From Poorhouses to Jails, Same Function, Different Time




In David Wagner’s book, The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution, one can find evidence of a direct chain connecting the modern jail with what were known variously as “poorhouses,” “almshouses” and “houses of correction.”  For instance, one poorhouse he studied was the Carroll County (New Hampshire) Poorhouse, opened in 1870.  One of literally thousands of similar institutions that existed throughout the United States in the 17th and well into the 20th century, it has gone through several transformations (including a “house of correction”) and is now the location of the county jail.  Similarly, Rockingham County, New Hampshire, had what was called a “poor farm,” which was opened in 1868; now it is the location of the Rockingham County Jail.[1] His research also found that throughout the history of the poorhouse in America, the residents were often referred to as “inmates” – whether it was called a poorhouse, almshouse or jail.

No matter what time period we are talking about, these various institutions functioned to isolate and punish those deemed to be “dangerous” or described with such terms as “rabble,”[2] “social trash,” “social refuse,” “social junk,”  “riffraff,” “dregs,” etc.[3]

Here in the 21st century we find that during the course of a year, around 13 million people are arrested and taken to jail.[4]  The vast majority of those who end up in a local jail do not get a “get out of jail free card” like you would in the famous game of Monopoly. Most have little or no capital with which to secure their release.  An old saying applies here: “those without capital get punishment.” The vast majority of defendants in criminal courts cannot afford an attorney – they are labeled as “indigent” (synonyms include such terms as “poor,” “impoverished,” “destitute”) – in fact, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of those charged with a crime cannot afford an attorney and thus are indigent.[5] In short, jails are still “poorhouses.” 

These modern poorhouses have seen a constant and ever-increasing flow of “inmates.” According to the latest figures (June, 2010) there were about 750,000 people in jail, which was an all-time high (up from 621,000 in 2000); the jail incarceration rate (per 100,000) stood at 242 (up from 226 in 2000). Going back further in time we find that in 1985 there were 256,615 in jail and the rate stood at 108.[6] In other words, the number of those in jail has increased by more than 200 percent and the jail incarceration rate has gone up by 124 percent during this period of time.

 A majority of inmates in jail are racial minorities.[7] The total population of many jails is the equivalent of many small towns, with Los Angeles County leading the way with almost 17,000.[8] Virtually every large city and small town has at least one jail.  Jails are ubiquitous features of modern life.  Many old jails – some dating back to colonial times - often remain standing as tourist attractions.[9]  The modern jail is a purely local institution (mostly city or county operated) that in effect provides “temporary housing” for the poor.  Usually you will find four types of prisoners in jails: (1) those serving short sentences for misdemeanor convictions (normally “public order” crimes like disturbing the peace, drunkenness, vagrancy, loitering, along with petty thefts and “contempt of court” - often failure to pay traffic fines), (2) those who have been convicted of a felony and awaiting transfer to a prison, (3) those on hold temporarily for other jurisdictions (including federal offenders) and, (4) those awaiting their final court disposition.  Those waiting for their final court disposition constitute the largest category of jail prisoners.  In other words, they have not as yet been found guilty (although most will eventually plead guilty).  More importantly, they are in jail mostly because they cannot afford bail, usually a relatively small amount ($500 or so).  As stated above, jails are the modern-day equivalent of “poorhouses,” or as one writer has suggested, “the ultimate ghetto of the criminal justice system.”[10]

In fact, a cursory look at the criminal court system reveals that social class and race play a major role. The bulk of cases coming before these courts, in sharp contrast to those coming before the civil courts, involve defendants from relatively poor and low-income backgrounds. Also, like the society which surrounds it, the American bar system is itself highly stratified, with the majority of criminal lawyers occupying the lowest position within this hierarchical system.  Thus, it is the lowest status in the field of law defending and prosecuting the lowest status in the field of law violation and being judged by the lowest status in the judiciary (local judges rank the lowest on the judicial totem pole, as any close look at the qualifications for those running for local judgeships will reveal - especially in the “justice of the peace” and “municipal” courts).  However, even in this “lowest status” of the criminal justice field, those being processed remain even lower, while those doing the processing come mostly from backgrounds higher in status (whether measured by income, education or other factors).

At this time we will take a look back in time and see where these institutions came from.  The methods used to deal with those living on the margins of society have fluctuated from “indoor relief” to “outdoor relief” throughout this history.[11]  Almost without exception, in both types of “relief” one of the goals has been to place such persons more or less “out of sight and out of mind.”  Today the dominant form is “outdoor relief” – various forms of welfare assistance.  However, it could easily be argued that prisons and jails are forms of “indoor relief” for the poor.

Early History: the English “Gaol”

The modern jail actually originated in England with the Norman Conquest in the 11th century.  Under Henry II the jail (or to be more precise, the English term goal[12]) began to take on characteristics and functions known today.  Henry II sought to establish at least one jail in each county, under the control of a local sheriff.  By the 13th century all but five counties had a jail.  It should be noted that the county sheriff was a royal appointment, “a functionary who upheld his master's interests against local powers.”[13]  Social control by the King was thus relegated to the local level, thereby masking the true sources of control.  This was a more sophisticated method of controlling the “rabble.”

It is obvious that from the very beginning jails were almost exclusively used to house the poor.  In fact, a term often used interchangeably with jail was that of debtor's prison (see below). It was ironic that, on the one hand the financing of local jails depended upon user fees paid to jailers, yet on the other hand, the majority of jail prisoners were drawn mostly from the poorest classes.  One eighteenth-century reformer noted that such fees were extracted “from misery.”[14] 

Not surprisingly, corruption was rampant during this entire period, yet little was done to correct the problem.  This was probably because, then as now, much profit was to be made from the existence of crime.  The jails of London functioned as “brothels, taps, criminal clubs, and asylums for thieves, robbers, and fraudsmen, and when their raw material - prisoners - threatened to run out, minions would bring false charges to replenish the supply.”  Also not surprisingly, the well-being of the prisoners was virtually ignored.  As a result of their poverty, many either starved to death or died from some disease.[15]

In the American colonies, several “gaols” were built, including one in Williamsburg, Virginia (designated as the capital of the colonies), opened in 1704, known as the “Public Gaol.”  Among those who were confined in this institution were debtors, runaway slaves and sometimes the mentally ill. During the American Revolution, the gaol held Tories, spies, military prisoners, deserters, and traitors.[16]

One of the most famous gaols was that of Newgate in London.  This institution was built in 1188 on the orders of Henry II at the corner of Newgate and Old Bailey (it was referred to as the “old city gate and prison”). According to law, it was to be managed by the local sheriff who in turn contracted the duties to private "gaolers," or "keepers," in return for certain fees. (Today we would describe this as a form of “privatization.”)  The keepers would in turn charge fees to the inmates who were housed there, which became a very profitable business.  Some very famous people were imprisoned in Newgate, including: Daniel Dafoe (author of Robinson Crusoe), Captain Kidd (infamous pirate hunter) and William Penn (founder of the state of Pennsylvania).  The prison was made famous in some of the novels of Charles Dickens (e.g., Oliver Twist, Tale of Two Cities).  On many occasions Newgate housed prisoners awaiting execution at the famous gallows at Tyburn.[17]

Debtor's Prisons

By the middle of the fourteenth century London jails became used as a method to extract payment from those in debt - hence the term debtors’ prison. Even though most that ended up in jail because of this could not pay their debts -  since the means to do so were taken away by the mere fact of being in jail - the actual function of the jail in this case was more as a threat than anything else.  Some debtors selected to remain in jail until their death, since this would thereby cancel their debt and save their families from being charged.[18]  Although the Magna Carta (1215) said that “a man’s body could not be taken for the failure to pay a debt,” several laws were subsequently passed that made it easy to jail a man who was in debt.  By the middle of the 17th century an estimated 10,000 were in prison because of debts. 

