Prisons and Executions-The U.S. Model: A Historical Introduction

Monthly Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Prisons and Executions-The U.S. Model: A Historical Introduction


by the Editors

The United States incarcerates five to eight times more of its people per capita than Western European nations-though its crime rates for nonviolent crimes are comparable to those of Western Europe-and seventeen times more than Japan. The number of inmates in federal and state prisons in the United States has increased over 500 percent since 1970. Governments have been overthrown for being less abusive toward the rights of so many citizens. Yet, although this is a social crisis of the highest magnitude, it barely causes a ripple in the news media, with their emphasis on issues that concern the elite or the middle class, or in academia, where this sort of research is scarcely encouraged. Nor is this massive incarceration program an issue in the money driven political system, where politicians vie to win the honor of appearing to be "toughest" on crime by building even more prisons and lengthening sentences even for nonviolent offenses.

In this double issue of Monthly Review, we hope to demystify the booming prison system in the United States and draw out the important political implications for the left and all who cherish human freedom. In this introduction we will sketch out the historic rise of the prison system, and its crucial relationships with capitalism, neoliberalism, and racism.

The prison is so prominent an institution in present-day society that it is difficult to remember that the prison as a place of punishment is only a little more than two hundred years old. It emerged first in the United States and soon after in Europe, and its early phase of development was that of 1789-1848, conforming to what historian Eric Hobsbawm has termed The Age of Revolution. It was thus a product of the dual revolution that formed the basis for modem capitalism: the industrial revolution centered in Britain and the political revolution that took place in the United States and France.

Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project (Washington, D.C.), in his book The Race to Incarcerate (1999), argues that the history of prisons has been governed by two great experiments. The "first great experiment" was the creation of the penitentiary in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which quickly spread throughout the advanced capitalist world. The "second great experiment" (so far confined mainly to the United States) was the attempt, beginning in the early 1970s, to impose "a massive and unprecedented use of imprisonment" as part of a war on crime.

The First Great Experiment

Up until the 1780s, punishment by imprisonment was unknown in Europe or the European colonies. The common jail dates back to antiquity, but was used solely as a means of detention, a temporary abode for the prisoner until acquitted, fined, or subjected to corporal punishment Corporal punishment was inflicted almost exclusively on the lower classes, since the rich were usually able to pay fines instead. All crimes not considered capital were punishable through public torture, mutilation, or embarrassment Flogging was common. Branding with a hot iron was frequently practiced in Britain and sometimes in the British Colonies in North America. The stocks or the pillory were used for lesser crimes.

Numerous crimes or repeat offenses were considered capital crimes, and executions were public events. The death penalty was the final solution offered to compensate for all the other defects of the criminal justice system. The Massachusetts Assembly in 1736 issued a decree that a thief, on the first conviction, be fined or whipped. On the second, the offender would pay triple the fines and be forced to sit on the gallows platform with a noose around his (or her) neck, followed by thirty lashes at the whipping post. For the third offense, the culprit was taken to the gallows and publicly hanged. In his book The London Hanged (1992), Peter Linebaugh notes that those hanged for capital offenses in eighteenth century London were overwhelmingly from the working class, and particularly from trades experiencing the onset of craft-destroying manufacturing. …

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