Prison Reform: The Origin of Contemporary Jail Standards

by | February 22, 2017

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on the history of jails. Read the article “Understanding Our Roots: A Brief History of Prisons.” Prison Reform - Lexipol

Jail facilities in the United States are governed by hundreds of state and federal laws, as well as standards imposed by state auditing bodies or accreditation groups. Jail standards detail everything from how many inches off the floor canned food must be stored to lighting levels to how often inmates must be checked. For correctional officers, these regulations can sometimes seem onerous. But they are the product of an important part of correctional history: the prison reform movement.

Focus on Punishment

Although the earliest prisons were merely holding facilities on the prisoner’s journey toward death, mutilation or exile, by the end of the 18th century, authorities had begun to use imprisonment as punishment. This change was influenced by the Catholic Church, which taught that sinners could be led to see the error of their ways and change their behavior.

But these prisons were still no walk in the park. Whips, hard labor, solitary confinement and the gallows were used to keep prisoners in line and to deter others from committing similar crimes. Many prisons were run for profit and charged the prisoners for beds, linens, food and the fitting and removal of chains. These overcrowded prisons frequently lacked sewers, water and fresh air, which resulted, not unexpectedly, in death for a high number of prisoners.

Although prison building increased to accommodate the influx of those charged with crimes, prison architecture remained trapped in the past, supporting the idea of confinement and physical punishment rather than inmate reform. One example of this period remains in Warwick, England. This prison was built as an underground dungeon beneath a county jail. It was octagonal, 21 feet in diameter, 19 feet underground. It was accessed by several doors and a long staircase, with a grate in the ceiling. In the center of the dungeon is a small open drain for sewage, which drops down to a spring. Around this pit were eight posts, to which heavy chains were attached. Prisoners were chained by the leg to these posts in circular fashion. In 1817, a visitor observed 45 prisoners housed there.

Over time, the prisoners themselves began to change. No longer just debtors or petty criminals, prisoners were more hardened, violent offenders, convicted of murder, robbery, rape and arson. In England in the 1770s, 60 percent of prisoners were debtors; by the 1870s, only 3 percent were debtors. As a result, sentences were longer and treatment of the prisoners became harsher.

Focus on Reform

The call to improve prison conditions dates to 1699 in England, when the Christian Knowledge Society visited prisons, distributing religious books and money. They also proposed keeping each prisoner in a separate cell.

Prison Reform -Lexipol

Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, an example of the Pennsylvania system of prison design.

In the late 1700s and 1800s, a strong prison reform movement began to take shape. Instead of only punishing criminals, prisons were now expected to reform them. John Howard, a Calvinist who did time as a prisoner when his ship was captured by French privateers, served a brief stint as High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, where he was exposed to the deplorable conditions of the local jail. That led him to visit hundreds of prisons in Europe and abroad and advocate for improvements in the treatment of prisoners and jail security and order.

Howard’s single-mindedness of purpose, as well as that of Jeremy Bentham, who was a leader of the reformers of the time, positively influenced prison building and administration. Originally constructed based on fear of incarceration, prison designs began to accommodate religious instruction, education and the health of the prisoners.

Surveillance or inspection of prisoners had been lax at best over the years, resulting in assaults, collusion and unsafe conditions. Bentham, Howard and their contemporaries pushed for continued surveillance, which it was believed would lessen the abuses and bad influences of the prisoners, as well as prevent riots, escapes and bad behavior. Other improvements they sought included:

  • Segregation of prisoners by age, sex and severity of offense
  • Individual cells instead of common rooms
  • Salaried staff to prevent extortion of prisoners
  • Provision of adequate clothing and food
  • Hiring chaplains and doctors

In England, the Gaols Act of 1823 was an attempt to bring organization to prisons. Classification was introduced as a way to control the violence common in prisons. Separate cells were too expensive for most governments, so administrators began to classify the prisoners according to sex, seriousness of charges and age. Although this plan lost favor over time, it was a foreshadowing of the classification aspect of the Direct Supervision model commonly used today.

Pennsylvania and Auburn Systems

Reform concepts were also embraced as prison building began to take off in the United States. The first U.S. penitentiary was the Walnut Street Jail built in Philadelphia in 1790. Men and women were housed separately, no liquor was available and offenders were classified by the seriousness of their offense. Prisoners worked silently in their cells during the day and were encouraged to meditate on their evil ways at night. Solitary confinement was necessary to eliminate “contamination” from other prisoners. This jail was the model for the Pennsylvania system (or “separate system”) in the northeastern states, but it did not last because suicides and increased mental illness caused by solitary confinement forced changes, as did overcrowding.

Prison Reform -Lexipol

The Auburn system emphasized order and discipline, including marching in lockstep.

Based on the Pennsylvania system, the Auburn plan was slightly different in that prisoners were expected to work in silence during the day, stay in isolation at night and receive harsh discipline for infractions. The goal of this system was to break the spirit of the prisoner and make them completely submissive. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. was experiencing labor shortages. Reformers and law makers believed that prisoners should work to support their incarceration. Because this plan could produce labor, it was a profitable system and was followed in several states such as New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee and Indiana. The cell size of these prisons varied greatly; for instance in Green Bay, WI, the cells were roughly 10 feet by 6 feet and 7 feet high, but in Jackson, MI, they were only about 3 ½ feet by 7 feet. Overcrowding during the early 20th century eliminated the single-cell theory of the Auburn plan.

In 1870, the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline, now known as the American Correctional Association, met for the first time in an attempt to coordinate professional effort in corrections. This group established 37 principles for the operation of prisons, placing emphasis on:

  • Education
  • Incarceration by stages, from maximum security to daytime work release
  • Indeterminate sentence
  • Classification
  • Programs specific for the different classifications of the inmates

Following this meeting, minimum custody institutions began to be built, and classification became more widely used during the 1930s. These principles, born out of the reform movement that began in England, are the foundation of contemporary jail standards and reflect our commitment today to house inmates in humane conditions, focusing on their rehabilitation while also guaranteeing security and order to enhance public safety.

Of course, these standards could not be effectively implemented in prisons designed to be dungeons of punishment. Prison architecture had to change as well. And that will be the subject of my next article!

Woodruff, L. (2010) A Secondary Data Analysis of Staff Reaction to the Transition from a Linear Jail to a Direct Supervision Model in Kane County, Illinois.

LYNNE WOODRUFF retired from the Kane County (IL) Sheriff’s Office with 24 years of service. She was the first female promoted to Sergeant at the Kane County jail (1995) and the first female promoted to Lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Office (2002). Lynne earned a BA in Management and Leadership at Judson College and a Master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University. Currently, she is a Management Services Representative for Lexipol; before moving into this position, she served as Training Coordinator and also as an independent contractor for Lexipol’s Training and Implementation Services teams.

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