The debtors in England could be locked up indefinitely.  Horror stories of the treatment of people in these prisons began to leak to the outside world and by the middle of the 19th century some progress began to be made, sparked no doubt by the attention given to the problem by Charles Dickens in his famous novels David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers, reporting on the Marshalsea Prison (his own father was sent to Marshalsea Prison in 1824 for a debt of £40 and 10 shillings) and the Fleet Prison. The Fleet Prison had the worst conditions and was finally closed in 1842.  Some of the debtors who were moved from the Fleet Prison to the prison in Marshalsea had been locked up for as long as 30 years for failure to pay their debts![19] Some debtors selected to remain in jail until their death, since this would thereby cancel their debt and save their families from being charged.[20] Marshalsea Prison opened around 1329 and was closed in 1842.  It was a privately run prison that housed mostly debtors, but also men charged with such crimes as sedition, smugglers and those under court martial. It was mostly operated as a kind of extortion racket as men who could afford to pay the fees that were charged for housing them and, most importantly, it earned them the privilege of being able to leave during the day to work in order to pay off their fines.  As for the remainder (the majority), they were crammed together into nine small cells and played a waiting game in order to pay off their debts. Ironically, many could not pay the fees charged to them and so their debts continued to rise.[21]

An expose was written in 1691.  Called The Cry of the Oppressed, it revealed “shocking miseries prevailing in debtors’ prisons.”  This prompted further investigations, including one by James Edward Oglethorpe, who headed up a special parliamentary committee that exposed conditions in these prisons.  The investigation revealed “the sale of offices, breaches of trust, enormous extortions, and the highest crimes and misdemeanors,” all very prevalent in such debtors’ prisons as the Fleet, Marshalsea, and Westminster.  Several trials of four wardens resulted.[22]

Bankruptcy Act of 1869 abolished debtors' prisons, but even though technically the jailing of people because of their debts ceased to exist after that, many still went to jail on the charge of “contempt of court,” which essentially served the same purpose as before and still does today - usually for failure to pay a fine.[23]


A report in The New Yorker notes that about two-thirds of the Europeans who came to the American colonies were debtors.

Some colonies were, basically, debtors’ asylums. By the seventeen-sixties, sympathy for debtors had attached itself to the patriot cause. The American Revolution, some historians have argued, was itself a form of debt relief. In 1787, just before the Constitution was drafted, New Yorkers formed the Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors. They launched an investigation and found that, of 1,162 debtors committed to debtors’ prison in New York City in 1787 and 1788, 716 of them owed under twenty shillings.[24]


Debtor’s prisons seem to be making a comeback during the current economic downtown.  Several news reports confirm this.  For instance, an editorial in the New York Times in April of 2009, called “The New Debtors’ Prisons,” reports on a case in Michigan where a woman whose son was in a detention center was ordered to pay the cost of his incarceration ($104 a month).  She could not afford to pay this amount and so the court sent her to jail.  The Times noted that the ACLU obtained her release after she spent 28 days behind bars.  The ACLU reported that growing numbers are suffering such a fate.  The Times also noted that the practice is occurring in Georgia and in Gulfport, Mississippi, until recently the police regularly did sweeps of the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, identified people with unpaid fines, and put them in jail. Defendants who could not pay were forced to remain there until they “sat off” their fines. The city ended the practice after it was sued.”[25]

          In another report a woman in Indiana a woman was sentenced a 30-day jail term for missing payments on a debt of $110.[26]  Barbara Ehrenreich (in an article appropriately titled “Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?”) reports that in Texas “people who can’t afford to pay their traffic fines may be made to ‘sit out their tickets’ in jail.”[27] The St. Petersburg Times reported that: “In a little-noticed trend blamed on the state's hard economic times, several courts in Florida have resurrected the de facto debtor's prison — having thousands of Floridians jailed for failing to pay assessed court fees and fines.”  They reference a study by the Brennan Center at New York University School of Law reported that: "In Leon County's Collection Court, defendants who fail to pay their court-ordered costs and fines — often hundreds of dollars — are notified to appear at Collections Court and later arrested if they don't show. In the 12 months studied, there were 838 arrests for not appearing in court or failing to pay what was owed. Most people spent hours in jail, but some were held for a week or more.” Although technically it is unconstitutional for throwing people in jail for failure to pay their debts, “Florida officials get around this by claiming the defendants are going to jail not for their debts but for violating a court order.” [28] 


The Use of Bail


Jails in the American colonies served similar functions, but in time became temporary holding facilities for those awaiting court appearances or those serving short sentences.  Most of those who could secure their release pending their day in court did so through the system of bail.    The use of bail dates back to early English society (at least as early as 1000 A.D.) and was originally established to insure that an accused appeared for trial.[29] 

This practice goes back to the practice of mutual responsibilities of the collective; more specifically, groups of ten families (under the control of a man known as the “tithingman”)[30] to insure obedience to the law. Prior to the Norman invasion,[31] policing was a community responsibility (as it was in all feudal societies).  Each village in England was divided into units of ten families, called tythings.  In each tithing a person known as a tithingman was responsible for keeping order in his section of the village (his section being similar to what are called “beats” in modern policing).  A system known as the mutual pledge system was used whereby small sums of money were awarded to citizens who reported crimes to the tithingman or who responded to the tithingman's “hue and cry” (an announcement that a crime had occurred).  In addition to catching thieves, the tithingman also reimbursed those who lost property. The mutual pledge system and other forms of citizen participation in crime control were forerunners of the vigilante, the bounty hunter, and similar forms of citizen arrest.[32]

The families in effect “pledged” to ensure the defendant appear in court.  Crime prevention in those early years was a collective responsibility, which was very practical in small, agrarian communities.  Such a concept no longer applies in modern societies, characterized by much mobility and anonymity.  Bail has thus come to stand for a different sort of “pledge” - a monetary or property form of pledge, often through the defendant's family, relatives or friends.  The problem today is, of course, the fact that most accused people come from the poorest sectors of society.[33]  No wonder the places offenders who could not make bail ended up in what were called “poorhouses.”


