The Prison Reform Movement

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9: The Prison Reform Movement

Prison reform has had a long history in the United States, beginning with the construction of the nation's first prisons. From the time of the earliest prisons in the United States, reformers have struggled with the problem of how to punish criminals while also preserving their humanity; how to protect the public while also allowing prisoners to re-enter society after their sentences end; and how to satisfy crime victims' desire for justice and revenge while also giving convicts a second chance to live freely and abide by the law. Although experts have long agreed that many criminals should be punished by imprisonment, they have differing ideas about which crimes merit imprisonment, what length sentences should be, and how inmates should be treated.

In American society, imprisonment is seen as serving multiple purposes. Primarily, incarceration is regarded as a punishment for criminal offenders, taking away their liberty and their ability to control their own lives. Such punishment gives crime victims, their families, and society a sense of retribution, or justice. A criminal must pay for the acts he or she has committed. That payment comes in the form of a loss of personal freedom. Locking up criminals also serves to protect the public. A burglar, rapist, or murderer can no longer harm society while serving time behind bars. Many experts believe that imprisonment, or rather the threat of it, keeps would-be criminals from committing crimes because the fear of punishment is so great. Finally, throughout history many criminal justice experts have viewed incarceration as an opportunity to provide counseling and training to offenders so that they can be reformed, or changed for the better, and rehabilitated, or prepared for a return to normal life.

The major problem facing prison reformers and administrators throughout history is that the various reasons for imprisoning people often conflict. For example, numerous experts suggest that strict punishments and long prison sentences do not necessarily keep people from committing crimes. They believe that the threat of prison does not increase public safety. During periods such as the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, when punishments became harsher and sentences longer, crime rates did not significantly decrease as expected. In addition, the failure of most attempts at reforming prisoners shows the difficulty of helping convicts change their ways while simultaneously subjecting them to the harsh realities of prison life.


acquired immunodeficiency syndrome; a disease related to a severely compromised immune system, leaving the body unable to defend itself against infection.
A person convicted, or found guilty, of a crime; usually reserved for those serving time in prison.
determinate sentence:
A sentence given for an exact time period as opposed to a range of months or years.
A serious crime, including armed robbery, arson, or murder; usually punishable by a sentence of a year or more in prison.
A temporary leave from prison granted to model inmates as a tool for helping them re-enter free society.
halfway house:
A transitional place where inmates can live after leaving prison but before living on their own; offers counseling and supervision.
indeterminate sentence:
A sentence covering a range of time, such as fifteen years to life; prisoners can be granted parole after an evaluation by a committee.
A person serving a sentence in a jail or prison.
An institution where people are confined for short sentences or while awaiting sentencing; sometimes used interchangeably with prison.
A minor crime, such as petty theft, punishable by a fine or a prison term of less than one year.
A release from prison allowing the inmate to serve the remainder of the sentence outside the prison, living according to the prison's rules and restrictions.
A prison, generally reserved for serious offenders; originally referred to as an institution where inmates would seek to show penitence, or regret, for their crimes. In the U.S. federal prison system, a penitentiary is a maximum-security facility.
A correctional institution designed to confine those convicted of a serious crime; sometimes used interchangeably with "jail."
An alternative to a prison sentence whereby the convicted person remains free but has to abide by a set of restrictions and submit to supervision for a period of time.
To return to criminal behavior; often refers to an ex-convict committing additional crimes and being sent back to prison.
work release:
A program allowing certain convicts the option of working outside the prison during the day and returning to their cells at night.

Reform in colonial times

Prisons have existed in some form since ancient times. In the United States, the use of prisons as a tool for confining and punishing criminals evolved during the 1700s. Religious-minded reformers during that period set out to improve the young American republic by creating public schools and libraries. They also sought to aid fellow citizens in improving their morals. At that time, a philosophy began to develop that imprisoning criminals would not only protect society but redeem sinful wrongdoers. Prior to the creation of the prison system, those convicted of crimes often faced physical punishment, including whipping and branding. Those found guilty of more serious crimes could face the death penalty. The first prison reformers in the United States sought to create a humane, effective means of punishing and reforming criminals through confinement.

During the colonial period of American history, William Penn (1644–1718), the founder of Pennsylvania, played a major role in getting society to treat criminals humanely. As a young man in Great Britain, Penn had become involved in the Quaker faith, a Protestant religion. Penn was drawn to the Quaker beliefs of tolerance and equality. Such principles strongly influenced how he established the colony of Pennsylvania. As governor and proprietor of Pennsylvania beginning in the 1680s, Penn created a society that promoted free enterprise, a free press, and religious acceptance. His beliefs led him to guarantee citizens a trial by jury and to significantly modify English laws regarding criminal punishment. Although English law listed about two hundred crimes that would be punishable by the death penalty, Penn reserved that punishment for just two crimes in Pennsylvania: murder and treason. He believed that confinement and labor were fair and effective punishments for criminals.

Penn's ideas continued to influence people even one hundred years later, when Pennsylvania Quakers and other reformers started the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. Among the first prison reform organizations in the United States, this group developed the concept of penitentiaries, prisons based on the idea that those who commit crimes should be penitent, or feel regret and sorrow for their misdeeds. The Quakers believed that prisoners must be given space to reflect on their actions and to seek forgiveness from God. Penitence was considered the key to reform: criminals could not be rehabilitated, or restored to normal life, unless they felt truly sorry for the crimes they had committed.

Prior to the creation of penitentiaries, those accused of crimes generally spent short periods in jails, confined only while awaiting trial or punishment. Punishments for crimes included the death penalty, fines, slave labor, or corporal (physical) punishments, such as whipping or branding. Although confinement in such jails was relatively brief, conditions were filthy and dangerous. For most, it was a nightmarish experience. All prisoners—men and women, hardened criminals, and first-time offenders—were housed together in common rooms. The straw spread over the floor served as both their bedding and their toilet. Violence, including rape, was common.

