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Prisons: History

Ideological And Social Origins Of The Prison Movement

The new United States struggled to determine what to do with its penal and slavery apparatus. Many British prisons were converted to American ones and new penal codes were implemented. Some states such as Pennsylvania and New York provided for the gradual emancipation of their slaves at the same time they adopted new criminal codes providing for the use of sentences of imprisonment as a punishment for crime.

In the South, however, efforts to eradicate slavery were blocked. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade slavery and involuntary servitude in the Northwest Territory (later the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin), specifying: "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: provided always, that any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original states. Such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor aforesaid."

Most states also adopted determinate sentencing laws that prescribed fixed prison sentences as a punishment for violent or property felony crimes. Capital punishment was retained for the most serious offenses. Often modeled in large part on the English prison reformer John Howard's blueprint for a humane prison, the new penal institutions separated male and female inmates, included walls to prevent escapes and assaults from without, and required inmates to labor making shoes, nails, and other goods. Pennsylvania's Walnut Street added a separate cell house for felons in 1790. Many of the leading prison reformers were Quakers who recently had tasted political persecution and imprisonment under vile conditions.

By 1800 new state prisons had been built in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Vermont, Maryland, New Hampshire, Ohio, Georgia, and Virginia.

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