The Elizabethan Poor Laws and the Emergence of Poorhouses


Jails have served still another function.  For years, starting at least as far back as the mid-fourteenth century, jails were almost synonymous with what were then called poorhouses.[34]  More specifically, this function of the jail can be traced directly to the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, also known as the Act for the Relief of the Poor.[35]  These laws were an outgrowth of several social and economic changes in England, starting with the decline of monasteries and the disappearance of the medieval methods of charity for the poor.  With the coming of the Black Death 1348-49 labor became short in supply while wages increased. In order to keep wages at their former level and control labor the Ordinance of Labourers was passed in 1349. This law forced the "vagabond" and other undesirables to accept work at the prevailing wage or go to the workhouse.  Although the law did not specifically mention workhouse, it did say that “materials should be bought to provide work for the unemployed able-bodied."

In 1388, the Statute of Cambridge restricted the movements of all laborers and beggars. This is often regarded as the first English poor law, but it had a very limited impact because of lack of enforcement. At the end of the next century (1494), the Vagabonds and Beggars Act was passed.  This decreed that: "Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town.” Then in 1547 the Statute of Legal Settlement provided that a “sturdy beggar could be branded or made a slave for two years (or for life if he absconded).”

The Act of 1536 required “Churchwardens” to collect alms and place them in a “common box” so as to provide handouts for those who could not work. “At the same time, the idle and the able-bodied poor were obliged to perform labour, with punishment for those who refused.” In 1572 a local property tax, known as the “poor rate,” was passed and was to be used to relieve “aged, poor, impotent, and decayed persons.” Then the Act of 1564 was passed, which took direct aim at suppressing “'roaming beggars.”  This law empowered parish officers to find places for the “habitations and abiding” of beggars.  This was one of the first references to what would eventually become the “workhouse.” In 1576 the Act for Setting the Poor on Work “provided that stocks of materials such as wool, hemp, and flax should be provided and premises hired in which to employ the able-bodied poor.”

In 1597, an Act for the Relief of the Poor “required every parish to appoint Overseers of the Poor whose responsibility it was to find work for the unemployed and to set up parish-houses for those incapable of supporting themselves.”


        Finally, in 1601 under the reign of Elizabeth I, a new Act for the Relief of the Poor refined the 1597 Act, and this is often cited as marking the foundation of the "Old Poor Laws."  Popularly known as the Elizabethan Poor Law (or simply the Poor laws), the objectives were as follows:


The next noteworthy development was the passage of the Settlement Act in 1662. Within the act itself we find the first specific reference to a “workhouse.”  Here are the exact words: “That from thenceforth there be, and shall be, one or more Corporation or Corporations, Work-house or Work-houses…”  And further the act specified “whereas Constables, Headboroughs or Tithingman, are or may be at great Charge in relieving, conveying with Passes, and in carrying Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars to Houses of Correction or the Work-houses.”[36]  This was followed by the passage of the Sir Edward Knatchbull's Act of 1722-3. The purpose of this act was to amend the Settlement Act which enabled workhouses to be set up by local parishes. This act set up what was called the “Workhouse Test” or “that the prospect of workhouse should act as a deterrent and that relief should only be available to those who were desperate enough to accept its regime.”  The probable origin of this test was from a man named Matthew Marryott, who was a workhouse manager from Buckinghamshire.  He had opened his first workhouse in a town called Olney in 1714.  He promoted the operation of many workhouses in the south of England.   It is highly probable that he participated in the 1725 publication of An Account of Several Work-houses for Employing and Maintaining the Poor, published by the “Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.” one of the earliest directories of parish workhouses in England. The first edition listed a total of 126 workhouses and a subsequent 1732 edition added another 55 to the list.  One recent study, however, estimates that there may have been as many as 700 workhouses in England at that time.[37]  Reports from Parliament in 1776-7 estimate as many as 2,000 parish workhouses in both England and Wales. 

          The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which was set up to end, for all practically purposes, outdoor relief of the poor and established “Poor Law Unions” among the approximately 15,000 parishes in England and Wales, each one with its own workhouse.  Ireland and Scotland eventually set up a similar scheme.  This act at first set up separate workhouses for different types of pauper (the old, the able-bodied, children etc.), but this was eventually replaced by a single “general mixed workhouse.” The new workhouses were designed to separate different categories of inmate. The first workhouse to be opened under the new scheme was at Abingdon in 1835.  

“Hard labor” (which evolved into the infamous “rock pile,” the “chain gang” and similar punishments) became a standard form of punishment for those not even convicted of a crime, but only because of their poverty. In time it became difficult to distinguish between the pauper (the common term for a person living in poverty) and the vagabond (those who wandered about the country without working).  (Eventually, in the United States, these two terms were replaced by welfare dependent and petty persistent offender, vagrant, and in time even the “mentally ill.”[38])

The entire process, starting with the Elizabethan Poor Laws, turned thousands of propertyless and powerless peasants into a mass of wage-laborers (or proletarians) that were forced to emigrate to the cities and towns in search of work.  However, there were more people than there were occupations and jobs available (a condition that has remained throughout the history of capitalism).  This created a problem in “social control” in terms of how to control the newly created surplus population.[39]  This refers to a more or less chronically unemployed segment of the population, primarily because of mechanization which renders them “redundant” and hence “superfluous” as far as producing profits is concerned.  This segment helps keep wages down and is absorbed back into the general working population when labor is scarce.  This group is also a “lever of capitalistic accumulation” and in fact is “a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production.”[40] This new class of paupers, vagabonds, beggars and vagrants was created by and in turn “criminalized” by the state and sentenced to a term of confinement at hard labor in the houses of correction.

The reader should note the obvious fact that these laws and the subsequent institution of the workhouse were methods of controlling the poor or the “surplus population.”  In many cases workhouses were not permanent homes for the poor, as some were known as the "ins and outs," or people who entered and left quite frequently, depending upon the availability of work.  Thus for them the workhouse was like a kind of “guest-house.”  Throughout the 20th century and to the present day, jails have functioned in a similar manner, with some (especially the homeless) going from the streets, to shelters, to jail and then repeating the cycle.[41]

Now we turn to the development and growth of “workhouses” and “houses of correction,” terms used interchangeably over the centuries.  These in turn led directly to the English gaol and modern jail.  

Workhouses and Houses of Correction

The first house of correction/workhouse was known as the Rasphuis (sometimes spelled Rasphaus) which opened in 1596 in Amsterdam.[42] This was for young male offenders and at the time represented a significant shift in the thinking about crime. (On the entrance gate are the words “Wilde beesten moet men temmen” or “Wild beasts must be tamed by men.”  The gate remains standing today standing near a shopping center.)  Under this system offenders were sentenced for a short term and made to shave wood from a tree called the brazilwood (a timber from Brazil) and then “rasp” it into powder (hence the name Rasphuis).  The product was then made into a dye. For a time the Rasphuis had a monopoly of this process.[43]   Within a few years this institution “began to be exploited as a source of cheap labour and the rehabilitation goals envisaged by the founders were lost.”  Increasingly, adults were incarcerated there and it was finally closed in 1815.[44]

 In this and similar institutions that sprang up throughout Europe and later in America we find the beginnings of the shift toward punishment of the mind in the form of the inculcation of “habits of industry.”  One purpose of the Rasphuis was to impose the kind of discipline and regimen similar to a factory.  Furthermore, the organization of these workhouses “anticipated the compulsive regimens of isolation and hard labor to be pursued far more thoroughly in the penitentiary.”[45]  These workhouses were more fully developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the shape of a gigantic “workhouse for the industrial worker himself” known as the “factory.”[46]  Indeed, the prison system was at least partly modeled after the factory.   The 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s invention of the Panopticon design for a penitentiary was used almost simultaneously as a design for the early factory system.[47] In fact, he developed this model not just for prisons but for “houses of industry,” “poor houses,” hospitals, factories, mental institutions and even schools.[48]  Both the early prisons and the factories “emphasized regularity and punctuality” and by “instilling order in its inmates, the prison was, in effect, helping to guarantee discipline and regularity in those who arrived each morning at the factory gate.”[49] 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. Prisons and other hierarchical structures (army, school, hospital and factory) have evolved through history to resemble Bentham's Panopticon design.

