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1.1: History and Philosophy

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    Prior to the 1800s, common law countries relied heavily on physical punishments. Influenced by the high ideas of the enlightenment, reformers began to move the criminal justice system away from physical punishments in favor of reforming offenders. This was a dramatic shift away from the mere infliction of pain that had prevailed for centuries. Among these early reformers was John Howard, who advocated the use of penitentiaries. Penitentiaries, as the name suggests, were places for offenders to be penitent. That is, they would engage in work and reflection on their misdeeds. To achieve the appropriate atmosphere for penitence, prisoners were kept in solitary cells with much time for reflection.

    Philadelphia's Walnut Street Jail was an early effort to model the European penitentiaries. The system used there later became known as the Pennsylvania System. Under this system, inmates were kept in solitary confinement in small, dark cells. A key element of the Pennsylvania System is that no communications whatsoever were allowed. Critics of this system began to speak out against the practice of solitary confinement early on. They maintained that the isolated conditions were emotionally damaging to inmates, causing severe distress and even mental breakdowns. Nevertheless, prisons across the United States began adopting the Pennsylvania model, espousing the value of rehabilitation. 

    A sign on the side of a road

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    Figure 1.1 Walnut Street Prison, Pennsylvania Historical Marker, on southeast corner of 6th and Walnut Streets. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

    A group of people walking in front of a house

Description generated with very high confidence

    Figure 1.2 "Jail in Walnut Street, Philadelphia." Plate 24 from W. Birch & Son. Public Domain.

    The New York system evolved along similar lines, starting with the opening of New York's Auburn Penitentiary in 1819. This facility used what came to be known as the congregate system. Under this system, inmates spent their nights in individual cells, but were required to congregate in workshops during the day. Work was serious business, and inmates were not allowed to talk while on the job or at meals. This emphasis on labor has been associated with the values that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. By the middle of the nineteenth century, prospects for the penitentiary movement were grim. No evidence had been mustered to suggest that penitentiaries had any real impact on rehabilitation and recidivism.

    Prisons in the South and West were quite different from those in the Northeast. In the Deep South, the lease system developed. Under the lease system, businesses negotiated with the state to exchange convict labor for the care of the inmates. Prisoners were primarily used for hard, manual labor, such as logging, cotton picking, and railroad construction. Eastern ideas of penology did not catch on in the West, with the exception of California. Prior to statehood, many frontier prisoners were held in federal military prisons.


    Figure 1.3 Convict Lease. Public Domain

    Disillusionment with the penitentiary idea, combined with overcrowding and understaffing, led to deplorable prison conditions across the country by the middle of the nineteenth century. New York's Sing Sing Prison was a noteworthy example of the brutality and corruption of that time. A new wave of reform achieved momentum in 1870 after a meeting of the National Prison Association (which would later become the American Correctional Association). At this meeting held in Cincinnati, members issued a Declaration of Principles. This document expressed the idea that prisons should be operated according to a philosophy that prisoners should be reformed, and that reform should be rewarded with release from confinement. This ushered in what has been called the Reformatory Movement.

    One of the earliest prisons to adopt this philosophy was the Elmira Reformatory, which was opened in 1876 under the leadership of Zebulon Brockway. Brockway ran the reformatory in accordance with the idea that education was the key to inmate reform. Clear rules were articulated, and inmates that followed those rules were classified at higher levels of privilege. Under this "mark" system, prisoners earned marks (credits) toward release. The number of marks that an inmate was required to earn in order to be released was established according to the seriousness of the offense. This was a movement away from the doctrine of proportionality, and toward indeterminate sentences and community corrections.

    The next major wave of corrections reform was known as the rehabilitation model, which achieved momentum during the 1930s. This era was marked by public favor with psychology and other social and behavioral sciences. Ideas of punishment gave way to ideas of treatment, and optimistic reformers began attempts to rectify social and intellectual deficiencies that were the proximate causes of criminal activity. This was essentially a medical model in which criminality was a sort of disease that could be cured. This model held sway until the 1970s when rising crime rates and a changing prison population undermined public confidence.

     After the belief that "nothing works" became popular, the crime control model became the dominate paradigm of corrections in the United States. The model attacked the rehabilitative model as being "soft on crime." "Get tough" policies became the norm throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and lengthy prison sentences became common. The aftermath of this has been a dramatic increase in prison populations and a corresponding increase in corrections expenditures. Those expenditures have reached the point that many states can no longer sustain their departments of correction. The pendulum seems to be swinging back toward a rehabilitative model, with an emphasis on community corrections. While the community model has existed parallel to the crime control model for many years, it seems to be growing in prominence.

    When it comes to criminal sanctions philosophy, what people believe to be appropriate is largely determined by the theory of punishment to which they subscribe. That is, people tend to agree with the theory of punishment that is most likely to generate the outcome they believe is the correct one. This system of beliefs about the purposes of punishment often spills over into the political arena. Politics and correctional policy are intricately related. Many of the changes seen in corrections policy in the United States during this time were a reflection of the political climate of the day. During the more liberal times of the 1960s and 1970s, criminal sentences were largely the domain of the judicial and executive branches of government. The role of the legislatures during this period was to design sentencing laws with rehabilitation as the primary goal. During the politically conservative era of the 1980s and 1990s, lawmakers took much of that power away from the judicial and executive branches. Much of the political rhetoric of this time was about "getting tough on crime." The correctional goals of retribution, incapacitation, and deterrence became dominate, and rehabilitation was shifted to a distant position. 

    1.1: History and Philosophy is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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