views updated May 29 2018


A public building used for the confinement of people convicted of serious crimes.

Prison is a place used for confinement of convicted criminals. Aside from the death penalty, a sentence to prison is the harshest punishment imposed on criminals in the United States. On the federal level, imprisonment or incarceration is managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a federal agency within the department of justice. State prisons are supervised by a state agency such as a department of corrections.

Confinement in prison, also known as a penitentiary or correctional facility, is the punishment that courts most commonly impose for serious crimes, such as felonies. For lesser crimes, courts usually impose short-term incarceration in a jail, detention center, or similar facility.

Confining criminals for long periods of time as the primary form of punishment is a relatively new concept. Throughout history, various countries have imprisoned criminal offenders, but imprisonment was usually reserved for pre-trial detention or punishment of petty criminals with a short term of confinement.

Using long-term imprisonment as the primary punishment for convicted criminals began in the United States. In the late eighteenth century, the nonviolent Quakers in Pennsylvania proposed long-term confinement as an alternative to capital punishment. The Quakers stressed solitude, silence, rehabilitation, hard work, and religious faith. Confinement was originally intended not only as a punishment but as an opportunity for renewal through religion.

In 1790, the walnut street jail in Philadelphia constructed a separate cell house for the sole purpose of holding convicts. This was the first prison in the United States. The concept of long-term imprisonment became popular as the U.S. public embraced the concept of removing offenders from society and punishing them with confinement and hard labor. Before the existence of prisons, most offenders were subjected to corporal punishment or public humiliation and then released back into the community. In the nineteenth century, as the United States became more urban and industrial, poverty became widespread, and crime increased. As crime increased, the public became intolerant of even the most petty crimes and viewed imprisonment as the best method for stopping repeated criminal activity.

The early nineteenth century was filled with fierce debates about how a prison should be run. There emerged two competing ideas: the Auburn System and the Eastern Penitentiary System. The Auburn System took its name from the Auburn, New York, prison, which opened in 1819. At first, the prison placed all its worst offenders in solitary confinement, but this arrangement led to nervous breakdowns and suicides. The system was modified so that inmates slept in separate cells but worked and ate together. However, the inmates were forced to remain silent. Administrators believed this code of silence would prevent prisoners from picking up bad attitudes and would promote their rehabilitation.

The Eastern Penitentiary System at Cherry Hill, Pennsylvania, opened its gates in 1829. The prison building was designed in the form of a central hub with spokes radiating from this administrative center. Small cells lined each spoke and prisoners had their own exercise space. Unlike the Auburn System, this system promoted extreme isolation. Not surprisingly, many inmates committed suicide. In time, the Auburn System prevailed, as state legislatures saw advantages in congregate living. The Auburn System encouraged prison industries to help make prisons self-supporting.

1971 Attica Prison Riot

The September 1971 revolt and riot by inmates at the Attica State Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, ended in a violent response by state officials. However, during the five days inmates controlled the prison, lawyers for the inmates and prison officials sought to negotiate a peaceful solution.

During the spring and summer of 1971, the inmates at Attica had negotiated with prison administrators over a list of prisoner complaints. Among the grievances were inhumane conditions, abuse by prison guards, arbitrary release dates, a lack of racial diversity among the prison guards, and the prison's failure to give inmates a reasonable opportunity to exercise their freedom of religion. On September 9, 1971, the talks broke down and dozens of inmates revolted. Inmates managed to overtake prison guards, take hostages, and gain control of the prison facilities. One prison guard and two inmates were killed in the initial uprising.

Over the next three days the inmates met with a host of attorneys, including civil rights and antiwar advocate william m. kunstler. The inmates communicated with state officials through the attorneys and submitted a list of more than two-dozen demands. They also took steps to protect the hostages from more hostile inmates by forming a human ring around the hostages.

On September 13, 1971, the commissioner of corrections submitted a settlement ultimatum to the inmates and gave them one hour to respond. If the inmates did not agree to the terms in one hour the state would use force to reclaim the prison. After two hours had passed with no response, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller ordered an assault. Officials shut off the electricity to the prison, state police dropped tear-gas canisters from helicopters, and state troopers emptied their rifles into inmates in the prison yard. The assault was brief but bloody: 39 inmates and hostages were killed. A total of 43 deaths were ultimately attributed to the events from September 9 through 13. The state's actions in retaking the prison were heavily criticized, leading to a review commission report that called the use of force excessive.

further readings

Oswald, Russell G. 1972. Attica—My Story. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Wicker, Tom. 1994. A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.


Prisoners' Rights; Riot.