Bentham’s plan can be clearly seen in a series of letters he wrote during the late 18th century, which have been reproduced on a web site.  In one he wrote the following:

It occurred to me, that the plan of a building, lately contrived by my brother, for purposes in some respects similar, and which, under the name of the Inspection House, or the Elaboratory, he is about erecting here, might afford some hints for the above establishment. To say all in one word, it will be found applicable, I think, without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection. No matter how different, or even opposite the purpose: whether it be that of punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless, curing the sick, instructing the willing in any branch of industry, or training the rising race in the path of education: in a word, whether it be applied to the purposes of perpetual prisons in the room of death, or prisons for confinement before trial, or penitentiary-houses, or houses of correction, or work-houses, or manufactories, or mad-houses, or hospitals, or schools.[50]

Some prison reformers, including John Howard, were influenced by hospital reformers of the period. The hospital reformers wanted to habituate the poor to cleanliness, since the sicknesses of this class of people "were interpreted as the outward sign of their inward want of discipline, morality, and honor."   Physical diseases were correlated with moral problems and the poor, it was believed, needed to be taught to be clean and to be "godly, tractable, and self-disciplined."  And "once the bodies of the poor were subjected to regulation, their minds would acquire a taste for order." [51]

It is hardly a coincidence that similar behavior was required of factory workers.  Among the men who actively supported Howard's reforms were leading scientists, academics and manufacturers. Some prison reformers, including Howard, were influenced by hospital reformers of the period.  The hospital reformers wanted to habituate the poor to cleanliness, since the sicknesses of this class of people “were interpreted as the outward sign of their inward want of discipline, morality, and honor.”   Physical diseases were correlated with moral problems and the poor, it was believed, needed to be taught to be clean and to be “godly, tractable, and self-disciplined.”  And “once the bodies of the poor were subjected to regulation, their minds would acquire a taste for order.”[52] Ignatieff says that the manufacturers were:


…best known as the fathers of the factory system and scientific management.  Besides introducing mechanization, extended division of labor, and systematic routing of the work process, they also devised the new disciplines of industrial labor: punch clocks, bells, rules, and fines.  In order to reduce turnover and stabilize the labor force in their early factories, they provided schools, chapels, and homes for their workers in model villages. Regimentation along these lines would uplift the morals of the workers and eliminate their vices, according to the reformers.  If this type of regimentation did not produce the desired results, there was always the workhouse and the prison.[53]


Howard and other reformers believed that crime was a product of unregulated, undisciplined and immoral lives and the required corrective was a strict regime of routinization and regulation, including the “repentance” of one's sins (hence the name “penitentiary”). Foucault describes the new form of punishment, which he called a “gentle” form of punishment, as follows:


As for the instruments, these are no longer complexes of representation, reinforced and circulated, but forms of coercion, schemata of constraint, applied and repeated.  Exercises, not signs: sign-tables, compulsory movements, regular activities, solitary meditation, work in common, silence, application, respect, good habits.  And, ultimately, what one is trying to restore in this technique of correction is.. .the obedient subject, the individual subjected to habits, rules, orders, an authority that is exercised continually around him and upon him, and which he must allow to function automatically in him.[54]


Prisons, workhouses, jails and poorhouse were controlling institutions “designed to shape an emerging industrial proletariat.” It was obvious that neither the control of crime nor humanitarianism was the major factors in development of these institutions; rather, “discipline and surveillance were the objectives of the new institutional web.”[55]

          The first official “workhouse” in England was in Abingdon, Berkshire, which actually started out in about 1416 as church-supported effort to provide relief for the poor.  In 1631 the mayor of the city announced that “wee haue erected wthn our borough a workehouse to sett poore people to worke” (note the English writing at the time).  By the 1830s it became one of hundreds of similar institutions built and opened throughout England.  The following description of the workhouse at Abingdon typifies other workhouses:


Life inside the workhouse was intended to be as off-putting as possible. Men, women, children, the infirm, and the able-bodied were housed separately and given very basic and monotonous food such as watery porridge called gruel, or bread and cheese. All inmates had to wear the rough workhouse uniform and sleep in communal dormitories. Supervised baths were given once a week. The able-bodied were given hard work such as stone-breaking or picking apart old ropes called oakum. The elderly and infirm sat around in the day-rooms or sick-wards with little opportunity for visitors. Parents were only allowed limited contact with their children — perhaps for an hour or so a week on Sunday afternoon.[56]


Upon entering a workhouse, paupers forfeited the responsibility for their children. Education was provided to these children but often they were forced into an apprenticeship without the permission or knowledge of their parents.  The paupers had to give up their own clothes and were given a uniform, just like most other “inmates.”[57]  One writer noted that “proponents of workhouses saw them as educational institutions where the poor, and especially the children of the poor, would learn habits of work.” [58]

          Colonial America developed its own version of workhouses following the English model and closely resembled prisons.  The New York City Workhouse, for instance, was filled with “disorderly persons, parents of Bastard children, Beggars, Servants running away…Trespassers, Rogues, Vagabonds, poor persons refusing to work…”[59]  Many of these institutions were called “almshouses” in addition to “poorhouses.”  Most of them were organized like typical “total institutions” with many rules and regulations and an internal order not unlike prisons in addition to factories, public schools and orphanages.[60]  Wagner cites the Portland Almshouse (opened in 1763) as an example of such a setup. At this institution there were a detailed set of rules including when to get up each morning, when to eat, when to go to bed (with bells ringing throughout the day reminding everyone of these times) and rules about cleanliness (e.g. all “entries and staircases, cells and cellars, must be swept clean every morning…”).  Meals were highly regimented, with one bell 10 minutes before each meal and another one ringing directing them to the dining room after they have washed up for the meal.[61]

          In addition to workhouses and almshouses, there were “poor farms” throughout America during the late 18th and 19th centuries.  One example Wagner wrote about was in Rockingham County, New Hampshire.  Opened in 1868, it remained in operation until the late 1970s.  There was also one in Worcester, Massachusetts, opened in 1772 as a workhouse, then converted to an almshouse and poor farm in 1818.  The poor farm in Haverhill, Massachusetts, opened in 1820, existed until the late 1940s, and presently a nursing home.[62]

