How Did Our Prisons Get That Way?


Although reformers continue to try to improve prison conditions and to find useful forms of punishment, the public at large seems to have little sympathy for prisoners these days. In fact, it seems as if we have reached a point where public sentiment is diametrically opposed to what led to the creation of the penitentiary back in 1790. While people then were appalled by the use of capital punishment, now a majority supports it. Where there was then public dismay over the brutal treatment of prisoners, now there is animosity toward “bleeding heart liberals” who would go easy on them. The surpassing aim in the public mind is simply to lock up as many prisoners as possible and forget about them, and the states are currently spending four billion dollars simply to try to build prisons fast enough to keep up with the demand.

It would seem a great loss to abandon entirely the lofty ideals of the creators of the penitentiary. Instead, we should evaluate the system in the light of its convoluted history and learn from the mistakes and successes of the past. Despite the attractions of a simple “get tough” mentality, our history tells us that Americans will not accept, over the long term, a philosophy of simply locking up prisoners and throwing away the keys. We have too strong a legacy of concern about what is right and humane to give up all hope of amelioration.

In the words of former Chief Justice Warren Burger: “We must focus more attention on the conditions of incarcerated persons....To put people behind walls and bars and do little or nothing to change them is to win a battle but lose a war....It is wrong. It is expensive. It is stupid.” Perhaps our best hope is that eventually we can learn more about the various causes of criminal behavior—economic, societal, domestic, psychological, and physiological—and so can begin to get away from the notion that the prison is our only real weapon against crime. Americans invented the penitentiary, and Americans should be able to develop other means of dealing with crime. Meanwhile, our experience may be our greatest tool.


The historian David J. Rothman has explained in masterful fashion what the inventors of the penitentiary were faced with and how their original ideas evolved into the institution we now accept as commonplace. Two books of Rothman’s,Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and Its Alternatives in Progressive America (Little, Brown, 1980) and The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Little, Brown, 1971), help make sense of things we do even today in all aspects of criminal justice.

The Story of Punishment: A Record of Man’s Inhumanity to Man, by Harry E. Barnes (Patterson Smith, 1972), and The Development of American Prisons and Prison Customs, 1776-1845 , by Orlando F. Lewis (Patterson Smith, 1967), afford excellent descriptions of prison life and of the road from Walnut Street to the major penitentiaries of the nineteenth century.