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Prisons: History

Reform And Individualized Treatment

The Civil War had profoundly altered America's system and rationale for imprisonment. Millions of slaves had been let loose, chattel slavery was ended, and penal servitude expanded. Thousands of inmates had perished in deadly prison camps kept by their own countrymen. Many more were badly scarred by what they had experienced.

Many Americans increasingly recognized that the previous reformers' expectations for model prisons, based on isolation, hard labor, and severe punishments, had not been achieved. "Institutions . . . so strongly built, so richly endowed . . . cannot be rid of so easily," Samuel Gridley Howe observed in 1865. The institutions were severely overcrowded and deteriorating, their administration was often corrupt and abusive, and their fixed sentencing schemes proved unwieldy and excessive. Convicts had no incentive to reform. The old enthusiasm for the existing system was gone.

In 1867 two prominent reformers, Enoch C. Wines and Theodore Dwight, reported to the New York State legislature: "There is no longer a state prison in America in which the reformation of convicts is the one supreme object of the discipline." Based on their review they concluded there was no prison system in the country that was not seriously deficient. To remedy this sad state of affairs, Wines and Dwight recommended that reformation of the offender should be the primary aim of imprisonment. This approach mirrored the nation's developing posture toward the South.

Wines helped to organize the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reform Discipline in Cincinnati in 1870. This gathering adopted a detailed "Declaration of Principles," which called for sweeping prison reforms, including the acceptance of reformation; sanitary improvements; an end to political appointments of prison administrators; greater participation of women in prison management; the progressive classification of prisoners based on character; rewards for good conduct and industry; expanded prison education; the end of physical punishments; and other radical changes. To facilitate improvement of the offender, the reformers advocated long indeterminate sentences that could be adjusted depending on an individual's progress.

Starting in 1876, Warden Zebulon Brockway helped to put some of these ideas into practice at the Elmira Reformatory in New York state's southern tier, near the site of a former Civil War prison camp. The Elmira system included a combination of military training and education with a system of indeterminate sentencing. It held sway for more than twenty years. But the training school approach was mostly limited to juvenile offenders.

Elsewhere, most adult prisons continued to follow their existing regimes. Southern states still resorted to prison farms and convict leasing, while prisons in the North continued to operate contract labor systems in industrial pursuits. Both approaches were rife with abuses, including torture and rampant corruption. But changing them would not prove easy.

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