          Jennifer Turner begins her study of almshouses in Massachusetts by noting that the name of a street in Duxbury, Massachusetts (Surplus Street) used to be called “Poverty Lane.”  This was “because it led to the ‘poor’ farm, and before it was Poverty Lane, local residents knew it as Folly Street, over which one’s folly led to the Almshouse.”[63]  He research also notes that during the period prior to the American Revolution throughout New England cities and seaport towns there was a growing “feminization of poverty” in that a “growing proportion of women, or women-headed households, became impoverished in urban areas.”  Consequently “women and children were often forced to enter workhouses because many towns, including Boston, were reticent to apply large amounts of out relief to an increasing population of poor people within the city.” Workhouses and poorhouses were built in many rural towns before the Revolution.[64]

          One of the first poorhouses in Boston was opened on Beacon Street in 1686 to provide “the necessary support of those that are sick, aged, and incapacitated for labor.” The poor population continued to grow in Boston and so another poorhouse was opened in 1738, this one to be used as a workhouse. “Town officials intended the poorhouse to receive the aged, sick and impotent poor, while the new workhouse would house the able-bodied poor who could be put to work to defray the cost of their upkeep.”  Turner remarks that “the term poorhouse in Boston's early records indicated an institution for paupers who could not work, while the workhouse housed paupers who were able to work; such distinctions overtime often became blurred with the terms being used interchangeably to describe the houses.”[65]


Jails in Early America


          In America during the 18th and well into the 19th century there was a huge growth of detached persons variously referred to as the “dangerous classes,” “rabble” and the like.  Many of these were children who had been separated from their parents because of wars, illnesses, deaths in the family and other problems.  This situation became a problem of social control from the standpoint of the authorities, especially in such rapidly growing cities in the northeast, such as Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Similar problems emerged in the Midwest and the western frontier as the 19th century grew to a close.  In the latter areas local citizens were confronted with “drunken miners, trappers, cowboys and outlaws” and therefore they began to build small wooden jails to house them.[66]

          One of the most popular laws that often resulted in a short jail sentence was the law of vagrancy.[67] The first vagrancy statute was enacted in 1349 in England.  The original law stipulated that it was a crime to give alms to any person of sound mind and body who was unemployed.  In actual fact, the law was passed in order to provide a steady supply of cheap labor to landowners and to regulate the labor force.  The prime force behind this law was the famous Black Death of 1348-1349, the pestilence that reduced the population in England by about one-half.  Among the results of this wave of pestilence was the reduction in the size of the labor force and the corresponding reduction in the profits of the lords of the manors and other employers. 

This period witnessed a significant change in social class relations and in the composition of the work force.  What the new laws indicated was that more and more people were beginning to make their living by working for a wage, whereas before they had not (they worked the land as serfs).  Workers were becoming more mobile, searching for the best jobs at the highest wages.  In short, it was the beginning of a capitalist economic system.  Such a system would become a constant battleground between owners and workers (still going on today).  The conflict is at the heart of the capitalist social order: it is the inherent contradiction within a capitalist system whereby the process of producing commodities is essentially a public process involving many different people, while the results of such production (in this case the profits) are privately owned. 

In response to this significant change, the landowning class passed a series of laws known as the Statutes of Laborers in 1349 (as noted above). The new law stipulated that every man “when offered service at these wages must accept it ... if any laborers, men or women, bond or free, should refuse to accept such an offer of work, they were to be imprisoned ....”[68]  This was an obvious attempt to respond to the growing poverty and the concomitant threat to social order.  It was a period when “bread riots were common and landless farmers poured into English cities” and vagrants were perceived as being a challenge to “social order.”[69]

 The vagrancy laws passed at this time were consciously designed to control the mobility of the laboring classes and to protect mostly the interests of the landowners.  The laws were designed “to curtail the mobility of laborers in such a way that labor would not become a commodity for which the landowners would have to compete.”[70] The application of such laws was spread wide, focusing not only on “vagrants” but “rogues” and thieves, along with “gypsies, Irishmen, Fortune tellers, university scholars found begging without permission, and peddlers.”[71]

In time the law was altered to adapt to changing social and economic conditions.  In 1530 the law was reactivated (after being dormant for several years) as a result of a shift in focal concern from the idle” and those refusing to work to such criminal types as rogues and vagabonds, plus others who, as noted earlier, developed criminal careers because of their marginal positions in society and the shortage of employment opportunities.  Indeed, the merchants and other capitalist entrepreneurs needed protection from those whose life conditions forced them to steal in order to survive.

Throughout American society, from colonial times, well into the 20th century, vagrancy laws continued to be enforced against those on the margins of society. After the Civil War the legal system worked to keep African-Americans in their “place,” with vaguely worded vagrancy laws (reactivated after being dormant), Black Codes, and the famous Jim Crow laws creating segregation in hotels, restaurants, etc.[72] Enforcing these and similar laws helped contribute to the infamous “convict lease” system, which existed throughout the South until World War II.[73]  Throughout the southern states following the Civil War until World War II, jails were constantly filled with young, able-bodied black men charged with minor crimes (or in some cases no crimes at all) who were subsequently convicted and fined, and because they could not pay their fines were “sponsored” by owners of local mines and factories who agreed to pay off the fines.  In return these black men were forced to work in what amounted to slave plantations to pay back their “sponsors.”  They often languished in these mines and factories for several years, many ended up dying there.[74]

          The first known jail in the colonies was in Virginia in 1792.  Other states established jails in rapid succession, such as in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and South Carolina.  In Philadelphia was built perhaps the most famous, the Walnut Street Jail (which was eventually changed to a prison to house long-term prisoners) in 1790.  Most of the inhabitants of these jails were debtors, children, the mentally ill, in addition to felons and misdemeanants.[75] Most offenders were accused of very petty crimes. A survey of inmates in the Boston House of Correction (a local jail) in 1837 shows that 44 percent were convicted of being “common drunkards,” while almost one-third (31%) were charged with larceny; the third most common offense was “lunatic” (6% of the cases).[76]

          In colonial times jails were often filled with those who violated laws related to religion.  This was especially the case in New England, as the legal system was dominated by the enforcement of laws that religious based.  For example a study of one justice of the peace court found that three offenses taken together constituted almost one-third of the cases (31.8%) – “profane swearing,” “profane cursing” (it is not clear what the difference was) and "profaning the Sabbath."   The crime known as "breach of peace" constituted almost half of all cases (48%).[77]

Religion was woven into codes throughout the colonies, but was most evident in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There were several laws punishable by death and each of these “came equipped with citations from the Bible.”[78] This is not surprising given the fact that the Bible had such a profound impact on the earliest settlers, especially among New England Puritans.  The Massachusetts Code of 1648 made the following offenses punishable by death: “Idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, bestiality, sodomy, adultery, rape, man stealing, treason, false witness with intent to take a life, cursing or smiting of a parent, stubbornness or rebelliousness on the part of a son against his parents...” Most of the codes were more or less reproductions straight out of the Bible.[79]  

