Institutionalized sanctions of serious criminal offenders mirror the society in which they are applied. Punishment rationales and practices reflect prevailing values. In turn, citizens whose behavior and lifestyles least reflect those values are invariably those most often subject to criminal sanctions. And, as society changes, so too do institutions of punishment.
The history of prisons well illustrates these connections between punishment systems and social order. Though lockups have been around for centuries, only in early-nineteenth-century America did prisons emerge as places where offenders were incarcerated as punishment rather than as places for offenders to await punishment of some other type. In a religious society where both individual freedom and personal responsibility were core values and where crime (and the possibility of redemption) was thought to hinge on the will of the offender, prisons became institutions in which extended confinement itself constituted the punishment. Incarcerated offenders were expected to become penitent and to see the error of their ways.
Prisons, then as now, were populated primarily by marginalized people whose values and behaviors fall outside society’s socio-legal mainstream. Prisoners typically represent the lowest rungs of society’s life-chance ladder. In the United States, they are overwhelmingly poor, uneducated, and occupationally (as well as criminally) unskilled men. Moreover, racial and ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, are disproportionately represented in U.S. prisons. In Texas prisons, for example, African American inmates constitute well over 40 percent of the population, three times their proportion in the state overall. A similar disparity exists in prisons across the country.
Though activists in the last century sought to eliminate the discrimination in law and practice that disadvantaged minorities in particular, they made only limited progress until the mid-twentieth century. By the 1940s the tide