The purpose of this research is to examine the concepts of correction and penology as they have been used in human affairs throughout history. Specifically, the intent of this paper is to study the more modern concepts of penology in terms of their historical context.
Most authorities tend to agree that the use of incarceration as a means of punishing criminals is a comparatively new concept. There is no evidence (either in fact or on paper) of institutions that in any way resemble the modern penitentiaries dating back further than the last three centuries. The prison, in fact, was invented with the most humanitarian of intentions. The purpose of incarceration was, originally, to spare wrongdoers from the barbarism of corporal and capital punishment. This concept of the prison as a humanitarian institution might be very difficult to sell to the inmates of a modern penitentiary, but that was the intent of the founders of the first such prisons (Morison, 1965, pp. 400-417).
Prior to that change in societal concepts, most official acts of punishment fell into two categories: corporal and capital. The former was defended by many in that it was cheap and over with very quickly for the criminal. The latter was defended for the same reasons, although victims of this latter category of treatment might not have wanted it to be “over” so quickly. Both provided the general public with a vicious, obscene spectacle, but that was not included in official discussions of the pros and cons of the system, In England, for example, it was very common right up through the end of the 19th Century for public executions to be attended by throngs of cheering spectators. The official reports of the hangings would not report the general bloodlust of those in attendance, but concentrated instead on the notion that the crowds had attended to “see justice done” (Crime and justice in America, 1974, pp. 7-10).
Some of the other systems which did not fall into either of these two categories of correction were much more civilized by comparison. “Banishment,” for example, consisted of forcing the wrongdoer to leave the country and scene of his criminal activities for a prescribed period. While this period was sometimes life, it was as often as not just a matter of a few years. This served to adequately remove the criminal from the general population (thereby serving the same purpose as execution or imprisonment) without resorting to the barbarism of hangings or corporal punishments. Since, in many cases, the banished individuals chose to relocate permanently, they never returned to the places of their crimes. This was undoubtedly a good thing for the criminals, the general public and those who might have been victimized by having criminals present in their midst (Morison, 1965).
A similar concept was employed in Europe during the era of colonialism, especially in the British Empire. This system of forced banishment was known as “transportation.” Through this system, individuals found guilty of crimes would be sentenced to banishment from England for anywhere from a few years to life, but with their place of banishment specified in their legal papers of conviction. In most cases, this meant such new English colonies as Australia or New Zealand, where the wrongdoers were intended to serve a good purpose: the creation of colonies. The sentences of these individuals varied. Some were merely forced to live in the emerging settlements and contribute to the local economy and work force. Others were sentenced to prison colonies within these settlements, to contribute to the local work force as de facto slave labor. Those in the latter category were permitted, however, to remain in these colonial settlements after their release from prison, to live as free citizens. Since the expanding economies of the new settlements provided a much greater opportunity for honest advancement than the English slums and poor country areas from which most of the convicts had come, this was sometimes a very worthwhile sentence. The history of Australia and the other areas where this was practiced is filled with individuals who arrived as criminals, served their time and then began to build their personal fortunes honestly. The system might have gone on indefinitely (the English government was all for it on a very sound economic basis) but for the fact that there is a finite amount of land on this planet. Once there were no more colonies to be settled in this manner, other forms of correction had to be invented (Morison, 1965).
Most of these other concepts were designed to strengthen the acceptance of privilege as a way of life within society. The idea of fining an individual (making him pay an indemnity for his misdeeds) was common in the ancient and medieval world as an alternative to more drastic acts of punishment. Obviously, this system favored the wealthy, who were better able to pay the price of avoiding punishment. The poor, of course, couldn’t pay the price (Ohlin, 1973, pp. 80-81).
The concept of incarceration for criminal activity was therefore mostly humanitarian. Since many offenses remained punishable by fines (if they were minor offenses) or by corporal or capital punishment, prisons were not regarded as the ultimate manner of treating crime. It was simply regarded as one of the better ways of dealing with hardened criminals, since the world had progressed to the point where banishment and transportation were no longer feasible. By the mid-19th Century, the government penitentiary was becoming the most common manner of dealing with criminals.
This is not to say that incarceration hadn’t existed prior to the last three centuries. The difference between the ancient and medieval jails and the modern penitentiaries is a key one, however. The older prisons–which were mostly dungeons–were regarded as places where criminals could be held until their punishment was decided upon, or, in some cases, as a place where they could be tortured into confessing. The dungeons were simply the place used to hold those waiting for either trial or execution. The modern penitentiary, on the other hand, is the place where the prisoners serve out their sentences. Rather than being a mere holding tank, the prison, in the past few centuries, has become the natural habitation of the convicted criminal (Axilbund, 1976, June, pp. 265-268).