The nation's first prisons

The first penitentiary in the United States was the Walnut Street Jail, built in Philadelphia in 1790. The founders of this prison believed that inmates should be treated humanely and should repent in part through physical labor. The Walnut Street Jail created prison industries, whereby convicts produced goods that were sold in the community outside the prison walls. The prison administrators believed that work would aid the convicts' rehabilitation. The Walnut Street Jail differed significantly from earlier prisons. At the jail, smaller cells were used that were shared by fewer prisoners. Walnut Street also placed dangerous criminals in solitary confinement. In addition, it separately housed women and those imprisoned for being in debt or homeless. Administrators offered prisoners health care, education, and the opportunity for religious worship.

The structure of the Walnut Street Jail as well as its operating principles were widely copied for many years. In 1797 New York's Newgate Prison was built using the Walnut Street Jail as a model. Reformer and Quaker Thomas Eddy (1758–1827) was instrumental in creating Newgate Prison. He believed criminals could change their ways, and he advocated work, education, and religious observance for all convicts. He also supported strict discipline and favored solitary confinement over corporal punishment. Newgate, like the Walnut Street Jail, grouped numerous prisoners into a single cell, except for especially violent offenders, who did not share cells. After a riot and escape attempt at the prison in 1802, Eddy became convinced that none of the prisoners should share cells at night. This was a policy advocated by renowned British prison reformer John Howard (1726–1790). Eddy and other like-minded reformers believed that grouping convicts together led to violence, corruption, and escape attempts.

After many years of urging state officials to build a new type of prison, Eddy succeeded. The Auburn Penitentiary was built in upstate New York in 1817. By 1822 the Auburn system was in place. During the day, prisoners worked alongside one another in strict silence. At night, they returned to their solitary cells. Auburn also created the practice of allowing convicts to eat meals together in large mess halls. At Auburn, prisoners were categorized by the seriousness of their crimes. This was indicated by the prisoners' striped uniforms and the location of their cells. Auburn became known for its code of silence, well-behaved inmates, and the profits made from prisoner labor. Thousands of visitors came to observe the workings of the prison, and Auburn became a widely imitated model for other prisons.

In spite of the penitentiary's positive reputation, life for the prisoners was harsh. Although the prison reform ideas put into place at Auburn were well intentioned, the reality at the facility was far from humane. Prisoners were forced to march in lockstep and were not allowed eye contact with each other or the prison guards. While they were in group settings at various times each day, the prisoners were denied the benefits of conversation and basic human contact. The prison staff used brutal means of keeping the inmates in line, whipping them for even minor misbehavior. Reports of prisoners dying from such punishments led to an investigation of Auburn in 1839. The result was a ban on hitting prisoners with whips or any other implement. Prison officials then found other methods to physically punish inmates without striking them.

Late in his life, Eddy moved away from his earlier theories about effective ways to reform prisoners. He came to believe that very few criminals were dangerous enough to need incarceration. The experience of being in prison, in fact, hardened even the gentlest inmates and placed them beyond reform. Eddy concluded that greater attention should be paid to the root causes of crime rather than the effective punishment of criminals. Many reformers since Eddy have echoed this notion. Others have neglected to study the cause of crime, instead focusing on the best ways to punish and reform offenders after crimes have been committed.

"Moral terrorism" in the mid-1800s

During the mid-1800s, many prison reformers supported the use of stern, rigid discipline in prisons. In The Prison Reform Movement: Forlorn Hope, Larry E. Sullivan described those years: "The period of reform from the 1820s to the Civil War [1861–65] can be characterized as an era of moral terrorism." During the early 1800s, the populations of cities had grown rapidly. This led to an increase in the number of poor. These increases brought a rise in crime and a swelling of the prison population. Reformers were concerned about such changes in society, blaming the poor in large part. Criminals were thought to be social deviants. Many people believed such behavior could only be lessened through labor and strict discipline.

Although most reformers agreed on those principles, they differed on how best to organize prisons. Many argued in favor of the Auburn system, with prisoners working together in silence and sleeping in solitary cells at night. Others supported the Pennsylvania system that was used at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. In that prison, advocated by Quaker reformers, prisoners lived in solitary confinement all day and all night for their entire sentences. The Quakers believed this system gave inmates ample opportunity to reflect on their sins and protected them from the miserable conditions of prisons where inmates shared cells. Prisoners were not allowed to speak to anyone, nor could they sing or even whistle.

However, rather than quietly reflecting, many prisoners were driven insane as they became unable to bear the silence and isolation. The Auburn system, championed by prison reformer Louis Dwight of the Boston Prison Discipline Society, eventually won out. This occurred, in large part, because that system proved far less expensive. The income generated by prisoner labor in Auburn-style prisons helped to significantly decrease the state's costs, while a prison where every inmate stayed in his or her cell around the clock proved extremely expensive.

Women and children, the poor, and the insane

During the mid-1800s, significant changes were made to penitentiaries as well as local jails in terms of separating different types of inmates. Some local jails placed women in large holding cells with male prisoners. This situation proved difficult for female inmates as they were subjected to rape and other acts of violence. In penitentiaries, women were housed in areas separate from the men's quarters, but they still faced numerous difficulties. They were guarded almost exclusively by men, and some guards sexually abused the female inmates. The conditions of their cells were often worse than those of the men. In 1839 the first step was taken to improve conditions for female inmates when a separate women's prison was built. Called Sing Sing, the penitentiary was established in Ossining, New York. The prisoners there were attended by matrons, or female supervisors. They participated in a work program, making buttons and sewing clothes.

The state of New York also improved its prison system by creating a separate institution for juvenile offenders. The House of Refuge, established in New York in 1825, was designed to confine younger criminals. At the prison, considerable emphasis was placed on reform. By the 1840s, numerous states had built such institutions, sometimes referred to as reform schools. As part of the movement to create these institutions, many reformers also campaigned for the establishment of public schools, giving all children access to a free education.

