Prisons: History, Characteristics & Purpose

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  • 0:01 16th and 17th Century Prisons
  • 2:20 18th Century Prisons
  • 4:13 19th Century Prisons
  • 5:51 20th Century Prisons
  • 8:29 21st Century Prisons
  • 9:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Today's prisons bear little resemblance to those of years past. This lesson outlines the historical development of United States' prisons and explains the main characteristics and purposes of American prisons.

16th and 17th Century Prisons

Would you rather serve time in a 16th century European prison or a 21st century American prison? No prison is a vacation, but the difference in living conditions is remarkable. Prisons were used throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. However, they weren't used in the way we use them today. Today's prisons are correctional facilities used for long-term confinement. People go to prison after they've been convicted of a crime and sent to serve a sentence.

The early prisons were used more like our current jails. Jails are correctional facilities used for temporary holding or short-term confinement. For the most part, early European prisons were used to hold people before their trials or while they awaited their punishments. All types of offenders - from children to adults and from debtors to murderers - were held together. The facilities weren't maintained, and the prisoners weren't cared for. Many died from disease.

By the end of the 17th century, prisons in and around London began to operate as houses of correction, or what we now know as correctional facilities. Correctional facilities focus on rehabilitating offenders and returning the offenders to society. This development was thanks to Bridewell Prison, which was England's first correctional facility.

Bridewell was a royal palace, donated to London to be used as an orphanage and a house of correction for 'wayward women'. This later expanded to include the 'disorderly poor' and many other offenses. The name 'Bridewell' became synonymous with prisons because it played such an important role in prison development. It was the first to use an inmate classification and treatment system, train and educate all inmates, employ a full-time and paid prison staff and use cell and solitary confinements.

18th Century Prisons

In 18th century England, offenders were often sentenced to banishment. This meant offenders were deported to the new British colonies in America or to other countries. However, this practice ended with the close of the Revolutionary War and the formation of the United States. That left England with two popular, remaining punishments: houses of correction and hard labor. Hard labor was a sentence of time to a work house where inmates performed manual labor all day, every day.

During this time, English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham advocated for prison improvements. Bentham supported strict treatment for prisoners but safe and sanitary conditions. The Quakers also advocated humane treatment for prisoners and a move away from corporal or capital punishments.

The 18th century's Age of Enlightenment probably played the largest role in prison reform. This time is sometimes called the 'Age of Reason', when people began to value reason and rationality. The Enlightenment brought a new view regarding criminals. They were no longer thought to be fundamentally flawed but widely thought to be capable of correction and rehabilitation.

By the late 18th century, prisons in the United States were generally based on Bentham's philosophies. The American prisons resembled work houses but strived to offer humane living conditions with an eye toward reforming offenders. Our first prison, operating under this new system, opened in Pennsylvania in 1789 on the site of an older jail.

19th Century Prisons

The 19th century marked the expansion of prisons in the United States. Many were built using Bentham's suggestion of a panopticon where all cells are visible from a central guard station. Pennsylvania and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia adopted the solitary system. This system is also sometimes called the separate system and meant that inmates were kept in separate cells, even for eating, sleeping and working.

New York's early prisons included Auburn, built in 1816, and Sing Sing, built in 1825. These facilities used the congregate system. This system is also known as the silent system and meant that inmates were kept in separate cells but were allowed to eat and work together, though they had to remain completely silent. This system became the most popularly used in the United States and was later coined the Auburn system after the prison where it was first used.

By the late 1800s, the purpose of prison time shifted slightly to include deterrence. The goal was still to rehabilitate offenders and return them to society, but also to prevent criminal acts and reoffending. In both systems, torture and corporal punishment were widely used. This included floggings and whipping posts.

20th Century Prisons

The prison reform movement began in the late 1800s and lasted through about 1930. This was a movement to end the torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Even with the movement in full swing, many new prisons were being built. This included Alcatraz, which was built in 1909 and first used as a federal prison in 1934.

The reform movement was somewhat successful, as torture and corporal punishment eventually subsided. Inmates began working in prison factories and the use of the silent system was abandoned.

The Great Depression led to an increase in crime and our nation's prison overcrowding crisis. Inmates were crowded into cells and dormitories. Prison conditions deteriorated and prison violence escalated. By the 1970s, the United States had experienced several large prison riots, including the 1971 Attica prison riot that left 43 people dead.

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