By the mid-nineteenth century, prisons existed throughout the United States. Prisoners were kept in unsanitary environments, forced to work at hard labor, and brutalized by guards. These conditions continued until the 1950s and 1960s, when heightened social and political discourse led to a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation. The closing of one particular prison symbolized the change in correctional philosophy. Alcatraz Prison, located on an island off San Francisco, was used exclusively to place in solitary confinement convicts classified as either violent or disruptive. Rehabilitation was non-existent in Alcatraz. The prison was filthy and rat-infested, and prisoners were held in dungeon-like cells, often chained to stone walls. Established in 1934, Alcatraz was closed in 1963, in part because its brutal treatment of prisoners symbolized an outdated penal philosophy.

By the mid-1960s, the stated purpose of many prisons was to educate prisoners and prepare them for life after prison. Many federal and state courts ordered administrators to improve the conditions inside their prisons, and the quality of life for inmates greatly improved.

Prison Life, New Hampshire State Prison

The New Hampshire Department of Corrections oversees four prisons, three halfway houses, and one Secure Psychiatric Unit (in Concord). Prison facilities include the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord, the New Hampshire State Prison for Women in Goffstown, the Lakes Region Facility in Laconia, and the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin. The Lakes Region Facility is reserved for first-time offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes; the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility houses medium-security male inmates. It costs $19,888 per year to keep an inmate in prison in New Hampshire.

The men's prison in Concord, New Hampshire, is representative of the daily life of the average prison inmate in the United States. Upon order of the court, new prisoners are transported by sheriff deputies to the appropriate prison receiving facility. After arrival, the inmate is photographed, fingerprinted, and given prison clothing and toiletries. Prisoners must wear prison clothing and an identification card at all times. All new inmates are placed in a locked cell and are kept isolated from other prisoners until approved by prison staff for proper housing assignment.

During approximately 30 days in quarantine custody, called Reception and Diagnostic, inmates are interviewed and tested by a multidisciplinary team of prison staff. Inmates receive an orientation to prison rules and expectations, medical and dental exams, mental health assessment, religious and program orientation, and educational testing. After the diagnostic period is over, the offender moves to a correctional housing unit with similarly classified inmates.

Inmates are classified either C-5, C-4, C-3, C-2, or C-1 (C stands for "classification"). The C-5 classification is for dangerous or problem inmates. C-4 inmates are individuals who were C-5 but are working their way back to C-3 status, which is the general prison population. New prisoners are designated C-3 unless they break rules while in Reception and Diagnostic, in which case they may be classified as C-4 or C-5.

C-2 inmates are housed in a minimum security building just outside the prison walls; C-1, or work release, inmates are allowed to live in halfway houses. Though they are supervised by prison officials, they live outside the prison, preparing for reentry into the community.

Daily life for a C-5 inmate is spartan. The average C-5 inmate spends all but one hour in a cell located in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), a building separate from the rest of the prison population. A C-5 inmate has no cellmate and receives his meals in his cell. He may leave his cell for one hour of outdoor exercise a day in a cage outside the SHU. Also, for a few minutes a day, a C-5 inmate may be allowed to make collect telephone calls from a room located in the SHU.

Some C-5 inmates are allowed to work at sites located within the SHU; most of them make sheets, towels, or pockets for pants. C-5 inmates with work privileges are allowed to communicate with one another while they work. A C-5 inmate may keep reading materials. He may also watch his own television, but only when he has been in SHU for more than 30 days. Whenever a C-5 inmate leaves his cell, he is shackled by guards at the hands and feet and escorted until he reaches his destination.

A level of security more severe than C-5 is called "isolation." An inmate in isolation may not leave his cell except for one hour a day of outdoor exercise inside a cage. He may not watch television or listen to the radio and has one Bible for reading. An inmate may be kept in isolation for only a 15-day stretch, and he must be held in another setting for at least 24 hours before beginning another 15 days of isolation.

protective custody is a special classification that is similar to the C-5. Inmates in protective custody are segregated from the general population: they move about the prison in a group separate from the other inmates. Protective custody is reserved for those inmates who have requested it and have a valid fear for their safety.

C-4 inmates are held in a Close Custody Unit, which is also separate from the general population. C-4 inmates may have a few more privileges than C-5 inmates, but they do not have the full number of privileges enjoyed by the general population. They may work, they are not shackled as they move outside their cells, they may eat in the dining hall with the general population, and they have cellmates. Also, the C-4 floor plan is similar to that for C-3 inmates: each cell opens into a common area where inmates may talk and play cards or other games. However, unlike C-3 inmates, C-4 inmates may not lock themselves in their cells for privacy, they may work for only a short period of time at a specific work site, and they generally have fewer privileges and are more strictly supervised than C-3 inmates.