This brings up a variety of points as to the nature of the penitentiary system. As the name implies, most prisons are intended as places where societal standards of morality are upheld, according to the manner in which each nation chooses to codify those standards. It also goes without question that the modern prison was invented as a means of separating the criminal from honest society, in order to defend the latter. Beyond this point, however, there has always been considerable difference of opinion as to the purpose of the modern penitentiary system.
Some argue that a prison is a punitive institution, whose primary reason for existence is to punish the wrongdoer and thereby see to it that he commits no future crimes out of a fear of future imprisonment. The logic behind this opinion is that human beings are primarily motivated by fear and that the fear of imprisonment (if the prisons are kept as punitive as possible) will overcome unacceptable human drives such as greed and lust, in keeping the released felon honest. This argument also holds that the prisons serve to keep a good many nonprisoners honest, in that fear of imprisonment prevents a good many law-abiding citizens from giving in to the temptation of breaking the law. For this reason, the argument goes, prisons should be as punitive as possible, without becoming downright barbarous (Franklin, 1976, February 28, pp. 241-242).
The second point of view for having prisons holds that they are rehabilitative. The logic behind this argument is that crime derives from either economic misfortune or psychological imbalance. Therefore, the argument goes, prisons should concentrate on teaching their inmates to earn a living and to acquire the emotional balance necessary for an individual to function as an honest citizen. This means that prison should be nonpunitive and as positive in nature as possible, in order that the inmates will see that society is forgiving and not vindictive towards them as a group (Astrachan, 1976, November 20, pp. 12-14).
The modern penitentiary systems tend to combine all three attitudes: incarceration, punishment and rehabilitation. The American prison system is divided into units that are vastly different according to the amount of guards assigned and the degree of security that is enforced. These prisons are designated either maximum security, minimum security or varying degrees of what can be called moderate security. These denotations are subjectively based on the nature of the offenses for which the inmates have been convicted, and the number of previous arrests and convictions.
Minimal security prisons tend to hold individuals with no previous records who have been convicted of minor crimes (often plea bargained) and who have been sentenced to short terms in prison. These prisoners are often taught a trade (if they have none) and are made eligible for a variety of programs of psychiatric assistance. The phrase “minimum security,” of course, refers to the limited ratio of guards to prisoners and the comparative absence of fences and watch towers. This is based on the premise that inmates at such institutions have so little time to serve and such a comparatively agreeable place in which to live that they have less reason for wishing to escape than prisoners at more severe institutions, In addition, since those in minimum security prisons are often first-time offenders, they generally have few outside contacts to assist them if they should try to escape. Theoretically, this would make their capture a much easier matter for the police and other law enforcement officials. If such an inmate were to escape and be recaptured, he would be immediately reclassified as belonging in a tighter security situation (Mitford, 1975, pp. 79-94).
This latter point is worthy of consideration. Usually all that is needed for the maintenance of order at a minimum security prison is the knowledge on the part of the prisoners that they could be transferred out to a worse place at any time. When the nature of life at some of those other places is taken into account, this becomes a very serious threat. It does, however, make unnecessary any of the signs of power that are usually needed by guards at major prisons. Guards at minimum security houses of correction carry guns, but rarely, if ever, feel that their own safety is imperiled to the point where they must draw those guns. The same cannot be said about the more maximal security prisons.
At those institutions, the goal of society is not so much to rehabilitate the individuals as to incarcerate them far away from the rest of society. There is a large degree of punishment involved in the state’s keeping these prisoners locked up under bad conditions, but this is of less importance, in the long run, than the goal of incarceration. The inmates at these maximum security prisons are usually repeat offenders, some of them falling into the “three-time loser” category of mandatory life sentences. In theory, such individuals can be kept as a group in an isolated spot without their further corrupting each other. In practice, that is virtually impossible.
Maximum security prisons, in recent years, have tended to be the sights of open racial warfare, homosexual gang rape and, in the opinion of many penologists, breeding grounds for future criminal activity. This is due to a variety of factors, many of which are avoidable and could be done away with if a rational system of penal reform were to be instituted.
