How the Penitentiary System Developed and Operated

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Detention in prison, sometimes referred as a correctional facility or penitentiary, is the most common form of punishment that courts opt for when hearing serious crimes. Those who commit lesser crimes are often punished by short-term custody in a detention facility or jail (Clear & Frost, 2015). The confinement of criminals for extended time duration as a form of penalty is not a novel concept since, in the course of history, criminal offenders have often been subjected to imprisonment. The use of long-term incarceration as a means of primarily punishing convicted offenders commenced in the US and was not only used as a penalty but also provided the convict with an opportunity to reform (Colvin, 2016). This paper traces the origins and development of the penitentiary system over time and the problems that arose as it evolved. It also explores how this kind of punishment has become a major development in corrections.

The Origins and Development of the Penitentiary System

Before the onset of the eighteenth century, the concept of jail or prison as a method of administering punishment was inexistent in Europe including its colonies. Despite the fact that there were jails, they were only used for holding criminals on a temporary basis while awaiting the trial and subsequent penalty. Clear and Frost (2015) show that in colonial America, prisons were among the first public structures. Debtors and political prisoners were the only people who were subjected to an extended staying in prisons. At the time, punishment came in various forms including execution, exile, whipping, flogging and public shaming. Thus, the jails in colonial America were the second alternative that served the purpose of either supplementing or substituting the traditional penalties used during the day (Neubauer & Fradella, 2016). The colonial prison is a stark contrast of the present day one in terms of purpose as well as structure. Most of them were closets or cages where inmates had to rent the bed and pay the jailer for any needs. Just before the American Revolution ended, there had been very few regulations that outlined the duty of care and responsibilities for the colonial jailer; as a result, upkeep was usually disorganized, and prison escapes were frequent (Currie, 2013). There were virtually no efforts aimed at maintaining the health and tending to the basic needs of the imprisoned.   

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The first significant reform of prisons used in the post-colonial America took place just after the Revolution, at the beginning of the 19th century (Clear & Frost, 2015). It was motivated by the growth in population and the increase in social mobility; as a consequence, there was the need to reassess and revise the corrective mechanisms used in the penal system. The demographic shift witnessed during the 18th century happened together with the changes in the crime configuration in the US. For instance, following 1700s, there was a significant rise in property and other crimes which resulted in sharp growth in the conviction rates in the course of the second half of the 18th century (Colvin, 2016). As a result, reformers together with post-colonial lawmakers started emphasizing the need for a system that used hard labor as a substitute to the traditional and corporal methods of punishment. They were of the view that the barbarism associated with punishments of the colonial era based on the English penal code was more detrimental than beneficial. By the second decade of the 19th century, nearly all states had changed their penal code to accommodate incarceration with hard labor as the primary punishment for all offenses except serious crimes (Colvin, 2016). In the end, these initiatives played a crucial role in the establishment of the first penitentiary systems in the US. The legal change that occurred after the American Revolution helped spur prison construction; however, penal reformers placed emphasis on incarceration itself rather than the impact of the system on the offender.

The Jacksonian Era marked another development in the penitentiary system in the US, especially with respect to the prevalent utilization of rehabilitative labor and imprisonment as the main form of punishment for majority of the crimes in almost all states (Colvin, 2016). The mentioned period was characterized by a shift from the primary emphasis on the legal system towards the rehabilitation of the offender. From the 1820s, the institution of the penitentiary started becoming the keystone of the US criminal justice system (Colvin, 2016). Its primary aim was counteracting the immorality and the disorder perceived to be contributing to crime in America. At the same time, the reformers began exploring the roots of crime by looking at the histories of criminals (Colvin, 2016). For the reformers, the penitentiary was a corruption free environment for offenders to learn crucial moral lessons.

The next phase in the development of the penitentiary system in the US occurred during the Reconstructive Era and was marked by prison abuses, brutality, and using jails as labs. The American Civil War resulted in rejuvenated efforts aimed at reforming the US justice system and outlining the justification for imprisonment (Neubauer & Fradella, 2016). As a result, the majority of the state prisons constructed during the Jacksonian Era were unchanged, which led to their deterioration in terms of physical condition and administration. Although the emphasis of the penal regime was still on rehabilitating the offender, more attention during the Reconstruction Era was focused on utilizing institutional inducements for influencing a change in the behavior of the offender (Currie, 2013). The penology of that time also placed emphasis on the emergent scientific views associated with heredity and race. In the northern states, prison officials faced major issues including understaffing and overcrowding; as a result, they resorted to brutal punishments such as solitary confinements to control inmates. Abuses in jails were also common during this period.

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The Progressive Era is another important stage in the development of the penitentiary system in the US. The main focus was on the adoption of novel mechanisms into the US penal practice such as indeterminate imprisonment, probation and parole (Clear & Frost, 2015). The reforms initiated during this era remain a key feature of the contemporary penitentiary system in the US. Emphasis was placed on improving the quality of life for inmates; hence, prison programs such as recreation, libraries, education classes and vocational training were implemented into the system during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Clear & Frost, 2015). Moreover, juvenile and women prisons started emerging. With the growth of cities, there was an expansion of the prisons and the population of the facilities. Furthermore, the 20th century was also characterized by a change in penal policies as evident by the shift in prisons being perceived as correctional facilities towards being viewed as institutions established to ensure that social order is maintained and that unwanted individuals are isolated. This opinion led to the construction of prisons in rural areas located far from cities that were homes to criminals.

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The Role of the Penitentiary System in Corrections

Prisons play a crucial role in corrections. When people violate the laws needed to maintain the common good, they should be punished and taught to behave in ways that are more socially acceptable. In such a case, prison plays a corrective function. First, it acts as a permanent threat for those having the intentions of breaking the law (Clear & Frost, 2015). Jails also ensure the safe custody of convicted suspects and offenders by executing the sentences that courts have imposed on these individuals. They also play rehabilitative and reformative roles for criminals through various ways including moral training, providing them with opportunities to enhance their potential in order to ensure that they effectively reintegrate into the society after they have been discharged (Colvin, 2016). The prison system also exists to make sure that welfare of the convicts is well taken care of including good health, food, recreation, and clothing (Currie, 2013). Thus, one has to guarantee the penitentiary system creates an environment that can foster rehabilitation and reformation.

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Problems that Arose as the Penitentiary System Developed

Throughout the development of the penitentiary system, numerous challenges have been witnessed. The first problem relates to prison overcrowding. From its formative years, the penitentiary system has struggled with  the mentioned issue which can be explained by the continuing population growth and an increase in crime in the course of the US history amidst slow pace of prison construction (Colvin, 2016). At present, there are about 2.3 million individuals under incarceration in the US. The second problem that the penitentiary system suffers from is understaffing, which commenced during the Reconstruction Era. Because of it, prison officials have resorted to brutal means of controlling inmates such as solitary confinement and caging inmates (Clear & Frost, 2015). The privatization of prisons is yet another issue which is a growing trend attributed to prison overcrowding (Clear & Frost, 2015).


Criminal punishment through imprisonment has its roots in the US just prior to the onset of the American Revolution. Before the American Revolution, dungeons and detention facilities that acted as jails existed. Efforts to build these facilities in the US commenced during the Jacksonian Era which was characterized by the prevalent utilization of rehabilitative labor and imprisonment as the main form of punishment for the majority of the crimes in almost all states. The Progressive Era marked another important phase in the development of the penitentiary system with the emphasis on the use of novel mechanisms such as probation and parole in order to influence the behavior of offenders. Throughout its development, the penitentiary system has struggled with a number of problems including overcrowding, understaffing, and privatization trend.