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By the end of the twentieth century, the United States had nearly two million people confined in its prisons or jails, representing ten or twenty times more of its population behind bars than that of most other postindustrial nations. Although these numbers increased more than fourfold in the last thirty years, imprisonment in various forms has played an important role in the American experience for more then five hundred years, helping to determine its history and shaping the society. This history helps to explain the paradox of a country that prides itself on being the citadel of individual liberty yet imprisons more of its citizens per capita than any other nation in the world. It also provides a warning about the future, for even as the United States epitomizes and sanctifies democracy, it continues to build a huge and growing complex of durable totalitarian institutions. This massive use of imprisonment has made American society highly dependent on prisons both economically and politically as well as socially.
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Early Jails and Workhouses
Prisons have existed in human society for thousands of years. A prison is any institution or device that holds a captive in custody. Among the most common types are jails, or closed structures that detain persons for shorter periods, often while they await trial, and state prisons or penitentiaries that hold persons serving sentences for crime. Other forms of imprisonment dating from antiquity have included slavery and involuntary servitude, both as a punishment for crime and as a form of exploitation. For as long as wars have occurred, some vanquished persons usually have been held as captives instead of being killed. American history has included all of these forms of imprisonment and more. Prisons have not simply been used as a recent punishment for crime.
The Rise of The Prisoner Trade
From the time of Christopher Columbus, prisoners of various kinds figured in the exploration and colonization of the New World. Spain and Great Britain (among others) sent convicts to help settle North America; they also seized some indigenous peoples (Indians) to use as slaves. Starting with Portugal in the early sixteenth century, the major western European powers also imported African men, women, and children to serve as slaves in the Caribbean and American colonies.
Starting in the early seventeenth century, Britain carried out an international prisoner trade for more than one hundred and fifty years. After 1650, in fact, most emigrants to the American colonies went as prisoners of one sort or another. Some were forcibly kidnapped or arrested and shipped against their will; some were tricked or enticed into giving up their liberty; others bound themselves as indentured servants to work on foreign plantations. Throughout many ports in England and Ireland, persons nicknamed ‘‘spirits’’ illegally took up all the powerless persons they could entice to sign up as servants in America. In 1680 the Reverend Morgan Godwyn estimated that ten thousand souls were being spirited to the colonies each year. Oftentimes these recruits were held in private jails until their ships were ready to leave, to prevent them from changing their minds.
Starting in the early seventeenth century, Britain also started an organized system of convict transportation, which sent convicted felons to America as punishment for crime. In 1717 Parliament passed an act empowering courts to sentence noncapital offenders directly to transportation for seven years. Anyone who returned before his or her term expired or who helped a convict to escape was liable to be hanged. In addition, by 1723, more than fifty crimes in Britain were punishable, at least in statute, by the death penalty. Some of these offenses included poaching fish, damaging trees, or stealing a silver spoon. Yet many of those convicted of these capital crimes were allowed to escape the noose by agreeing to voluntary exile. As a result, the overwhelming number of those condemned to death were pardoned and shipped to America, where they were sold as servants for fourteen years. Between 1717 and 1775, Britain alone transported more than fifty thousand convicts to America. France also utilized transportation to its colonies throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Moreover, others were compelled to enter military service (impressed), some of them after being forcibly taken into custody by press gangs. Many of these persons were used to man the fleets that transported the human cargoes and other goods between the mother country and the colonies.
Some of the vessels used in the trade carried convicts or other servants as well as slaves, and some companies and agents involved in trafficking prisoners of various types. By the eighteenth century, General James Edward Oglethorpe, an English prison reformer and director of the Royal African Company, founded the colony of Georgia in 1732–1733 with colonists obtained from English prisons; South Carolina’s Henry Laurens (later president of the Continental Congress) also trafficked servants and slaves. And many leading colonists, including George Washington, bought and sold both white convicts and African slaves.
Convicts and indentured servants often experienced a comparable crossing. Shipboard losses among convicts averaged fifteen to thirty percent during the seventeenth century, dropping to as low as 3 percent by the last quarter of the eighteenth. As many as five thousand convicts or more may have perished en route to America. Indentured servants were forced to endure most of the same conditions.
Being sold was a common experience of white convicts, indentured servants, and redemptioners, as well as black slaves. To the extent that American history is the story of immigration, then American colonial history is largely the story of the immigration of prisoners of one sort or another. On both sides of the Atlantic, prisons of various sorts were an essential part of the prisoner trade.