At one time, people who could not repay their debts were sent to jail. They were often housed with hardened, violent criminals. Such debtors were subjected to miserable and sometimes violent conditions, punished horribly for the crime of poverty. In addition, their imprisonment prevented them from working, making it impossible for them to pay their debts. Public outcry against this practice eventually led to an end to debt laws in most states by the 1850s. Those convicted of minor crimes had also been housed with serious offenders. However, during the mid-1800s separate "houses of correction" were built for petty criminals. With a heavy emphasis on reform and rehabilitation, such workhouses, as they were often called, put inmates to work but did not subject them to the strict routines of a major penitentiary.

Social reformer Dorothea Dix (1802–1887) campaigned strongly for improved conditions for the mentally ill. Beginning in the early 1840s, Dix traveled throughout the United States, visiting prisons, hospitals, poorhouses, and other institutions to uncover the horrible treatment of the mentally ill. Neglected, abused, and even tortured, the mentally ill suffered terrible fates in jails and prisons. Dix found that such inmates were often poorly fed, chained up, and generally treated like animals. She raised money, enlisted the help of other prominent reformers, and lobbied lawmakers to establish separate state hospitals for the mentally ill.

Dorothea Dix

In March of 1841, Dorothea Dix, a teacher living in Boston, went to teach a Sunday School class to a group of women prisoners at a jail in nearby Cambridge. Touring the prison after class, Dix came upon the cells of the mentally ill prisoners in the jail's basement. She was horrified to discover that such inmates were chained to the walls and given little clothing and no heat. On that day, Dix, approaching forty years of age, began her life's work as a crusader on behalf of the mentally ill in the United States.

Dix was born in Hampden, Maine, on April 4, 1802. Her father was a traveling preacher. Dix and her siblings spent much of their time at home with their mother, living in poverty in rural New England. When she was twelve years old, Dix went to Boston to live with her grandmother. Two years later, Dix moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, to stay with her great-aunt. While there, she opened a school for young children. At the age of seventeen, she returned to Boston to further her own education. Soon after, she opened a private school for wealthy young ladies and operated a free school for poor children. Her passion for learning and strict discipline earned her admiration as a teacher. In her spare time, Dix wrote children's stories.

Dix suffered from ill health throughout her life. In the mid-1830s, she decided to stop teaching. She then traveled to Europe for rest and recovery. During her two years there, she became acquainted with several reformers. She learned about new theories and methods for treating criminals and the mentally ill. She returned to Boston in 1838. Dix spent time traveling and exploring various interests until the day in 1841 when she visited the Cambridge jail.

Dix's outrage at the treatment of the mentally ill prisoners inspired her to change the system. She devoted herself to obtaining heat and proper clothing for the inmates at Cambridge jail. She fought in court to improve conditions and enlisted the help of other reformers. For two years, Dix visited prisons, hospitals, poorhouses, and other such institutions in Massachusetts. Cataloging the many abuses of mentally ill inmates, she presented her findings to the Massachusetts legislature. She hoped to secure funding for a state hospital dedicated to the treatment of the mentally ill. Dix encountered strong resistance to such reforms. Many people feared and avoided the insane. Some thought that the mentally ill were less than human and unaware of their harsh treatment.

Enlisting the help of other reformers and wealthy citizens, Dix traveled throughout the United States visiting various facilities. She worked to persuade state legislatures to fund specialized hospitals. Spreading awareness about the nature of mental illness, she urged people to treat the afflicted with basic human decency. Dix's efforts led to the establishment of state-run hospitals in numerous states as well as Canada. Her work led to the removal of mentally ill patients from prisons and other inappropriate environments. She also conducted similar work in Europe.

Dix also campaigned for other prison reforms, including the education and rehabilitation of criminals. She also devoted her time to women's rights and temperance causes. During the American Civil War (1861–65), Dix became a nursing supervisor for the U.S. Army. She recruited nurses and organized medical supplies. Despite occasional ill health, she spent many more years attempting to improve the lives of the mentally ill. She retired in 1881 and went to live on the grounds of the New Jersey state mental hospital she had helped establish decades earlier. Dix died in 1887. At that time, 123 mental hospitals existed in the United States, nearly ten times the number that existed before Dix's crusade began.

Post-war reforms

In the decades following the American Civil War (1861–65), prison reformers began approaching their task from a different angle. They believed that the problems of society, particularly the rise in poverty and crime, should be looked at scientifically and should be corrected by professional reformers rather than by well-intentioned volunteers. A significant organization during that era was the New York Prison Association (NYPA), formed in 1844. The NYPA emphasized reform and examined causes of crime, including poverty, alcohol abuse, and family background. In addition, the NYPA focused on helping prisoners adjust to life on the outside after their release. The work of the NYPA led to later parole systems, which allowed prisoners to be released before the end of their sentences in certain situations.

Enoch C. Wines (1806–1879), a prominent reformer of that time, became secretary of the NYPA in 1862. He and fellow reformer Theodore Dwight (1822–1892) conducted a thorough inspection of prisons in New York and elsewhere. Their work resulted in the 1867 publication of the Report on the Prisons and Reformatories of the United States and Canada. Wines and Dwight concluded that conditions in most prisons were terrible and the methods of punishing criminals were, for the most part, ineffective. Their report sparked a renewed interest in prison reform, particularly in improving prison administration. Most prisons were run locally at the time, and the system was inefficient and often corrupt. Wines recommended that prisons fall under state control and be run by professionals in the field, changes that took place gradually in the years following.

Wines believed that most criminals could be reformed, in large part, through hard work but also with the aid of religion and education. He advocated a system in which inmates were rewarded for their good behavior and could be released once they were reformed. This theory ultimately led to the practice of releasing inmates early on parole and giving convicts an indeterminate sentence. Such a sentence might specify a range of time to be spent in prison, such as three to five years. It allows the option of being released at the early end of the range if a group of experts deems the prisoner has been rehabilitated. Wines and other reformers shared their opinions at the National Prison Congress, a major reformers' convention, in 1870.