One web site gives an example of several Baptists arrested and put in jail in Spotsylvania, Pennsylvania in 1768, “for refusing to stop preaching, cited with disturbing the peace,” while another person was “jailed for permitting a man to pray,” (this was the actual charge) and another example in 1774, in Northampton, Massachusetts, where 18 Baptists were arrested and put in jail for “refusing to pay taxes for the support of the town’s Congregational minister.”[80] 

In Salem, Massachusetts, the infamous witchcraft trials resulted in 200 people coming to trial, mostly women, who spent many days and nights in the Salem jail waiting for their trial and, for 19 of them, waiting for their execution. Among other offenses were heresy (which was often the foundation for the offense of witchcraft), blasphemy, Quakerism, and violation of the Sabbath.[81] 

          Architecturally, most jails in colonial America resembled ordinary houses. Prisoners were placed in rooms in these house-like structures.  Classification was non-existent and men, women, and juveniles were mixed together, with predictable. These jails held not only those who were awaiting trial but debtors, the homeless and unemployed.[82]

          Typical of many jails was the one located at the corner of Third and Market streets in Philadelphia.  In this jail “old and young, black and white, men and women were all crowded together. Here, as in other county jails in Pennsylvania at the time, it was a common custom for the jailer or sheriff to provide a bar, charging inflated prices to the prisoners for spirits. In Chester County, the English custom of charging for various other services was also in force, e.g. fees for locking and unlocking cells, food, heat, clothing, and for attaching and removing irons incident to a court appearance.”  In 1773 a new jail was built on Walnut Street, directly behind the State House.  This was, of course, the famous Walnut Street Jail, which was eventually converted to a prison.  In this jail, an estimated “20 gallons of spirits were brought into the prison daily by the jailer for sale to the inmates. It was also considered a common practice for certain women to arrange to get arrested to gain access to the male prisoners.”[83] 

Such “financial arrangements” were common among jailers (similar to those of the local county sheriff – in most cases the same person held both jobs). He was paid by the county through a system of fees. Specific items such as food, clothing, and other things were submitted to the county commissioners for money. Just like other criminal justice positions with a lot of power, the jailer was often corrupt and was notoriously known for embezzling public funds, soliciting bribes from prisoners and their families, selling whiskey to the prisoners, and abusing the inmates.


The Modern Jail: Temporary Housing for the Poor


            Throughout the 20th century and during the present time, jails have continued to function mostly as poorhouses. The current recession has resulted in a significant increase in the number of homeless people.  There is typically a cycle that the homeless experience and this includes "brief, and sometimes not so brief, stops at local jails.”[84]  One recent study of the San Francisco jail found that 16 percent were homeless.[85] Consistent with these findings, another study, using national data, estimated that homeless people constituted about 15 percent of the jail population.[86]  A report from Minneapolis notes an almost identical 15 percent of its county jail population was homeless during the previous 60 days in late 2007.[87]

In 1999 the New York Times reported on a case that illustrates the charge that the modern jail functions like a “poorhouse” and that bail is a form of “ransom.”  Most of those charged plead guilty to avoid a trial and to get the case over with (in New York City only 6.5% of the felony cases went to trial, according to the State Office of Court Administration). The case involves a Hispanic man charged with "sexually assaulting a quadriplegic man for whom he worked as a home health aide."  The accused was known for being verbally abusive toward aides and “had a long history of complaining about health aides to the agency, court records show.” 

He was unable to raise the $5,000 for his bail.  Consequently he spent 19 months in jail awaiting his trial, since he refused to plead guilty.  He was finally found not guilty.  Ironically he spent more time in jail awaiting this decision than he would have spent had he pled guilty to a lesser charge.  After some careful investigation (by a member of the public defender's office who was finally able to find time to conduct an investigation because his case load was so high) it was discovered that the alleged victim had made similar complaints to the home care agency that hires helpers to take care of people, like the victim, who need constant care.[88]

An almost identical case was reported in Seattle in February, 2008.  This case involved a homeless man who was arrested for “obstructing a public officer.”  The report summarizes the case as follows: “After a Seattle bicycle cop on ‘proactive patrol’ arrested the 40-year-old black transient for what amounted to interfering with a public urination investigation, Williams was booked into King County Jail for the night.”  The next morning the city prosecutor, citing “interests of justice," decided not to press charges. The man was supposed to be released immediately, but because of what Court administrators called “an unusual paperwork error” he remained behind bars for the next 3 months.  The man’s attorney called it “false imprisonment.”  Details of how the case evolved are provided by the writer of the story as follows:


About 7:20 p.m. on Feb. 16, 2007, Seattle Police Officer Steven Bale and a partner were working a "random proactive bicycle patrol" when they spotted Williams in Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill. Williams was "standing next to a tree ... urinating," the officer wrote. When police questioned Williams, he became "increasingly belligerent," Bale wrote. He accused Bale of spying on him, then pointed and shook his hand and finger at the officer, Bale's report says.  "Williams refused to comply with my instructions and continued closing the distance, approx 5 feet, while repeating, 'I'll show you,' and came within 1 foot of my face with the tip of his pointed finger," Bale wrote."I was unable to continue my investigation into the urination incident and was required to direct my attention towards (Williams') aggressive actions to avoid a physical altercation or my being assaulted." That's not what happened, Williams said."I was just startled. It was a reaction, that's all. He creeped up behind me, and I didn't see him. It was just a startled reaction on my part. I wasn't going to hurt anyone." For public urination, Williams was issued a ticket. But police arrested and booked him for obstructing.[89]


The accused said he wanted to get out of jail, and even kept asking guards to make an inquiry.  He also stated that the jail was similar to homeless shelters he has stayed at. “Time went by quickly, really. It was kind of like a bed and breakfast for a while.” A fairly cheap B & B by the way, as the daily cost for this jail is $103.  All together it cost taxpayers a total of $9,785 for the 95 days.



          Have we come full circle from the early years of poorhouses?  It certainly appears that way.  An estimated 3.5 million people (of these about 1.35 million are children) are likely to be homeless in a given year.[90]  It is not possible to estimate what proportion of these will spend at least some time in a local jail.  However, there have been reports of a growing tendency in many cities to criminalize homelessness and arrest the homeless and place them in jail.   For instance, a report from the National Center on Homeless and Poverty, which studied 224 cities across the country, found that:[91]



One example typifies what is happening, in this case the city of Los Angeles.  The report notes as follows:


According to a study by UCLA released in September 2007,Los Angeles was spending $6 million a year to pay for fifty extra police officers as part of its Safe City Initiative to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area at a time when the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services. Advocates found that during an 11-month period 24 people were arrested 201 times, with an estimated cost of $3.6 million for use of police, the jail system, prosecutors, public defenders and the courts. Advocates asserted that the money could have instead provided supportive housing for 225 people. Many of the citations issued to homeless persons in the Skid Row area were for jaywalking and loitering -- “crimes” that rarely produce written citations in other parts of Los Angeles.


