Essay on History of the Prison System

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Prison is an institution for the confinement of persons convicted of criminal offenses. Throughout history, most societies have built places in which to hold persons accused of criminal acts pending some form of trial. The idea of confining persons after a trial as punishment for their crimes is relatively new.

During the 15th century in Europe, the penalties for crimes were some form of corporal punishment like whippings for less serious crimes and execution or enslavement for more serious offenses. In early 16th century England, vagrants and petty offenders were committed to correctional institutions known as workhouses. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the government transported convicted felons to the
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The first system began in Auburn State Prison in New York in 1817. Prisoners worked together in total silence during the day, but were housed separately at night. Strict discipline was enforced, and violators were subject to severe reprisals. The second model, the Pennsylvania system, begun in 1829 in the Eastern State Penitentiary at Cherry Hill, was based on solitary confinement for convicts by day and night. There was a lot of debate about the two systems. People who favored the Pennsylvania model focused on its hope of rehabilitation, the theory being that a felon alone in a cell with only a Bible to read would become penitent. This is where the term penitentiary came from. The Auburn system was criticized as being virtual slavery, because prisoners were often put to work for private entrepreneurs who had contracted with the state for their labor. Prisoners of the system were never paid leaving a good profit for the business owners and the state. People who believed in the Auburn system said that the idleness of the prisoners in the Cherry Hill penitentiary sometimes caused madness. The activity of the prisoners and the profits from their labor meant the state didn't have to finance the prison. Most states adopted the Auburn approach. European countries adopted the Pennsylvania model. Private business had always been opposed to the industrial Auburn model prison.

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