Skip to main content

Corrections: Part II – Background and Jails 1878

Corrections: Part II – Background and Jails – 1878


Introduction: In the history of the criminal justice system of the United States there is considerable evidence that social welfare reformers and progressives helped improve the conditions of local jails, reformatories and prisons and the treatment of prisoners. For example, presentations and reports of standing committees at the annual meetings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction during the late 19th century reveal that social welfare leaders and progressives were actively involved in efforts to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.  It was at these annual meetings where leaders of state boards and experts in penology gave presentations and reports describing conditions in prisons and jails and offering proposals for improving them.

The founding fathers of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (1874–1898) were governor-appointed secretaries or executives of a State Board of Charities, and therefor responsible for oversight and reporting on the conditions of public institutions, including prisons. As a result, conditions of state and local correctional facilities and the treatment of both juvenile and adult felons were among some of the most important topics presented at the early meetings of the National Conference.

Background: The roots of corrections in early America can be traced back to the European system that was used in England, France, and Holland at the time when early colonists first arrived in this country. The basic concept of common law included a set of rules designed to help solve problems in society, drawing upon decisions that had been made by judges in the past. As time passed, the colonists eventually developed their own system of criminal justice, and these practices helped to develop the system of corrections in America.

There were several punishment options that existed at this time, most of which relied heavily on public shaming. The intent for this approach was to teach a lesson to the offender, with the hopes that this education would be more likely to prevent recurring criminal activity. Some of the more common punishment practices included whipping, branding, cutting off ears, and placing people in the pillory, a wooden or metal framework erected on a post, with holes for securing heads and hands. For more severe crimes such as murder and rape, criminals were punished by execution, most typically through public hanging.

Up until the 1780s, punishment by imprisonment was unknown in Europe or the European colonies. The common jail dates back to antiquity, but was used solely as a means of detention, a temporary abode for the prisoner until acquitted, fined, or subjected to corporal punishment. Corporal punishment was inflicted almost exclusively on the lower classes, since the rich were usually able to pay fines instead. All crimes not considered capital were punishable through public torture, mutilation, or embarrassment. Flogging was common. Branding with a hot iron was frequently practiced in Britain and sometimes in the British Colonies in North America. The stocks or the pillory were used for lesser crimes.

Numerous crimes or repeat offenses were considered capital crimes, and executions were public events. The death penalty was the final solution offered to compensate for all the other defects of the criminal justice system. The Massachusetts Assembly in 1736 issued a decree that a thief, on the first conviction, be fined or whipped. On the second, the offender would pay triple the fines and be forced to sit on the gallows platform with a noose around his (or her) neck, followed by thirty lashes at the whipping post. For the third offense, the culprit was taken to the gallows and publicly hanged.

By 1786, Pennsylvania had eliminated the death penalty for robbery and burglary and in 1794 restricted it to first-degree murder. In 1796 New York, New Jersey, and Virginia reduced their list of capital crimes. Other states followed, so that by 1820 almost all states had abolished the death penalty, except in cases of first-degree murder, or had restricted it to a handful of the most severe crimes.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that prisons in America shifted their focus – rather than just existing to punish criminals, prisons would now set goals to rehabilitate offenders through both education and skilled labor. Corrections in America would also make it a point to dedicate efforts towards mentally and emotionally re-training criminals so that they will be able to re-enter society when their sentence is complete.

Jails: As noted above, imprisonment was less common in the early colonial years, but the jail system soon found its way into being a staple of corrections in America. The condition of local jails was described and roundly criticized in a paper presented in 1878 at the Fifth Annual National Conference of Charities and Correction held in Cincinnati, Ohio.  In his “Report on Penal and Prison Discipline,” Joseph Perkins, Esq. of Cleveland, Ohio said:

“In the management of jails, the principle of separate confinement, although accepted by the more experienced officers of such institutions, seems to make slow progress in practical adoption. In a few of the largest jails of the large cities, and perhaps in an equal number of smaller county jails, the practice of separating prisoners is uniformly or systematically enforced. But the almost universal practice is still to allow the prisoners, old, young, experienced and first offenders, boys, debauched and debauching villains, to spend a large part of each day in mutual instructions in crime. Abundant time is thus afforded for rehearsing vile and demoralizing stories of personal adventures; and, strangest of all, in planning schemes of jail-breaking and escapes, often including the maiming or murdering of the very officers by whose leniency, indifference, or ignorance, this school of crime is permitted. It seems hardly needful to add testimony in favor of the principle of separation, and doubtless is not in this assembly; but that it may be enforced whenever spoken of, so as to convince the credulous, and arouse the indifferent, a few quotations from the highest authorities on this subject are given. In a very carefully prepared report on ” Prison Reform in the United States,” adopted by a conference of the most experienced prison keepers and observers at Newport, R.I., in August, 1877, the county jail is referred to as follows:

“The system of county jails in the United States is a disgrace to our civilization. It is hopelessly bad, and must remain so, as long as it exists under its present form.