Many of Wines's ideas were echoed by another important reformer of that era, Zebulon Brockway (1827–1920). Brockway believed strongly that the only goal in punishing criminals should be making society safer. He also thought that convicts should be kept in prison until they could demonstrate that they had been reformed. He advocated a system of classification that would treat each prisoner as an individual, examining that person's age, sex, background, criminal history, and other factors. Brockway put his theories to the test as the superintendent of the newly built Elmira Reformatory in Elmira, New York.

At Elmira, Brockway assigned each prisoner a grade classification. Through work, education, and cooperation, inmates could move up to a higher grade and ultimately secure their release. Brockway established an extensive education system for the inmates, bringing in teachers and guest lecturers from the outside. He also built an indoor gym and organized numerous sports. He considered such activities to be an important part of rebuilding character. The practices of the Elmira Reformatory marked a significant departure from the earlier methods of such prisons as Auburn and the Eastern State Penitentiary, with their strict codes of silence and emphasis on treating all inmates alike.

The Progressive Era

From the close of the 1800s through the first decades of the 1900s, the United States underwent a period of widespread social reform known as the Progressive Era. Reformers addressed numerous aspects of American life. They worked to expand democracy by giving women the right to vote, attempting to help the poor, and making public education better and more accessible. Many significant reform movements of the era came about because of the rapid changes in the United States during the late 1800s. Millions of new immigrants had arrived on U.S. shores, most of whom settled in urban areas and struggled to find homes and jobs. The increasing industrialization in American cities, with plants and factories dotting the landscape, particularly in the Northeast, also attracted new city dwellers looking for work. As urban populations swelled, so did the number of poor and so did crime rates.

Advances in the fields of medicine and psychiatry led to new conclusions about crime and criminals. Many reformers believed that people committed crimes in large part because of their environment or their mental health, rather than because they had simply chosen to break the law. More than ever before, prison administrators focused on the reasons inmates had committed crimes. They used their analysis of each individual to determine that person's treatment in prison. This changing attitude toward crime heavily influenced the modern prison system, as explained by Sullivan in The Prison Reform Movement. "The history of twentieth-century prison reform is the history of the application of, support for, and reactions to Progressive efforts at controlling human behavior."

Progressive innovations

Among the most significant innovations of that period were probation, parole, and sentencing changes. Probation is the concept of trying to rehabilitate a convicted criminal without sending that person to jail. It became widespread during the first decade of the twentieth century. A person sentenced to probation underwent counseling and was supervised by a probation officer. Progressive era reformers believed that trying to rehabilitate a person who was imprisoned was impossible. The very fact of being in prison interfered substantially with the prisoner's ability to adapt to law-abiding society.

Although the reasoning behind probation was sound, the implementation of such programs proved flawed, in large part because of funding issues. Usually, the cost of imprisonment rested with the state government, while the cost of probation programs was the responsibility of city governments. Probation saved state governments a great deal of money while placing a financial burden on local governments. In many localities, probation programs were poorly funded, resulting in too few, and often underqualified, probation officers. Another issue with probation was that judges were more likely to offer probation to young, middle-class, or well-groomed offenders.

In addition to probation, the practices of parole and indeterminate sentencing also became widespread in the early 1900s. Implementing the notion that prisoners should stay in prison only for the amount of time it takes them to be reformed, many states created laws allowing for prisoners to reduce their sentences through good behavior. Rather than a sentence of a fixed number of months or years, convicts received indeterminate sentences that covered a range of time. After their release, they would remain under close supervision for some time. Upon serving the minimum amount of time prescribed by the sentence, a prisoner could bring his or her case before a parole board, which would examine the prisoner's behavior in prison, criminal past, and current attitude. Parole would be granted for model prisoners who could demonstrate that they had been reformed.

Like probation, the parole system was flawed from the beginning. Parole boards were often made up of people with little expertise in analyzing inmates' prison records and psychological profiles. In addition, they frequently had so many cases to review that they could not spend enough time reviewing each case. The parole officers charged with supervising released prisoners were also usually overwhelmed and unqualified. They often could not devote the necessary time to each parolee. Many members of the general public opposed parole, believing that criminals were returned to society too soon under this system. However, it turned out that a number of prisoners spent more time behind bars under indeterminate sentencing than they would have under the old system. In addition, prisoners released on parole were far from free. Even after leaving the confines of prison life, they still had to live for a set period of time according to rules laid out by the parole board.

Chain Gangs

Reformers increasingly objected to prison labor in general during the early decades of the 1900s, and one type of convict labor became the subject of particularly harsh criticism. Beginning in the late 1800s, many prisons in the American South had initiated a form of convict labor known as chain gangs. This method—depicted in a number of films, television programs, and songs—involved a group of prisoners chained together and forced to perform difficult manual labor.

Men in a chain gang worked at gunpoint and were subject to beatings by the prison guards assigned to watch them. These crews of prisoners often worked in road construction or other projects highly visible to the public, adding an element of humiliation to their labor. Many southern prison officials believed that chain gangs were essential because the practice punished prisoners through hard labor; made the inmates suffer the indignity of being shackled in public; showed onlookers the heavy price to be paid for committing crimes; and provided the prison with extra income.

Reformers objected to chain gangs for the very reasons that prison officials supported them. Many critics complained that forcing prisoners to be chained together while working long days under the blazing sun constituted cruel and inhumane punishment. Making convicts endure these conditions in full view of onlookers only added to the cruelty. In addition, the fact that prisons benefited financially from their prisoners' forced labor led critics to compare the practice to slavery. This accusation was especially meaningful because the vast majority of chain-gang prisoners were African American. Throughout the first half of the 1900s, reformers repeatedly attempted to outlaw chain gangs and other forms of forced prison labor. By mid-century, prisons had discontinued the use of chain gangs and had been required to abandon many other types of mandatory prison labor as well.

During the mid-1990s, in the midst of a period of tougher sentencing laws and harsher treatment of prisoners, a few states—namely Alabama, Arizona, and Florida—reinstated the practice of chain gangs. This sparked numerous protests and lawsuits. The human rights organization Amnesty International believed that the use of chain gangs violated international standards for the treatment of prisoners. A number of reformers have argued that chain gangs are a form of cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit organization located in Montgomery, Alabama, successfully sued the state of Alabama in 1996 to eliminate chain gangs in that state, though the practice continued elsewhere.

