The earliest forms of American correctional systems were similar in many ways with those of their motherland England. Punishment imposed in colonial times resembled those used in England. However, the colonial administrators of eighteenth century America were more likely to use corporal punishment than their English counterparts and death penalty was not uncommon in early America. Punishments for violators were harsh and humiliating as they were enacted publicly.  Public whippings, branding, the stocks, pillories, mutilations and hangings were frequently used as visible reminders to the public of the consequences of violating the law. Colonialists never considered the possibility of rehabilitation; their aim was to frighten the offender into law abiding behavior.  

During this period, imprisonment was rare and jails existed primarily as detention to those awaiting sentencing or trial, or those unable to repay their debts. 

Unlike today when prisons are viewed as instruments of punishments, this has not always been the case. The prisons of eighteenth century England actually had nothing to do with punishment.  Crime was viewed as a sinful act, not a social problem. Criminals were viewed as sinners, not as individuals who were led astray by imperfections in the society.

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania helped reform the existing criminal sanctions during his reign (1644-1718).  Penn focused on reforming the harsh and humiliating punishment used thought the colonies. Penn's Code combined reform and rehabilitation with the existing philosophy of deterrence.

Following Penn's death in 1718, the penal code he had introduced was abolished and the Anglican Code of England was reintroduced, which favored harsh corporal and capital penalties.

American's first prisons

Walnut street prison was the first American penitentiary in Philadelphia. It was formed through a Pennsylvanian legislative declaration in 1790, which sought to reform offenders through treatment and discipline rather than punishment. The idea of confining criminals was to offer them an opportunity to think of their wrong doing and to repent.

The walnut Street penitentiary approach became popular because of its humanitarian approach.  Other states including New York and Massachusetts followed suit and adopted this approach of reforming confining offenders.

However, the Philadelphian penitentiary encountered some shortcomings and challenges including overcrowding and high costs of running the institution and management disorganization. The initiative eventually failed as a result of mismanagement issues, violence, and frequent disturbances. The jail eventually closed in 1835.

In 1796, building of New gate prison in New York was approved by the lawmakers and soon, Virginia, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Kentucky followed suit.       

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American Prison Philosophy

The Auburn and the Pennsylvania systems of prisons were the two main prison models in the i820s. The Pennsylvania system advocated complete separation and total silence. It was based on the assumption that through separation, the prisoner has time to contemplate in silence and prayer. Prisoners were confined into their cells during their entire imprisonment. Inmates were not allowed to mingle as this would hinder the reformation process. However, this system became a failure as many inmates suffered mental breakdown as a result of the pervasive idleness. The costs of running this system were also high.

Although initially operated under many of the assumptions of the Pennsylvania systems the auburn system was harsher and followed strict disciplinarian approach. However, prisoners were allowed to interact during the days work but were kept in lone confinements during the night. The prisoners were expected to maintain total silence during throughout all activities. This system was more successful than the Pennsylvania systems as it was more effective in terms of reforming criminals and offenders at a reduced cost.     

In the mid 1950s, prisons in U.S. began to experience problems due to poor funding, mismanagement and overcrowding, resulting to a shift from the original prison management models. Faced with these challenges, rehabilitation became secondary as the prisons' management focused on the custodial concerns of operating these institutions.

To manage the wave of disturbances that was facing the system, a reformatory system was developed to encourage positive change in the prison institutions. The reformatories focused on assisting young offenders and it emphasized on vocational and educational programs for the young adults.

Industrial Period

During the early 1900s, the reformatories grew as the prison populations increased. Work programs become increasingly popular as a prison management tool. Several prison development systems were instituted during this period to offer trade training, while offsetting some of prison institution expenses.

The Progressive era

This approach continued to pursue rehabilitation as the novel idea that worked. During this period, emphases were on normalization of the institutional settings. Vocational and educational training were introduced to prepare the inmates for the outside world.  

Transition and Growth period

A significant decision by the congress brought a major change in prison management. The Federal Bureau of Prison created by the Congress in 1930 pursued innovative programs and operations at the local and state levels. This bureau employed professionalism and sought more human treatment of inmates and better living conditions in prisons.

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