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Treatment of Prisoners

Get sources on the treatment and conditions of prisoners in American history.

Prisons and America

Since early colonial settlement, Americans have had a zeal for building prisons and incarcerating people. Yet while prisons had existed for centuries in both Europe and America, by the nineteenth century American reformers, politicians, and judges began using them intentionally as institutions to rehabilitate the nation's wayward, as a source of cheap labor, and as a means ostensibly to civilize the far reaches of the American frontier, among other things. By the 1820s and 1830s, as sweeping social and demographic changes began to transform the American economy, the fundamental ideology about the role of punishment in American society began to shift. Much of nineteenth-century American prison history is tied to various attempts and strategies directed toward detaining criminals for the express purpose of reforming their characters in institutions designed exclusively for that purpose, as opposed to merely exacting harsh punishment and retribution for their crimes.

This dramatic transformation in the function of American prisons in the early nineteenth century prompted various European politicians and observers, such as the famous French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, to take notice as they traveled to the United States expressly to study the American penitentiary system in the early 1830s. Indeed, one of the most striking characteristics surrounding the development of prisons and penitentiaries over the course of the nineteenth century is the multiple functions and roles the increasingly large and complex institutions played in American society. The penal systems, prison architecture, and disciplinary procedures that developed in the nineteenth century became an integral part of the United States. As a result the history of nineteenth-century prisons and punishment patterns has attracted much attention from historians, sociologists, and cultural theorists.

Learn more on CREDO Prisons and Punishment (login with your COM account for off campus access).

Social Justice Guides

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