The Roots of Justice: Crime and Punishment in Alameda County, California, 1870-1910

By Lawrence M. Friedman; Robert V. Percival | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Iron Bars, Cages, and Gallows: Some Words about Prisons and Jails

Criminal justice was a long and rocky road. For those swept up by the police, there were many points at which one could wriggle out of the net. But if all these failed, and a prisoner was convicted, through a guilty plea or by a jury, the end result was iron bars. As we saw, loss of freedom was the mode of punishment in Alameda County: not reprimand, not fines, not whippings, but a "jolt" in prison or jail. This was overwhelmingly true of felony defendants, somewhat less so of petty criminals. As we follow our defendants to the bitter end, we shall have to say a word or two about prisons and jails.

There was a fundamental distinction between prison and jail. The state ran prisons; counties and cities ran jails. Indeed, the line between felony and misdemeanor, in California, was in part a line between prison and jail. A felony was a crime '"punishable with death or . . . imprisonment in the state prison." Anything else was a misdemeanor 17).1Prisons and jails were very different in looks, architecture, and purpose. Not everybody in a jail was there to be punished; some were merely waiting for trial. But there was one purpose and one only for a prison.

In eighteenth-century America, there were no "prisons" as such; there were only jails. Imprisonment was not the normal way of punishing criminals. Fines and whippings were far more common. The nineteenth century invented the true prison or penitentiary. These were grim, silent fortresses, constructed on a kind of monastic principle. They quarantined criminals from a corrupting social environment and bent their spirits toward conformity, through solitude and iron discipline.2 These new and revolutionary prisons were first built in

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1
If a crime was punishable either by imprisonment in the state prison or by fine or imprisonment in a county jail, in the court's discretion, then "it shall be deemed a misdemeanor for all purposes after a judgment imposing a punishment other than imprisonment in the state prison" 17).
2
The literature on prison history is enormous. See, especially, David Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum ( Boston, 1971); see also W. David Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796- 1848 ( Ithaca, N.Y., 1965); on

-288-

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