What Is Happening to the Prisons?
THROUGHOUT history it has been the recognized right of societies to punish crime. Today, the way nearly all countries deal with persons who commit serious crimes is to confine them to prisons. Some stay there for the rest of their lives.
How many people see the inside of a prison in this way each year? In the United States alone about 2,500,000 do. On any given day, some 1,250,000 are awaiting trial or are serving sentences in prisons, reformatories, work camps and clinics, or are under parole or probationary care. They are cared for by about 120,000 persons. At what cost to the taxpayer? About one thousand million dollars annually.
In recent years, prisons in many lands have been brought to the public’s attention by large-scale rioting and bloodshed. This is particularly true in the United States, where prisons face a crisis. In September of 1971 that crisis exploded in the bloodiest prison clash of this century.
The scene was the Attica State Correctional Facility in New York, where 1,200 rebelling inmates held captive 38 guards and employees. After four days, more than 1,000 state troopers and national guardsmen stormed the prison. The shooting that followed left this final toll: 32 prisoners and 10 hostage guards and employees killed, over 200 inmates injured. Nine of the hostages were killed unintentionally by the bullets of the invading law officers.
Since prisons in many places are in trouble, it is timely to ask the following questions: How did modern prisons originate? Are they accomplishing what they were designed to do? Does prison life help to reform criminals? What about the victims of crimes—who compensates them? Is there a better way to handle crimes against society? Will there ever be a time when prisons will no longer be needed?
How Did They Originate?
It may surprise you to know that prisons, as they exist today, are of relatively recent origin. In ancient times there were very few prisons. Before the 1700’s people were not usually imprisoned as a punishment for crime. It was only the special offender that was punished in a prison, perhaps by being shackled there, or forced to work at hard labor in confinement, or brutalized in other ways while in custody.
In earlier times, prisons generally were merely places of detention to house people who had been accused of a crime but who had not yet been tried. After their trial, they were sentenced to a punishment if found guilty. But, with few exceptions, that punishment was not a prison sentence. They were either executed, usually by beheading or hanging, or they were given corporal punishment, that is, physical punishment, which could include flogging, branding or maiming, and then they were set free.
Some criminals were punished by being put in stocks, which consisted of a wooden framework with holes for the ankles and sometimes the wrists. In this way, seated, the guilty party would be exposed to public ridicule for a period of time, and then released. The pillory was similar, being a wooden framework erected on a post, with holes for the head and hands of the offender, who would be in a standing position. It, too, was used to expose him to public ridicule for a brief period, after which he was released. At times criminals were sentenced to be slaves, often in galleys. These were ships that were propelled by banks of oars. The offender, usually chained, would have to serve a period at the oar.
In the United States and England during the early 1700’s, capital punishment (the death penalty) was used for over two hundred separate offenses. For lesser crimes the offenders were given corporal punishment, such as flogging, mutilation or being put in stocks. But they were then released. Very few served what is today known as a jail sentence.
In ancient Israel, the law given by God through Moses had no provision at all for prisons. The only time persons were detained temporarily was when a case was particularly difficult and had to await clarification. (Lev. 24:12; Num. 15:34) But no one ever served a jail sentence in the early history of ancient Israel.
These early methods of handling criminals meant that very little public money was spent on offenders. There were few jails or guards to maintain.
Concept of Punishment Changes
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reform movements began to change the method of treating law violators. These reforms gradually did away with the death penalty for many crimes. In recent years, many countries have abandoned the death penalty altogether. Also, physical punishment was gradually done away with. Instead, prison sentences became substitutes for the death penalty and corporal punishment.
This meant that prisons would now have to hold many people, some for long periods of time. Thus, large numbers of prisons had to be constructed to hold these offenders. Some prisons built in the United States were called “penitentiaries,” because it was thought that in them the criminal would be penitent. It was hoped that he would take time to meditate on his crime and be sorry, so that he would not want to commit another crime after being released.
However, these early prisons were often chambers of horror. At first, both the convicted and those awaiting trial (including the innocent), men and women, old and young, well and sick, first offenders and hardened criminals, were thrown together. The prisons were usually vermin infested, filthy and overcrowded. They quickly became centers of physical and moral degradation. Of a typical prison in England, The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1759 said:
“It is become a seminary of wickedness in all its branches. The idle apprentice, as soon as he is committed to the house of correction, becomes the associate of highwaymen, housebreakers, pickpockets and strolling prostitutes, the witness of the most horrid impiety and the most abandoned lewdness, and generally leaves whatever good quality he brought in, together with his health, behind him.”
In 1834, an official traveled to Norfolk Island, a penal colony located some nine hundred miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. He was sent there to console some men who were about to be executed. Of his experience he wrote:
“It is a remarkable fact that as I mentioned the names of the men who were to die, they one after the other, as their names were pronounced, dropped on their knees and thanked God that they were to be delivered from that horrible place [by being executed] while the others, those to be reprieved [not executed], stood mute and weeping. It was the most horrible scene I ever witnessed.”
As late as this twentieth century, prison conditions were often abominable even in the United States. After one prison inspection in the early 1920’s, an official was so horrified at the treatment of prisoners that he declared: “We were dealing with atrocities.”
So instead of places of detention before trial, for most of the last several centuries prisons increasingly became places of punishment. The confinement, the conditions, the attitudes toward prisoners, were all a terrible ordeal. But most persons seemed to accept this as the better way to deter others from committing crimes, and also of deterring the one who had served a sentence from committing additional crimes. It was thought that he would surely not want to undergo that ordeal again. But little or no attempt was made to reform offenders so as to make them more useful members of society.
So at this stage of handling lawbreakers, prisons were considered a regrettable but necessary evil. When other persons decried the hardships suffered by prisoners, a frequent comment heard in reply was: “They should have taken care to keep out.”
Yet, under this concept, did prisons prove to be a better deterrent to crime? Were they superior to the previous methods of capital and corporal punishment?
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400,000 average—behind bars daily
Each prisoner costs $2,500 yearly
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Pillory (left); stocks (right)