Another significant reform of the Progressive Era involved phasing out prison labor. Throughout the 1800s, most states had advocated the use of prison labor for several reasons. First, it reduced operating expenses and in some cases allowed prisons to earn a profit. Second, it kept prisoners busy and productive, considered crucial to their rehabilitation. Third, it provided local businesses with inexpensive labor. Prison labor was strongly opposed by free working people, however, because products made by prisoners could be sold for far less than those made by people who were actually paid for their work.

As the 1800s progressed, increasing numbers of reformers also objected to prison labor. They compared it to slavery and said that the system allowed for the abuse of prisoners for the sake of increasing profits. Reformers believed it was healthy for prisoners to work, but they objected to the prisons profiting from inmate labor or using labor as a punishment.

Beginning in the late 1800s, some states passed laws restricting prison labor. Opposition to this practice grew during the early 1900s. By 1940 every state had passed laws preventing items made by prisoners from being sold on the open market. The end of this type of prison labor resulted in new problems, however. Prison costs, no longer offset by the sale of convict-produced goods, increased dramatically. Also, prisoners who had formerly worked were now left with little to fill their days.

Some prisons adopted a compromise known as the state-use system, which was still in place in the early twenty-first century. Under the state-use system, prisoners worked to produce items for use by the government, including license plates, government publications, and office furniture. When prison labor was outlawed, many prisons focused their efforts on job training, teaching prisoners a trade that could be useful upon their release. Such programs turned out to be difficult and costly to run, however, and were implemented with varying degrees of success.

During the Progressive Era, further progress was made in the classification and separation of different types of prisoners. In 1931 the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement made major recommendations concerning how inmates should be categorized. The commission suggested one type of confinement for drug addicts, for example, and another type (hospitalization) for the mentally ill. The commission further advised the use of minimum-security prisons for those convicted of minor crimes and the separation of serious offenders from those considered open to rehabilitation. The classification of prisoners was not a new concept. But during the early 1900s, it gained greater acceptance and was implemented broadly.

Riots and responses in the mid-twentieth century

As reformers debated the best methods of rehabilitation and prison officials experimented with new policies, prison populations grew steadily, particularly after World War II (1939–45). The construction of new prisons was extremely expensive. Many states chose simply to add new prisoners to the existing structures. This resulted in overcrowding. Inmates became increasingly angry over the miserable conditions in prisons.

The 1950s saw numerous riots and other violent encounters erupt throughout the country. A pair of riots at New Jersey's Trenton Prison in the spring of 1952 touched off a series of major conflicts. The prisoners took guards hostage in many cases and destroyed prison property. In cases where inmates successfully took hold of part or all of a prison, the convicts issued demands. They asked for improved facilities, better access to counseling or medical care, an end to the brutality of prison guards, and the ability to have a voice in the policies of the prison.

Commissions examined the causes of the prison violence and made recommendations similar to proposals of the past. They suggested better training for guards; separation of different types of prisoners; access to education, job training, and religious worship; and smaller prison populations. Many reformers acknowledged that the major obstacle to the rehabilitation of prisoners was prison culture. Every prison had an unofficial hierarchy, or social structure, to which every inmate had to adapt in order to survive. The skills that helped an inmate stay alive in prison were the opposite of those considered necessary for rehabilitation. In other words, a prisoner who wanted to live life under the values and practices of free, civilized society could easily become a target for persecution within the prison culture.

The prison riots of the early 1950s gained the notice of the media as well as reformers. Many states took steps to improve prison conditions, building new facilities and upgrading existing ones. Prison officials placed renewed emphasis on treating prisoners and preparing them for release into society. This principle was known as the treatment model and also referred to as "correction." As the prison system changed, the American Prison Association, a national organization, modified its name and became the American Correctional Association. During the 1950s the concept of separating types of prisoners gained widespread approval, as did the treatment of certain types of prisoners with individual and group therapy. Advocates of the treatment model approached criminals as though they were sick or damaged. They believed that the right kind of therapy and psychological analysis would cure and reform such inmates.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, prison reformers also experimented with various methods of helping inmates adjust to life outside prison. The Prison Rehabilitation Act of 1965 enabled prisons to implement a variety of programs to serve that function. Some prisons allowed certain inmates, those who were not considered dangerous, for example, to work or attend school outside the prison. Such programs were known as work release or education release. In some areas, low-risk prisoners could reside at "honor camps." Security was minimal at such camps. Prisoners there worked on a farm, or as part of a road-repair crew, or in some other capacity. Participation was limited to a select group of inmates who had committed minor crimes and demonstrated good behavior.

Some states established halfway houses, group homes where released prisoners could live temporarily as they made the adjustment to freedom. And some states allowed well-behaved inmates brief furloughs, giving them a few days of freedom before they had to return to prison. Although each of these methods had positive aspects, there were numerous cases where the freedom granted to prisoners backfired, with negative consequences either for the prisoner or for the community. Furloughed prisoners, for example, sometimes fell back into old habits and committed crimes while on leave. Such cases attracted considerable negative attention from the press, threatening the existence of such programs.

Prison Categories

In the modern U.S. prison system, inmates are classified according to a number of criteria. These include the severity of the crime, the length of the sentence, and for some, the crimes they were convicted of previously as well as their past behavior in prison. Inmates are sent to a particular type of facility based on their classification. Minor offenders go to minimum-security institutions and violent criminals go to high-security prisons. The higher the security level, the more the inmates' lives are controlled and supervised. Although some facilities accommodate multiple levels of offenders, many provide just one level of security and deal with one classification of prisoner.

