3. The Purpose of Prisons

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

By C J Oakes

Throughout history, societies have struggled with attempts to control criminal behavior.

Some believe that criminals should be eliminated entirely whereas some believe that depending on the severity of the crime there should be intermediate steps short of that.  Some believe that criminal behavior is a form of mental illness or defect that must be cured.  Some cultures have used executions whereas others preferred exile.  Prisons as rehabilitative tools are a relatively new phenomenon.

Development of the Prison/Penitentiary

Although captive cells existed prior to the first prisons, jailed captives were either held until execution or were political criminals of some sort, held indefinitely in case they proved useful at a later date.  In the late 18th century, the enlightened western world sought the most effective method for dealing with growing numbers of criminal subjects.  Reformers promoted and attempted numerous concepts such as gaols and workhouses.  In America, the Pennsylvania Quakers believed they had the solution with the penitentiary (Foster, 2006).

The ideal penitentiary induces a captive person to repentance or penitence; it is a controlled behavior-modification environment.  In the ideal, the penitentiary would see convicted individuals transformed into law-abiding, compliant citizens.  Ideally, persons leaving the penitentiary would be radically different from those entering.  Society would have ‘saved their souls.’

The first penitentiaries were modeled loosely after monasteries.

English: Convict workers at Parchman
English: Convict workers at Parchman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The idea was that serious criminals would enter a world of total isolation.  There would be no contact with other humans, not seeing, touching, or even hearing the sound of another human voice.  Amid total isolation and silence, provided with a Bible and one other book, the criminal would have time to ponder his situation, what led him there, and how best to live his life upon release.  Forced introspection, it was believed would produce law-abiding, compliant citizens (Chapter 4, 2007).

Across the water, the English had already added a wing to Wymondham Gaol that would greatly influence prisons as known today.  With the goal of correction in mind, this early prison used isolation coupled with work programs.  The work consisted of teaching the inmates crafts such as shoemaking with the intent that the work would add to introspection and correction.

As time passed, the idea of isolation would fall victim to the industrial revolution, bringing prison labor securely into the mix.  Indeed, once it was found that convicts were more productive working in groups, isolation was abandoned except for use as an additional punishment (Goldsmith, 1999).  Hard labor eventually became the norm and continued unabated until after World War II (Foster, 2006).

Prison labor fulfilled a dual-purpose in the system.

First, by keeping the inmates busy and productive, trouble in the prison was greatly reduced and the laborers could learn a skill that would be useful in the outside world.  Second and perhaps most important, the items produced could be sold on the open market with the proceeds going to support the prison.  If the prison turned a profit so as to avoid becoming a burden on taxpayers, that was considered good (Foster, 2006).

Prison labor during World War II is noteworthy.  Prisoners labored in the production of necessary basic goods used by soldiers overseas.  In most cases, the convict labor groups worked more or better than was expected and even held contests.  Most prison labor groups took pride in their contribution to the war effort (Foster, 2006).  The underlying motivations should be studied more closely for these could reveal much about how better to rehabilitate criminal-minded individuals.

After World War II, the world was in a state of rapid recovery.

labor at "Pentonville Prison"
labor at “Pentonville Prison” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

America had become an industrial powerhouse, but the influx of soldiers returning from overseas was still too much on the economy.  Prison labor came to be seen as unfairly competitive and many sought to end this element of reform.  At the same time, psychology had formed the idea that crime was an illness that could be cured.  Prisons began to develop along many and varied designs according to modern theory and evidence.  Prison labor as it was then known all but disappeared (Foster, 2006).

To be sure, the demise of prison labor began before the outbreak of the Second World War as a result of the Great Depression.  This was an era of high unemployment levels and prison laborers were seen as taking jobs from the average man.  Many were outspoken in their ridicule of the system and a series of Federal laws were enacted in such a way that the industry would naturally phase itself out (Foster, 2006) in most locations.

Nevertheless, after World War II, prison labor virtually disappeared from the national scene.

It can be found in limited scope around the nation today as local corrections facilities often use trustees for highway cleanup and maintenance while some communities still operate prison farms.  In the case of prison farms, the food produced is not sold on the open market, but rather used for consumption within the prison.  This is done primarily to provide cost reductions to local facilities (Foster, 2006).

It is not surprising that the prisons of today in no way resemble the early penitentiaries.  With drastic increases in prison populations, the ideal scenario of isolated prisoners serving time in silence so as to attain penitence is no longer practical.  Additionally, issues of separation of church and state would likely pose problems if anyone posited the notion of forcing repentance on criminals.  It could be possible, however, to return to the idea in a secularized manner.  The only thing limiting society from doing so is the will to make it happen.

In the current climate, there appears to be a very different attitude toward the criminal element in society.

Zindan / Prison...
Zindan / Prison… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rather than a belief that individuals can turn their lives around so as to live productive lives, there appears to be the opposite notion.  As a result, America today locks up more people for more crimes and for more time than any other industrialized nation (Foster, 2006).

However, this back and forth notion that criminals should either be rehabilitated or tossed aside as incorrigible should tell us something. It should tell us that there are really two or more types of criminals. There are those which may never live according to the greater societies rules/laws and those who will. Then there are those somewhere in the middle who need the right motivation, a push in the right direction, and perhaps some pulling as well. As a nation, we should want to bring as many of our wayward American brothers and sisters back into society as we can, but we certainly want to find a way to determine which should never be welcomed back.

Fortunately, there are already tools in place to do just that. The only problem is that these tools are seldom used properly. In the next chapter, we will discuss these tools and touch on how these may be reconfigured such that a more effective prison system can be designed.


  • Chapter 4: The First Penitentiaries: England and North America create the modern prison system 1780-1900. (2007). History of Incarceration, (), 56-71.
  • Foster, B. (2006). Corrections: The Fundamentals. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentis-Hall.
  • Goldsmith, L. (1999). “To profit by his skill and to traffic on his crime”: Prison Labor in Early 19th Century Massachusetts. Labor History, 40(4), 439-457.