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The Penitentiary V Widespread Imprisonment, Essay Example

Pages: 3

Words: 919

Essay

Introduction

The history of prisons in the United States has been governed by two dominant models. The first model, also known as the ‘first great experiment’, was the formation of the penitentiary. The second model, also called the ‘second great experiment’, was the implementation of widespread imprisonment (Yates, 2001). Since the creation of these two models, an ongoing international debate has been ongoing about which model is most successful. This paper will examine the ideals of each model to determine which is most effective.

The Penitentiary

Before the birth of the penitentiary, criminals were fined or subject to corporal punishment. Although buildings to house criminals existed, they served as temporary holding facilities until the criminal could pay his or her fines, were publicly humiliated, or hanged for his or her trespasses. Petty thievery among the working-class increased with the rise of capitalism, and so did their detention. Houses of correction were plentiful in Europe and considered successful in retaining petty thieves. Once detained, these offenders were subjected to hard labor and ridicule. After a period of time, they were released back into society. More serious offenders, however, were punished by torture or death (Yates, 2001). In 1777, John Howard suggested that houses of correction, or prisons, should be used as the primary means of punishment. He argued that offenders could be reformed if they were incarcerated for prolonged periods of time. Howard’s ideals were supported by Dr. Benjamin Rush, who in 1787 suggested that an execution is “like a human sacrifice in religion,”(Rush, 1787). He deemed it immoral and unjust. He proposed instead that offenders be detained for a period of time during which they would be rehabilitated from the crimes they committed. Thus, the penitentiary was born. This model was divided into two sub-models: solitary confinement where prisoners slept, ate, and worked in isolation; and almost solitary confinement where prisoners slept alone but ate and worked with other prisoners. The former sub-model proved expensive and as a result, the latter sub-model became common practice in the U.S. Critics of this system argued that imprisonment does not decrease crime, instead it creates recidivism.

Widespread Imprisonment

Statistics dating back to 1925 indicate that prisons tend to have higher occupancy during times of increased unemployment. In other words, more people commit crimes when work is scarce. Since 1970, incarceration rates in the U.S. have skyrocketed. Experts attribute this increase to widespread imprisonment. The purpose of the penitentiary was to create an environment in which offenders would suffer for their crimes. This was effective during the 18th and 19th centuries as a means to control deviance(Yates, 2001). However, the second great experiment attempted to implement widespread imprisonment in an effort to reduce crime. So, in an effort to reduce crime, anybody accused of an offense would be institutionalized. However, not all prisoners are criminals. For instance, during the 1960s, many Americans who opposed the Vietnam War were imprisoned. Similar practices have continued to take place in the U.S. and, as a result, the country has spent billions of dollars in maintaining an overcrowded prison system. In addition, the country has suffered greatly in terms of loss of education, and welfare spending(Foster, 2006). In 2001, the New York Times reported that more than 2000 state prisoners were wrongfully detained in county jails as a result of overcrowded state prisons(Yates, 2001).

The widespread imprisonment model had a goal to incarcerate all offenders, regardless of the crime, in an effort to reduce crime. For a period of time this seemed to work, but because all offenders were incarcerated, prisons became overcrowded and states became poorer. A recent Harvard study showed that crimes in the 1990 were lower than two decades earlier; however, the reason is not because of an effective prison system. Instead, the study showed that crime rates were lower because of a decrease in unemployment and because of an increase in population age (Yates, 2001).

ConclusioBased on factual evidence, it is safe to say that the penitentiary model proves most successful in the criminal justice system. When prisoners are duly punished for the crimes they have committed, they are more likely to be rehabilitated. Yes, prison can cause recidivism, but that is not necessarily the most prevalent attribute of the prison system. When offenders are incarcerated for crimes committed, the very act of incarceration should be a process of punishment and reflection. Being isolated from the civilian world and being subjected to hard labor is enough reason to refrain from repeating the very crime that caused the punishment. Prisoners are humans too, and, therefore, are entitled to basic human rights. That means they must be fed and so forth. Yet, it does not entitle them to sophisticated facilities with amenities that many civilians cannot afford, yet must subsidize for the prisoners. If the U.S. can revert to the 18th and 19th century models of the penitentiary where petty thieves were placed in isolation for periods of time, and more serious offenders were punished by execution, the crime rate will most definitely decline. All the money that is currently spent on managing overcrowded prisons could be injected into a criminal justice system that practices just punishment. It is clear by the thousands of offenders currently incarcerated that widespread imprisonment is by no means an effective deterrent to crime.

Works Cited

Foster, B. (2006). Corrections: The Fundamentals [Paperback]. New York: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Rush, D. B. (1787). An Enquiry into the Effects of Public Punishments Upon Criminals and Upon Society. Pennsylvania.

Yates, M. D. (2001). Prisons and Executions—The U.S. Model: A Historical Introduction. Monthly Review, 53(3).

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