Minimum-security prisons house inmates that are considered low-risk: first-time offenders and those who have committed nonviolent crimes. Some inmates are transferred to minimum-security prisons for the final segment of their sentences after serving time peaceably in higher-security facilities. Groups of inmates usually sleep on bunk beds in large dormitory-like rooms with an adjacent toilet and shower area. Sometimes sleeping areas are divided by partitions into cubicles, with a few inmates in each cubicle. Such prisons are often surrounded by a single fence that is not routinely patrolled. In remote areas, minimum-security prisons might not have any fences. Many of the inmates at such institutions are allowed to leave the grounds for work, and some participate in programs that allow them to leave the prison temporarily to ease the transition from imprisonment to release. The federal prison system also includes the category of low-security prison, which is similar to a minimum-security facility but with a higher number of guards and closer scrutiny of inmates.

In medium-security prisons, inmates range from minor offenders with repeat convictions to violent criminals. Many such facilities house prisoners in smaller shared cells, though some make use of dormitory-style rooms with multiple bunk beds. Medium-security prisons are generally surrounded by two fences, which are constantly patrolled by armed guards. A small percentage of inmates at medium-security prisons can participate in work or education programs that allow them to leave the grounds, but most stay within the prison buildings. Visiting privileges and communications with the outside world are limited and closely supervised.

Maximum-security prisons house dangerous, violent criminals who are serving lengthy sentences. Security is very tight, with guards monitoring every inmate with surveillance cameras at all times. Inmates live in small cells, usually shared with one or two other prisoners. The cells may contain only a bunk bed, a toilet and sink, a bolted-down desk and stool, and a locker for personal belongings. In some facilities, prisoners are allowed out of their cells to work for several hours each day. However, they are subject to frequent lockdowns, nearly round-the-clock cell confinement, when incidents of violence break out.

A small percentage of prisoners are given super-maximum security status. Such prisoners include those who have committed horrendous crimes, started riots, or displayed uncommon brutality toward other prisoners. Super-max, or maxi-maxi, facilities can exist as a wing of a maximum-security prison or, in a few cases, as a stand-alone institution. In such prisons, inmates spend nearly every minute in their cells. They are allowed out for about one hour each day to shower and exercise in a small recreation pen. Prisoners must be shackled at the hands and feet anytime they leave their cells. Because prisoners in such facilities are considered a threat to guards, other inmates, and society, contact with each other is extremely limited. The doors to the cells are made of thick steel, preventing each inmate from seeing or hearing others. The cell might contain a window, placed high on the wall. Prison officials severely limit prisoners' access to reading materials. Visitation is either forbidden or extremely limited.

More strife behind bars

By the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, racial tensions grew in society. The same was true in the prison environment. Just as African Americans on the outside protested racial inequalities as part of the civil rights movement, African American inmates also became political activists. The Nation of Islam (NOI), an organization of black Muslims that believed in separation from white society, became a strong force in prisons. The NOI gave its members a strong sense of racial pride while at the same time giving voice to the resentment many African Americans felt toward white people.

The civil rights movement, the NOI, and such radical organizations as the Black Panthers heavily influenced the attitudes of black prisoners. Many became activists behind bars, demanding better treatment and more rights. In a dramatic change in the criminal justice system, more and more cases brought by prisoners, black and white, were heard in federal courts. Many were decided in the convicts' favor. Prisoners' lawyers cited the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment," when arguing for an end to physical punishments and squalid living conditions.

Although some inmates were successful in court, relations between prisoners and guards and between black and white inmates grew increasingly tense. The new levels of political activism within prisons raised inmates' expectations of what could be accomplished. This led to bitter disappointment when their hopes failed to become reality. In addition, legal victories for the inmates led to a shift in the power balance between prisoners and guards. The guards had less authority to use whatever means they deemed necessary to maintain control in their institutions. The inmates took their cue from the activism on the outside, which included civil rights protests as well as demonstrations against the Vietnam War (1954–75). Prisoners began staging rebellions of their own.

Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing over the next several years, major riots broke out at prisons all over the country. Racial strife often played a major role. In 1967, at California's San Quentin State Prison, a protest against the treatment of black prisoners by white guards turned into a full-blown race riot. The incident started with acts of protest, including the signing of petitions and a call for black prisoners to strike, or refuse to do their jobs. Fights broke out among the prisoners. During one such fight, a white prisoner was killed. Tensions mounted and the conflict soon developed into a riot between white and black prisoners, with guards doing little to end the battles. The inmates eventually realized that fighting amongst themselves accomplished nothing, so they joined forces against the prison guards and administrators.

In addition to dozens of riots during this period, numerous politically aware prisoners conducted major strikes. They made demands that administrators improve living conditions, end the brutal treatment of prisoners by the guards, and give prisoners greater control over decisions affecting them. In 1968 the inmates of San Quentin presented a united front as they conducted a general strike. Vast numbers of prisoners of all races declined to perform any jobs within the prison. In November 1970, inmates at California's Folsom State Prison conducted a strike as well. They refused to work in the kitchen or anywhere else. They stayed in their cells for nineteen days. Threatened with violence, they finally left their cells and returned to work.

In September 1971, an uprising took place at New York's Attica Correctional Institution. The riot was one of the most devastating conflicts in the history of the modern prison system. A multiracial group of prisoners had issued a set of demands, including a restructuring of the parole system, which many prisoners felt was widely abused by officials. Initial willingness on both sides to negotiate soon broke down. On September 9, a group of prisoners seized the interior of the prison and held dozens of guards and other prison employees as hostages. Over the next several days, tensions mounted as negotiations were attempted and failed.

The inmates became increasingly volatile. After a guard who had been beaten died from his injuries, police and government officials became more determined than ever to end the standoff. On September 13, hundreds of state troopers and national guardsmen stormed the prison. They fired their weapons into the crowds of convicts, ending the uprising but killing dozens of prisoners and several hostages in the process. Initially, officials claimed that many of the deceased had died at the hands of the prisoners, though such reports were later shown to be false. In the days and weeks following the incident at Attica, the prison guards took brutal revenge on the inmates, beating, intimidating, and torturing them.