In the first place, the homosexuality that exists in these prisons is mainly the result of the fact that the inmates are being separated from the opposite sex for long periods of time. Human desires being fairly constant in nature, homosexuality is the inevitable result. Prior to this century, men and women (and children) were often incarcerated in the same prison institutions, thereby limiting the difficulties of this nature that were created. The great reform movements of the late 19th Century, which helped to create the modern prison systems, took the puritanical view that sex of any sort at a governmental institution would somehow undermine the fundamental principles of American life. As a result, the genders are segregated at American prisons, with homosexuality the inevitable result. It has been suggested by many penologists that conjugal visits be allowed at these institutions, both from the humanitarian perspective and from the educated point of view that such visits would greatly contribute to the maintenance of order. (In Latin nations, where such conjugal visits have always been allowed, it is possible to keep most prisoners in line through the simple threat of suspending the individuals right to such visitations). Except for its effect on the psychological attitudes of the prisoners, however, this is the least of the three major difficulties facing the nation’s prisons (Burkhart, 1973, pp. 361-394).
The interracial warfare that occurs within these institutions is much more dangerous and much more difficult to avoid. The Supreme Court rulings of the mid-1950s, which forbid the racial segregation of individuals at any governmental institutions (including prisons) did not explain how this was to be done in prison populations where the various racial groups already hated each other. The confined nature of life in maximum security prisons, combined with the wide variety of psychological difficulties that prison creates for each inmate, can in no way be described as contributing factors to the health and emotional well-being of those on the inside. One of the many inevitable results of this sort of situation has been outbreaks of racial violence. At many prisons, the whites and blacks are separately organized and well armed. (This is in spite of the efforts on the part of the guards to keep the prisoners and their cells weapon-free). It usually only takes one small incident to set off a small race war in the average maximum-security institution. Some prisoners have charged in recent years that this racial hostility is encouraged by the authorities, as the best means of keeping the prisoners from seeking to escape or seeking to overthrow the authority of the guards. It has also been charged by many black inmates that the guards at most prisons (who are overwhelmingly Caucasian) are racist and do whatever they can to help the white groups in these situations while hindering the blacks (Mitford, 1971, pp. 3-45).
The third and most serious situation that exists at most prisons is the prevalence of older convicts teaching younger ones the criminal arts, so to speak. This is not so much the result of any degree of brotherhood among the prisoners as it is the result of having large numbers of individuals kept together in one spot with very little to do. (Prisoners are assigned full work days but still have a good many hours of idleness). With nothing better to do with their time, many of the older convicts tend to teach the younger ones how to burglarize homes, rob banks, etc. This is one of the reasons why so few of the individuals at these institutions ever go straight once they are released. Even a comparatively short stretch at a maximum-security prison can lead to a vast increase in an individuals knowledge of criminal activity. It is estimated that a year spent inside one of these institutions provides an inmate with a de facto graduate course in the methods of criminal activity (Mitford, 1971, pp. 247-269).
This final issue is particularly troublesome when it is realized that there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it, short of keeping all prisoners in a state of solitary confinement. This method of control (which is used in prisons for short periods of time as a disciplinary measure) would be inhuman if applied to a criminal who was serving a prolonged sentence. Other than the use of solitary confinement for the entire prison population, or a vast increase in the ratio of guards to prisoners, there is no way of preventing the older convicts from instructing the younger ones in criminal activity. The individual who serves a short term in one of these institutions therefore often comes out with both a grudge against society and a knowledge of how to do something about how he feels (Wilson, 1976, November, pp. 55-58).
Partly out of a concern for what might happen to younger prisoners in this latter respect, the trend in the 20th Century has been to take juvenile offenders out of the major penitentiaries and put them in reformatories. The greatest progress of this sort was made in England during the early years of this century, with the creation of the Borstal system. These reformatories, to which youthful offenders are sentenced to indefinite terms, usually consist of no more than 50 inmates, with a higher proportion of guards to prisoners than is the case in most other prisons. In addition, these Borstals usually have teams of psychiatrists and other instructors, whose job is to attempt to rehabilitate the offenders. The role of these Borstals is primarily rehabilitative rather than punitive. While the juveniles who live at the Borstals are incarcerated (and kept away from the rest of society) they usually live as well or better in the Borstals than they did on the outside. (This is especially the case with working-class youths). In a large number of cases, these individuals come out of the Borstals with some degree of education and a knowledge of how to earn an honest living. Although many of them eventually return to crime anyway, many of them do not (Lerman, 1970, pp. 48-71).