C-3 inmates comprise the general population. They may move about the prison facility unencumbered by restraints. They work at various jobs, some building high-quality furniture. Inmates can earn from $1.50 to over $3.00 per day, depending on the job. Those who perform highly skilled work, such as carpentry, may earn $3.50 a day. Inmates do not receive cash for their work; their earnings are banked in an account. Using their account, they may buy articles from the canteen, such as personal hygiene products, soda, candy, chips, and cigarettes. Inmates may smoke cigarettes in the common area and in their cells. However, if his cellmate objects, an inmate may not smoke in his cell.

An inmate may receive money from persons outside the prison, but he may not receive packages of personal items. He may not spend more than $200 per month, no matter how much money he has. He may buy items such as magazines, books, radios, and televisions, but only through the manufacturer.

Inmates on C-3 status enjoy the full range of educational and work opportunities available in the prison, and their days are often consumed by these activities. They may also use the law library for a certain amount of time each day.

An inmate's day begins at approximately 7:00 A.M. Those inmates scheduled to begin work before 7:00 A.M. are awakened earlier. The lights are dimmed around 10:00 P.M. and sometimes 11:00 P.M. on weekend nights. Except for C-5 inmates, restless inmates may leave their cells during the night to sit in the common area.

C-3 inmates move from place to place at the top of the hour; they have 15 minutes to reach their next destination. If they are tardy for any destination, they will be reported as being out of place. Being out of place in prison is a serious infraction. If the disciplinary board finds that an inmate was out of place, the inmate may lose the privilege to watch television, listen to the radio, or talk on the telephone. Repeated violations may result in transfer to C-5 status.

further readings

New Hampshire Department of Corrections. Available online at <> (accessed September 2, 2003).

Santos, Michael. 2003. Profiles from Prison: Adjusting to Life Behind Bars. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

"Time in Prison." 2001. State of New Hampshire Department of Corrections (January).

In 1971, a bloody, day-long riot at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York sparked a reaction against rehabilitative ideals. More than 40 people were killed in the uprising in Attica. Shortly after the Attica riot, the Federal Bureau of Prisons began to transfer unruly federal prisoners to the Federal Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, where they were held in solitary confinement. In 1983, after three killings in the prison, the prisoners in Marion were placed on permanent lock-down, making the entire prison a solitary confinement facility virtually overnight. Marion has remained on lockdown ever since.

By the 1980s, most prison administrators abandoned rehabilitation as a goal. Forced by an increasing problem with overcrowding and the resulting increase in violence, administrators returned to punishment and security as the primary purposes of prison. Though most prisons continue to operate educational and other rehabilitative programs, the rights of prison inmates have been frozen at the minimal number recognized by courts in the 1960s and 1970s. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against prison guard violence, but courts have generally refused to expand the rights of prison inmates. In most cases, courts have approved increased infringement of inmates' rights if prison officials declare that the restrictions are for security purposes.

Prisoners' Rights

Prisoners' rights are limited. For the most part, jail and prison inmates may demand only a "minimal civilized measure of shelter" (Union County Jail Inmates v. DiBuono, 713 F.2d 984 [3d Cir. 1983]). Generally, courts follow three basic principles when deciding whether to recognize a particular right. First, an inmate necessarily gives up many rights and privileges enjoyed by the rest of society; second, an inmate does not relinquish all constitutional rights upon placement in prison; and third, the constitutional rights retained by the prison inmate must be balanced against the security concerns of the prison.

The established rights of prison inmates include freedom of speech and religion;

freedom from arbitrary punishment (i.e., restraints, solitary confinement) on the sole basis of beliefs, religion, or racial and ethnic origin; freedom from constant physical restraints; a small amount of space for physical movement; essentials for personal hygiene and opportunity to wash; clean bedding; adequate clothing; adequate heating, cooling, ventilation, and light; and adequate nutrition.

Prisoners' rights can be infringed for security purposes. Prisoners have the right to freedom of speech, but prison officials may search their mail, deny a wide variety of reading materials, and edit the content of prison newspapers. Prisoners have the right to adequate space, but they may be confined in isolation for long periods, even years. Prisoners have the right to freedom from restraints, but their ankles and wrists may be shackled when they are moved. They may also be temporarily strapped down or otherwise restrained if officials believe that they present a danger.

Prison inmates often attempt to establish new rights in court. Issues connected to prison overcrowding, medical treatment, media access, even exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke, are among those faced by courts.

Another sensitive issue in prison is the use of prison guards of the opposite sex. Women prisoners may receive more privacy in this regard than men prisoners. For example, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in 1985 that the practice of assigning female guards to conduct strip searches on nude men and watch them while showering, urinating, and defecating did not violate any constitutional rights (Grummett v. Rushen, 779 F.2d 491 [1985]). However, in 1993, the same court held that it was cruel and unusual punishment to allow male guards to conduct searches on female prisoners while the female prisoners were clothed (Jordan v. Gardner, 986 F.2d 1521 [9th Cir. 1993]).

