How Did Our Prisons Get That Way?

By the late 1800s, citizens had lost faith that prisons could cure crime.

As the debate about the two forms of prison crossed the Atlantic, European officials felt compelled to choose one or the other. In 1846 an international prison conference in Frankfurt gave over its entire agenda to a discussion of the two systems. Ultimately the individual system won out in Europe; but most American states emulated the congregate system, mainly because it cost less.

Some reformers thought so highly of the prisons of the day that they longed to apply the same order and discipline to the entire society. The Reverend James B. Finley, a chaplain at the Ohio penitentiary, wrote, “Could we all be put on prison fare, for the space of two or three generations, the world would ultimately be the better for it.”

Theories were one thing; in actual practice and with the passage of time, the new prison systems deteriorated. By the mid-1800s prisons everywhere scarcely reflected the designs that had been so fiercely debated. The rigorous routine at Auburn and the solitary confinement of Pennsylvania both had been virtually abandoned.

The major reason was overcrowding. Sentences were extremely long and of fixed duration. With no provisions for early release or parole, prisons filled up fast. Overcrowding led to a relaxation of rules, and this in turn enabled inmates to mix freely. Prisons again began to experience the old problems of congregate living. Part of the trouble was that prisoners were not segregated by age or criminal record, and rules and regulations were geared to the worst offenders.

It had originally been anticipated that inmates would read the Bible, talk with and emulate those exemplary outsiders approved to enter their institution, and contemplate their sins in silence. But most inmates couldn’t read and had no use for do-gooders. Whereas the fathers of the penitentiary had expected inmates to be amenable to change, most were hardened criminals serving long sentences and had little to lose by making trouble or trying to escape. So wardens concentrated on maintaining order, and almost every form of brutality found its way back into the penitentiary. Floggings were so common that the public became appalled when it found out about them. At Sing Sing in 1843 as many as three thousand lashes per month were administered.


Many of the punishments had a medieval cast. Prisoners were tied up by their hands with their toes barely touching the floor. They were strapped on their backs to boards or bars for twenty days at a time. They were placed in sweatboxes—unventilated cells on either side of a fireplace. Alcohol was poured on epileptics having seizures and then ignited to detect shamming. New Jersey investigators in 1829 discovered a fourteen-year-old boy who had been imprisoned with hardened criminals and also physically restrained because he could fit through the gratings in prison doors. Prison officials had placed an iron yoke around his head and fastened his hands to it twenty inches apart at shoulder level.

The distressing aspects of the penitentiary did not stop at the prison walls. In the 1830s inmate labor was often leased to private contractors. Its low price meant a valuable competitive advantage, and the awarding of contracts for it unavoidably invited graft and corruption. Some states began to restrict the use of inmate labor by the mid-1840s.

By the last half of the nineteenth century, citizens had lost faith in the idea that a properly structured environment could cure society’s crime problem. As the nation’s prisons grew in size and number, legislative investigations periodically reported substantial corruption and brutality, but overcrowding always seemed to be the most immediate problem. Popular prison reform movements came and went with little lasting effect. Then, as now, the majority of people had an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Most inmate populations consisted mainly of immigrants and other minorities that commanded little public sympathy. But by the end of the 1800s, concern about prisons was slowly rising again, and a new age of penal reform dawned.

The twentieth century was to witness two broad eras in the development of the penitentiary. The first lasted until the 1960s and brought the development of modern programs such as probation and parole, along with an emphasis on rehabilitation. The second era, still continuing, has been marked by a popular repudiation of those reforms.

Just as profound social and ideological currents at the turn of the nineteenth century had directly influenced the early development of the prison, so a new set of cultural perspectives guided twentieth-century reformers. One very important notion was the idea that it was possible to measure specific personal qualities. At the turn of the century Alfred Binet, in France, was working on a test to quantify intelligence. The emerging field of psychology was studying individual differences in perception and reaction times. Might it not be possible to assess the causes of criminality in different people and treat each criminal accordingly? It began to seem much less logical to punish all perpetrators of a given offense in the same manner.