This process of creating reformatories for youthful offenders has been practiced in America as well, but usually with less concentration on keeping the inmates in small groups. Most American reformatories house a good many more than 50 inmates, although they do tend to concentrate more on rehabilitation and psychiatric guidance than on anything else. The problem in these large reformatories is that the same situation that exists in prison begins to develop. The older inmates begin teaching the younger ones how to break the law, thereby sending them back into society with more of an inclination to break the law than they had when they went in. In addition, the inmates of these reformatories often tend to break up into gangs, with similar results to those which exist in the penitentiaries, especially with regard to race (Peck, 1954, pp. 41-49).
It must be understood that these conditions of racial strife, sexual perversion and the exchange of criminal knowledge are not encouraged by the authorities in the nation’s prisons out of a sense that this is all the inmates deserve. These situations result primarily from the unnatural situation of having a large number of individuals penned up together in a confined space with little personal freedom or privacy. A knowledge of conditions in prison has moved a great many judges to avoid using imprisonment whenever possible, in order to keep the prisons from becoming even more overcrowded. In cases where the individual who has been convicted of a crime is a first-time offender, many judges regard it as beneficial to everyone (especially to society in general) to see to it that the individual does not go to prison, but is placed on probation instead. This has left many of these so-called permissive judges open to charges of being far too lenient and unconcerned with the maintenance of law and order, but the workings of the probation system actually serve to keep the individual honest, rather than encouraging him to commit new crimes with a feeling of impunity (Ohlin, 1973, pp. 85-90).
The idea of probation is that an individual is sentenced, for a prescribed period, to release on his own recognizance and on his own good behavior. An individual who has been placed on probation, say for 18 months, is therefore in a position where he is better off obeying the letter of the law than violating it. If he is convicted of having committed another crime while on probation, the individual is subject to all of the penalties reserved by law for such blatant disregard of judicial leniency. If he behaves himself and does not violate the legal code during this period, then the interests of law and order have been served just as effectively as if he was in prison. In addition, the probation period costs the state considerably less than imprisonment and leaves the individual who has made a mistake in full control of his life, his ability to earn a living and his self-respect.
Obviously, this sort of system works best with those who have committed misdemeanors or minor felonies. It would hardly be justifiable for a judge to let a convicted murderer go free with his personal promise “never to do it again.” In cases where an individual is guilty of certain white collar crimes, or disrespect for the law in comparatively small ways, however, this probationary system is very effective as a means of ensuring that the offense is not repeated, In addition, since the convicted criminal is not left in the penitentiary situation where crime is taught on a day to day basis, the prisoner left on probation becomes free to go on living without the sort of contacts and knowledge of how to make society pay for having arrested and convicted him (Ohlin, 1973).
This system of probation has been attacked from the left- as well as from the right-wing law and order position. The more radical criticism of this sort of judicial leniency is based on the fact that it tends to create a system of class privilege under law. According to the basic principles of the probation system, an individual who has committed a crime, but who has a good job, a steady income and a position in the community is let go, on the basis that he poses no real threat to society if he is closely watched. The poor individual, with no job and no status within the community, is quite likely to be imprisoned for the same crime. This means that, under the probationary system, the rich are treated better than the poor. It also means, in a de facto sense, that the rich have less reason for feeling the need to obey the law than the poor. In short, the argument goes, this creates a situation in which the law is administered according to the size of the defendant’s bank account (An object all sublime, 1976, February 28, p. 229).
In defense of the probation system, it can only be said that the inequalities that exist under society were in existence long before the creation of the concept of probation. While this system does little to foster the idea of equal justice under the law it really does little to hinder it, since the individual with money has already had the benefits of a good lawyer and enough funds to hire private investigators, if necessary. The concept of probation is decidedly unfair to those without status in the community, but it does help to maintain law and order in a perfectly rational and logical manner. In addition, the acquisition of status within the community is now possible for a greater variety of individuals from the various ethnic groups and economic backgrounds than was ever the case in the past,
One result of this concept of judicial leniency, however, is the practice of plea bargaining. Partly as a result of a penal code that includes virtually dozens of “crimes without victims,” the nation’s courtrooms are frequently inundated with more cases than the prosecutors can handle. In this situation, a well-off individual with good legal advice can frequently arrange for parole, or a short sentence at a minimum-security prison, in exchange for pleading guilty to a minor charge and sparing both the courts and the prosecutor’s office the expense of a prolonged trial. This device has frequently been used by well-off criminals to arrange for shorter sentences when they are caught, thereby making a mockery of the whole correctional
system as it exists in the United States (Wilson, 1977, January, pp. 26-32).
