Jail guard Amara Brown admits to DoorDash delivery for inmate
Guard Amara Brown at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center is charged with using DoorDash to deliver a meal to an inmate.
21 Jun 2023, Prisons, by
Discover the fascinating history of prisons and their development over time.
Prisons have been a part of human civilization for thousands of years, with evidence of their existence dating back to ancient times. However, the ways in which prisons have been used and developed have changed over time, reflecting shifts in societal attitudes towards crime and punishment. In this article, we will examine the history and evolution of prisons, from ancient times to modern-day facilities, exploring key developments, philosophies, and innovations along the way.
Prisons as we know them today have their roots in ancient civilizations, where incarceration was often used as a form of punishment for crimes such as theft, fraud, and murder. In ancient Rome, for example, the famous Colosseum was used not just for gladiator battles, but also for public executions and imprisonments.
However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the foundations of the modern prison system began to take shape, as governments began to explore new ways of dealing with criminals. Around this time, a number of key developments and innovations helped to shape the future of incarceration, including the emergence of penitentiaries, the creation of specialized prison staff, and a growing emphasis on rehabilitation rather than simply punishment.
One of the most significant developments in the history of incarceration was the introduction of the penitentiary system in the late 18th century. This system was based on the idea that prisoners could be reformed through isolation, hard labor, and religious instruction. The first penitentiary in the United States was built in Philadelphia in 1790, and similar institutions soon followed in other parts of the world.
Another important innovation in the modern prison system was the creation of specialized prison staff, such as wardens, guards, and social workers. These professionals were trained to manage the complex needs of prisoners, including their physical and mental health, education, and vocational training. Today, prisons employ a wide range of professionals, including psychologists, counselors, and medical staff, to help inmates prepare for life after incarceration.
Over the centuries, prisons have undergone significant changes in form and function. In the early days of incarceration, for example, prisons were often little more than holding cells for criminals awaiting trial or punishment, with little in the way of rehabilitation or reform. However, as societies became more sophisticated and ideas about criminal justice started to evolve, so too did the role of prisons.
One major turning point came in the late 18th century with the creation of the penitentiary, which sought to reform criminals through a combination of work, education, and self-reflection. This idea proved influential, leading to the development of other specialized prison staff such as chaplains, doctors, and psychologists, who could help to rehabilitate and support prisoners in various ways.
Another significant change in the evolution of prisons came in the 20th century with the rise of mass incarceration. This was largely driven by tough-on-crime policies and mandatory minimum sentences, which led to a dramatic increase in the number of people being sent to prison. However, this approach has been criticized for its high cost and low effectiveness in reducing crime rates.
In recent years, there has been a growing movement towards restorative justice, which seeks to repair harm caused by crime and address the underlying issues that lead to criminal behavior. This approach emphasizes community involvement, victim support, and offender accountability, and has been shown to be more effective in reducing recidivism and promoting rehabilitation.
As the 19th century dawned, the penitentiary model began to spread around the world, with countries such as the UK, France, and Russia all opening their own versions of these reform-focused prisons. One of the most famous examples was Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which opened its doors in 1829 and quickly became a model for future prison design.
Another major development during this time was the introduction of the “separate system,” where prisoners were kept apart from each other to prevent them from corrupting one another. This approach, which became increasingly popular throughout the 19th century, was intended to help prisoners focus on their own reform and rehabilitation, rather than on perpetrating further crimes.
However, the separate system was not without its critics. Some argued that it led to increased mental health problems among prisoners, as they were deprived of social interaction and human contact. Others pointed out that the cost of building and maintaining separate cells was prohibitively expensive, and that overcrowding remained a major problem in many prisons.
Despite these challenges, the penitentiary model continued to evolve throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. New approaches to prison design and management were developed, including the introduction of educational and vocational programs to help prisoners acquire new skills and prepare for life outside of prison. Today, the modern prison system remains a complex and controversial topic, with ongoing debates about the best ways to balance punishment, rehabilitation, and public safety.
As the penitentiary model gained traction and momentum, more and more countries around the world began to adopt it as their primary model of incarceration. By the 20th century, most developed countries had abandoned earlier models of punishment in favor of reform-focused incarceration, with penitentiaries and other specialized prisons cropping up everywhere from the US to Australia.
However, this transition was not without its challenges. Critics argued that the penitentiary model was too focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation, and that the system often failed to adequately address underlying issues such as poverty, addiction, and mental illness. In response, many countries began to explore alternative approaches to incarceration, such as community-based rehabilitation programs, restorative justice models, and more.
One alternative approach to incarceration that gained popularity in the late 20th century was the concept of “decarceration.” This movement sought to reduce the number of people in prison by diverting non-violent offenders to community-based programs and reducing sentences for certain crimes. Proponents of decarceration argued that the penitentiary model had become too punitive and that a more rehabilitative approach was needed to address the root causes of crime.
Another challenge to the dominance of the penitentiary model came from the growing awareness of the disproportionate impact of incarceration on marginalized communities. Activists and scholars pointed out that people of color, low-income individuals, and other marginalized groups were more likely to be incarcerated and face harsher sentences than their white, affluent counterparts. This led to calls for a more equitable and just criminal justice system, with some advocating for the abolition of prisons altogether.