A Land of Prisoners
Jails were among the first public structures built in colonial America. Besides serving as a necessary receptacle and staging place for reluctant emigrants, jails were an integral part of the system of bondage that existed in America. Virtually every American city and county was legally required to establish its own jail at public expense. Over the years, these structures became more pervasive, more secure, and more permanent. Some were built of stone and brick, equipped with iron bars. Colonial America had more jails than public schools or hospitals— almost as many jails as churches and taverns. Massachusetts Puritans also used jails to detain Quaker heretics who challenged Puritan hegemony or witches who were awaiting public burning.
In the beginning of his novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: ‘‘the founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion of the site as a prison . . . . In accordance with this rule . . . the forefathers of Boston . . . built the first prison house.’’
Moreover, some colonies were established as a haven for persons who had suffered imprisonment and other persecution in Europe, or as a receptacle for undesirables.
By the end of the seventeenth century a class system had developed in America. In addition to masters, a class of overseers was quickly developed to rule over the other inhabitants. Below indentured servants and convicts, who served for terms ranging from six to seven or fourteen years, black slaves occupied the lowest rung in perpetual slavery.
South Carolina authorized racial slavery from the early days of the proprietorship. So did Virginia. Even Puritan Massachusetts allowed slavery for a time. Connecticut never established slavery in law although it allowed it in practice. Rhode Island (sometimes referred to as ‘‘Rogue’s Island’’) acted early to limit bondage to ten years, but that restriction was often flaunted. Slavery in New Hampshire was officially acknowledged in 1645. Shortly after the British took over New Netherlands from the Dutch, New York adopted hereditary slavery. So did Delaware. Pennsylvania employed slavery at its inception. Georgia lifted its ban against slavery in 1750 to become a major slave power.
All of those bound were subject to severe punishments that could be administered directly by their masters, or they could be punished by an authorized government. Many servants, convicts, and slaves attempted to run away or engaged in other acts of rebellion. Virtually every colony adopted its own slave code and control apparatus, including a system of slave patrols and networks of jails and other means to detain and punish runaway or recalcitrant slaves and servants. Under this arrangement, even free blacks were subject to tight controls and their movements were limited. In the South, the plantation system developed, creating a vast network of prisons without walls.
Criticism of the prisoner trade increased in America during the eighteenth century. Civil actions were brought against alleged spirits and other illegal servant traffickers; tracts decrying the slave trade appeared; and mobs in some cities violently resisted roundups by press gangs. After one of these riots resulted in the death of a military officer, Boston attorney John Adams defended some of the rioters. Another fracas over impressment resulted in the Boston Massacre.
When some American colonists (many of them slaveholders) increased their agitation to end convict transportation, London’s Dr. Samuel Johnson complained: ‘‘Why, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging!’’ By the third quarter of the eighteenth century, some of the New England colonies especially were the scene of frequent tumults, jail breaks, and protests. This unrest eventually culminated in the outbreak of the American Revolution.
The Declaration of Independence cited a list of abuses related to the prisoner trade, including complaints that the Crown had obstructed justice, sent swarms of officers to harass the people, deprived many of the benefits of trial by jury, transported persons beyond the seas for pretended offenses, and committed other offenses. However, Thomas Jefferson’s clause protesting slavery was deleted at the request of Georgia and South Carolina.
During the War for Independence both the British and the rebels held large numbers of captured enemies in existing and makeshift prisons. The British held New York City throughout the war and converted it into a huge prison camp holding thousands of captives. Rebel churches, abandoned sugarhouses, and other structures were made into prisons. The British also employed several antiquated naval vessels as prison ships in New York harbor. As many as 11,500 persons perished on the H.M.S. Jersey alone— more than the total number of Americans who died in battle.
Captured British soldiers were kept in crowded dungeons, prison ships, and an abandoned copper mine in Simsbury, Connecticut, that was known as Newgate. The Americans also held many Tories (persons who were considered to have sided with the Crown), some of whom were Quakers who had disavowed violence and slavery. Several members of the Society of Friends in Philadelphia were exiled to the wilderness or hanged.
One of the effects of the war on Britain was to disrupt the prisoner trade to America, cutting off convict transportation, servant trafficking, and the African slave trade. As a result, English jails became terribly overcrowded, prompting one English prison reformer to conduct a comprehensive study of prisons throughout the kingdom. John Howard’s treatise The State of Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons (1777) established an agenda for future prison reform.