Similar to the probation system is that of parole, which applies to convicted felons who have served a portion of their sentences. Under this system, an individual is released from prison and placed under the responsibility of a parole officer, to whom he must report on a regular basis as to the state of his affairs. The logic behind this system is that it enables the parolee to live outside prison without posing a threat to society. Through parole, an individual can return to what is theoretically a normal lifestyle, with an opportunity to live off of his own earnings, rather than off of taxpayer’s funds. In addition, the regulations that are a part of the parole system make it imperative that this individual stay in a well-paying job and stay out of trouble with the law. He therefore becomes a productive citizen out of a fear that he might be sent back to prison if he violates the terms of his parole.
This system is also very effective as a means of maintaining order inside the penitentiaries. The record that an individual has made for himself in prison is reported to the parole boards, along with the individuals criminal record on the outside and psychiatric history. This serves to make an individual who is hopeful of parole remain very well-behaved while in prison, a fact which is extremely valuable to the guards and other prison authorities. The parole system also serves to decrease the cost of the criminal justice system in the same way that probation does, in that it keeps the paroled individual off the streets and out of trouble, at least in theory.
Parole has been criticized on a variety of points, most of them dealing with the terms that are forced upon an individual if he wishes to be paroled. (Needless to say, the prisoner who wishes to be so released is not in a position to do anything other than to accept the terms that are offered). This usually means acceptance of whatever work is available and subservience to any police officers who wishes to question the parolee. Any minor violation of the terms of parole can lead to the individuals being returned to prison for the remainder of his original sentence. This serves to keep the police in a position whereby they can deal with ex-convicts and parolees as efficiently as they deem necessary. On occasion, it also means that an individual police officer can take advantage of the situation and use the threat of arrest for parole violation as a means of coercion. Prior to the 1950’s, it was a condition of parole that the parolee have a full-time job waiting for him outside of prison and that he hold that or a similar job during the entire period of his parole. This led to numerous circumstances of unscrupulous employers taking advantage of the parolees (Maas, 1968, pp. 191-197).
For these reasons, it is not uncommon for certain individuals to refuse parole and remain in prison for the remainder of their sentences. This is especially true of individuals who have only a short period of time left to serve and who would rather spend that time in prison than spend a much longer period dealing with the difficulties of parole. This is due to the fact that an ex-convict who has been released upon completion of his sentence is generally granted more freedom than an ex-convict who has been released on parole. This is primarily due to the fact that an individual who has completed his sentence can only be returned to prison if he is again convicted of a crime. The parolee, as already mentioned, can be sent back for a wide variety of offenses.
Complicating this situation is the fact that the ex-convict who is released from prison usually has a very difficult time readjusting to life on the outside. In the first place, a prison record stays with an individual for life and frequently prevents him from getting certain well-paying jobs. Secondly, there is a degree of shame attached to having served time in prison which makes the ex-convict the potential victim of a good deal of pettiness on the part of neighbors and co-workers. This sense of alienation frequently leads to a return to criminal activity by even those released felons who had intended to “go straight” once they were released (Tolley, 1976, September, pp. 93-96).
This is not to imply that it is the actions of society that are responsible for the prevalence of criminal activity among released felons. A good many of them turn to more criminal activity because they have acquired, during their years in prison, both a contempt for law and order and a knowledge of how to profit from crime in a big way. Others turn to criminal activity once they get out of prison for the simple reason that they know no other way of earning what they regard as a decent living and would sooner risk being returned to prison than settling for what they regard as inferior employment. Still others return to lives of crime for the simple reason that they like being involved in criminal activity. In any case, it has been estimated that two thirds of the individuals who have been confined in prisons for any prolonged period of time have committed new crimes once they were released.
For a variety of reasons, it has therefore been deemed necessary to keep as many of those convicted as possible outside of prison. More than half of the individuals convicted in the United States do not end up in prison for prolonged stays. Only a small percentage ever serve out their entire sentences without achieving parole. This has necessitated the creation of a variety of public agencies and services to deal with these individuals.
