform

Since prison began to be used as punishment, there have been groups, referred to as prison reform groups, fighting to improve inmate conditions. In 1787, one of the first prison reform groups was created: Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, known today as the Pennsylvania Prison Society. This group wanted to improve the conditions in the local jail. Inmates typically had their clothes taken by other prisoners, and it was common for the jailers to charge inmates for food, clothing, and heat. This society believed that these conditions were unnecessary and cruel, and that prisons should be larger and instead rely on methods such as solitary confinement and hard labor for purposes of reform.

In the 1800s, a prominent figure in prison reform was Zebulon Brockway. Brockway was in charge of various prisons over his lifetime. While in charge of these prisons, he promoted education for prisoners aged 16 to 21, reduced sentences for good behavior, and vocational training. He also began a parole program for prisoners who earned enough points by completing various programs.

Another prominent figure in prison reform was Dorothea Dix. Dix appeared in front of the Massachusetts Legislature and told the Congressman that she had spent years visiting different prisons and found the conditions horrendous. Men, women, and children were grouped together, the mentally insane were beaten, and people that were sick were not given adequate care. Dix advocated for change, and by the time of her death, hospitals and asylums had been created for the sick and the insane, many states had created some type of independent justice system for children, and governments no longer incarcerated debtors.

Current Issues

As the United States' population has grown, so has the prison system. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware (ACLU-DE), in the last 35 years the prison population has risen by 700%. One in 99 adults is incarcerated, and one in 31 adults is under some form of correctional control. Let's go over some of the current issues that plague our prison system.

According to the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), the rapid growth of the prison population has resulted in overcrowding, which is extremely dangerous. The SCHR notes that many prisons are so crowded that inmates are forced to sleep on the floor in common areas. The group also points out that overcrowding can lead to violence, chaos, lack of proper supervision, poor medical care, and intolerable living conditions.

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