Evolution of the Correctional System


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Evolution of the Correctional System

The concept of right and wrong is deeply rooted in the human psyche, as most people at a given age, can differentiate between what is ‘good’ and what is ‘wrong.’ This is the governing aspect of most laws that are established in different countries. However, some people break these laws due to various reasons, such as lack of knowledge, ignorance, or out of own choice. For most countries, breaking the law is subject to punishment or corrections, which vary in different countries. Correction systems therefore serve the role of punishing offenders, and each system has its own history. In America, the correction system has witnessed great, interesting changes from the medieval times, to the current super-max prisons. With this in mind, this paper will address the evolution of the correction system, including a historical overview of different types of corrections and custody levels.

The criminal justice system of America is concerned with both punishment and corrections, however, today; America has the highest inmate population in the world. The history of corrections system in America traces back to the European system, which was in England, Holland, and France. America only improved on this system in the way they executed it. In the past, common law comprising set rules offered guidance and helped people in solving different social problems. The process of law was under the guidance of judges, as they were responsible for making decisions relating to law. However, as time went by, the colonial system developed their system of criminal justice, which laid the foundation for the present criminal justice system in America (Gottfredson 11-15).

In the 16th and 17th Centuries, there were various correction modes. Most of them were based on public shaming, in order to teach offenders a lesson, and deter others. This approach was to prevent the recurrence of criminal activity, and included, cutting off ears, the stocks, whipping, ducking stool, and placing people in the pillory. For much heinous crimes such as murder, the criminals faced execution through public hanging. The act of imprisonment was rare in colonial years. However, this later found its way into the American criminal justice system. In prisons, people waited for their trial or punishment, while in detention. All types of criminals were detained together while waiting punishment. However, these prisons were poorly maintained, due to the negligence of the prison warders. Most people detained in prisons lost their lives due to various diseases, such as the gaol fever. Houses of correction were to serve a purpose of instilling industry habits in offenders through labor in prisons. The people held in these houses were mainly petty offenders, the local disorderly poor, and vagrants. Near the end of the 17th Century, houses of correction were absorbed into the prison system, and put under the control of the local justices of peace (Tonry 12-15).

In the 18th Century, many executions of criminals were undertaken. This raised concerns and led to the opposition of the death penalty by many people. They suggested that not all offenders found guilty should be subjected to a death penalty, however, only those convicted of serious crimes such as murder, should be executed. This opposition was counter-productive as jurors finally considered executions for petty offenders extreme. They therefore had to look for a much fairer way of punishing petty offenders, other than execution. In the mid-18th Century, imprisonment, with hard labor, was decided on as the most appropriate form of punishment for petty offenders (Freeman 77-80).

Transportation was the most appropriate method used to dispose convicts. These were transported by ship to the America and other British colonies by ship. This happened until the America War of Independence. However, at the end of the 18th Century, there was curtailing of transportation. This means that alternative sanctions had to be put in place. These were later formulated and adapted by the system. They included hard labor, and the house of corrections for those convicts unable to perform hard labor. This practice resulted in the adoption of the prison hulks by Britain from 1776 up to 1857 when these were faced out. Prison hulks were large ships, anchoring at Thames, at Plymouth, and at Portsmouth. The convicts in these ships were sent out for daytime employment in hard labor. At night, the convicts would be chained and loaded onto the ship, back to their towns. The prison hulks were phased out due to a number of reasons. First, the physical conditions in these ships were not of satisfactory standards. Secondly, the there was no any form of control employed in these prison hulks, leading to a chaotic environment inside them. However, the use of prison hulks convinced the public that incarceration, and hard labor was a useful punishment for crime (Kennedy 10-14).