In September, 2009 the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, proposed an ordinance called Assisting to Shelter Act.  Behind this seemingly progressive sounding name lies further criminalization of homelessness, as the act “would give law enforcement the power -- including use of force -- to compel homeless people into shelters, or alternatively jail, following an extreme-weather alert.”[92]  The writer of this story is one of the few that we know of who is aware of the famous statement by Anatole France who once praised the “majestic quality of the law forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under the bridges, to beg in the streets and steal bread.”[93]

In a series of articles appearing in the New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich notes that “if you are truly, deeply, in-the-streets poor, you’re well advised not to engage in any of the biological necessities of life — like sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering. City officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about the ordinances that afflict the destitute, most of which go back to the dawn of gentrification in the ’80s and ’90s.” She quotes a city attorney in St. Petersburg, Florida, who more or less echoes Anatole France’s famous phrase: “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance.”[94]

            It seems that the old “poor laws” noted earlier in this chapter are back again.  The modern jail is merely a reproduction of the almshouse and poorhouse of centuries ago.




[1]  Wagner, D. (2005).  The Poorhouse: American’s Forgotten Institution.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 16-17.

[2]  John Irwin uses this term to describe the functions of the modern jail.  See The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

[3]  For further discussion see Shelden, R. G. (2008).  Controlling the Dangerous Classes: A History of Criminal Justice in America. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

[4]  This is based upon the latest (2010) FBI Uniform Crime Reports. Retrieved from:

[5] Langton, L. and D. J. Farole, Jr. (2009). “Public Defenders Office, 2007 – Statistical Tables.”  Washington: Bureau of Justice Statistics, November. Retrieved from:  This report found that public defenders offices handled almost 6 million indigent defense cases in 2007; the 80-90 percent estimate comes from the following: Bannon, A., M. Nagrecha and r. Diller (2010). Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry. New York: Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved from: Much has been written on the issue of “right to counsel” for indigent defendants (the most famous court case dealing with this issue was Gideon v. Wainwright (  See National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA). “History of the Right to Counsel.” Found at: Retrieved on November 30, 2009.

[6]  Minton, T. D. (2011). "Jail Inmates at Mid-Year 2010 - Statistical Tables."  Washington: Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Retrieved from:; Gilliard, D. K. and A. J. Beck (1997). “Prison and Jail Inmates at Mid-Year 1996.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from:

[7]  Minton, Ibid.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  See for instance this web site for the old jail in St. Augustine, Florida:

[10] Goldfarb, R. Jails: The Ultimate Ghetto of the Criminal Justice System. New York: Doubleday, 1975; see also his book called Ransom: A Critique of the American Bail System New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

[11]  This idea has been developed more fully in the following works: Katz, M. (1996).  In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America. New York: Basic Books (second edition); Cloward, R. and F. Piven (1972). Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare. New York: Vintage Books.  See also Rothman, D. (1971). The Discovery of the Asylum. Boston:  Little, Brown.

[12]  The word “gaol” was the word used in England, from the Latin word "cavea" or cave.; according to another source, the word Gaviola “was adopted by Old French as jaiole and Old Northern French gaiole. In 1275, the English form of the word was written as gayhol, but it eventually split into two distinct words: jail from jaiole and gaol from gaiole, both meaning 'jail, prison.' Until the 17th century, gaol was pronounced with a hard 'g' (as in 'good'), but at this point it began to slowly take on the same pronunciation as jail. There has been a tendency for British English speakers to prefer gaol over jail, which is used more in America. This seems to be changing, however, with more recent years showing an increase in the usage of jail in Britain.”

[13]  McConville, S. “Local Justice: The Jail.” In N. Morris and D. J. Rothman (eds.), The Oxford History of the Prison.  New York: Oxford University Press.

[14]   Ibid, p. 269.

[15]  Ibid, pp. 269-270.

[16]  See this web site:

[17]; Grovier, K. (2008). The Gaol: The Story of Newgate - London's Most Notorious Prison.  London: John Murray; Halladay, S. (2007). Newgate: London's Prototype of Hell. London: The History Press; Hay, D. P. Linebaugh, J. G. Rule, E.P. Thompson and C. Wilslow (eds.) (1975). Albion's Fatal Tree:  Crime and Society in 18th Century England. New York: Pantheon.

[18]  Ibid, pp. 271-272. 

[19]  Cory, L. (2000). “A Historical Perspective on Bankruptcy.”  On the Docket. U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, Rhode Island. On line at:,%20iss2.PDF.  Retrieved on November 23, 2009; see also Barty-King, H. (1991). The Worst Poverty.  London: Sutton Publishing and George, M. D. (1965): London Life in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

[20]  McConville, pp. 271-272. 

[21]  Ginger, J. (ed.) (1998). Handel's Trumpeter: The Diary of John Grano. (Originally written in 1728-1729.) London: Pendragon Press.

[22] This information taken from Lewis, W. D. (2009).  From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (originally published in 1965), pp. 19-21.

[23] Goldfarb, Jails.

[24]How We Used to Treat Debtors.” The New Yorker, April 13, 2009. Retrieved on November 23, 2009.


[25]  “The New Debtors’ Prisons.” New York Times. April 6, 2009.  Retrieved on November 23, 2009.

[26]  Harris, M. (2009). “Could Debtors’ Prison Make a Comeback?” April 10. CBS money Watch Retrieved on November 23, 2009.

[27]  Ehrenreich, B. (2009). “Is it Now a Crime to be Poor?”  New York Times.  August 8.  Retrieved on November 23, 2009.

[28]   “Debtors' prison— again” (2009).  St. Petersburg Times.  April 13.  Retrieved on November 23, 2009.

[29]  Goldfarb, Jails

[30]  According to Webster’s on line dictionary the tithingman is defined as follows: (1)  A parish officer elected annually to preserve good order in the church during divine service, to make complaint of any disorderly conduct, and to enforce the observance of the Sabbath;  (2) A peace officer; an under constable;  (3) The chief man of a tithing; a headborough; one elected to preside over the tithing. Retrieved on December 4, 2009.

[31] American criminal law and the criminal justice system are largely an outgrowth of the Norman Conquest and the reigns of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) and Henry 11 (1157-1189). For more on this see Shelden, R. G. Controlling the Dangerous Classes: A History of Criminal Justice in America (second edition).  Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2008.

[32] Shelden, Controlling the Dangerous Classes, chapter 2.

[33]  McConville, p. 279. See also Shelden, Controlling the Dangerous Classes.  A 1992 study found that nationwide about 80 percent of felony defendants in the 70 largest counties were indigent (Cole, D. No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System. New York: New Press, 1999, p. 66).

[34]  For a look at a workhouse in America see this web site about the one located on Blackwell’s Island, New York City:

[35]  Unless noted otherwise, much of the discussion of the 1601 Poor Law is taken from the following web site:

[36]  Ibid.  This is taken from a reproduction of the act itself, technically called “An Act for the better Relief of the Poor of this Kingdom. [May 1662.]”

[37]  Slack, P. (1995). The English Poor Law, 1531-1782. London: Cambridge University Press.

[38] McConville, “Local Justice: The Jail,” pp. 282-284; for a more detailed discussion of the law of vagrancy, see Shelden, Controlling the Dangerous Classes, chapter 1; for one of the best studies on the subject see Chambliss, W. S., “The Law of Vagrancy.” In W. S. Chambliss (ed.), Criminal Law in Action. New York: John Wiley, 1975.

