Chapter 4

 Housing the Dangerous Classes 

History of Imprisonment

Why was there no long-term sentences and prisons prior to the late 18th century?

How do we account for the rise of the penitentiary and especially its rapid growth in the 19th century?

What social and economic factors relate to this development?

Where did the idea of the jail come from?

Punishment Prior to 18th Century

Harsh and physical to say the least

Punishment was done in public often with large crowds

Some illustrations:

Colonial Punishments

         In a word, they were public and often physical

        Stocks, pillory, whippings, branding, etc.

         No prisons, although most towns had jails, but these jails resembled regular houses

         Primary method of social control was informal

        Local families, the community, and the church providing most forms of punishment.

         After the revolution the old Walnut Street Jail was converted to the first state prison

        First time for any kind of long term incarceration

        Part of a larger attempt to maintain “order” in the new, highly stratified society

 Penal Discipline 

         Rather than merely physical punishment imposed upon the body, we find a form of discipline aimed at the mind.

        Daily rituals and routines

        Inculcation of various attitudes and values (“Protestant ethic”)

        Hard labor and solitary confinement.

         This arose simultaneously with the emergence of almost identical forms of discipline in the newly emerging factory system

 Trafficking, Slavery & Prisons  

         prisoners and slaves – terms often used simultaneously

        descriptions of Spanish and French slave trades often used the terms “slave” and “prisoner” interchangeably

         Both convicts and slaves shipped to American colonies to work

        This is how the early fortunes were made

         “Eventually plantation owners found that they could save even more money by using black slaves, since they could keep them for life”

         Children were seized (often called “napping”) for shipment to American colonies to be servants.

        This practice became so common that the term “kidnapping” was often used

         American colonial history is mostly a “story of the immigration of prisoners.” 

        Prisoners “manned the ships” and “were carried to the colonies to work in the mines and fields”

        “brought in chains from African and Europe to the Caribbean and the Americas as slaves”

         Parliament passed an act to assist new businesses in the colonies

        allowed courts to sentence offenders to “transportation” to the colonies instead of to the gallows

        Thousands of offenders shipped to America to be “servants” for a period of usually 7 years.

         Between 1720 and 1765 Parliament passed 16 laws making transportation the required form of punishment for a wide variety of mostly minor crimes, such as poaching and perjury

        16,000 sent to the new colony of Georgia

        ¼ of all immigrants to American colonies were convicted criminals – this only includes those from England, as many came from France, Spain and Denmark 

Prisoners, slaves & profits 

         Like African slaves, prisoners were often viewed as “human cargoes” and mere “commodities.” 

         Advertisements were posted throughout the colonies noting the planned arrival of a particular “convict vessel,” in a manner almost identical to the arrival of African slaves.

 Forerunners of the Modern Prison  

         Saint Michael Boys Home – 1704 (Rome)

Workhouses and Poorhouses 

         First known workhouse was in Amsterdam in 1596 – the Rasphaus

·        Intent was to discipline the inmates into accepting a regimen like a factory   

·        Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island, New York City (c. 1852)

  •         Penal workhouse, Ghent, Belgium, 1773

 Panopticon Prison Design 

         Jeremy Bentham derived the idea from the plan of a factory designed for easy supervision, itself conceived by his brother Samuel who arrived to it as a solution to the complexities involved in the handling of large numbers of men

         Bentham’s Panopticon Prison Design.

Panopticon, the Factory, schools, etc. 

         Prisons and other hierarchical structures (army, school, hospital and factory) have evolved through history to resemble the Bentham's Panopticon.

         This technology and philosophy could be expanded to society as a whole.

        Many areas have closed-circuit TV surveillance (stoplights and in downtown areas) used to reduce the risk of crime.

        In totalitarian societies, Panopticon systems could lead to oppressive Orwellian conditions.

Gaols and Debtor's Prisons

It is obvious that from the very beginning jails were almost exclusively used to house the poor.

Which is why I use the phrase “temporary housing for the poor”

In fact, a term often used interchangeably with jail was that of debtor's prison


One of the most famous gaols was that of Newgate in London opened in 1188

Managed by private "gaolers," or "keepers” – early form of “privatization

Rampant corruption as you might guess

Some famous people locked up there, such as Robinson Caruso and William Penn (who ironically was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania State Prison)

Dickens wrote about this (Oliver Twist)

Poor laws

Passed in the late 16th and early 17th century this was an attempt to control the “surplus population” following the famous “black death”

Within the Settlement Act of 1662 there is the creation of a “workhouse.”

This term often used interchangeably with “poorhouse”

Walnut St. Jail - see photo here:

Images of these old prisons can be seen here:

 Pennsylvania and Auburn Systems   

         Belief that criminals lacked respect for authority and proper work habits led to the adoption of the Auburn system

        Hard labor was the cure.

         Belief that criminals were “sinners” and needed to “repent” for their crimes led to the adoption of the Pennsylvania system

        Solitary confinement with the Bible was the cure


         Originated in the medieval monasteries of Europe for monks who had sinned or committed crimes (hence the term penitentiary).

         Penance could be accomplished only through the use of solitary confinement and no contact with other prisoners or with the outside world.

 Pennsylvania plan  

         Each cell had an outside exercise yard, each was allowed short periods in this yard for daily exercise but spent most of the time inside the cell working at some menial task or individual craft.

         Each prisoner was blindfolded upon entering the prison to begin his sentence and was prohibited from contact with other prisoners.

 Auburn plan 

         Emphasized work in association with other prisoners

         Began in New York

        supported by business class

         “Congregate” system – prisoners were allowed to congregate in work groups

         Similar to a factory – important idea

         Silent system prevailed

        Gave rise to a “prison subculture” because of the need to communicate with others

 Eastern State Penitentiary 

         Like spokes on a wheel

Auburn Prison - for photos go to this web site:

The Reformatory, 1870–1900 

         Prisoners should be rehabilitated

         Origins in the system designed by Alexander Maconochie, who headed the penal colony on Norfolk Island in Australia in the 1830s. (

        Introduced the “mark system” where an offender can get time reduced for good behavior– today called “good time”

         Walter Crofton introduced the Irish system in Ireland’s prisons (1850s) which used indeterminate sentences and the ticket-of-leave which became known as parole. 

The Fate of the Reformatory 

         Elmira Reformatory was supposed to be the best of all possible worlds, but instead became a “garrison fortress” of brutality

         Failed to live up to the promise of reforming criminals

         One historian stated that “The whole system of discipline was repressive, and varied from benevolent despotism, in the best instances, to tyrannical cruelty in the worst.”

         Custody v. treatment constant conflict

        Custody usually wins

 Why did the “Auburn Plan” become dominant? 

         In a word: profits.

         State use, contract and convict leasing all took advantage of prison labor

         Convict leasing was the most notorious, occurring all over the south, filling prisons with mostly black prisoners, often sent up on minor or trumped up charges

         The plan fit in nicely with the emerging capitalist economy, since there was always a need for cheap labor, no matter where it was found

 Convict Leasing 

         Slavery did not end after the Civil War – yes you read this correctly.

         Another form of slavery was instituted as virtually every southern state enacted laws that ensured the continual bondage of former slaves

     Known as “Jim Crow” laws

         One method was convict leasing.

         This was a source of cheap labor to help re-build the war-torn South

         Hundreds of businesses, including the Tenn. Coal, Iron and Railway Company, a subsidiary of US Steel

          Notice the shift in the prison population from mostly white before the war to mostly black after the war

 Slavery by Another Name 

         The case of a man named Green Cottenham, arrested for vagrancy in 1908 and because he could not pay the fine he was “sold” to a subsidiary of US Steel where he and many others worked the mines

     60 died during the following year in one mine alone

         This happened to thousands of Blacks all in the South

         South needed former slaves to help rebuild and so the convict leasing system began

         Blacks were routinely rounded up on the flimsiest of charges and sent to work the mines, railroads, etc.

     With the help of local sheriffs and the KKK

         Virtually all counties had justices of the peace and sheriffs who collaborated with local businesses

     Many felonies were reduced to misdemeanors so that the offenders would be sent to local jails and then to local businesses

     Sheriffs got kickbacks and so were financially motivated to arrest and convict as many as they could – his job was more like trading mules than law enforcement

     Here’s the web site from the book I quoted from earlier

     The photos are priceless and tell the story better than words

     Keep in mind that this was still going on well into the 1960s as the “chain gang” (a carry-over from the convict lease system) persisted

         Chain gangs have recently made a comeback