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Prisons: History

A Land Of Prisoners

Jails were among the first public structures built in colonial America. Besides serving as a necessary receptacle and staging place for reluctant emigrants, jails were an integral part of the system of bondage that existed in America. Virtually every American city and county was legally required to establish its own jail at public expense. Over the years, these structures became more pervasive, more secure, and more permanent. Some were built of stone and brick, equipped with iron bars. Colonial America had more jails than public schools or hospitals—almost as many jails as churches and taverns. Massachusetts Puritans also used jails to detain Quaker heretics who challenged Puritan hegemony or witches who were awaiting public burning.

In the beginning of his novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "the founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion of the site as a prison . . . . In accordance with this rule . . . the forefathers of Boston . . . built the first prison house."

Moreover, some colonies were established as a haven for persons who had suffered imprisonment and other persecution in Europe, or as a receptacle for undesirables.

By the end of the seventeenth century a class system had developed in America. In addition to masters, a class of overseers was quickly developed to rule over the other inhabitants. Below indentured servants and convicts, who served for terms ranging from six to seven or fourteen years, black slaves occupied the lowest rung in perpetual slavery.

South Carolina authorized racial slavery from the early days of the proprietorship. So did Virginia. Even Puritan Massachusetts allowed slavery for a time. Connecticut never established slavery in law although it allowed it in practice. Rhode Island (sometimes referred to as "Rogue's Island") acted early to limit bondage to ten years, but that restriction was often flaunted. Slavery in New Hampshire was officially acknowledged in 1645. Shortly after the British took over New Netherlands from the Dutch, New York adopted hereditary slavery. So did Delaware. Pennsylvania employed slavery at its inception. Georgia lifted its ban against slavery in 1750 to become a major slave power.

All of those bound were subject to severe punishments that could be administered directly by their masters, or they could be punished by an authorized government. Many servants, convicts, and slaves attempted to run away or engaged in other acts of rebellion. Virtually every colony adopted its own slave code and control apparatus, including a system of slave patrols and networks of jails and other means to detain and punish runaway or recalcitrant slaves and servants. Under this arrangement, even free blacks were subject to tight controls and their movements were limited. In the South, the plantation system developed, creating a vast network of prisons without walls.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: History - Early Jails And Workhouses, The Rise Of The Prisoner Trade, A Land Of Prisoners, Enlightenment Reforms