“De Tocqueville, half a century ago, pronounced our county jails ‘the worst prisons he had ever seen;’ and there has been little marked improvement since.

“The moral atmosphere of these prisons is foul: no fouler exists.

“The effect of such promiscuous association is to increase the number of criminals, and to develop and intensify their criminality.

“Thus the country has, in its county jails, about two thousand schools of vice, all supplied with expert and zealous professors.

” Our county-jail system can not be improved, but must be reconstructed, revolutionized.”

In New York, the Committee on Prisons, of the Constitutional Convention of 1867, reported that ” there is no one of the sources of crime, which is more operative in the multiplication of thieves and burglars, than the common jails of the State, as at present organized.”

The Board of State Charities of Ohio, in its second report, testifies that—

” Ohio is to-day supporting, at public expense, as base seminaries of crime as are to be found in any civilized community.”

The Illinois Commissioners of Public Charities, in their report for 1872, say

“It is this association in idleness which is the curse and condemnation of our present jail system. Every jail is a school of vice. More than a hundred such schools are maintained in Illinois, at public expense.”

The Board of State Charities of Ohio, in its last report, referring to the separation of prisoners in jails, says, –

” It is said that separate confinement is cruel; and, under the influence of such clamor, officers hesitate to adopt and enforce it, even where jails are constructed for the purpose. But what outrage is so inexcusable as turning a young man, or woman, or boy, into the halls of a jail, knowing, as we do, that the result must necessarily be, with rarely an exception, the destruction of character and hope of reformation? In a brief separate confinement, there is hope that a person, especially if charged with a first offence, may come to himself, and resolve on amendment of life. No good citizen, choosing for his own child, would hesitate to ask for separate confinement, rather than run the hazard of the vile associations of a common jail. We can have no radical reformation of our jails, without such separation of the inmate.”

Mr. John M. Clark, Sheriff of the County of Suffolk, Mass., and by virtue of his office, keeper of the county jail, is probably the most experienced jailer in the United States, having been in charge of his jail for twenty-two years, with an average of 224 prisoners, and an aggregate of 110,000. In a letter to a member of the Board of State Charities of Ohio, he thus remarks upon this subject: —

“I should expect hell upon earth here if prisoners were allowed to be loose, and associate within the jail, and friends allowed to visit freely, and bring what they pleased. The association of criminals, or of persons held charged with crime, is an open temptation for the committal of more crime. ‘Evil communications corrupt good manners.’ It would seem to me to be a positive duty to keep all persons held as criminals, or for trial on criminal charge, from opportunity to form each other’s acquaintance, so far as possible, while in jail.”

Mr. Clark adds, in regard to his practice:

” The shortest time of confinement is legs than one day; the longest, two years. The prisoners are all confined in separate cells, except when there are more prisoners than rooms for each, when they are doubled as necessity requires.”

This, however, is a rare exception.

This line of testimony could be extended almost indefinitely; but, notwithstanding the universal condemnation of the congregate system, the enforcement of separate confinement makes, practically, very slow progress. Probably not a dozen jails in the United States today practically enforce separation.

In most of the jails, the building is so planned and constructed as to make a convenient and healthful separation well-nigh impossible. And the first essential thing to induce a general or persistent separation is a radical change in the construction, especially of the small county-jail buildings. It is cruel to confine a prisoner in most of our jails at all, and especially so, in the dark, unhealthy caves called cells. Manifestly, the essential requisites of a jail, for separate confinement, are, abundance of light, direct influence of the sun, pure air, reasonable size of cells, and a construction of the building that will enable the prisoners to be placed in and removed from their cells without the recognition of their fellow prisoners.

