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Prisons: History

Modern Prisons

The Great Depression of the 1930s resulted in greater use of imprisonment and different public attitudes about prisoners. From 1925 to 1939 the nation's rate of incarceration climbed from 79 to 137 per 100,000 residents. In large measure, this growth was driven by greater incarceration of blacks. Between 1930 and 1936 alone, black incarceration rates rose to a level about three times greater than those for whites, while white incarceration rates actually declined.

During the late 1930s, sociologists who were studying various prison communities began to report the existence of rigid class systems among the convicts. Donald Clemmer published The Prison Community (1940), based upon his research within Menard State Prison in Illinois. Clemmer described the inmates' informal social system or inmate subculture as being governed by a convict code, which existed beside and in opposition to the institution's official rules. He also outlined a process of socialization that was undergone by entering prisoners. Clemmer defined this prisonization as "the taking on in greater or less degree of the folkways, mores, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary."

By the late 1930s, the modern American prison system had existed for more than one hundred years. During that time, many penal institutions themselves had remained unchanged. Convicts lived in a barren environment that was reduced to the absolute bare essentials, with less adornment, private property, and services than might be found in the worst city slum. One aspect that had changed rather significantly, however, was the prison labor system. In 1929 Congress passed the Hawes-Cooper Act, which enabled any state to prohibit within its borders the sale of any goods made in the prisons of another state. By the time the act became effective in 1934, most states had enacted laws restricting the sale and movement of prison products. In 1935 the Ashurst-Sumners Act strengthened the law to prohibit the transportation of prison products to any state in violation of the laws of that state. In 1940 Congress enacted legislation to bar, with a few exceptions, the interstate transportation of prison-made goods. These developments contributed to decreased reliance on prison labor to pay for prison costs. More and more inmates became idle and were not assigned to jobs.

World War II brought plummeting prison populations but renewed industrial activity as part of the war effort. After the war, and with the onset of the Cold War, prison warehousing became more prevalent, making inmate control and discipline more difficult. Another round of prison disturbances occurred in the early 1950s at the State Prison of Southern Michigan at Jackson, the Ohio State Penitentiary, Menard, and other institutions.

Imprisonment became increasingly reserved for blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. By 1955 and the end of the Korean conflict, America's prison population had reached 185,780 and the national incarceration rate was back up to 112 per 100,000, nudged along by the "race problem." Drug law enforcement played a stronger role increasing the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks and Hispanics.

Although the United Nations adopted its Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, in 1955, justifying sentences of imprisonment only when it could be used to foster offender rehabilitation, American prisons generally continued to favor security and retributive or incapacitative approaches over rehabilitation.

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