From Walnut Street to Alcatraz: The American Prison Experience summary

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C H A P T E R 14
From Walnut Street to Alcatraz:

The American

Prison Experience


Throughout history, the range of punishments has been vast. At one time, the death penalty was an almost universal form of punishment. Corporal punishment, particularly in the forms of whippings and torture, was also widespread. During the Age of Enlightenment a new ideology began to emerge in a reform movement that concerned itself with examining the dignity and imperfections of the human condition, in addition to admonishing the harshness of criminal law and the cruelty of various types of punishment. The reform movement also produced the classic school of criminology. Particularly influential was Beccaria's liberal doctrine of criminal law and procedure, which emphasized the principle of free will. This principle sought to establish the pleasure pain theory, suggesting that individuals choose the course of action that will bring them the most pleasure and avoid the course of action that will bring them the most pain.

The American prison experience began during the 18th century in Philadelphia. The Walnut Street Jail was the nation's first penitentiary. Throughout the 1790s its physical structure and separate system of confinement characterized it as a model prison. The separate system approach was based on the notion that recidivism could be eliminated by obstructing "evil associations" between prisoners through separate living quarters. The decline of the Walnut Street Jail occurred in the beginning of the 19th century, largely due to overcrowding, periodic riots, and inadequate disciplinary control. This correctional approach was subsequently rivaled by New York's silent system as it emerged at Auburn Prison in 1823. The silent system prevailed over the earlier system of separate living quarters for primarily economic reasons. It allowed for smaller cells and large, congregate work areas while attempting to accomplish the same objective: prevention of corruption through obstructing communication among inmates. Ultimately, profits extracted from cheap inmate labor served to weaken the silent system, since perpetual silence on the workfloor was counterproductive.
The work of Alexander Maconochie in Australia and Sir Walter Crofton in Ireland influenced America's reformatory era. Maconochie was responsible for inventing the "mark system" through which an inmate could receive early release by working hard and exhibiting good behavior. Crofton's "Irish system" built on Maconochie's earlier work, but in addition it established a series of stages through which inmates must successfully pass before receiving a conditional release. Based on these systems, the first reformatory was opened at Elmira, New York, in 1876, but by 1910 this correctional experience was abandoned.
As corrections moved from the mid 1800s into the early years of the 20th century, the American prison system evolved into an expanding hoard of maximum security institutions. This period first witnessed active prison industries and then idle convict populations. Following the Depression years, new treatment ideas were introduced against a backdrop of growing apathy and decaying institutions. The 1960s through the 1990s saw even greater contrasts—an emphasis on individual prisoners' needs and rights in settings of unrest and massive overcrowding.
The emergence and growth of the federal prison system has been a much more recent phenomenon. From 1776 through 1891, all federal prisoners were housed in state and territorial institutions. Following the passage of the Mann Act (1910), the Harrison Act (1914), the Volstead Act (1919), and the Motor Vehicle Theft Act (1919), the number of federal prisoners in state institutions grew rapidly, ultimately forcing the birth of the first federal penitentiaries in Atlanta, GA, and Leavenworth, KS. The Federal Bureau of Prisons was created in 1930 and became responsible for the development of a graded system of federal institutions that ranged from maximum  to minimum security facilities and camps.
The jail is a detention facility quite distinct from a prison. Unlike prisons, which are run by state and federal governments, jails are administered by local authorities and house only those individuals who are awaiting trial or who are convicted of relatively minor crimes and receive comparatively short sentences. The jail is one of the oldest known institutions for detaining offenders, dating back to 4th century England. Jails first appeared in the United States in 1626 and were modeled after the English detention facility. Today, jails vary greatly depending on the area and the demands of the local criminal justice system. One nearly universal similarity, however, is the overcrowded and inadequate living conditions characteristic of most jails today.


1. Historically and cross culturally, the range of corporal punishments has been vast, including executions,

mutilation, branding, whipping, torture, banishment, and transportation.

  • Exhibit 14.1, International Perspectives on Crime and Justice: Van Diemen’s Land

2. In the American colonies, sanctions included the stocks and pillory, the ducking stool, the branks, and

the scarlet letter.
3. Punishment Versus Reformation

a. The punishment ideology, based on the idea that prisoners are enemies of society who deserve

punishment, has endured throughout history.

b. Classical school of criminal law and criminology: a body of ideals from Enlightenment philosophers and reformers for transforming criminal law and procedure

4. American Prisons in Perspective

a. In 1790 Philadelphia's Walnut Street Jail became America's first penitentiary.

  • A model prison visited by officials from other states and Europe

  • The separate system

  • The Pennsylvania plan

b. In 1823 New York's Auburn Prison was built. See also Exhibit 14.2, A View from the Field: A Day at Auburn Prison

  • The silent system

  • Sing Sing Prison in 1825 adopted the Auburn plan, and more than 30 other states built similar institutions in the years that followed.

c. Prison industries

  • Contract labor and the piece price system (Exhibit 14.3, Historical Perspectives on Criminal Justice: Contract Prison Labor in the Post Civil War South)

  • Lease system, state-use and state account systems, and public works system

d. The reformatory era

  • Maconochie, Norfolk Island, and the "mark system"

  • Walter Crofton's "Irish system"

  • Zebulon Brockway and the Elmira Reformatory

  • Exhibit 14.4, Gender Perspectives on Crime and Justice: Sexism and Indeterminate Sentencing

e. The 20th century industrial prison

  • Mass congregate incarceration with rigid discipline and security

  • Inmate labor and industries

  • Opposition to inmate labor

  • Hawes-Cooper Act

  • Ashurst-Sumners Act

  • Walsh-Healy Act

5. Federal Bureau of Prisons

  1. For more than a century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, federal offenders were confined in state and territorial institutions.

b. In 1891 the first federal prisons were authorized by Congress.

c. In 1905 institutions were opened at Atlanta and Leavenworth.

d. In 1930 the Federal Bureau of Prisons was created.

e. In 1934 Alcatraz was opened and had 600 one man cells. It was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to operate and too typical of a retributive justice model that was no longer a part of the federal ideology.

