We Need Prison Reform Now
Prison reform is the attempt to improve conditions inside prisons, establish a more effective penal system, or implement alternatives to incarceration.
Prisons have only been used as the primary punishment for criminal acts in the last few centuries. Far more common earlier were various types of corporal punishment, public humiliation, penal bondage, and banishment for more severe offenses, as well as capital punishment.
Prisons contained both felons and debtors – the latter were allowed to bring in wives and children. The jailer made his money by charging the inmates for food and drink and legal services and the whole system was ripe with corruption. One reform of the sixteenth century had been the establishment of the London Bridewell as a house of correction for women and children. This was the only place any medical services were provided.
In colonial America, punishments were severe. The Massachusetts assembly in 1736 ordered that a thief, on first conviction, be fined or whipped. The second time he was to pay treble damages, sit for an hour upon the gallows platform with a noose around his neck and then be carted to the whipping post for thirty stripes. For the third offense he was to be hanged. But the implementation was haphazard as there was no effective police system and judges wouldn’t convict if they believed the punishment was excessive. The local jails mainly held men awaiting trial or punishment and those in debt.
In the aftermath of independence most states amended their criminal punishment statutes. Pennsylvania eliminated the death penalty for robbery and burglary in 1786, and in 1794 retained it only for first degree murder. Other states followed and in all cases the answer to what alternative penalties should be imposed was incarceration. Pennsylvania turned its old jail at Walnut Street into a state prison. New York built Newgate state prison in Greenwich Village and other states followed. But by 1820 faith in the efficacy of legal reform had declined as statutory changes had no discernible effect on the level of crime and the prisons, where prisoners shared large rooms and booty including alcohol, had become riotous and prone to escapes.
In response, New York developed the Auburn system in which prisoners were confined in separate cells and prohibited from talking when eating and working together, implementing it at Auburn State Prison and Sing Sing at Ossining. The aim of this was rehabilitative: the reformers talked about the penitentiary serving as a model for the family and the school and almost all the states adopted the plan (though Pennsylvania went even further in separating prisoners). The system’s fame spread and visitors to the U.S. to see the prisons included de Tocqueville who wrote Democracy in America as a result of his visit.
However, by the 1860s, overcrowding became the rule of the day, partly because of the long sentences given for violent crimes, despite increasing severity inside the prison and often cruel methods of gagging and restraining prisoners. An increasing proportion of prisoners were new immigrants. As a result of a tour of prisons in 18 states, Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight produced a monumental report describing the flaws in the existing system and proposing remedies. Their critical finding was that not one of the state prisons in the United States was seeking the reformation of its inmates as a primary goal. They set out an agenda for reform which was endorsed by a National Congress in Cincinnati in 1870. These ideas were put into practice in the Elmira Reformatory in New York in 1876 run by Zebulon Brockway. At the core of the design was an educational program which included general subjects and vocational training for the less capable. Instead of fixed sentences, prisoners who did well could be released early.
But by the 1890s, Elmira had twice as many inmates as it was designed for and they were not only the first offenders between 16 and 31 for which the program was intended. Although it had a number of imitators in different states, it did little to halt the deterioration of the country’s prisons which carried on a dreary life of their own. In the southern states, in which blacks made up more than 75% of the inmates, there was ruthless exploitation in which the states leased prisoners as chain gangs to entrepreneurs who treated them worse than slaves. By the 1920s drug use in prisons was also becoming a problem.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, psychiatric interpretations of social deviance were gaining a central role in criminology and policy making. By 1926, 67 prisons employed psychiatrists and 45 had psychologists. The language of medicine was applied in an attempt to “cure” offenders of their criminality. In fact, little was known about the causes of their behaviour and prescriptions were not much different from the earlier reform methods. A system of probation was introduced, but often used simply as an alternative to suspended sentences, and the probation officers appointed had little training, and their caseloads numbered several hundred making assistance or surveillance practically impossible. At the same time they could revoke the probation status without going through another trial or other proper process.
In 1913, Thomas Mott Osborne became chairman of a commission for the reform of the New York prison system and introduced a Mutual Welfare League at Auburn with a committee of 49 prisoners appointed by secret ballot from the 1400 inmates. He also removed the striped dress uniform at Sing Sing and introduced recreation and movies. Progressive reform resulted in the “Big House” by the late twenties – prisons averaging 2,500 men with professional management designed to eliminate the abusive forms of corporal punishment and prison labor prevailing at the time.
The American prison system was shaken by a series of riots in the early 1950s triggered by deficiencies of prison facilities, lack of hygiene or medical care, poor food quality, and guard brutality. In the next decade all these demands were recognized as rights by the courts. In 1954, the American Prison Association changed its name to the American Correctional Association and the rehabilitative emphasis was formalized in the 1955 United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Since the 1960s the prison population in the US has risen steadily, even during periods where the crime rate has fallen. This is partly due to profound changes in sentencing practices due to a denunciation of lenient policies in the late sixties and early seventies and assertions that rehabilitative purposes don’t work. As a consequence sentencing commissions started to establish minimum as well as maximum sentencing guidelines, which have reduced the discretion of parole authorities and also reduced parole supervision of released prisoners. Another factor that contributed to the increase of incarcerations was the Reagan administration’s “War On Drugs” in the 1980s. This War increased money spent on lowering the number of illegal drugs in the United States. As a result, drug arrests increased and prisons became increasingly more crowded. By 2010, the United States had more prisoners than any other country and a greater percentage of its population was in prison than in any other country in the world. “Mass incarceration” became a serious social and economic problem, as each of the 2.3 million American prisoners costs an average of about $25,000 per year. Recidivism remained high, and useful programs were often cut during the recession of 2009-2010. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata upheld the release of thousands of California prisoners due to California’s inability to provide constitutionally mandated levels of healthcare.
In 2015 a bipartisan effort was launched by Koch family foundations, the ACLU, the Center for American Progress, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Coalition for Public Safety, and the MacArthur Foundation to more seriously address criminal justice reform in the United States. The Kochs and their partners, are combatting the systemic over-criminalization and over-incarceration of citizens from primarily low-income and minority communities. The group of reformers is working to reduce recidivism rates and diminish barriers faced by rehabilitated persons seeking new employment in the work force. In addition they have a goal in ending Asset forfeiture practices since law enforcement often deprives individuals of the majority of their private property.