The first decided advance in this direction was made by the Board of State Charities, of the State of Ohio, when they published their plan for county jails, in 1868. The distinguishing feature of this jail plan is the central corridor, between the line of cells. The rear doors of the cells, all opening into this central corridor, are solid, with no opening except a small bull’s-eye, covered with a shield, movable only by the keeper, from the outside, to enable him to observe safely, or secretly when necessary, the action of the prisoners within. All the movements of the prisoners are through these solid doors, and along this central corridor; thus avoiding entirely the sight or observance of one prisoner by another, and enabling each prisoner to remain unknown to all his fellow-prisoners, if he desires it.

This arrangement carries the front of the cells well out to the outer walls of the prison; and these fronts should be constructed largely of open lattice-work, and facing each cell a window in the outer wall should be formed. This secures, if proper ventilation is adopted, abundance of light, sun, and good air, which are the first requisites of healthful confinement. With this arrangement, of course, all the constantly improving appliances for safety and convenience may be incorporated. But without the central corridor, no plan has yet been proposed which will permit one essential feature of separate confinement, – ingress and egress without the observation, and therefore the after-recognition, of the community of prisoners.

This general plan has been found practical; and nearly all the new jails in Ohio have adopted, more or less, the features of the central corridor plan. The adoption of this plan makes separation of jail-prisoners possible; the first requisite in the introduction of a greatly-needed reform. Then, with efforts which will gradually educate and enlighten public sentiment so as to induce the proper authorities to make the necessary rules for separation, and which will sustain and compel the average jailer to enforce the rules, a new era may be hoped for which will wipe out one of the foulest and most heathenish blots on our prison system.

Objections are made by the country jailer, that separation is “troublesome;” but experience has shown that it is the only method by which prisoners can be controlled, and insubordination, destruction of prison property, and planning for escape and mutiny, prevented. And, when all these considerations are well weighed, the system by which trouble may be avoided will be found to be only the uniform, persistent separation of prisoners. All jail deliveries are planned in the common hall of the prison. Remove this, and the cause of a large majority of the riots, dangerous combinations, and well-planned escapes is removed.

It is objected to as ” expensive:” prisoners cannot be used so freely to clean up the jail; and then it is expensive to carry separate meals to each cell. This may be true; but the price charged by the jailers of Ohio, the only data of this kind at hand (averaging fifty cents per day), is more than the cost of boarding, nursing, and clothing the inmates of the insane hospitals or the veterans of the Soldiers’ Home. Surely the jailers can afford board, with at least one eye to the good of the prisoner and the safety of the public, if it does lessen a trifle the profit of this perquisite.

It is again objected that separate confinement is ” unhealthy.” Mr. Clark, the veteran keeper of the Boston jail, where separation is systematically enforced, and with more experience than any other jailer in the United States, writes on this objection: –

” I consider this jail to be a sort of moral as well as physical hospital; and I do not know of a single instance of any prisoner, who came in sound and well, injured in mental or bodily health by reason of detention here. I have known prisoners of the criminal class attributing their restoration to health to their long confinement in jail, -good air, simple food, and compelled regularity of life. Occasionally a prisoner is committed in feeble health, to whom such diet is given as may be necessary; and such a prisoner is taken out into the large yard of the jail, accompanied by an officer, for change and exercise. The opportunity for reflection by separation, the regular visits of friends or relatives, always under observation of an officer, the keeping from evil associates while in jail, the obligation to keep good order and have cleanly habits, would seem to be a means to improve body and mind of all, or of such great number as to justify separation of persons held as criminals or charged with crimes.”

The right of prisoners simply accused of crime, to separation from adjudged and experienced criminals, would seem self-evident. And so the economy to the State of the enforced separation of all criminals confined in jail idleness, when thereby prolific schools of vice are broken up, is not less plain. Still, with an amazing adherence to the worst relic of the dark ages in our judicial system, the old system of “herding” is continued, undisturbed and unnoticed, almost universally.

If, now, the best method of removing the first and great difficulty in the way of an enlightened separation of jail prisoners is brought to a wider notice of the public, one object of a reference to this important subject will be accomplished.

The central-corridor plan of jail building is claimed, and apparently justly so, to be the only plan of jail arrangement which will permit a complete separation in county jails, and, so far as it is possible, prevent acquaintance and mutual recognition. We feel justified in pressing the importance of the adoption of this plan upon the advocates of prison reform as the first step toward jail separation.

Source: Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction Held in Cincinnati, Ohio in May 1878.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2012). Corrections: Part II – Background and jails. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=7934.

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

View graphic version