Following the loss of the American colonies, Britain established Australia as a penal colony and withdrew from the international slave trade. Indentured servitude was also ended.
Ideological and Social Origins of The Prison Movement
The new United States struggled to determine what to do with its penal and slavery apparatus. Many British prisons were converted to American ones and new penal codes were implemented. Some states such as Pennsylvania and New York provided for the gradual emancipation of their slaves at the same time they adopted new criminal codes providing for the use of sentences of imprisonment as a punishment for crime.
In the South, however, efforts to eradicate slavery were blocked. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade slavery and involuntary servitude in the Northwest Territory (later the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin), specifying: ‘‘There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: provided always, that any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original states. Such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor aforesaid.’’
Most states also adopted determinate sentencing laws that prescribed fixed prison sentences as a punishment for violent or property felony crimes. Capital punishment was retained for the most serious offenses. Often modeled in large part on the English prison reformer John Howard’s blueprint for a humane prison, the new penal institutions separated male and female inmates, included walls to prevent escapes and assaults from without, and required inmates to labor making shoes, nails, and other goods. Pennsylvania’s Walnut Street added a separate cell house for felons in 1790. Many of the leading prison reformers were Quakers who recently had tasted political persecution and imprisonment under vile conditions.
By 1800 new state prisons had been built in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Vermont, Maryland, New Hampshire, Ohio, Georgia, and Virginia.
The Auburn Plan
The establishment of a second New York state prison at Auburn in 1816 soon led to a new prison model and regime, designed to keep convicts separate and unable to communicate with each other even as they were forced to labor as penal slaves. ‘‘Industry, obedience, and silence’’ were the guiding principles of the new system. One of its chief proponents and rulers was Elam Lynds, who served for many years as warden of Auburn and other prisons.
By the early 1820s, the Auburn plan had resulted in the construction of tiny individual cells and workshops as well as a rigid system of enforced silence and harsh punishments. Each entering convict was assigned a prison number, which served as his or her identity. Movement to and from the workshops was performed in a regimented manner, known as the lockstep, which called for prisoners to march in a military-style human chain.
A Boston clergyman who visited Auburn in 1826 found it a shining example of what could be accomplished with proper discipline and design. ‘‘The whole establishment, from the gate to the sewer, is a specimen of neatness,’’ he wrote. ‘‘The unremitted industry, the entire subordination and subdued feelings of the convicts, have probably no parallel among an equal number of criminals.’’ The Reverend Louis Dwight and his associates from the Boston Prison Discipline Society pronounced Auburn a ‘‘noble institution’’ and said, ‘‘We regard it as a model worthy of the world’s imitation.’’ The institution seemed so successful that in 1825 Lynds was assigned to build a similar prison in Sing Sing.
Many Americans took such pride in what they seemed to have accomplished in their new model prisons that they encouraged visitors to tour the institutions in exchange for a small fee, to see for themselves what was being done with public funds.
In 1831 two young French magistrates, Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, were dispatched by their government to study the new American prison systems and report back on their possible application in France. Although Tocqueville was also interested in observing America’s political system, which later would form the basis of his classic study Democracy in America (1835, 1840), he visited the United States in order to examine different penal approaches. The pair wrote in On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France (1833) that ‘‘[w]hile society in the United States gives the example of the most extended liberty, the prisons of the same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism.’’
The Pennsylvania System
Unlike Auburn or Sing Sing, Pennsylvania’s Eastern Penitentiary (1829) was intended to keep convicts separate even as they worked, in order to prevent any earthly contamination or distraction that might impede their repentance—hence the term penitentiary. Located on Cherry Hill, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Eastern represented one of the most imposing and expensive architectural achievements in the United States to date, and it contained innovations such as running water and flush toilets in all the cells.
Although Beaumont and Tocqueville found it ‘‘incontestable that this perfect isolation secures the prisoner from all fatal contamination,’’ they favored the more cost-effective Auburn plan, which seemed more likely to enable states to profit from convict labor.
Francis Lieber—the Prussian immigrant scholar who translated Beaumont and Tocqueville’s work into English—hailed America’s new penitentiary system as ‘‘monuments of a charitable disposition of the honest members of society toward their fallen and unfortunate brethren.’’ Lieber coined the term penology to describe ‘‘that branch of criminal science which occupies itself . . . with the punishment of the criminal not with the definition of crime, the subject of accountability and the proving of the crime, which belongs to criminal law and the penal process.’’
