Corrections, Rehabilitation and Criminal Justice in the United States: 1800-1970

EKU Online > Corrections, Rehabilitation and Criminal Justice in the United States: 1800-1970

Correctional history in the United States is riddled with peculiar ideas about how to change behavior.

In the colonial days, pillories were used to confine the heads of beggars and drunkards so that they were unable to avoid public gaze. Thieves were forever branded with the letter “T” and scolds were swung out over the river and dunked into the water as a way to cool their heated tongues.

Public humiliation was seen as the avenue to repentance. In the 1800s, behind the ominous walls of the Eastern State Penitentiary isolation and silent reflection were the primary mechanisms of prisoner reform.

Prisoners existed in tiny one-person cells designed to isolate them from an evil criminal subculture. This sought-after atonement gave way to a breakdown of the human spirit and mental illness.

By 1870, a new congregate but silent system emerged. In this system, obedience and hard work were the markers of reformation. Inmates worked together during the day in silence they walked in lockstep formation and were punished harshly for any type of communication with other prisoners. In the evening they were returned to their solitary cells for silent reflection. These early forms of punishment included a Classical School of thought that assumed people chose to engage in crime after weighing the costs and  benefits. Deterrents-based strategies were viewed as the way to make people think twice about engaging in subsequent crime.

Although corporal forms of punishment succumbed to claims cruel and unusual punishment. Prisons continued as a mainstay correctional practice. In the early 1900s, however, progressives shifted the focus of correctional practice from deterrents to rehabilitation. The rehabilitative ideal was rooted in the Positivist School of thought that assumed people engaged in crime in response to forces over which they had no control.

Positivists believed in determinism or the idea that biological, psychological and social factors determined whether or not a person would engage in crime. They also believed that if these factors could be addressed or fixed, we could help people lead crime-free lives.

But could this be accomplished within the confines of prison? And how much time behind bars was needed to achieve reformation? The indeterminate sentence was introduced in support of this new rehabilitated ideal. People were sentenced to an indefinite period of time, say 3-10 years, and their release was dependent on their demonstrated reformation.

Little programming was offered and people could languish forever trying to convince prison officials that they had changed. The inadequacies of prison as a context for rehabilitation soon gave way to probation and parole. These non-custodial sanctions, progressives argued, would facilitate the individualized treatment required to address diverse motivations for engaging in crime.

Probation and parole officers played the role of the benevolent human service worker who counseled and supported clients desistance efforts.

Dr. Betsy Matthews, coordinator and instructor for the undergraduate EKU Online Corrections degree program, examines the history of correctional supervision and related topics in COR 850: Offender Rehabilitation Strategies.

For more information about EKU Online degree programs, click here.

View the second installment of this lesson, “Corrections, Rehabilitation and Criminal Justice in the United States: 1970-present.”

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