History of Corrections

Colonial Era

...During which the punishment, not the remodeling, of the criminal was focused upon. Punishment was considered a public affair, and incarceration was rarely used in the US.

Colonial Era

Approx. 1604 - Approx. 1776

The time of the colonies in America. Unlike England, who had all sorts of jails, houses of corrections, and things of that nature, incarceration was merely reserved for debtors or those awaiting trial. The death penalty was widely used for crimes ranging from theft to murder.

The Great Law

1682 - 1718

The Great Law was first started by William Penn, and primarily adopted in Pennsylvania. It emphasized hard labor in a house of correction as punishment for a majority of crimes. Only premeditated murder received the death penalty. The Law was based heavily on Quaker principles.

Anglican Code

1718 - Approx. 1775

The Anglican Code eventually replaced The Great Law in Pennsylvania, as it had already gained traction in other colonies. The Code listed 13 Capital Offenses; only larceny was not punishable by death. At this time, Calvinism and its belief of predestination was in full swing, hence a thorough lack of rehab for criminals. Punishment was a public affair in an attempt to humiliate criminals and break them of their "wicked" ways. The Code lasted up until the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

Age of Enlightenment

...During which we see the rise of the penitentiary, an attempt at trying to help inmates move away from their criminal behavior in what could be considered a failed attempt at "tough love." This is because the Pennsylvania System caused many, many mental breakdowns, not to mention it was expensive and the rule of isolation was hardly ever followed; the Auburn system resulted in rampant sickness, insanity, and suicide, and focused less on rehab of the prisoner; and the lease system, which was essentially slavery under another name.

Age of Enlightenment

Approx. 1783 - Approx. 1815

After the Revolutionary war was over, the Age of Enlightenment that had swept Europe finally took root in America (technically the period started in the late 1600s). With it came the idea that criminals should not only be punished, but also reformed or rehabilitated. Multiple states (CT, MA, PA, NY) returned to Penn's idea and opened up workhouses and houses of correction in order to rid prisoners of "idleness" and instill a sense of industry that was "more conducive to an honest livelihood."

First Penitentiary/ Pennsylvania System

1790 - Approx. 1913

Started up where Philadelphia's Walnut Street Jail was converted, the penitentiary was different from jails in that it emphasized isolation from the "bad influences" of society as well as from each other. Prisoners would also be kept busy with work, in the hopes that they'd reflect on their crimes and repent. This was dubbed the Pennsylvania System. Within 5 years, the system became controversial, with a number of complaints over the years. However, separate confinement would not be abolished in PA until 1913. This system focused primarily upon reformation of criminals via work and religion.

Auburn System

Approx. 1821 - 1824

Influenced both by the "success" of the PA system as well as a need for more space, NY greenlighted the building of a new prison in Auburn, NY. Elam Lynds was appointed warden and came up with the congregate system. Prisoners were isolated at night, but during the day they were allowed to be together in workshops. However, interaction was forbidden both at meals and while working. Lynds also implemented the lockstep and prison stripes, and believed the masses of prisoners could only be governed with a whip. In general, there was more concern for instilling good work habits than rehabilitating the characters of criminals, and it also cost less, as the prisoners were able to make profitable goods (i.e. barrels, carpets, etc).

Development of the Lease System in the South

Approx. 1865 - Approx. 1895

At the end of the Civil War, the Southern legislature sought to control the newly freed African Americans by instilling laws (such as making it illegal to use offensive language in front of a white woman) with harsh sentences. As a result, a large majority of prisoners were made up of blacks, most if not all of whom were former slaves. Because the South was in dire need of workers to put itself back together, prisons would "lease" out inmates to organizations to use as labor. Penal farms were also implemented, essentially plantations that grew food both for the inmates to eat and to be sold on the market. Though the lease system ended in 1895, penal farms continue to this day.


Not mentioned - The Progressives, a group of well-to-do individuals who were optimistic about solving the problems of society. They believed in individualised treatment based both on science and the criminal's background, which led to positivist schools. These schools took in all factors of a criminal's history and developed therapies for them. The 50's became known as the Era of Treatment, because of the heavy medical model employed to rehab criminals. Such treatments included shock therapy, psychotherapy, and behavior modification. Unfortunately, it failed.

The Reformatory Movement

1876 - Approx. 1960

Not long after the implementation of penitentiaries, reformers were realising just how ineffective they were. None of the prisons had made the rehabilitation of prisoners even close to being a goal, and brutality was a sadly common theme. Thus, during this time we see the rise of the mark system, in which penalties were based on the severity of the crime, and prisons would work with inmates to advance them to certain levels until they were fully ready to return to society. As the inmates went along, they would earn "positive marks" in their favor. After reaching so many, they would be transferred to the next level, and the next until they were well-adjusted enough to be freed. 1876 was also the year that Elmira Reformatory was built. Designed for first-time offenders between 16 and 30, it was like an upgraded version of a prison, not only having a rigid work schedule, but also implementing the marks system and even holding classes for inmates.

Anti-Contract Law of 1887


This was a law passed by Congress which restricted the leasing of prisoners, or at least federal prisoners. Prior to this, leasing programs were used extensively in territories and states in the South and the West. In their attempt to become states, however, many territories wrote anticontract laws into their constitutions, further reducing the usage of the lease system.

Decline of Rehabilitation

The Crime Control Model

Approx. 1960 - Present

Unfortunately for the era of reformation, all of these different attempts at treating criminals led to rather high rates of recidivism (try saying that five times fast). In order to combat the historic rates, the US legislature began to adopt a "get tough"/"just desserts" outlook on crime. Prisoners had definite sentences and mandatory sentences, raising the requirements of or outright abolishing parole, and implementing intensive and invasive probation guidelines. Longer sentences means more prisoners incarcerated for longer, which in turn has led to an increase in prison populations, and has created yet another area in which the US drains its money to little effect.