The sight of the moumental walls and high towers of an American state prison conveys such an impression of fixity and permanence that one easily forgets that incarceration is a comparatively modern practice.
Penitentiaries do have history. They have not always been with us. A sensitivity to this history, an understanding of the causes for their creation and perpetuation can help to clarify for us what we can and cannot expect of these institutions.
Our colonial forefathers relied upon very different methods of punishment. Convinced that the threat of deviant behavior came mostly from outsiders, they guarded town boundaries with all the diligence we reserve for an international frontier.
To preserve their insularity, towns regularly banished or expelled suspicious characters and petty offenders. When neighbors committed minor offenses, the courts had recourse to fines or to the whip, or, more commonly, to shaming the offenders by displaying them in the stocks. The local jails served only the purpose of detaining those charged with a crime until time of trial.
The colonists, as tough-minded Calvinists, did not aniticipate the reformation of the criminal or the eradication of crime. And they understood, too, how limited their powers were: If a whipping did not deter the offender, there was little they could do, little, that is, except have recourse to the gallows. The result was an unbalanced system, vacillating between harsh and mild punishments.
Such procedures could not survive the growth of cities, or the rise in the number of immigrants, and the frequency of inigrations westward in the early 19th Century. With the insularity of the community destroyed and with Enlightenment and republican ideology making capital punishment seem a barbaric remnant of a cruder age, some kind of new sanctions would have to be created.
That the alternative became the penitentiary reflects the very special outlook of its founders, the Jacksonian reformers of the 1820s and 1830s. These innovators shared grandiose ambitions. They would not merely deter but eliminate crime: they would not punish but reform the criminal.
The Jacksonians were the first to announce the theme that would persist to our own day: prisons should be places of rehabilitation.
These reformers were at once optimistic about the perfectability of man and pessimistic about the ability of a democratic society to cohere. Criminal behaviour, they reasoned, reflected the faulty organization of society. Judging their own cities by exaggerated notions of the stability of colonial towns, they saw the easy morals of the theaters and saloons replacing the authority of the family and the church.
To counter what they took to be this rampant disorder, they invented the penitentiary. It was to be a model, almost utopian community that would both inspire the society and, at the same time, instill habits of obedience and regularity in its inmates.
From these notions the penitentiary took its first form. To isolate the inmate from all contaminating influences, prisons were not only located at a distance from the cities, with visits and mail discouraged, but prisoners, living one to a cell were under strict rules of silence.A bell-ringing punctuality prevailed. At the sound of a gong, inmates marched in look step to work, then to eat, and then returned to their isolation.
As acute an observer as Alexis de Toequeville concluded: "The regularly of a uniform life produces a deep impression on his mind." If the inmate was not released an honest man, at the least "he has contracted honest habits."
It did not take long, however, for the good order of the prisons to degenerate. By the 1850s even more clearly by the 1880s, the institutions became overcrowded, brutal and corrupting places. State investigations uncovered countless examples of inhumane treatment - prisoners hung by their thumbs or stretched out on the rack. Clearly, incarceration was not reforming the deviant, let alone eradicating crime.
And yet, the system persisted. Part of the reason may reflect the seeming practicality of confinement: at least for a time the incapacitation of the offender protected society. Further, the prisons were filled with immigrants (first with Irish, later Eastern Europeans, still later the blacks). The confinement of a group that was both "alien" and "deviant seemed appropraite, no matter how unsatisfactory prison conditions were.
But such functional considerations were not as central to the continuing legitimacy of incarceration as the persistence of reformers hopes that prisons could rehabilitate the offender. Each successive generation of well-intentioned citizens set out to upgrade the penitentiary. The problem was not with the idea of incarceration but with its implementation.
Thus, the Progressives in the period 1900-1920 tried to "normalize" the prison environment.
They abolished the rules of silence, the lock step, and the striped uniform, and looked instead to freedom of the yard, prison orchestras, schools, and vocational education to rehabilitate the deviant.
In the 1920s and 1930s, psychologists urged the adoption of more sophisticated systems of classification so that prisoners could be counseled on an individual basis. New modes of therapy would readjust the deviant to his environment.
Both groups of reformers welcomed the indeterminate sentence and parole. Rather than have a judge pass a fixed sentence at time of trial, the offender should enter a prison as a patient would enter a hospital. When he was cured, not before and not later, he would be released.
Again and again, the translation of these programs into practice was disappointing.
No matter how keen the effort, prisons could not become normal communities. Classification schemes were not well implemented; parole became a guessing game, anything but scientific or fair in its decisions.
Nevertheless, each time a prison riot occured or another example of brutality was uncovered, reformers insisted that the fault lay with the poor administration of the system, not with the system itself. Eager to do good, determined to rehabilitate the deviant, they continued to try to transform the prison into a place of reformation.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, a new generation of reformers began to question the very idea of incarceration. For the first time, well-intentioned observers began to wonder whether the basic concept of the prison was faulty. These reformers were frank about their inability to understand the roots of deviancy or to rehabilitate the deviant.
Armed with so few answers and suspicious of inherited truths, they contended that punsihment should aim, not to do good, but to reduce harm; that a system of sanctions should abandon grandiose goals and try to avoid mischief. Perhaps fixed sentences of short duration to the avowed goal of punishing the criminal would create a more just and no less effective system.
Clearly this agenda is not a very exciting banner under which to march. Prior generations of reformers, after all, had promised to eliminate crime. And today's less idealistic outlook is peculiarly liable to misunderstanding; if we cannot reform the criminal, why not lock him up and throw away the key?
An historical analysis does not provide us with many clues as to how this latest reform effort will turn out. Indeed, an historical analysis does not offer answers as to how punishment should be meted out in our society. What it does offer, however, is a dynamic as opposed to a static perspective on incarceration. Penitentiaries were the response of one generation to its specific problems, and later generations experimented with their own solutions. If we now find inherited practices unsatisfactory, we are obligated to devise our own answers.