Culture and Society

Who were the earliest advocates of prison reform in the U.S.?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. As long as there have been prisons in the U.S., there has been a prison reform movement. The earliest advocates of prison reform date back to the 18th century and were usually religious groups, such as the Quakers. Much of the reform began in Pennsylvania, inspired by Quaker beliefs. In fact, the Quakers were against harsh penalties brought from England, such as capital punishment for murder, but were for severe penalties for sexual offenses [source: Johnston]. Lesser crimes usually were punished with fines or with public shame.

    When Pennsylvania and other colonies in the New World were settled, prisons were some of the first public buildings that pilgrims erected, not so much to punish criminals, but to house prisoners of war, people awaiting trial and -- ironically -- people behind on debts. In the 18th century, a prison more likely was called a jail, or a "gaol" [source: Lynch]. Public shame for crimes might have included public confessions or wearing a mark to identify the offense, as depicted so well in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. In addition to the scarlet A (adulterer), people might have worn B for blasphemy, D for drunk or T for thief [source: Lynch].

    The Pennsylvania Prison Society was the first of its kind in the world, and was formed in response to conditions at Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia. Most inmates had no clothing, because they only had clothes to barter for liquor, one of many outrageous charges inmates had to pay in the overcrowded prison [source: Johnston]. After the society's reform efforts, prisoners were sorted more in accord with their offenses -- a practice still in effect today. The prison also eased overcrowding and added workshops with trade instruction. Eventually, a new large prison was built for the state in the 1830s, which had flush toilets in every cell -- even before the White House had flushing toilets.

    Continuing to this day, prison reform advocates usually want better conditions, medical care and educational opportunities and more humane treatment of prisoners. They're often supportive of the idea that prisons should rehabilitate inmates, rather than just warehouse them for the length of their sentences. Balancing the competing interests of reforming criminals, preventing further crimes and protecting the public continues to cause debate and challenge prison leaders and policymakers.

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