Prisoners retain some rights aside from those concerning living conditions. Most prisons "classify" prisoners and place them in various units according to the categories. For example, violent criminals and persons suspected of gang affiliations are often housed in high-security areas of prison, separate from the remaining prison population. When an inmate is reclassified, he or she is entitled to notice of the reclassification and a citation of reasons for the move.

Congress and most states authorize the allowance of "good time" for prison inmates. Good time is credit for time served on good behavior, and it is used to reduce sentence length. For example, an inmate may receive one day of good time credit for every three days that he behaves well. Other states withhold recognition of good behavior until the defendant has served a certain portion of the minimum sentence imposed by the court. In New Hampshire, for example, an inmate may be released for good behavior after serving two-thirds of the minimum sentence (N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 651-A:12 [1983]). When an inmate has good time credits taken away, she or he is entitled to notice, a hearing before the prison board, and an opportunity to present evidence in her or his favor.

Inmates may also gain early release from prison through parole, which is granted by the parole board. Prisoners have no right to parole, and the matter of early release is left to the graces of the parole board. Once released on parole, a parolee may be returned to prison for breaking one of many conditions that are normally imposed. A parolee has no right to an attorney at a parole revocation hearing, nor does an inmate have the right to an attorney at a parole hearing.

Solitary confinement is used in many prisons for violent inmates and those inmates perceived as having gang-related affiliations. Some prisons are designed specifically for it. The original prisons, as envisioned by the Quakers, called for solitary confinement, but the practice was halted because of the detrimental effects it had on prisoners. However, the practice never completely ended. In the 1980s, solitary confinement became a regular feature of prisons, and it has become the sole form of incarceration in so-called Security Housing Units or Supermax prisons.

In a Supermax prison, the cells are eight-by-ten feet and windowless. The cells are grouped in "pods." The cell doors are perforated with holes large enough for guards to see inside the cell, but small enough to obstruct the prisoner's vision and light. All a prisoner can see through the door is another white wall. Each cell is furnished with a built-in bunk with a toilet-sink unit. Nothing is allowed on the walls. Prisoners may be allowed television, radio, and books, but these are taken away as punishment for any rule infractions.

Prisoners in solitary confinement are kept in their cells, under surveillance, for 22.5 hours a day. Unlike the rest of the prison population, inmates in solitary confinement may not take advantage of educational or recreational programs. The 90 minutes outside the cell may be divided between visiting a small library, washing, and exercising in a pen connected to the pod. Prisoners are strip-searched by the guards before and after visiting any place and are placed in waist restraints and handcuffs when being escorted.

The assignment of a prisoner to solitary confinement is made by prison officials. With regard to assigning supposed gang members to solitary confinement, it is the policy in some prisons to require that the perceived gang member "debrief" officials on his or her gang activity and renounce his or her gang affiliations before being released back into the general population.

One of the most important rights possessed by prison inmates is access to the courts through habeas corpus petitions. After an inmate has exhausted all the motions and appeals available to contest the conviction and prison sentence, a final round of limited judicial review is provided through the writ of habeas corpus. Through the ancient writ of habeas corpus, a court may order the release of a prisoner wrongly held.

Habeas corpus petitions are granted only for certain constitutional violations in the prosecution of a criminal defendant. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2261 et seq., placed strict limits on this form of relief by directing federal judges to conduct habeas petition reviews according to this law. Under the act, a federal judge may not grant habeas relief on any claim adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the adjudication resulted in a decision that was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court. Since a state court is unlikely to defy a general principle of constitutional law that the Supreme Court has clearly established, this review provides a few opportunities for a federal judge to examine and determine constitutional law.

Relief may be granted if the state court's judgment is based upon an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence. An application of law to facts is unreasonable only when it can be said that reasonable jurists considering the question would be of one view that the state court's ruling was incorrect. If the prisoner fails to develop all the facts in state court supporting the claim, the prisoner will not be allowed to develop any new facts in federal court.

Under the 1996 law, a federal court cannot award relief on the basis of any claim that was previously decided against the prisoner by a state court. This directive must be followed even though the federal court concludes that the state court decision was erroneous and that the prisoner's federal constitutional rights have been violated.

further readings

Bennett, Steven C. 1983. "The Privacy and Procedural Due Process Rights of Hunger Striking Prisoners." New York University Law Review 58.

Carter, Rubin "Hurricane." 1995. "Death Penalty Symposium Keynote Address." Santa Clara Law Review 35.