Another prominent foreign visitor to Eastern Penitentiary was much more critical of the uncompromising solitary-confinement approach. After touring the institution in 1842, Charles Dickens, the English novelist, concluded in his American Notes (1842) that the Pennsylvania plan was ‘‘cruel and wrong,’’ saying he found ‘‘this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.’’
Propenitentiary and Antislavery
Another New England intellectual, physician Samuel Gridley Howe of Boston, published An Essay on Separate and Congregate Systems of Prison Discipline (1845) in which he defended the Pennsylvania system on the grounds that it was the purest approach. Like many persons involved in the propenitentiary movement, Howe also favored the abolition of chattel slavery in the South, which many condemned for its licentiousness and other abuses. Other social reformers in this circle included the Reverend Louis Dwight, Dorothea Lynde Dix, Isaac Hopper, and Horace Mann.
The system of chattel slavery, however, proved highly resistant to change. Although American involvement in the international slave trade had been ended in 1808, the domestic slave trade continued to flourish through the 1850s. Jails and slave pens were an integral part of both this continued slave trafficking and the relentless pursuit of fugitive and unruly slaves. Many slave auctions were held in jails and prisons. Abolitionists who had been caught trying to aid slaves to liberty were imprisoned alongside common criminals. In 1861, sectional conflict over slavery finally resulted in the bloody Civil War.
The Civil War and Its Aftermath
The prison camps of the Civil War proved to be incredibly lethal. According to official statistics compiled at the end of the war, the North held a total of 220,000 Confederates and the South held 126,000 Unionists. Estimates placed the number of prison dead at 30,212 for the Confederate prisons and 26,774 in the Union prisons. To put matters in perspective, roughly two and a half times as many soldiers were imprisoned as were involved in the Battle of Gettysburg, yet the prison camps claimed nearly ten times as many lives as did the battle.
Following Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863), the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was finally ratified in 1865. In language that mirrored the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the article outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude ‘‘except as punishment of crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.’’ Consequently, although chattel slavery was finally abolished after more than two hundred and fifty years, penal slavery was formally embedded in the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment still stands.
After the war, the victorious federal government initiated the policy known as Reconstruction in the vanquished South. Four million slave men, women, and children throughout the South had suddenly been freed, without compensation or support. Lawmakers in several southern states adopted so-called Black Codes that called for vagrants and other minor criminals to be imprisoned and put to work on public projects.
During slavery days, most southern prisons had remained predominantly white—the slaves being held on plantations—but after the war many institutions suddenly became overcrowded with newly freed blacks. States passed laws enabling convicts to be leased out to private companies. By the end of Radical Reconstruction, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Kentucky were leasing convicts. Soon conditions in southern prisons resembled those under chattel slavery.
Reform and Individualized Treatment
The Civil War had profoundly altered America’s system and rationale for imprisonment. Millions of slaves had been let loose, chattel slavery was ended, and penal servitude expanded. Thousands of inmates had perished in deadly prison camps kept by their own countrymen. Many more were badly scarred by what they had experienced.
Many Americans increasingly recognized that the previous reformers’ expectations for model prisons, based on isolation, hard labor, and severe punishments, had not been achieved. ‘‘Institutions . . . so strongly built, so richly endowed . . . cannot be rid of so easily,’’ Samuel Gridley Howe observed in 1865. The institutions were severely overcrowded and deteriorating, their administration was often corrupt and abusive, and their fixed sentencing schemes proved unwieldy and excessive. Convicts had no incentive to reform. The old enthusiasm for the existing system was gone.
In 1867 two prominent reformers, Enoch C. Wines and Theodore Dwight, reported to the New York State legislature: ‘‘There is no longer a state prison in America in which the reformation of convicts is the one supreme object of the discipline.’’ Based on their review they concluded there was no prison system in the country that was not seriously deficient. To remedy this sad state of affairs, Wines and Dwight recommended that reformation of the offender should be the primary aim of imprisonment. This approach mirrored the nation’s developing posture toward the South.
