A Consuming Culture
THE HISTORY OF the American prison system is an effort to perfect the use of the penal apparatus the Quakers introduced in Philadelphia meant for the reform of the criminal offender. America, more so than another other nation, has relied upon the prison as a means of responding to criminals, and has expanded this apparatus far beyond the level found in other nations. But, throughout its history, especially in the modern era, the U.S. prison system has not lived up to the lofty ideals of the Quakers.
n the United States, the prison began as a means of reform, and was later adopted to fulfill other functions that included deterrence and incapacitation. Along the way, the American prison served industry as a center of profit-making activity under the influence of the Auburn model and later during the industrial prison era of the early 1900s (Barnes and Teeters, 1945). Perhaps one reason the American prison system is so big is that it lacks a clear, consistent, and appropriate purpose. It has been used to meet the goals of several different philosophies, and it has been used to meet some of these goals despite the fact that existing evidence suggests that it has been unable to fulfill the functions specified by those philosophies, especially with respect to deterrence and incapacitation. While the American prison system is certainly much larger than the prison systems found in other nations, it nevertheless does not appear big enough to deter or incapacitate a significant portion of the criminal population.
The problem may be that prisons fail to address the causes of crime. Indeed, the data on the relationship between imprisonment and crime reviewed here suggests as much, since the two trends are rarely found to exist together in the expected direction, at the predicted magnitude, or in any persistent manner. We will return to this idea below.