Miller, Nan D. 1995. "International Protection of Prisoners: Is Solitary Confinement in the United States a Violation of International Standards?" California Western International Law Journal 26.

New Hampshire Department of Corrections. 1994. Biennial Report for the Biennium Ending June 30, 1994.

Pillsbury, Samuel H. 1982. "Creatures, Persons, and Prisoners: Evaluating Prison Conditions Under the Eighth Amendment." Southern California Law Review 55.

Potts, Jeff. 1993. "American Penal Institutions and Two Alternative Proposals for Punishment." South Texas Law Review 34.

Sowle, Stephen D. 1995. "A Regime of Social Death: Criminal Punishment in the Age of Prisons." New York University Review of Law and Social Change 21.

Tachiki, Scott N. 1995. "Indeterminate Sentences in Supermax Prisons Based upon Alleged Gang Affiliations: A Reexamination of Procedural Protection and a Proposal for Greater Procedural Requirements." California Law Review 83.

Willens, Jonathan A. 1987. "Structure, Content and the Exigencies of War: American Prison Law After Twenty-five Years 1962–1987." American University Law Review 37.


Corporal Punishment; Imprisonment; Incarceration; Parole; Preventive Detention; Prisoners' Rights; Sentencing.


views updated May 29 2018






The prison, which would become a dominant correctional strategy in Western societies, emerged in the late 1700s. Throughout its history, the prison has been used in attempts to achieve various goals of criminal sanctioning: retribution, incapacitation, general and specific deterrence, and rehabilitation. No one theory can account for the historical development and evolution of the prison. Michael Welch, a highly regarded criminologist, makes the observation that correctional ideologies, policies, and practices cannot be understood outside the political, economic, religious, and technological forces that shape them.


Forerunners of the more sophisticated models of the prison were workhouses and houses of correction that emerged in western Europe. In the eighteenth century, when European societies were experiencing a dramatic population shift to urban areas due to the breakdown of the feudal order and the Industrial Revolution, these institutions became a mechanism for managing the growing numbers of an urban underclass. The expressed objective of workhouses and houses of correction was to provide vocational training and to instill a work ethic among inmates. However, these institutions functioned more effectively to remove undesirables from the community and, most importantly, to provide a cheap source of labor to private industry.

The United States is credited with being most influential in the development and proliferation of the modern prison. A wing of the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia (17901835) was the first penitentiary. Influenced by the religious ideology of the Pennsylvania Quakers, the penitentiary was designed for the solitary confinement of criminal offenders, a place where they would repent for their sins without the contaminating influences of other prisoners or the community. These objectives were the foundation for the design of the Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, opened in 1826 and 1829, respectively. Because it was believed that work would interfere with inmates penitence, inmate work was not originally planned or desired by the founders of the penitentiary. However, individual handicraft work (e.g., weaving, woodcarving, leather tooling) was introduced later to ameliorate the negative consequences of solitary confinement and idleness. During the development of the Pennsylvania system, an alternative prison model, the Auburn system, emerged in New York.

The Auburn Prison opened in Auburn, New York, in 1817. The Auburn model incorporated a silent congregate work system, ostensibly through which inmates would learn vocational skills and be instilled with the work ethic. In complete silence, inmates would work in factory-like settings during the day, and return to their cells at night. The goal of the silent system was to prevent the spread of criminogenic values and influences among inmates. Order was maintained through a quasi-militaristic regimen, such as lockstep marching and harsh punishments for rule infractions.

The Auburn system proliferated in the United States at the same time that western European societies modeled their prisons after the Pennsylvania system. Whereas Europeans were compelled by rehabilitative ideals and what they saw as more humane treatment of inmates, the United States was motivated by the low operating costs and profits generated by cheap inmate labor sold to private industry.

Fortresslike industrial factory prisons dominated the penal landscape in the United States until the early twentieth century, when laws were passed, prompted largely by skyrocketing unemployment in the private sector during the Great Depression, restricting prison industry to the manufacture of instate public-use goods. The result of the demise of prison industry was an idle inmate population in which discipline and control, rather than production and vocational rehabilitation, became the primary objective of the prison.

A radical turn in the objectives and nature of the prison in the United States emerged following World War II (19391945) with the emergence and dominance of correctional institutions. The expressed goal of correctional institutions was the treatment and rehabilitation of inmates. Therapeutic professionals, including physicians, psychologists, educators, and social workers, were charged with diagnosing and treating inmates based on individual needs. Under indeterminate sentencing strategies, parole boards were given more discretionary power to release inmates once they were deemed to be rehabilitated.

