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Breathing Through Bars: A Brief History on the Prison System in America


There are a lot of debates today revolving around America's penal system, and its capital punishment laws. I could probably go on for days about what I believe, and why, and the moral and political issues surrounding crime in America...but that's not what this article is about.

True to myself on this website, I am merely going to offer you information that is as unbiased as I can give, and let you make your own determinations based on this article and hopefully other resources!

So what exactly is this article going to cover, if not the debates revolving all things criminal in the United States? Isn't that the interesting thing?

Well, I believe that in order to take a stand on a certain issue, one needs to have extensive knowledge of its history, and its beginnings. This can provide so much insight into how it has become what it is today, and can also prove to be incredibly interesting! So, this article can be considered the first step in your exploration.

It will cover the origin of the prison system in America (even slightly branching into other Western civilizations), its development throughout the centuries, as well as its current standing. There isn't AS much on the current penal system because that's where politics and points of view shade information, but I tried to give you as much objective information as I can for such a condensed article.

I hope that you enjoy it!


A Brief Overview of Origins

Prisons haven't been around as long as you may think; at least, not in the way that we define them today.

They were, however, one of the first public buildings put into place in the New World, stemming from the British's need for a "house of detention". And while this sounds like the prisons that we currently use today, they weren't exactly the same.

Early prisons were not necessarily considered "houses of punishment" (, but rather were more commonly used as temporary holding cells.

The only ones who might have been detained for longer periods of time in these facilities were political prisons, high-ranking prisoners of war, or those in debt. But during this time, even the detaining of debtors made little sense to many, as it prevented them from earning the money they would need to pay back their debts.

However, in general, most of the people that occupied these cells were common criminals who were merely awaiting their trial. Once their sentencing was decided, however, they were moved out of the prisons and usually put to death or released. Oftentimes this would be done in waves, where the currently accused would all be released for their trial at once, while those who had just been attained would move into their spots.


The Slow Creation: Origins and Inspiration

Even in the 16th century, prisons, like we know them today, were not around. The closest thing to a prison was the English workhouse, which originated under the Tudor family in the 1550s. The most well known was Bridewell, a former royal palace that was converted into a workhouse.

The Bridewell model became popular in later years, and in 1570 more started to show up around England, with Bridewell then becoming a common noun for a workhouse.

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But not all was perfect: these workhouses or prisons were badly maintained and the wardens were often negligent to prisoner's needs. It was not uncommon for people to die of typhus, malnutrition, or other such means.

On a seemingly unrelated note, Quakers were starting to campaign in the 1680s against the death penalty, and wanted to use incarceration as a more human alternative. This might seem unattached right now, but I promise it'll come back up later!


Actions Taken: Criticism on the Prison System

Before prisons were established in the states, the alternative punishment to the death penalty was banishment. A prime destination for many of these accused was the American colonies, prior to the Revolutionary War. Afterwards, Australia became a popular area. The prisons that they were sent to were considered almost worst than being put to death, however. Dying of neglect was common, and the buildings also could prove to be a fatal place to be.

Reformers started to look into these corrupted systems and take action against them. Richard Mead wrote in the 1720s that the government "take Care, that all Houses of Confinement should be kept as Airy and Clean, as is consistent with the Use, to which they are designed." Quakers also took a special interest in the healthy treatment of prisoners, which would later be reflected in our Bill of Rights.

Remember when I said workhouses would come back? Here they are!

In 1777, John Howard wrote The State of the Prisons in England and Whales, in which he touched on the ever-important idea of using prison as a main means of punishment, inspired by the workhouse model. But he was not completely on board. He criticized how the workhouses were organized, and how unhygienic they tended to be. He went into detail about the corruption and abuse of prisoners at the facilities, thus sparking an interest in reform for the people of England.

Additionally, he suggested reforms within the prison system that are still in effect today: a paid staff, outside inspection, and a proper diet along with other basic necessities that people would need.

His criticisms did not stop in England, though: in 1786, America began to examine its own prison system, and start a discussion on its flaws and potential for improvement. It is during this time that the first prison reform societies started to form.

Early Reformation and Evaluation

During this time when America was reflecting on its own treatment of prisoners in captivity, Quakers were making their moves.

The Quaker group called the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons worked in the 1780s and 90s to replace corporal punishment with the use of imprisonment to treat criminals for their wrongdoings. They suggested this be done by combining the ideas of American prisons along with those of the English workhouse, which would allow for a more permanent dwelling for the accused.

The original idea for the new American prison was that it would be the more common way of punishing a crime and that it would involve hard labor (much like workhouses did).

Their ideas did not remain in force for very long throughout the colonies, but their influence was everlasting. Even after the Revolutionary War, their new criminal codes which approached punishment more humanely rapidly spread from Philadelphia to other states.

The Enlightenment perhaps played a huge role in prison reform, as the idea that social institutions formed character came into play.

These ideas came with another justification against the death penalty: many citizens at the time "shared a new philosophical conception of human nature" ( '

These two new views on human nature and society both played into the final conclusion on humans as a whole. Now, they were no longer seen as fundamentally flawed but instead were viewed as rational beings who were heavily influenced by their environments, with the ability to reform. This proved to be HUGE in the reformation of prisons during the time, and are philosophies that are perhaps still in effect today. Creating a more productive environment with a more positive outlook altered the structure of American penitentiaries forever.

If you don't get what I'm saying, read this quote by a signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush, who outlined it all perfect in 1787:

"The design of punishment is said to be--1st, to reform the person who suffers it,--2ndly, to prevent the perpetration of crimes, by exciting terror in the minds of spectators; and,--3dly, to remove those persons from society, who have manifested, by their tempers and crimes, that they are unfit to live in it".

This same guy also called for a "house of repentance" as a primary means of punishing criminals. Sound familiar?


The Birth of the Modern Penitentiary

Oh and by the way, by modern I mean: pretty damn close to what we have now, minus a few bells and whistles. And sirens. And artillery. You get what I mean.

A lot of people were on board with abolishing the death penalty, save for the most extreme crimes. And there were a lot of theoretical solutions, but now there had to be a concrete solution. If the death penalty was reduced severely, where would all the non-dead criminals go?

The solution came from good ole' Pennsylvania, who transformed an old jail on Walnut Street into the very first penitentiary in 1789.

Now that the penitentiary was an actual thing, there were issues to be addressed, dating back to the corruption and mistreatment that plagued earlier American and British prisons. Jeremy Bentham was very clear in what he thought should be done, in order to prevent the same things from happening again: he believed that prisoners, though under a strict regime, should still be kept healthy. This was also the time where women and men were separated and sanitation was greatly improved.