[39] The term “surplus population” was popularized by Karl Marx in his famous study of capitalism, Capital (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).

[40]  Giddens, A. (1971). Capitalism and Modern Social Theory.  New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 57.

[41]  Much has been written about homelessness in recent years.  The following are typical examples: Garrison, J. (2008). “Finding L.A.’s Hidden Homeless.”  Los Angeles Times, August 23.,0,7937896.story. Retrieved November 25, 2009; Abel, D. (2009). “Budget trims lead to homeless shelters across Mass. to cut services and beds.”  Boston Globe, November 9. Retrieved November 25, 2009.

[42]  Sellin, J. T. (1944).  Pioneering in Penology: The Amsterdam Houses of Correction in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[43]  Lewis, W. D. (2009).  From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (originally published in 1965), p. 11.[44]

[45] Ignatieff, M. (1978).  A Just Measure of Pain.  New York: Pantheon, pp. 13-14.

[46]  Marx, Capital, pp. 388-389.

[47]  See the following web site for an illustration of Bentham’s Panopticon Prison Design. 

[48]   Hallett, M.  2006.  Race, Crime and For-Profit Prisons.  Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, p. 41.  

[49]   Rothman, D. (1971).  The Discovery of the Asylum. Boston:  Little, Brown, p. 111.

[50] Bentham, J. (1995). The Panopticon Writings. Edited by M. Bozovic. London: Verso, pp. 29-95.

[51]  Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain , pp. 60-61.

[52]   Ibid.

[53]   Ibid, p.  62.

[54]   Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage, pp. 128-129.

[55]   Weiss, R. P. (1987).  “Humanitarianism, Labour Exploitation, or Social Control? A Critical 

Survey of Theory and Research on the Origin and Development of Prisons.”  Social History 12:, pp. 338-339.

[56]  “Introduction.”  Retrieved on November 30, 2009.

[57]; see also the following: Driver, F. (2004). Power and Pauperism: The Workhouse System, 1834-1884. London: Cambridge University Press; Fowler, S. (2007). The Workhouse: An Everyday Tale of Ultimate Degradation. Surrey, UK: National Archives Press.

[58] Turner, J. (2003). “Almshouse, workhouse, outdoor relief: Responses to the poor in southeastern Massachusetts, 1740-1800.”  Historical Journal of Massachusetts 32 (summer). Retrieved from: She is quoting Morgan, E. S. (1975).  American Slavery, American Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton, p. 322.

[59]  Wagner, The Poorhouse, p. 40.

[60]  The most famous analysis of the term “total institutions” was Irving Goffman’s book Asylums New York: Doubleday, 1961.  Over the years scholars have used this term to describe boarding schools, the military (especially boot camp), cults, monasteries, mental institutions, nursing homes and many more.  For an unusual look at one example see the following: McGuire, T. and D. Dougherty (2009) “Parochial Boarding Schools as Total Institutions: All-Encompassing Organizational Life in the Eye of the Panopticon.” Ph. D dissertation, University of Columbia-Missouri. Retrieved from:

[61]  Ibid, pp. 42-43.

[62]  Ibid, pp. 16-17, 46.

[63]  Turner, “Almshouse, workhouse, outdoor relief.”

[64]  Ibid.

[65]  Ibid.

[66]  Irwin, The Jail, pp. 7-8.

[67]  Portions of this section are taken from Shelden, Controlling the Dangerous Classes, chapter 1.

[68]  Cheyney, E. P. (1913). An Introduction to the Industrial and Social History of England. New York: Macmillan, p. 107.

[69]  Adler, J. S. (1989).  “A Historical Analysis of the Law of Vagrancy.” Criminology 27, p. 213.

[70]  Chambliss, W. J. (1975).  “The Law of Vagrancy.” In W. S. Chambliss (ed.), Criminal Law in Action. New York: John Wiley, p. 11.

[71]  Adler, “A Historical Analysis of the Law of Vagrancy.” p. 213. 

[72]  Shelden, R. G. (1980).  “From Slave to Caste Society: Penal Changes in Tennessee, 1840-1915.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 38: 462-478; Woodward, C. V. 1955.  The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford Uni­versity Press.

[73]  Shelden, “From Slave to Caste Society.”  One of the best and most recent treatments of convict leasing is found in Blackmon, D. (2008). Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Doubleday.

[74]  Details are provided in Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name.

[75]  Bartollas, C. (1981). Introduction to Corrections. New York: Harper and Row, p. 211.

[76]  Moynhan, J. M and E. K. Stewart (1990).  The American Jail: Its Development and Growth.  Chicago: Nelson-Hall, p. 51.

[77] Osgood, R. K. 1984.  “John Clark, Esq., Justice of the Peace, 1667-1728.” In D. R. Coquillette (ed.). Law in Colonial Massachusetts.  Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, pp. 148-149.

[78] Friedman, L. M. (1973).  A History of American Law.  New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 34. 

[79] Haskins, G. L. (1969).  “A Rule to Walk By.”  In R. Quinney (ed.), Crime and Justice in Society.  Boston: Little Brown, p. 37. 

[80]  The Baptist Index, “Outline of Baptist Persecution in Colonial. America.”  Retrieved on December 6, 2009.

[81]  For a complete discussion with references see Shelden, Controlling the Dangerous Classes, chapter 3.

[82] Rothman, D. 1971.  The Discovery of the Asylum. Boston:  Little, Brown.

[83]  Johnston, N.  (2009). “Prison Reform in Pennsylvania.” The Pennsylvania Prison Society.  Retrieved on December 6, 2009.

[84] Prather, S. (2009). “Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness Disappearing Housing, Lack of Jobs, and other Factors Contributing to the Homeless Epidemic.” Seminar paper, University of Nevada-Las Vegas, December, p. 4

[85] McNiel, D.E., Binder, R.L., & Robinson, J.C. (2005). Incarceration Associated With Homelessness, Mental Disorder, and Co-occurring Substance Abuse. Psychiatric Services, 56: 840-846. Retrieved from Cited in Prather, “Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness.”

[86]  Greenberg, G. A. and R. A. Rosenheck (2008).  “Jail Incarceration, Homelessness, and Mental Health: A National Study.” Psychiatric Services, 59, 170-177.

[87]  Furst, R. (2008). “Off the street, out of jail and into a place to call home.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 21. Retrieved on December 7, 2009.

[88]  Finder, A. (1999).  “Jailed Until Found Not Guilty.”  The New York Times, June 6, pp. 33-34. Retrieved on November 23, 2009.

[89]  Kamb, L. (2008). “ Not charged, transient spends 3 months in jail – forgotten.”  Seattle PI. February 29. Retrieved on December 7, 2009.

[90]  National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (2008). 2008 Annual Report.  Retrieved on December 7, 2009.

[91] National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless (2009). Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.

Retrieved on December 7, 2009.  

[92]  Walla, H. (2009). “B.C. government wants to jail the homeless.” Vancouver Sun, September 28. Retrieved from:

[93]  Ibid.  Here is a web site where this and other quotes can be found: Retrieved December 7, 2009.

[94]  The series can be found on the following web site: