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Prisons: History - Prisons As Social Laboratories

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Starting in the 1880s or so, prisons increasingly were used as social laboratories for controlled scientific research on a host of subjects, including eugenics, psychology, intelligence testing, medicine, drug treatment, criminology, physical anthropology, and birth control. Elaborate identification and classification techniques were devised that ranged from phrenology, which categorized people by their skull shapes, the Bertillon method of uniform body measurement, and fingerprinting to Lombrosian theories about "born criminals" and somatotypes (which purported to link body physique with criminal proclivities). Vasectomies, lobotomies, and other surgical procedures were developed using captive human subjects. Theories about feeblemindedness and defective delinquency were propounded based on experiments conducted on prisoners. A few eugenicists recommended mass sterilization and even legal executions as a means of ridding society of undesirables. Some of these approaches were not fully repudiated and outlawed until the 1970s.

Some Progressive era reformers increasingly advocated on behalf of prisoners. Shortly after his appointment as warden of Auburn Prison in 1913, Thomas Mott Osborne ended the silent system and began to institute a system of inmate self-government, known as the Mutual Welfare League, which allowed prisoners to establish their own legal disciplinary apparatus. A year later he became warden of Sing Sing, where he also started to implement sweeping reforms. Although his reforms quickly achieved some impressive results, such as decreasing the rate of convict return to prison (recidivism), Osborne was attacked by political opponents and forced to resign. One by one, his reforms were overturned. The remaining vestiges of the Mutual Welfare League were ended in 1929 amid another clampdown on prison policies. In response to harsher sentencing laws, convicts at several New York prisons rioted later that year.

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