6. Jails

a. Jails are facilities of local authority used for temporary detention and short term imprisonment for minor crimes.

b. The American jail is rooted in the English gaol tradition.

c. Contemporary jails are under the jurisdiction of a sheriff or chief of police.

d. Jail conditions include overcrowding, an unsanitary environment, poor facilities, an inadequate staff, and idle populations. See also Exhibit 14.5, A View from the Field: Brooklyn’s Raymond Street Jail.

e. The jail population.

Other Topics of Interest:
Critical Thinking in Criminal Justice: A New Scarlet Letter?

Careers in Criminal Justice: Federal Bureau of Prisons

Famous Criminals: Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz”


Cesare Beccaria prisons

classical school of criminal law and criminology separate system

contract system silent system

corporal punishment state account system

jails state use system

lease system ticket of leave

mark system Walnut Street Jail

piece price system


After a thorough study of Chapter 14, students should be able to answer the following questions:
1. What is corporal punishment, and how was it administered in colonial America?

2. What were the contributions of the classical school of criminology?

3. What were the differences between the "separate" and "silent" systems of confinement?

4. What were the types of, and problems with, prison labor during the 19th and early 20th centuries?

5. What were the contributions of the reformatory era in American corrections?

6. What are the problems with jails today, and how might they be alleviated?

7. What is "home incarceration," and is it a useful correctional tool?

8. Are the terms prison and jail just different names for the same thing?


Chapter 14 for the most part covers historical issues. There are numerous sources for supplementary materials, many of which are cited in the notes at the end of the chapter. In addition, these specific items are recommended:

Ayer, Edward L. Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Irwin, John. The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Morris, Norval, and David J. Rothman (eds.), The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Radzinowitz, Leon. Ideology and Crime. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.
Should you wish to elaborate further on the leading figures in the classical school of criminology, consider the following biographical sketches:
Montesquieu (1689–1755). Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu, the French lawyer, philosopher, and man of letters, epitomized the Enlightenment’s concern for the rights of humanity. His book The Spirit of the Laws and essay Persian Letters condemned the barbarous injustice of the French penal code and advocated reforms that would make punishments less severe and more adapted to the crimes for which they were imposed.
Voltaire (1694–1778). Francois-Marie Arouet, or Voltaire, the French humanist and satirist, was also the most versatile of the 18th-century philosophers. In his writings, he condemned the arbitrary powers of judges, the secret trial, and the use of torture, and he demanded that the purpose of the law be the protection of the citizen and that all persons should be equal before the law.
Diderot (1713–1784). Denis Diderot, the French encyclopedist, novelist, dramatist, and art critic, was also a philosopher who attacked the orthodoxy of his time. He revolted against the unquestioning acceptance of tradition and authority, and in many of his works he heavily criticized the chaos and corruption in political institutions as well as the superstition and cruelty that pervaded penal practices.
Beccaria (1738–1794). Cesare Bonesana, Marchese di Beccaria, the Italian economist and jurist, proposed a whole new concept for the administration of justice. His major work, An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, became the manifesto of the liberal approach to criminal law. It condemned capital punishment and torture, suggested that the law should be specific, and advocated the prevention of crime and rigid rules of criminal procedure.
Bentham (1748–1832). Jeremy Bentham, the English jurist and philosopher, was the leader of English criminal law reform. He believed that punishment should be a deterrent. His “hedonistic calculus” argued that if punishments were designed to negate whatever pleasure or gain the criminal derived from crime, the crime rate would go down. This ethical doctrine was founded on the notion that the morality of actions is determined by utility, a concept appearing in his major work on the administration of justice, Introduction to the Principles and Morals of Legislation.
Howard (1726?–1790). The name of John Howard, high sheriff of Bedfordshire for almost two decades, became synonymous with English prison reform. His State of Prisons was based on observations of prison conditions throughout England and continental Europe and influenced the passage of the Penitentiary Act of 1779. This legislation resulted in England’s first penitentiary, one that incorporated many principles of basic prison reform.
Romilly (1757–1818). Sir Samuel Romilly, the English lawyer and law reformer, devoted his energies to changes in the harsh criminal codes. His efforts secured the repeal of many Elizabethan capital statutes and numerous other harsh and irrational laws. He also influenced the construction of the first modern English prison.
Peel (1788–1850). Sir Robert Peel, the English statesman, member of Parliament, and prime minister, influenced legislation that reformed the criminal law. He established the Irish constabulary (called the “Peelers”) and pushed the legislation that created the London Metropolitan Police (the “bobbies”) both named after him.

A student trip to a state prison or local jail can usually be arranged. Many jurisdictions permit it, and a few even encourage it as an exercise in deterrence.

For students on the West Coast, a trip to Alcatraz is strongly recommended. The prison is maintained by the National Park Service. It can be reached by motor launch from San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Park Service staff provide an excellent tour through the prison; picture taking is encouraged, and visitors are permitted to be locked in the “hole.” Taking a picture in Al Capone’s cell is not possible, however, since even the park officials have no idea which one was his.

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