Incarceration as we now know it has not been around as long as most folks think. Modern-style prisons did not exist when the United States Constitution was written in 1787. While jails and dungeons existed for millennia, large institutional prisons meant as punishment for the majority of felons arose in about 1816, in the Northeast United States. Before the advent of large prisons (or “penitentiaries” as they were euphemistically named), the United States and most other nations imposed capital and corporal punishments, fines, involuntary servitude or exile to penal colonies or unpopulated lands rather than lengthy incarceration in a designated penal institution.
Humanitarians invented the penitentiary in Pennsylvania, where Quakers thought capital punishment denied offenders opportunities for penitence, religious conversion and reform. Quakers thought prisoners should be separated from each other to prevent moral contamination and to encourage religious conversions. In practice, their prisoners were isolated in solitary confinement and many went insane. As Europeans populated other areas of the world, their colonies eventually refused to receive additional criminals. Corporal punishment was abandoned, not due to ineffectiveness, but because it was viewed as a lower-class punishment in societies increasingly achieving more equality among social classes. Messy corporal punishment lost favor. Authorities then merely locked prisoners up instead of whipping them. Fines never did much to offenders without money. In the twentieth century, society increasingly limited capital punishment; it is now rare. The number of prisoners serving long sentences grew. Cocaine was isolated in 1860 and new illegal drugs increasingly infected modern societies, especially the United States.
Circumstances forced reliance upon large penal institutions, usually with rows of cells stacked on top of one another. Prisons grew by default, not design. Nobody wanted large prisons because they were a proven idea. Prisons were built because other methods fell out of favor, one by one, for geographic, demographic, social and political reasons. Prisons were always miserable places to be, but they never deterred much crime because they were always out of sight. The study of recidivism through the years always showed that released prisoners were re-incarcerated over half the time. In other words, prison never worked as originally intended.
Incarceration became an expensive way to make bad people worse. Incarceration costs per prisoner grew with price increases in health care, buildings and supplies. The courts stepped in to prevent cruel and unusual punishment, requiring basic care levels. Violence, diseases, insanity and racist, satanic gangs kept prison a human cesspool. The War on Drugs filled prisons up without stopping the sale of illegal drugs. After the first decade of the twenty-first century, the American prison population grew to well over two million prisoners, with over seven million in the entire correctional population. With 5% of the world’s population, the United States now has 25% of the world’s prisoners. The number of prisoners right now is a drain on the American economy, because it takes millions of workers outside prison to support the millions inside prison. Prison industries never really get off the ground due to legal impediments. Prisoners cannot in monetary terms “pay their debt to society” – that phrase is a joke. Families and marriages are destroyed, kids grow up without parents, welfare costs outside prison rise, and released prisoners face a daunting anti-felon regime upon their release. Crime victims receive little restitution. The whole unworkable system grew unnoticed. Out of sight, out of mind.
It is time to admit the truth: Incarceration as we know it is a failed social experiment. Yes, it incapacitates prisoners and keeps them from committing crimes while in prison… but the number in need of incapacitation has grown exponentially. We pay more and more for the benefits of incapacitation, and prison makes the need for incapacitation grow. It’s a vicious cycle.
The answers are written on the pages of American history. At the time the U.S. Constitution was written, before about 1816, the United States did not need prisons like we have now. How did we do it? We’d best study the proven methods of the past. We have an ongoing social, economic and human catastrophe of epic proportions on our hands.