The ideals of the correctional system began to unravel in the 1960s, in part due to overcrowding, lack of funding, and a turbulent period of unrest associated with the prisoner rights movement. Despite these systemic circumstances, a neoconservative political climate that exaggerated the failings of the rehabilitation model was successful in garnering public support for a get tough approach to crime. The momentum of the movement became most evident in the 1980s when the United States embarked on an imprisonment binge. Within a decade, both the prison population and rate of incarceration more than doubled as a result of the proliferation of new federal and state prisons. This trend of expansion continued through the 1990s with the rate of incarceration reaching 491 per 100,000 U.S. citizens in 2005 compared to 139 in 1980. Longer, determinate sentences contributed to this growth, but no single factor is more responsible than the concentration on the arrest and incarceration of illegal drug offenders.

Between 1985 and 1995, over 80 percent of the increase in the federal prison population was due to illegal drug offenses. In 1985, 34 percent of prisoners were incarcerated for drug offenses; by 1995 the proportion was 60 percent. As the state prison populations tripled in the late 1900s, the proportion of inmates incarcerated for drug offenses grew from 9 percent in 1986 to 23 percent by 1995.


The crackdown on drugs had a disproportionate impact on women and minorities, particularly African Americans. There were almost eight times as many female prisoners in 2003 as there were in 1980, and the primary reason for the growth was drug offenses.

Similarly, illegal drug offenses contributed to a much greater extent to the growth of the African American prison population in the latter twentieth century compared to the growth for whites and Hispanics. Welch points out that African Americans represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, 13 percent of drug users, 35 percent of the arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of convictions for drug possession, and 74 percent of the prison sentences for drug convictions (2004, p. 439).


The ideals and functions of the prison can be viewed from three broad and competing perspectives: conservative, liberal, and critical. From the conservative perspective, the threat of imprisonment is believed to deter would-be offenders from committing crimes (general deterrence), while the purpose of prisons is to protect society from those who are not deterred (incapacitation), and through this punishment, deter convicted offenders from repeating crimes (specific deterrence). The conservative ideology is based on a fundamental belief that criminal offenders are driven by the choice to engage in criminal behavior and that crime can be controlled through the threat of punishment and the incapacitation of those who are not deterred.

From the liberal perspective, a criminal offense is seen as a result of forcesbiological, psychological, or socioen vironmentalthat influence the behavior. This perspective upholds the rehabilitative ideal that prisons should function to treat and rehabilitate offenders in order that they ultimately may be reintegrated into free society. Under the liberal perspective, scientific inquiry into the etiology of criminal behavior will reveal its underlying causes, and correctional rehabilitation is ideally guided by those etiological factors.

From the critical perspective, the criminal justice system is considered a means of social control that is used by the powerful class over the less powerful. Consistent with Karl Marxs (18181883) writings, criminal behavior is primarily the consequence of the economic order and politics in society. The criminal justice system and prisons, in particular, function to control an economically marginalized population, also defined as a surplus labor pool. Critical criminologists point to historical trends across societies in which correctional populations swell in times of abundant free-market labor and shrink in times of labor shortages. In his compelling book, The Warehouse Prison (2005), John Irwin adopts a critical perspective to describe the economic conditions and resulting marginalized population that spawned the prison expansion in the United States in the late twentieth century.

While the prison remains a dominant strategy aimed at controlling crime and punishing offenders in Western societies, there is a great deal of doubt among scholars that it is an effective strategy beyond retribution and incapaci-tation. The high recidivism rate of ex-inmates points to the general failure of imprisonment to deter or rehabilitate and, further, may promote a higher level of criminality among those released. With over 90 percent of inmates ultimately returning to free society, this is, or should be, a central concern for social reform.

Prison abolitionists advocate radical reform in the use of incarceration. Vocal prison abolitionists span both ends of the political spectrum. Pointing to the failure of the prison system to reform or deter, and to the swelling prison population, as well as to the evidence and claims that current practices are racist and classist, abolitionists promote expanded and widespread use of alternatives to incarceration for most offenses and support the decriminalization of certain behaviors, such as drug offenses. With the entrenchment of the prison as a primary means of criminal sanctioning, along with the recent privatization of prisons and of corrections, in general, the abolitionists face powerful ideological and economic barriers.

SEE ALSO African Americans; Crime and Criminology; Davis, Angela; Deterrence; Drug Traffic; Imprisonment; Law; Punishment; Racism


Irwin, John. 2005. The Warehouse Prison: Disposal of the New Dangerous Class. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

Scalia, John. 2001. Federal Drug Offenders, 1999 with Trends 198499. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

Shichor, David. 2006. The Meaning and Nature of Punishment. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.