Wines helped to organize the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reform Discipline in Cincinnati in 1870. This gathering adopted a detailed ‘‘Declaration of Principles,’’ which called for sweeping prison reforms, including the acceptance of reformation; sanitary improvements; an end to political appointments of prison administrators; greater participation of women in prison management; the progressive classification of prisoners based on character; rewards for good conduct and industry; expanded prison education; the end of physical punishments; and other radical changes. To facilitate improvement of the offender, the reformers advocated long indeterminate sentences that could be adjusted depending on an individual’s progress.
Starting in 1876, Warden Zebulon Brockway helped to put some of these ideas into practice at the Elmira Reformatory in New York state’s southern tier, near the site of a former Civil War prison camp. The Elmira system included a combination of military training and education with a system of indeterminate sentencing. It held sway for more than twenty years. But the training school approach was mostly limited to juvenile offenders.
Elsewhere, most adult prisons continued to follow their existing regimes. Southern states still resorted to prison farms and convict leasing, while prisons in the North continued to operate contract labor systems in industrial pursuits. Both approaches were rife with abuses, including torture and rampant corruption. But changing them would not prove easy.
Prisons As Social Laboratories
Starting in the 1880s or so, prisons increasingly were used as social laboratories for controlled scientific research on a host of subjects, including eugenics, psychology, intelligence testing, medicine, drug treatment, criminology, physical anthropology, and birth control. Elaborate identification and classification techniques were devised that ranged from phrenology, which categorized people by their skull shapes, the Bertillon method of uniform body measurement, and fingerprinting to Lombrosian theories about ‘‘born criminals’’ and somatotypes (which purported to link body physique with criminal proclivities). Vasectomies, lobotomies, and other surgical procedures were developed using captive human subjects. Theories about feeblemindedness and defective delinquency were propounded based on experiments conducted on prisoners. A few eugenicists recommended mass sterilization and even legal executions as a means of ridding society of undesirables. Some of these approaches were not fully repudiated and outlawed until the 1970s.
Some Progressive era reformers increasingly advocated on behalf of prisoners. Shortly after his appointment as warden of Auburn Prison in 1913, Thomas Mott Osborne ended the silent system and began to institute a system of inmate self-government, known as the Mutual Welfare League, which allowed prisoners to establish their own legal disciplinary apparatus. A year later he became warden of Sing Sing, where he also started to implement sweeping reforms. Although his reforms quickly achieved some impressive results, such as decreasing the rate of convict return to prison (recidivism), Osborne was attacked by political opponents and forced to resign. One by one, his reforms were overturned. The remaining vestiges of the Mutual Welfare League were ended in 1929 amid another clampdown on prison policies. In response to harsher sentencing laws, convicts at several New York prisons rioted later that year.
The Great Depression of the 1930s resulted in greater use of imprisonment and different public attitudes about prisoners. From 1925 to 1939 the nation’s rate of incarceration climbed from 79 to 137 per 100,000 residents. In large measure, this growth was driven by greater incarceration of blacks. Between 1930 and 1936 alone, black incarceration rates rose to a level about three times greater than those for whites, while white incarceration rates actually declined.
During the late 1930s, sociologists who were studying various prison communities began to report the existence of rigid class systems among the convicts. Donald Clemmer published The Prison Community (1940), based upon his research within Menard State Prison in Illinois. Clemmer described the inmates’ informal social system or inmate subculture as being governed by a convict code, which existed beside and in opposition to the institution’s official rules. He also outlined a process of socialization that was undergone by entering prisoners. Clemmer defined this prisonization as ‘‘the taking on in greater or less degree of the folkways, mores, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary.’’
By the late 1930s, the modern American prison system had existed for more than one hundred years. During that time, many penal institutions themselves had remained unchanged. Convicts lived in a barren environment that was reduced to the absolute bare essentials, with less adornment, private property, and services than might be found in the worst city slum. One aspect that had changed rather significantly, however, was the prison labor system. In 1929 Congress passed the Hawes-Cooper Act, which enabled any state to prohibit within its borders the sale of any goods made in the prisons of another state. By the time the act became effective in 1934, most states had enacted laws restricting the sale and movement of prison products. In 1935 the Ashurst-Sumners Act strengthened the law to prohibit the transportation of prison products to any state in violation of the laws of that state. In 1940 Congress enacted legislation to bar, with a few exceptions, the interstate transportation of prison-made goods. These developments contributed to decreased reliance on prison labor to pay for prison costs. More and more inmates became idle and were not assigned to jobs.