A changing approach

In the aftermath of the turbulent early 1970s, many prison reformers and corrections experts began viewing the prison system in a new light. Media coverage of the riots had exposed to the nation the explosive tension among inmates and the miserable conditions in most prisons. Ongoing attempts to improve prison life and ready inmates for the outside world seemed to have been unsuccessful. Some reformers believed that a widespread prejudice against minorities and the poor resulted in unfair punishments for criminals. They pointed out the disproportionate number of such inmates in prisons. Such theories suggested that it was society that needed to be radically reformed rather than the convicts themselves.

Other reformers had found that an alarming number of ex-convicts committed additional crimes after their release. This type of behavior is known as recidivism. These reformers declared that therapy and other rehabilitative measures had largely failed. By the end of the 1970s, many reformers and prison experts had abandoned the idea of prison as a tool for rehabilitating prisoners. As a result, prison officials returned to an earlier way of viewing prison. They regarded it as simply a means of punishing criminals and seeking retribution for the crimes they have committed. The general public, angry with rising crime rates and increasing violence within prisons, demanded stricter penalties for criminals.

Many historians note that the nation's changing attitudes toward criminal justice was a response to the social turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The protests against the Vietnam War, the race riots that devastated many American cities, and the general attitude of rebellion among the nation's youth contributed to a sense of chaos felt by many citizens. Government leaders, particularly U.S. President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74), spoke of the need to crack down on crime as a means of regaining control. As part of his campaign to get tough on crime, Nixon began waging a "war on drugs." He said that the sale and use of illegal drugs was really hurting the country and had to be crushed. New laws called for harsher penalties for crime in general and drug convictions in particular.

One of the most significant changes in the criminal justice system at that time was phasing out indeterminate sentencing laws. Beginning in the mid-1970s, many states began changing their policies so that prisoners were given what is known as a determinate sentence, a defined period of time to be imprisoned rather than a range of months or years. Most determinate sentencing laws still allowed for the sentence to be shortened as a reward for good behavior. However, early release would be calculated using a system that was considered to be more objective than the parole board system. The change to determinate sentencing was supported by prisoners' rights groups and by those calling for stricter punishments for criminals. Prisoners complained that indeterminate sentences were unfair. They claimed such sentences forced them to put their fates at the mercy of a group of people who arbitrarily decided how well they had been rehabilitated and when they could be released. Conservative citizens' groups opposed indeterminate sentences because of concerns that too many prisoners were being released too early.

The tougher stance on crime that took shape during the late 1970s and early 1980s led to more people being imprisoned as well as inmates staying in prison for longer periods. Many new facilities were built, but not enough to house all the inmates adequately. Overcrowding rapidly became a significant problem in the nation's prison system. From early 1980 until the end of the 1990s, the number of state and federal prisoners quadrupled, from about 320,000 in 1980 to more than 1.3 million in 1999. A significant number of inmates were imprisoned because U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) renewed calls for a war on drugs. This resulted in tougher sentences for drug offenses.

Overcrowding led to or added to other problems in prisons, including unsanitary living conditions, unsafe and low-quality food, overtaxed plumbing systems, and insufficient medical care and psychological counseling. Diseases tended to spread rapidly among inmates. For example, the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic that emerged during the 1980s hit prison populations especially hard. In the state of New York, more than half of all prisoner deaths in the latter half of the 1980s were linked to AIDS.

Overcrowding also contributed to increased tension among inmates. Violence among prisoners, including sexual assaults, occurred at alarming rates. Major riots continued throughout the 1980s, with one of the most brutal taking place at the start of the decade. In February 1980 inmates gained control of the New Mexico State Penitentiary, taking a few guards hostage and torturing them. The worst of their fury, however, was unleashed on fellow inmates. More than thirty convicts were brutally murdered. Dozens more were beaten and tortured. The rioting inmates also caused massive physical damage to the prison. Fueled by drugs stolen from the prison hospital, the inmates expressed extraordinary rage over the miserable conditions of prison life and the very fact of being confined in a cell.

Several states, with the encouragement of the U.S. government, turned to private companies to try to solve some of their prison problems. They contracted out services such as health care, education and training, and counseling. In some places, the operation of an entire prison system was handed over to private companies rather than the state government. This practice, called privatization, has been a controversial issue. Many prison reformers and prisoners' rights groups have expressed concern that private companies, which are driven by the need to make a profit, compromise the well-being of prisoners. For example, such companies might make decisions that save them money at the expense of decent treatment for the inmates. In addition, many observers have pointed out that a for-profit company running a prison system has an interest in getting and keeping inmates. For this reason, private prison companies offer substantial financial contributions to politicians who favor strict crime laws.

New century, same old problems

As the twentieth century ended and the twenty-first century began, the same problems that had plagued the prison system for generations continued to spark debate among politicians and reformers. Overcrowding has remained a significant problem in prisons across the United States. Calls for tougher punishments for criminals led to mandatory sentencing laws during the 1990s. Such laws gave judges almost no flexibility in determining sentences. Under these laws, even petty criminals—for example, a first-time offender convicted of possessing a small amount of an illegal drug—are given mandatory prison sentences that have been determined by lawmakers rather than judges. Prior to such sentencing rules, small offenders might have been sentenced to probation and drug treatment rather than prison time. Mandatory sentences, while popular with those demanding harsher penalties for crimes, made prison populations swell even more.

As a response to the high rate of repeat offenses committed by prisoners after their release, many states began passing a type of mandatory sentencing legislation known as "three-strikes laws" during the 1990s. These laws, which take their name from the "three strikes and you're out" rule of baseball, aimed to put a stop to offenders who have been convicted multiple times of committing a felony. Felonies are serious crimes, such as armed robbery, the selling of illegal drugs, or murder. Three-strikes laws ruled that offenders who had been previously convicted of two serious or violent felonies would be given a life sentence upon conviction of a third such crime.