Welch, Michael. 2004. Corrections: A Critical Approach. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Douglas L. Kuck


views updated May 21 2018


Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century monasteries and fortresses often served as prisons (tyurma from German turm = tower). The Russian prisons in about 1850 were mostly overcrowded wood buildings that had not been built for the purpose of the accommodation of prisoners, many of whom left the prisons with destroyed health. Russian authorities were more likely to use other forms of punishment, such as whipping and other corporal punishment for small offences and hard labor and exile to Siberia for serious crimes. As early as the eighteenth century there were fruitless attempts at prison reform. In 1845 the tsar compiled a new Code of Punishments that featured a hierarchy of incarcerations including preliminerary prisons, strait houses, correctional prisons, and punitive prisons. According to the model of the Pentonville Prison in England, the isolation of the prisoner was viewed as a condition for his improvement.

There was no uniform prison management. Supervision was exercised by the ministry of the interior (MVD), the Department of Justice, and the respective governors. The public prosecutor's office was responsible for the well being of the prisoners. The prison question became topical by the penal reform of April 17, 1863: Corporal punishment was deemed antiquated and prison sentences became more typical. Now for smaller offenses the punishment was up to seven days of custody. This reform led, therefore, to a quick increase of the prison population and chaos in management. In the 1860s and 1870s various committees dealt with reform of the prison system. In 1877 a newly formed committee called Grot petitioned for a new hierarchy of punishment with seven steps, from fines up to the death penalty. The prisoners were to be separated except for work details. It was suggested a Main Prison Administration (GTU) should be established within the Ministry of the Interior, to be

responsible for all questions of the Russian prison system. The suggestions of the Grot committee became law on February 27, 1879. At this time there were about seven hundred prisons with a capacity of 54,253 inmates, but actually 70,488 persons were housed there. In the next few decades, significant efforts were undertaken in the repair of old prisons and the construction of new ones. Between 1879 and 1905, the GTU succeeded in improving the conditions in the Russian prisons, during which time, in 1895, the GTU was transferred from the MVD to the Department of Justice. As a result of the waves of arrests after the revolution of 1905, the number of prisoners doubled from 1906 to 1908. After the February 1917 revolution the GTU was renamed the Main Administration of Places of Incarceration (GUMZ), and many prisoners who had been granted amnesty were re-arrested.

In April 1918 the new People's Commissioner's Office for Justice (NKYu) dissolved the GUMZ and formed the Central Penal Department (TsKO). Soon there developed in parallel to the activity of the NKYu a system of places of incarceration of the VChK (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission on Struggle against Counterrevolution, Sabotage and Speculation). In the prisons of the TsKO were housed the usual criminals; the VChK was responsible for putative and real opponents of the revolution. A principal purpose of prisons was the re-education of the delinquent; accordingly the TsKO was renamed the Central Working Improvement Department (TsITO) in October 1921. Hunger was common in TsITO facilities.

In early 1922 the VChK was integrated into the People's Commissioner's Office for Internal Affairs (NKVD). On July 1, 1922, the handing over of all places of incarceration from the NKYu to the NKVD was effected and the prison management was reorganized in the Main administration of Places of Incarceration (GUMZ NKVD). Additionally, the secret police (United State Political Administration, OGPU) had prisons under its jurisdiction. In the time of the Big Terror many prisoners were in the gulag. Under the new people's commissioner, Beriya, all prisoners able to work were removed from the prisons; in the Soviet Union after Stalin relatively few were incarcerated.

On May 7, 1956, the MVD of the USSR issued regulations for inmates, distinguishing between a "general" and an "austere" regime, the latter for prison who systematically violated regulations. On October 8, 1997, the penal enforcement system was subordinated by an Ukas of the president of the Russian Federation, moving again to the Department of Justice, where a State Administration for the Penal Enforcement (GUIN) was founded. Regardless of jurisdiction, however, the prisons continue to receive inadequate funding and, as they were in 1850, continue to be overcrowded, with inmates often afflicted with communicable diseases.

See also: gulag; lefortovo; lubyanka; state security, organs of


Adams, Bruce F. (1996). The Politics of Punishment: Prison Reform in Russia 18631917. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Georg Wurzer


views updated May 21 2018

prisons. The first use of prisons in England was to detain an accused until trial or to keep a convicted criminal until execution. Under the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, and throughout the Middle Ages, criminals were punished by fines and, for serious crime, death or mutilation. Minor criminals might also be punished in the village or manor by whipping, the stocks, or the pillory.

With the advent of the system of presentment of those suspected of serious crimes, introduced by the Assizes of Clarendon and Northampton by Henry II, it became necessary to keep suspects until the royal justices arrived to receive the presentments made by twelve men of each hundred. The first prisons were therefore the local lock-up or the castle keep. In addition the church had its own prisons, reputedly less uncomfortable than those of the secular powers.

