Academic journal article Stanford Law Review

An American Resolution: The History of Prisons in the United States from 1777 to 1877

Academic journal article Stanford Law Review

An American Resolution: The History of Prisons in the United States from 1777 to 1877

Article excerpt

In this note, Matthew Meskell traces the rise of the penitentiary system in the United States from 1777 to 1877. By focusing on how the penitentiaries adapted to social and economic pressures, Meskell offers an explanation for why the system changed from one predominantly concerned with reforming prisoners to one predominantly concerned with containing prison. Ultimately, the wardens' inability to quantify their rehabilitative successes led legislators to set a new goal for the prisons: economic profitability. Meskell concludes that this shift in priorities best explains the deterioration of the early penitentiary system.

In one corrupt and corrupting assemblage were to be found the disgusting objects of popular contempt, besmeared with filth from the pillory--the unhappy victim of the lash ... the half naked vagrant--the loathsome drunkard--the sick suffering from various bodily pains, and too often the unaneled malefactor.

-- Roberts Vaux, describing Pennsylvania jails in 1776.(1)

They are all, so far as adult prisoners are concerned, lacking in a supreme devotion to the right aim; all lacking in the breadth and comprehensiveness of their scope; all lacking in the aptitude and efficiency of their instruments; and all lacking in the employment of a wise and effective machinery to keep the whole in healthy and vigorous action.

-- Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight, describing U.S. prisons in 1867.(2)


Two revolutionary reports bookend the most dynamic century in American prison history. In 1777, the Englishman John Howard published an extensive account of his visits to British jails entitled The State of the Prisons in England and Wales.(3) Describing in graphic detail extensive administrative corruption and chronic abuse of prisoners, Howard's reports created severe agitation for reform in England.(4) The work did not become widely known in the United States for another decade,(5) but by 1786 it had stirred a self-critical examination of America's own prisons and the formation of the first prison reform societies.(6) Beginning in 1790, America embarked on a remarkable experiment and forged an original penitentiary system that attracted the attention not only of its own citizens but of the world.(7) Yet in 1867 American prison reformers Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight published a monumental work entitled Report on the Prisons and Reformatories of the United States and Canada(8) that contained descriptions of administrative corruption and prisoner abuse which rivaled those Howard had recounted almost a century before.(9) This note is a tale of these two reports and an attempt to answer the obvious question they prompted: What happened?

Perhaps it would have been better to ask what did not happen, for, after researching the period, it is obvious that little remained constant in the United States from 1777 to 1867. During this time, the United States changed economically, demographically, intellectually, and politically. Prisons were no exception, and indeed seem to have been the focus of a remarkable number of controversies and debates. The story of what happened to the bold prison reform movement begun in America in the late l700s encompasses a vast array of personal histories, financial incentives, academic movements, political maneuverings, and even architectural developments. In a sense, the only accurate answer to the question, "What happened?" this note can give is, "Too much."

Still the story of the rise of American prisons is immensely interesting. Much can be revealed by focusing on how broader social changes translated themselves into concrete demands placed on the prison system and how that system adapted over time. Most of the important developments in the period occurred in the northern states, and so they are the focus of this note. Though one scholar aptly noted that prison history is more like a river than a ladder,(10) for purposes of clarity this note is divided into three main time periods. …

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