Despite the widespread adoption of the penitentiary model, the way in which countries approached prison development varied widely over time. For example, some countries focused more heavily on punishment and confinement, while others placed a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and reform.
In the US, for example, the prison system has often been criticized for its harsh conditions, overcrowding, and high levels of recidivism. In contrast, countries such as Norway have sought to create more humane, rehabilitative prison systems that prioritize education, vocational training, and mental health support.
Other countries, such as Japan, have taken a unique approach to prison development by emphasizing discipline and self-reflection. In Japanese prisons, inmates are expected to maintain a strict daily routine that includes cleaning their cells and participating in group exercises. They are also encouraged to reflect on their actions and take responsibility for their crimes through group therapy sessions and discussions with prison staff.
The development of modern prisons was also deeply influenced by the philosophical and ideological shifts of the Enlightenment era. During this time, thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault began to explore new ideas about the nature of punishment, the role of prisons, and the way in which societies should respond to crime and deviance.
These ideas helped to shape the penitentiary model and other reform-focused approaches to incarceration, emphasizing the importance of education, self-reflection, and rehabilitation in the criminal justice process. However, they also brought about new challenges and debates, particularly around the role of punishment in the justice system.
One of the key debates that emerged during the Enlightenment era was the question of whether punishment should be focused on retribution or rehabilitation. Some thinkers argued that punishment should be harsh and severe, in order to deter others from committing crimes and to exact revenge on the offender. Others, however, believed that punishment should be focused on reforming the offender and helping them to become a productive member of society.
One of the key debates in the evolution of the prison system has been the balance between punishment and rehabilitation. While early models of incarceration often focused heavily on punishment and deterrence, more recent models have sought to prioritize education, training, and other forms of support to help prisoners turn their lives around.
However, the right balance between punishment and rehabilitation remains a highly contested issue, with some arguing that too much emphasis on rehabilitation can undermine the deterrent effect of incarceration, while others argue that harsher punishment-oriented systems simply perpetuate cycles of crime and recidivism.
One argument in favor of rehabilitation is that it can lead to lower rates of recidivism. Studies have shown that prisoners who participate in educational and vocational programs while incarcerated are less likely to reoffend upon release. This not only benefits the individual, but also society as a whole, as it reduces the burden on the criminal justice system and promotes safer communities.
On the other hand, proponents of punishment argue that it is necessary to hold individuals accountable for their actions and to send a message to society that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. They also argue that some crimes, such as violent offenses, may not be suitable for rehabilitation and require harsher punishment.
Over time, different types of prisons have emerged to reflect various approaches to punishment, rehabilitation, and containment. These range from chain gangs and work camps, to maximum security facilities like supermax prisons.
Each type of prison serves a different purpose, depending on the nature and severity of the crimes committed. For example, chain gangs and work camps are often used for low-level offenses, while supermax prisons are designed to house the most dangerous and difficult-to-manage prisoners.
In addition to the different types of prisons, there are also specialized facilities for specific populations, such as juvenile detention centers and mental health institutions. Juvenile detention centers are designed to house minors who have committed crimes, while mental health institutions provide treatment and care for prisoners with mental health issues. These specialized facilities aim to address the unique needs and challenges of these populations, and provide them with the necessary resources and support to successfully reintegrate into society.
While many histories of prisons focus on male facilities, the role of women’s prisons in the development of the system has often been overlooked. However, women’s prisons have a long and complex history, reflecting the unique issues and challenges faced by women in the criminal justice system.
From the first women’s prisons in the US and UK in the mid-19th century, to later developments such as the “model” provincial women’s prison in Canada, the history of women’s prisons provides a fascinating lens on the development of the system as a whole.
One of the unique challenges faced by women in the criminal justice system is the issue of childcare. Many women who are incarcerated are also mothers, and the separation from their children can have a profound impact on both the mother and child. This has led to the development of specialized programs within women’s prisons that focus on parenting skills and maintaining family connections.
Another issue that has been highlighted in the history of women’s prisons is the over-representation of Indigenous women. In Canada, Indigenous women make up a disproportionate percentage of the female prison population, and their experiences within the system have been shaped by their cultural background and history of colonization.
Finally, it is worth considering the broader social and cultural forces that have influenced the development of prisons over time. As our ideas about crime, justice, and punishment have evolved, so too have our expectations of the prison system.
From the early days of incarceration, when punishment was often brutal and inhumane, to the modern era of rehabilitation-focused models, our attitudes towards prisons have reflected shifting notions of right and wrong, justice and mercy, and crime and punishment.
One example of how societal attitudes have influenced the development of prisons is the rise of mass incarceration in the United States. Beginning in the 1970s, there was a shift towards harsher sentencing laws and a focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation. This was driven in part by a fear of rising crime rates and a desire to appear tough on crime. As a result, the prison population in the US skyrocketed, with more than 2 million people currently behind bars.
Looking ahead, it is likely that the prison system will continue to evolve and change in response to new trends and ideas. Some possible future directions for prison development include increased use of technology, expanded alternatives to incarceration, and greater emphasis on restorative justice models.
Ultimately, the future of prisons will depend on a range of factors, including societal attitudes towards crime, politics, budgetary constraints, and the changing nature of the justice system itself. However, by examining the history and evolution of prisons, we can gain a deeper understanding of this complex and important institution, and the role it plays in shaping our justice system and our society as a whole.
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