In the sphere of civil law, each central court of common law had its prison (such as the Marshalsea for the Court of King's Bench). Imprisonment for contempt of court was and still is possible and the Court of Chancery became notorious for imprisoning those who were deemed to be in contempt. Imprisonment for debt was also common and was not abolished until late in the 19th cent.

The development of imprisonment as a penal sanction took place comparatively late in English history. Prison as we know it had a number of predecessors; convicted criminals might be locked up in gaols but this practice was not widespread. At different periods society provided workhouses, ‘Bridewells’ or houses of correction, and, in the 18th and 19th cents., the ‘hulks’ or convict ships, depicted in Dickens, used for convicts as well as for prisoners of war.

Before the 19th cent. prisons might be ‘farmed out’ to private individuals, who would charge prisoners for their accommodation and food. During the 19th cent. prison became an important penal sanction though it was not until the 1850s that it became the prevailing form of punishment, especially after the end of transportation. The condition of English prisons was deplorable; males and females could be and were crowded into cells together. Overcrowding, dirt, and low hygiene as well as a miserable diet made the prisons breeding places for disease such as typhoid—indeed an illness known as ‘gaol fever’ was common, and many inmates died in prison.

In the 18th cent. certain reformers became aware of the appalling conditions in English prisons—two of the most famous being John Howard, the great prison reformer who gave his name to the Howard League for penal reform, and Elizabeth Fry who worked for the improvement of the lot of women in prison.

In 1865 the principle was introduced of work for prisoners. In 1895 the Gladstone Committee was set up to review the prisons and reform followed. Gradually during the 20th cent. corporal punishment, penal servitude, and hard labour were abolished for prisoners and the rehabilitative aspect of prison re-emphasized, but the prison system remains an object of controversy up to the present day.

Maureen Mulholland


views updated May 23 2018

prisoner St Dismas, St Leonard, and St Roch are the patron saints of prisoners.
Prisoner of Chillon the anti-Savoyard Genevan patriot François Bonivard (1493–1570), who was imprisoned for 6 years in the castle of Chillon; he was the subject of a poem by Byron, The Prisoner of Chillon, published in 1816.
prisoner's dilemma in game theory, a situation in which two players each have two options whose outcome depends crucially on the simultaneous choice made by the other, often formulated in terms of two prisoners separately deciding whether to confess to a crime.
prisoner's friend in the armed services, an officer who represents a defendant at a court martial; the term is recorded from the early 20th century.
take no prisoners be ruthlessly aggressive or uncompromising in the pursuit of one's objectives. (The origin is military, implying that enemies were to be killed rather than captured.)

See also prisoner of conscience.


views updated May 18 2018

pris·on·er / ˈpriz(ə)nər/ • n. a person legally committed to prison as a punishment for crimes they have committed or while awaiting trial. ∎  a person captured and kept confined by an enemy, opponent, or criminal: American citizens were being held prisoner in Iran 200 rebels were taken prisoner. ∎  fig. a person who is or feels confined or trapped by a situation or set of circumstances: he's become a prisoner of the publicity he's generated.PHRASES: take no prisoners be ruthlessly aggressive or uncompromising in the pursuit of one's objectives.


views updated May 17 2018

pris·on / ˈprizən/ • n. a building (or vessel) to which people are legally committed as a punishment for crimes they have committed or while awaiting trial: he died in prison both men were sent to prison. ∎  confinement in such a building: prison saves one man and hardens another.• v. (-oned, -on·ing) [tr.] poetic/lit. imprison: the young man prisoned behind the doors.


views updated May 14 2018

prison. Gaol, jail, or place for confining criminals and segregating them from society. Prisons provided scope for rational planning to ensure efficient control over inmates, and many fine designs date from the later decades of C18 and the first half of C19. Piranesi's images of phantasy prisons (carceri), with their Sublime volumes, had considerable influence on Neo-Classical architecture and stage-sets. See Panopticon.


Architectural Review, cxvi/694 (Oct. 1954);
Nicholson (1835);
W. Papworth (1852);
Pevsner (1976);
Sturgis et al. (1901–2)


views updated May 23 2018

Prison ★½ 1988 (R)

The zombified body of an unjustly executed inmate haunts Creedmore Prison, stalking the guard that killed him. His search is aided by the terrified inmates. 102m/C VHS . Lane Smith, Chelsea Field, Viggo Mortensen, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Tom Everett, Tommy (Tiny) Lister; D: Renny Harlin; W: C. Courtney Joyner; C: Mac Ahlberg; M: Richard Band.


views updated May 14 2018

prison XII. — OF. prisun, (mod.) prison :— L. prēnsiō, -ōn-, for præhensiō, -ōn-, n. of action f. præhendere seize.
So prisoner (-ER2) XIII.