One of the concepts in penology to have been given a good deal of use in recent years has been the “halfway house” for released convicts. Under this system, paroled convicts (or those who have been released at the completion of their sentences) are given a place to live under a slight degree of supervision. The inmates of a halfway house are not prisoners in the sense that they are constantly under guard, but they remain prisoners in the sense that they can only check out for a few hours at a time. (Unless they are staying at the halfway house voluntarily upon the completion of their sentences). The main purpose of the halfway house, both for parolees and voluntary guests, is that it provides the individual ex-convict with the company of his peers during the time when he is attempting to make the transition from prison life back into society. While that may sound like an easy transition to make, it is actually a very difficult one. The differences between prison life, even in a minimum-security prison and life in the outside world can be immense (Axilbund, 1976, June, pp. 267-268).
In the first place, the life of an inmate is constantly regulated. Even the periods of comparative peace and relaxation are influenced by the fact that there is always a external force telling the inmates which hours are to be spent relaxing and which hours are to be spent eating, sleeping, and working. In the outside world, no such regulations exist. In prison, the individual has very little right to privacy. By the time he gets out, he has often forgotten how to use the time he has for his private affairs. Even those prisoners who have not been perverted by the sexual offenses that take place inside the penitentiaries frequently have a difficult time relating to their wives and lovers once they are released. Others are completely turned off on the idea of intimate relations for some months after getting out of prison. All of this can be attributed to the total lack of privacy that is necessary for the maintenance of order within the penitentiaries.
Others come out of jail with just the opposite attitude, which leads to a totally different set of problems. In the aftermath of a prolonged sentence, having been under someone elses supervision continuously for a matter of years, many ex-convicts feel determined never to follow another order again for as long as they live. In these cases, all that is required is for one police officer or other authority figure to give them the slightest hard time and the sense of resentment that these individuals feel at having been ordered around for so long comes immediately to the surface. The result of such an occurrence, obviously, is tragic (Wilson, 1977, January, pp. 27-28).
For these reasons, the halfway houses prove valuable in helping the ex-convicts over the very difficult transition period. The simple presence of others who are going through the exact same experience provides many of the released prisoners with the emotional stability that is necessary in order to make the jump from prisoner to citizen, or from animal to human being, as some might describe it.
Other programs that have been instituted in recent years include the pre-release plan, whereby prisoners who have only a few weeks left of their sentences are given psychiatric assistance and other forms of emotional help in order to aid them in their return to the outside world. Something about the nature of prison life makes these programs much more important than the outsider might suspect. In many cases, the individuals who have handled themselves the best in prison find it the most difficult to function in the outside world. The strain of learning a new set of values and acquiring new methods of dealing with society can be intense, especially for individuals who thought that most of their problems were going to end with their release from prison (Wilson, 1977, January, pp. 31-32).
Certain aspects of prison life have not changed, however. Inmates are allowed to earn money in prison, working on the state-owned farms and industrial plants that are managed by the guards in order to defray the cost of the penitentiaries. Salaries on such jobs are extremely limited, however, and as a result many prisoners come out of prison with very little money. The exceptions, of course, are those professionals who have salted away the money they stole before being sent to prison. They usually live in comparative comfort once they get released.
Another factor that has undergone few changes in recent years has been the nature of the prisoner-guard relationship. One of the facts that is frequently overlooked in the study of American penology is that prison guards often come from families which have lived near and worked in prisons for several generations. To these individuals, who are often indoctrinated from birth in the philosophy that the prisoner is subhuman and usually an enemy, the idea of treating the inmates with courtesy and respect is usually laughable. Many have an ingrown hatred of the prison population. Others have acquired a cynical attitude about the potential for reform that exists in the prisons and sincerely believe that the use of force is the only feasible manner of operating a penitentiary. Virtually every program of penal reform to have been instituted in recent decades has come into effect over the vociferous objections of the guards and other employees of the prisons. In most cases, it only takes one riot for a guard to become hostile towards the prisoner population for the rest of his life (Franklin, 1976, February 28, pp. 241-242).
The fact that riots occur in these facilities is probably inevitable. In the first place, the average penitentiary houses thousands of individuals who, by definition, are less than fond of obeying rules and regulations. Secondly, they are crowded into an unnatural ecological situation, with limited opportunity for recreation and even less opportunity to assert themselves as human beings, The outbreak of prisoner violence, far from being a surprise to most guards, is usually accepted without the slightest bit of shock. The possibility of a riot is something that anyone connected with prison life must consider on a regular basis.
For these reasons, the number of prison riots that have broken out in the last few decades cannot be written off as mere aberrations, or instances in which the prison authorities proved incompetent. Attica and the other prisons that have erupted into violence in the last decade were merely cases in which prisoner discontent got out of hand. The potentiality of such outbreaks exists in virtually every prison and penitentiary. All that is required is a spark. Once a riot is begun, it takes a very long time for it to be stopped.
