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A Little Federal Prison History

Posted by on July 17, 2011

Did you know that the modern day prison system began to form shortly after the Revolutionary War? Yes it’s true. The 1790′s brought with it new ideas for imprisonment. The idea of reforming a prisoner versus the traditional theory of punishing those imprisoned was finally underway. Jails, on the other hand are nothing new in history. Jail cells¬†have been around for hundreds of years. There is documented proof dating back to the year 1166 when King Henry II, the King of England at the time, had ordered jails to be built to house those who had broken his laws.

The U.S. prison system continued to develop into the 1800′s when the Quakers, who did not believe in war or violence, constructed the first penitentiary¬†type institution. It was built in the old Walnut Street Jail which was situated behind Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA. The Quakers also realized that imprisonment should be used to help reform the individual and not solely punish them. Unfortunately, the Quakers used single man cells in which each prisoner was isolated from human contact. The inmates each had their own adjacent exercise yard where they could spend time but they were always alone with no human interaction. This type of solitary confinement slowly caused many of the prisoners to become mentally ill and eventually insane.

Auburn Prison

Auburn Prison

Meanwhile, in Auburn, New York, a second prison was built in 1825 using a different approach for prisoners. In the Auburn prison, the inmates were housed together in hopes of solving the emotional problems which developed from solitary confinement. The most serious criminals were still confined alone just as they would have been in Pennsylvania but all other inmates were allowed to work and eat together on a daily basis. The only drawback for the inmates was they were not allowed to talk. The inmates were required to remain silent at all times or face serious consequences such as being placed back in solitary confinement. This new approach in the prison system seemed to be working quite well and the imminent threat of inmates going insane began to diminish in the years that followed.

By 1913 the Pennsylvania method of housing prisoners in solitary confinement was discontinued except for those committing the most severe and heinous types of crimes. By 1876 the first reformatory was established in Elmira, New York. This institution was built to help reform, rather than punish juveniles who have broken the law. These younger prisoners were taught a trade while incarcerated at the informatory. They could serve their time learning and mastering a trade and then have a better chance for a crime free life once released back to the outside community. This type of reform is seen all over in today’s world with numerous juvenile detention programs around the nation. With the onset of the twentieth century, also came individualized treatment programs for various offenders. During this time is when inmates suffering from drug and alcohol abuse could seek additional help while incarcerated. Similar programs followed for inmates who were mentally ill and for those who committed sex crimes.

It would be during the 1970′s when the prison system began to fall apart. Both the state and federal institutions were flooded with prisoners of all ages, races, and religions. Overcrowding became a huge problem that has since never been corrected. With the crowded prisons came tension. The high tension would frequently result in violence. The violence transformed into racial problems and the racial problems manifested themselves into prison gangs. The most violent prison riot occurred at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. Hundreds of deaths resulted from this bloody battle.

Supermax Prison Florence

Supermax Prison Florence

Today’s modern day prisons are still severely overcrowded, filled with corruption, and flooded with gangs. At many prisons the gangs actually run the inner workings of the prison. Without proper funding for new prisons or reformed laws that lessen the length of imprisonment for various crimes, the problem of overcrowding in American prisons will continue to grow with each passing day.

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