John Howard, in 1777, sharply criticized the criminal justice system, and particularly the prison unit for its disorganization, filthiness, and barbaric nature. He called for reforms in prisons. Among some of the changes, he suggested changes in diet, employment of paid prison staff, regular external inspections, as well as other personal effects for prisoners. Many penal reformers, including Jeremy Bentham, argued that, although prisoners deserved to suffer for the crimes committed, the degree of their suffering should not affect their health negatively. Penal reformers of this era also ensured that women and men were detained in different prisons, with improved levels of sanitation. Bentham, in 1791, invented the ‘panopticon’ prison design. This allowed for centralized prison surveillance of all inmates by a centrally placed observer. This prison building design is adopted in some American prisons, such as the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, Twin Towers Correctional Facility, and Stateville Correctional Center. In 1799, the prison situations greatly improved when the Penitentiary Act demanded that gaols be constructed for each inmate per cell, and prison operations be based on silence, though with continuous labor. Gaols emphasized the aspect of confinement of prisoners, which is still practiced today. In the era of depression, crime rates in America increased, and the federal government founded The Bureau of Federal Prisons. This led to strict rules enforcement to counter organized crime, and other serious crimes experienced. The concept of corrections system in America began to form. In 1870, the first penitentiary was built in America, in Philadelphia. The Walnut Street jail was has a unique design, and allowed confinements as a form of punishment (Kennedy, 17-20).

In the 19th Century, the correction system in America saw many tremendous changes. In the first half of this Century, capital punishment was completely disregarded as an inappropriate punishment for most crimes, except murder crimes. Public shaming sanctions such as branding, were also regarded as outdated, and therefore were abandoned. Imprisonment came as a replacement for capital punishment. Penal reforms also peaked during the 19th Century as more groups were concerned with human rights issues. These reforms mainly targeted the rehabilitation of offenders, including their safety situations. The religious groups such as the Evangelicals, and the Quakers mainly propagated the reforms basing on the concept of personal redemption. In this Century, prisons in the United States of America started investing in the education of the offenders. Punishment of prisoners stopped to be the main function of prisons. Introduction of skilled labor and education of prisoners was essential in rehabilitating prisoners. Corrections also focused on the mental and emotional health of prisoners. Corrections started exposing prisoners to mental and emotional trainings in order for them to make a successful re-entrance into the society after completing their sentence (McKelvey 80-83).

Today, there has been the development of various units in the criminal justice system. For instance, today, youth detention centers hold minors under the age of 17 or 18, depending on the jurisdiction. Different prison house psychiatric units have been developed for mentally ill patients involved in crime. Corrections system is also involved with providing services to former offenders and their families. This includes re-entry services, which empower ex-offenders to adapt to life back in the society after serving their sentence. These services make these ex-offenders to be productive and responsible members of the society again. In addition, most of the elements discussed still apply in the correction system of America (Diiulio, 62-69).

In conclusion, the American correction system today is a representation of the evolution of the past correction systems; however, this evolution still needs to continue over the future due to a number of reasons. Corrections system in the USA today is the largest state budget, yet close to five million people face imprisonment in America, over a given time. This raises concerns over their effectiveness of correction system in America. Has the correctives system fulfilled its mission of transforming offenders in society? This therefore calls for recommendations for the improvement of the current corrections system in America. It is not possible to completely change the human mind from criminality; however, it is possible to improve the correction systems to make them safer for offenders, as well as results-oriented. With time, we will tell if positive transformations take place in the corrections system.


Works Cited

Diiulio, John. “No Escape: The Future of American Corrections.” New York: Basic Books,


Freeman, Robert. “Public Perception of Corrections.” Corrections Today, 63, 108. 2001.

Gottfredson, Stephen. “America’s Correctional Crisis: Prison Populations and Public Policy.”

New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Kennedy, Devereaux. “Out of Time: The Curtis-Wells Anomaly and the History of

American Corrections.” Social Justice, 22(1). 2005.

McKelvey Blake. “Convict Labor and Pedagogical Penology in American Prisons.”

Montclair: Patterson Smith, 1972. 93-125.

Tonry, Michael. (Ed.). “The Handbook of Crime & Punishment.” New York: Oxford University

Press, 2000.


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