This is in spite of the fact that the prisoners know that they cannot possibly win when they begin to run wild. Prison riots are invariably followed by some minor concessions in the way of reforms in penitentiary life, but they are also followed by crackdowns on all illicit activities within the prisons (this includes such common rule violations as possession of drugs and alcoholic beverages). It is also a matter of course for those guards who were regarded as too lenient to be weeded out in the aftermath of a riot, in order to ensure that such leniency is not repeated in the near future. In addition, those who are judged guilty of being the perpetrators of the riots (whether or not they actually were guilty) are often tried and convicted of that crime and sentenced to additional years in prison, with such minimal chances of ever being paroled that they are often very old men by the time they get out. That, at least, applies to those who actually live long enough to be released. Yet a great many prisoners take part in such riots, either in spite of or because of the suicidal nature of such undertakings (Franklin, 1976, February 28, pp. 241-242).
Another highly unlikely attempt at gaining revenge on the authorities is escape. This, obviously, has more appeal for most prisoners, since there is such thing as a successful escape attempt. (Admittedly, they are rare, but they occur much more often than successful riots). Particularly in recent years, since the abolition of capital punishment and the corresponding increase in sentences of life without parole, the appeal of escape attempts has increased for many prisoners. An individual serving a life sentence without hope of parole, after all, has very little to lose if he is recaptured. Many of his privileges may be taken away for the attempt, but the possibility of being free outweighs this possibility in the minds of many convicts. Even the very real possibility of being shot while trying to escape has little meaning in comparison to the possibility of gaining freedom.
These escape attempts, which go on virtually all the time at all but the minimal-security prisons, rarely succeed. The authorities usually know, within a matter of hours or less, who has escaped and how. Since most penitentiaries are specially designed to prevent escape and are located in the sort of countryside that makes travel difficult and detection easy, most escapees are recaptured before they get more than a few miles from the prison. Even when certain individuals actually do get free, they are immediately subject to massive manhunts, with the assistance of the FBI in tracking them down. For an escape to succeed, it usually requires a large number of escapees all heading in different directions once they get out, If one in ten manages to escape recapture, it can be regarded as having been a phenomenally successful attempt (Yesterday’s baby boom, 1976, March 1, pp. 65-67).
The fact that so many inmates try to escape, however, is more evidence of the need for some sort of penal reform. The penitentiary system, which began a few centuries ago as a humanitarian means of providing a place for incarceration as an alternative to more brutal forms of punishment, has, in most cases, been amazingly unsuccessful. In part, this may have been inevitable, since there are only so many cells that can be constructed to hold an ever-increasing number of convicts. As the population increases, the number of convicts is inevitably going to increase at roughly the same pace, if not faster. The overcrowding and poor conditions that result from an insufficient supply of cells and space probably cannot be avoided. They do not, however, serve any recognizable rehabilitative purpose. The individuals who are so incarcerated usually come out of prison more criminally oriented than when they entered. Part of this orientation results from a desire to “make society pay” for those years of imprisonment. The result is increased criminal activity, more arrests and convictions and, inevitably, more overcrowding and bad conditions within the penitentiaries.
It would be foolish, however, to predict that any major reforms are going to be instituted in the foreseeable future. It would be unthinkable for society to revert to either corporal punishment or mass executions for minor crimes (although there is undoubtedly a sizable portion of the electorate that would quite happily vote for this). It is also unlikely that any better system of incarceration, punishment and rehabilitation will ever be worked out. Transportation may be revived if interplanetary travel ever becomes a reality, but the thought of penal colonies on Mars is so far removed from the current realities as to qualify as almost science fiction.
Some reforms seem inevitable, however. Conjugal visits for prisoners have already been experimented with on a tentative basis at a few American penitentiaries, with predictably good results. The implementation of such policies will probably have to wait until the time when the American electorate has become less puritanical enough to accept the idea of sexual activity occurring legally at a government institution, but such a change in the electorate is clearly only a few decades off, thanks to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The acceptance of more psychiatric care and examination for prisoners also seems like a very welcome inevitability, since the psychiatrist in America is no longer thought of in terms of Viennese accents and hangups about sex, as they were several decades ago in this country. Should that occur, as it probably will, it will then become that much simpler a matter to aid certain of the individuals who until recently had been thrown into cages and forgotten.