A life sentence does not necessarily mean the convict will spend the rest of his or her life in prison. However, it does ensure a very lengthy stay. Although many people support three-strikes laws, others have lobbied to modify or overturn such laws. They believe that these laws are too severe and should apply only to violent offenders. Some reformers suggest that three-strikes laws do not discourage offenders from committing additional crimes. Instead, these laws can actually lead to an increase in the murder rate. Studies have shown a rise in homicides in states with three-strikes laws. Various crime experts think that two-time offenders, when committing their third felony, may go to violent lengths to ensure that no witnesses to their crime survive. For example, an ex-convict committing an armed robbery might choose to kill a witness, knowing that if he or she is caught for the robbery, it will mean a life sentence under the three-strikes law.

Many advocates of a tough-on-crime approach point to stricter sentencing laws as the reason for reductions in violent crime rates in many cities during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Others believe, however, that locking up more offenders for a broader range of crimes for longer periods only leads to an overcrowded and mismanaged prison system. They suggest that other factors, such as effective policing and a healthy economy, deserve more credit for reducing crime rates.

Many reformers point out that, even as crime rates have fallen or remained steady, the reporting of violent crimes on television news has increased dramatically. Vince Beiser of Mother Jones magazine explained: "From 1990 to 1998, homicide rates dropped by half nationwide, but homicide stories on the three major networks rose almost fourfold." Such intense media coverage promotes the perception of widespread violent crime among the general public. As a consequence, politicians, both liberal and conservative, feel compelled to address the nation's fears and advocate tougher sentences and the construction of new prisons.

Aside from the issues of who should be sent to prison and for how long, the question of how prisoners should be treated behind bars continues to be the subject of much debate. Many politicians, seeking the support of voters worried about crime rates, promote a tough stance toward criminals. They contend that prison is for punishment and should be an unpleasant experience. Some citizens perceive that many prisoners lead a privileged life. They object to reports of prisoners having access to cable television, exercise equipment, and job training.

Many reformers argue, however, that numerous prisons are overly punitive. They suggest that a significant number of prisoners live in substandard conditions, have little or no privacy or freedom of movement, and suffer brutality and intimidation from other inmates or guards. Some prison reformers contend that placing criminals in harshly punitive environments only makes matter worse. In fact, they note that such conditions can transform minor offenders into hardened criminals. As stated in Prisons, some observers fear "that tougher prisons may be turning violent offenders into angrier, less stable individuals."

The issue of prison labor continues to plague corrections officials and prison reformers. Most experts believe prisoners should do some type of work. It helps to diminish boredom and restlessness, to help them feel productive, and, ideally, to give them job skills that will be useful after their release. In many states, private companies contract with prisons for manufacturing or service jobs, paying wages to the convicts and a fee to the prison. In this way, the costs of running the prison are offset, and the prisoners earn some money to help them start over after they get out of prison. Some of their wages are used to pay child support, taxes, or, in some cases, to repay their victims.

Many prisoners' rights advocates believe that prison labor exploits, or takes advantage of, the convicts. They protest the low pay that prisoners receive after the various deductions. Sometimes the pay amounts to a couple of dollars an hour. Such activists also object to the companies paying relatively low wages because inmates do not get the benefits that many non-prison employees receive, including vacation time, health insurance, and retirement benefits. Prisoner advocates also point out that many of the jobs that prisoners are given require few skills and thus do not adequately prepare convicts to make a living outside of prison.

Although prison issues directly affect only the small percentage of American citizens who are incarcerated, the conditions of the prison system have broader implications for the United States. The construction and administration of prisons in the twenty-first century cost the government and taxpayers tens of billions of dollars annually. The amount spent on prisons by most states rises each year, while in numerous states the amount spent on education has declined. In addition, strict penalties for crimes affect more than just those convicted. Such punishments impact the family members left behind who struggle emotionally and financially in the prisoner's absence. A failure to reduce crime rates effectively, including the crimes committed by those who have already been in prison and have not been rehabilitated, also affects the larger society.

One of the most significant issues addressed by prison reformers in the early twenty-first century is the racial disparity among inmates. Minority communities, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, have been especially hard-hit by high crime rates and stiff sentencing laws. The number of black and Hispanic men in prison is disproportionately higher than their numbers in the general population. Many experts attribute this fact to racially biased sentencing laws for drug-related crimes as well as high rates of poverty and joblessness in minority neighborhoods.

In a report conducted by Human Rights Watch, this situation was discussed. The authors concluded that: "The racially disproportionate nature of the war on drugs is not just devastating to black Americans. It contradicts faith in the principles of justice and equal protection of the laws that should be the bedrock of any constitutional democracy; it exposes and deepens the racial fault lines that continue to weaken the country and belies its promise as a land of equal opportunity; and it undermines faith among all races in the fairness and [effectiveness] of the criminal justice system."

Throughout history, reformers have been in widespread agreement that U.S. prisons are flawed. The tension between the goals of punishing prisoners and also rehabilitating them has proven nearly impossible to resolve, though numerous generations of reformers and corrections officials have tried. Future generations will continue the debate, applying ideas old and new in an effort to devise a system of effective yet humane penalties for criminals.

For More Information


Haley, James, ed. Prisons. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005.

Liston, Robert A. The Edge of Madness: Prisons and Prison Reform in America. New York: Franklin Watts, 1972.

Sullivan, Larry E. The Prison Reform Movement: Forlorn Hope. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.


"Austin v. James: Chain Gang & Hitching Post Case." Southern Poverty Law Center. (accessed on June 9, 2006).

Beiser, Vince. "How We Got to Two Million: How Did the Land of the Free Become the World's Leading Jailer" (July 10, 2001). (accessed on May 19, 2006).

Browne, Julie. "The Labor of Doing Time." Prison Activist Resource Center. (accessed on June 9, 2006).

Federal Bureau of Prisons. (accessed on May 19, 2006).

Marano, Lou. "Study: 3-Strikes Laws Increase Homicides." United Press International. (accessed on March 14, 2006).

McHugh, Eileen. "Both Sides of the Wall: Auburn Prison." New York Correction History Society. on May 19, 2006).

"Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs." Human Rights Watch. (accessed on May 19, 2006).

"United States of America: Florida Reintroduces Chain Gangs" (January 1996). Amnesty International. (accessed on June 9, 2006).

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The Prison Reform Movement