Penitentiary Ideal and Models of the American Prison Essay

Penitentiary Ideal and Models of the American Prison A penitentiary is defined as a public institution where offenders of the law are to be confined for detention or punishment. Prisons prior to the 1800s were filthy, unsanitary, and often struck with disease. Physical punishments included beatings, whippings, and death by hanging. Prison inmates were often malnutritioned and underfed. Early advocates of the penitentiary considered these punishments and conditions to be inhumane and set out for a change.

These Pennsylvania Quakers combined social reforms with religious principles, which in turn lead to the revision of the penitentiary ideal. The growth of the penitentiary during the 1800s primarily consisted of two models: the separate system and the congregate system. Two main examples of these are Eastern State and Auburn. The penitentiary ideal became that of both a secular and spiritual purpose. Its idea to be different from the prisons that already existed included plans to be clean and healthy, to avoid contamination of both the body and spirit, and above all to practice corrective discipline.

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All while replacing the physical punishment found in existing prisons with a more humane punishment by using isolation, strictly enforced rules, and steadily productive labor. Its overall goal was reformation of the criminal mind. In the years to follow, two models following this new ideal were formed. The first being the separate system and the second was the congregate system. The separate system, first shown in the Eastern State Penitentiary, featured a radial design that provided complete solitude.

The cells were spacious, compared to its competition, and each cell had its own exercise yard. Inmates never left their cells and never encountered other inmates. The separate system followed the guidelines of Quaker reformative imprisonment ideal providing complete isolation of the inmates, fair treatment, and the opportunity for work, reflection, and reformation. Unfortunately, the separate system proved to be more expensive to build and operate as well as more time consuming to deal with each individual inmate when delivering meals, etc.

It was also found in later years to have caused psychological problems in the inmates most likely due to the extended amount of time without social interaction. The congregate system, exampled by the Auburn Penitentiary, rejected the application of solitary confinement. Inmates lived alone in individual cells, yet their out-of-cell time was spent working, eating, providing maintenance, performing cleaning chores, or at chapel.

These times were spent alongside other inmates, although a rule of silence prevailed and even when inmates were together, there was no speaking to one another allowed. Auburn featured smaller cells that were stacked in tiers allowing the cost to build and operate to be cheaper. One significant difference between Eastern State and Auburn was the opportunity for labor. At Eastern State the solitary confinement only allowed for an individual labor rate which meant that each individual inmate would produce as much of the product as possible from start to finish all within their cell walls.

This method did not produce as much as the group labor featured at Auburn, allowing Auburn to be more economically productive. Another difference between the two models was that the Auburn facilities did not provide an exercise yard. In the end it was the congregate system that was considered the winning model for being cheaper to build and operate and for its production of goods, which because of its design only increased with the added prison population and overcrowding that would come later on.

Eventually the separate system prisons gave up on solitary confinement and converted to the congregate prison model. Still solitary confinement was not completely forgotten and was later used as a punishment for poor behavior. Yet its reputation as a reformative punishment was no longer considered to be of any help. Reference Foster, B. (2006). Corrections: The fundamentals. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


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