Unfortunately, however, the majority of the prisoners of the future will be imprisoned in much the same way they have always been. The passage of years has probably done very little to change the quality of food, shelter, and clothing in prison. Since some of the individuals who are currently in prison will still be there by the time the next century turns, it seems probable that the proposed changes in prison life will not occur soon enough to help those who could really benefit from a total rethinking of the American attitudes toward penology.
It seems highly unlikely that the prisons of the near future will be in any way more enlightened than those of the recent past. No matter how much progress is made in such areas as prisoner self-government, there will always have to be a degree of discipline externally enforced by the guards. This, in turn, means that there will always be a degree of resentment on the part of the prisoners against the guards they come into contact with. This means that riots will always be a definite possibility. Therefore, it seems inevitable that the hatred and distrust that the fear of rioting creates will always exist and that they will eventually destroy whatever systems of self-government are developed. For these reasons, it will always be impossible for a penitentiary inmate to be treated as a human being. This serves to make it impossible for true rehabilitation to occur. This is due to the fact that an individual must acquire a degree of self-respect in order to achieve rehabilitation and it is impossible to allow self-respect among the prison population while still maintaining the strict discipline that is necessary for the maintenance of order.
This will undoubtedly negate the effect of many of the new programs of reform which have been instituted in the last few years. The idea of prisoners engaging in work-study programs in order to gain college degrees has already been approved and will probably be very well publicized in the future (since that is the sort of program which brings the prison authorities a great deal of wanted publicity as humanitarians). The value of such degrees will be limited, however, since they will do nothing to remove from the individual the stigma of having been imprisoned. Nor will they be of much use in helping the individual to get a job, especially since the employment applications in this country all ask if the applicant has ever been arrested or sent to prison. Certainly, the achievement of an education will do little to alter the public’s view of an ex-convict as a member of the community. There are already a large number of college graduates among the ex-convict community who are having a difficult time adjusting to society.
Due to the lack of space, there will probably be even more reliance upon probation and parole than there has been in recent years. Other programs, such as release on own recognizance (R.O.R.) and work-release (whereby an individual spends his evenings and weekends in prison but is free to earn a living on his own recognizance during the day) will probably also be implemented. This is fortunate, in that it places greater emphasis on individual self-respect than programs of total imprisonment. So long as the individual is able to leave the prison each morning on his own and go out to earn his living, he is a self-respecting human being. By comparison, the prisoner who is not let out, but who is held in the same place for years on end, is being treated like an animal. Since work-release prisoners are less likely to riot or seek to escape than most others, these programs make life that much easier for the guards as well as the inmates.
Such programs as work-release are also financially worthwhile from an administrative point of view. Rather than being forced to feed and supervise the work-release inmates all day, the prisons are only responsible for their supervision at night, when the inmates are locked into the cellblocks and therefore much easier to control than during the day. This leads to a decrease in the amount of money that must be spent on each prisoner. The funds saved by these programs might someday be used for improving the food and health conditions in the prison cell blocks, but that would probably be too much to hope for.
It can therefore be said that the creation of the penitentiary system in the last few centuries has probably started a lasting trend in the history of corrections and penology. While the penitentiary represents a humanitarian step forward over the older forms of criminal justice it also represents something of a roadblock to further attempts at humanizing the process. Such concepts as prisoner encounter groups and turning the prisons into therapeutic communities will undoubtedly acquire some degree of general usage, but it seems rather hard to believe that they will ever become the bases for a new philosophy of penal reform and rehabilitative policy. So long as the guards, the authorities and the general public regard the prisoner as a menace to society, who must be watched and carefully controlled at all times, there will be little in the way of positive prison reform or changes in the day to day life of the inmates of such institutions as the modern penitentiary.
This is not to say that the use of such stringent measures will in any way decrease the amount of criminal activity that takes place in society. Whereas crime was once viewed as an evil that could someday be done away with in a “brave new world,” it is now an accepted fact among virtually all criminologists that crime is here to stay. This results from a variety of factors, many of them simply related to human nature and the refusal of many individuals to conform to the standards that those in authority regard as rational and necessary for the public good. As such, there will always be prison inmates.
For these reasons, any positive step towards better treatment of prison inmates must be regarded as major breakthrough for the overall cause of human decency. If there is an improvement in the manner in which a nation treats its prisoners, it is logical to assume that nation’s population is moving in the general direction of increased humanitarianism. For this reason, life in the penitentiaries is worth studying further in terms of its relationship to the world that exists outside the prison walls.