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Jails - Historical Perspective

punishment american county institutions

Among penal institutions, the jail has the longest history. Paradoxically, it is also the one institution about which the least is known. Remote from public view and concern, it has evolved largely by default (Mattick, pp. 782–785). As a place of detention of the accused prior to trial, the jail is traceable to the earliest forms of civilization and government. Although there are no reliable descriptions of ancient places of detention, references are found to murky caves, ramshackle cages of timber (standing or suspended), unscalable pits, and strong poles or trees to which prisoners were tied. By the late medieval period, prisoners were detained in a variety of settings, ranging from fortress dungeons and precipices outside high castle walls, town gates, and bridge abutments to the dank cellars of municipal and privately owned buildings. About the only characteristic shared by these structures was their massive and insurmountably secure nature.

The history of the American jail is firmly embedded in Anglo-Saxon society, which has provided the United States with most of its social institutions. As such, the American jail is a curious hybrid of the tenth-century gaol, whose principal function was to detain persons awaiting trial and those convicted but still awaiting punishment, and the fifteenth-and sixteenth-century houses of correction, with their special function of punishing such minor offenders as debtors, vagrants, prostitutes, and beggars. From its very beginning, the jail's functions were broadly conceived and included punishment and coercion, as well as custody. A punitive intent is evident in the earliest source of information on incarceration, the written laws of Alfred the Great (A.D. 871–899), the most prominent figure in Anglo-Saxon history. Historians have traced the creation of the prototype of the modern jail as a local governmental institution in the English-speaking countries to the year 1166, when England's King Henry II ordered the construction of jails in his realm (Barnes and Teeters, p. 460).

The establishment of the office of county sheriff coincided broadly with the development of the gaol. The sheriff represented the king in the shire or county, the largest division of the kingdom in matters of local government. His duties were to maintain the peace within the shire and to look after the king's revenues. Since rents from his vast estates constituted the king's principal source of revenue, it was the sheriff's duty to collect these rents together with any fines assessed by the courts. As chief executive officer of the county, the sheriff became the ex officio jailer and had custody over suspected and arrested offenders—and thereby the right to control the county gaol. The construction and maintenance of the gaols were the responsibility of the sheriff and the justice of the peace. The sheriff typically contracted, at no salary, with a keeper, since all the prisoner's necessities (including privileges and amenities) were offered on a fee-for-service basis, paid by the prisoner from personal funds, friends' donations, or begging. The schedule of payments varied with the seriousness of the alleged offense and the prisoner's social status. There were also charges for admission to the jail and for discharge, even when prisoners were acquitted after trial.

The American colonists brought with them the customs and institutions of their mother countries. Thus, they established the system of county government, built the first jails, and invested local sheriffs or marshals with the authority to keep the peace and to control the jails. The earliest reference to jails in the United States comes from prerevolutionary Boston, which ordered the construction of a "people pen" in 1632 ( Jordan, pp. 140–141). The historical tenacity of these early institutions is seen in the fact that they continue to this very day as the prevailing form of local law enforcement and correction in most of the states. Jails continued their highly limited function in the colonies until the end of the eighteenth century. They detained those awaiting trial when it was feared they might otherwise run away. They also held convicted offenders awaiting sentencing and those unable to discharge contracted debts. However, jails only rarely confined convicted offenders as a means of correction or punishment. In essence, jails facilitated the process of criminal punishment, although they were not themselves instruments of discipline (Rothman, p. 53). At that time, the predominant form of punishment was corporal, with death, physical mutilation, branding, and whipping decreed for the more serious offenses. For lesser offenses the punishment involved public ridicule and humiliation, effectively administered at the stocks, the pillory, the public cage, or the ducking stool. A remarkably wide range of punishment also included fines, banishments, public whippings, or any combination of these options.

Eighteenth-century practices of criminal justice did not survive for long in the nineteenth century. The Quakers of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey colonies were the first to react against the brutality of the harsh British penal codes and practices that had persisted in the New World. Having been at the receiving end of British justice, they sought to eliminate the stocks, the pillory, the branding iron, and the gallows by substituting imprisonment for corporal punishment and the death penalty. The Quakers thus became the earliest American experimenters in penology. Once the colonist had won independence from England, they followed the leadership of the Quakers by rejecting the old punitive laws and rapidly changing their criminal codes. The new codes reflected the classical legal philosophy of the Enlightenment and followed the recommendations of such great social philosophers of that era as Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, François-Marie Voltaire, and Samuel Romilly. Thus, the number of crimes punishable by death was greatly reduced, and the predominant form of punishment for most crimes became imprisonment or a fine.

To implement their new laws, Americans had to invent new institutions. In time, individual states began to design and build penal facilities for the incarceration of serious offenders, and the modern prison was born. However, minor offenders continued to be sent to the existing jails, which increasingly became repositories for the petty offender, the vagrant, the debtor, the beggar, the promiscuous, and the mentally ill, as well as the untried. Thus, American jails preceded the prison system, but they acquired their unique and largely contemporary character as a residual function of a larger movement of legal and penal reform (Mattick, p. 784). Historians have yet to pinpoint the period when county jails changed in function from places solely for general detention to places for both detention and incarceration of sentenced minor offenders.

England's local governments had developed penal institutions variously named workhouses, houses of corrections, and reformatories as early as the sixteenth century. Their purpose was to punish by imprisonment persons guilty of religious or political crimes, as well as debtors, and to serve as alternatives to corporal punishment for vagrancy, public drunkenness, prostitution, and juvenile delinquency. By the mid-eighteenth century, these institutions had merged with the local jails (Barnes and Teeters, pp. 460–461). American colonials, in turn, ordered the construction of workhouses as early as 1748, when the New Jersey assembly authorized Middlesex County officials to build a workhouse (as distinct from a poorhouse) for the punishment of rogues, vagabonds, and petty criminals (Rothman, p. 29). However, the concept of the workhouses failed to take root, since few of the colonies provided the funds for their construction, and those that were built tended to merge with the existing poorhouses. As a result, these institutions are more accurately categorized as the forerunners of the American prison, rather than as the direct ancestors of the county jail (Mattick, p. 783).

After the American jail had assumed its combined function of detention and correction in the early nineteenth century, it changed very little save for some minor variations in its clientele (Mattick, pp. 784–785). The combined effects of the juvenile reformatory movement, the establishment of hospitals for the criminally insane, the development of state farms and adult reformatories, and the evolving practice of probation served to divert an increasing number of misdemeanants from the jail. The growth of cities and the development of urban law enforcement agencies brought yet another hybrid: the city jail. It evolved from the temporary police lockup and the need for a place of detention for interrogation and trial purposes. More by default than by intent, city jails came under the jurisdiction of law enforcement agencies and grew into full-fledged jails serving both detainee and sentenced populations. Both types of jails continue today as the crucible into which the vast majority of accused and convicted felons are shunted, along with confined material witnesses and diverse misdemeanants.

Jails - Contemporary Jails [next]

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