World War II brought plummeting prison populations but renewed industrial activity as part of the war effort. After the war, and with the onset of the Cold War, prison warehousing became more prevalent, making inmate control and discipline more difficult. Another round of prison disturbances occurred in the early 1950s at the State Prison of Southern Michigan at Jackson, the Ohio State Penitentiary, Menard, and other institutions.
Imprisonment became increasingly reserved for blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. By 1955 and the end of the Korean conflict, America’s prison population had reached 185,780 and the national incarceration rate was back up to 112 per 100,000, nudged along by the ‘‘race problem.’’ Drug law enforcement played a stronger role increasing the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks and Hispanics.
Although the United Nations adopted its Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, in 1955, justifying sentences of imprisonment only when it could be used to foster offender rehabilitation, American prisons generally continued to favor security and retributive or incapacitative approaches over rehabilitation.
It was not until the 1940s, or so that the legal rights of prisoners gradually began to be expanded. A series of federal court decisions started to give inmates greater access to the courts, reversing a long-standing ‘‘hands-off’’ doctrine. From the late 1950s to the late 1970s, a pesky prisoners’ rights movement growing out of the larger civil rights struggle significantly transformed the ability of prisoners to seek and obtain legal redress through the courts. In Monroe v. Pape (1961), the U.S. Supreme Court enabled attorneys to seek damages and injunctions in federal court against state abuses of an individual’s constitutional rights. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court issued a series of opinions favorable to criminal suspects, which benefited many prisoners, but the Court made few decisions improving prison conditions. It was not until the 1970s, under Chief Justice Warren Burger, that the high tribunal intervened in a few cases affecting conditions of confinement, and more of the federal activism on behalf of prisoners occurred at lower levels within the federal court system. In 1975, for instance, U.S. District Court Judge Frank Johnson issued a comprehensive order mandating sweeping changes in Alabama’s entire prison system. Similar orders were handed down in Texas and other states.
The bloodiest prison riot in American history occurred at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility in September 1971, resulting in the death of forty-three persons, most of them inmates. All but one of the fatalities occurred during the police assault on the hostage-takers. The Attica rebellion was followed by massive federal and state funding of control technologies and programs, including heightened security, emergency control, public relations, program services, and inmate discipline.
But Attica did not put an end to major prison disturbances. In 1980 the New Mexico State Penitentiary at Santa Fe was the scene of horrific carnage among prisoners resulting in thirty-three deaths.
The ‘‘Get Tough’’ Movement
Until 1963, the incidence of reported crime as measured by official crime statistics actually remained relatively constant. But then serious crime began to experience an upsurge. The nation’s rate of incarceration also remained relatively stable until 1974, when it also began to shoot up. The total number of adults in prison custody on a census day in 1972 showed a rate of incarceration for the United States of 162 per 100,000 residents. By 1984 it had risen to about 318 per 100,000. By the end of 1995 it had skyrocketed to 600. From 1970 to 1994 the prison population of the United States doubled and redoubled. With some exceptions, most criminologists agreed there was little relationship between rates of crime and rates of imprisonment.
Studies showed that racial minorities were disproportionately affected by this rapid prison growth. A federal survey on 30 June 1994 found that nearly 7 percent of all black men nationwide were in prison or jail, compared with less than 1 percent of white men. Throughout the 1990s, most American prison inmates were serving time for drug crimes. The overwhelming majority of prison staff were white and most prisons were located in predominantly white rural areas.
By the end of the 1990s, the number of prisoners in custody approached two million, reflecting the greatest use of incarceration of any nation in the world. The enormous public costs of building and maintaining this multibillion-dollar prison complex already was exceeding that of public support for higher education in some states.
To reduce its prison costs while still resorting to high levels of incarceration, some states in the 1980s and 1990s began to turn to private, forprofit companies to build and operate their correctional institutions. Despite many of the problems associated with private prisons—some of them prevalent through imprisonment’s painful past—such approaches appeared to be undergoing renewed popularity at the end of the twentieth century.
Likewise, the get-tough movement that started in the mid-1970s and escalated over the next two decades also seemed likely to continue for many years to come. Harsher mandatory prison sentences, increased use of capital punishment and life without parole, rollbacks of prison education programs and other rehabilitation efforts, as well as the increased development of maximum prisons and control units, all were on the increase. All this occurred despite the lack of public faith in prison effectiveness.
After being used for more than five hundred years, imprisonment still seemed to represent an integral but hidden part of the American experience—more than most citizens probably would like to admit.
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