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Let’s face it. Prison was never meant to be a garden party. When you’re planning your next family vacation, Sing-Sing, Rykers, and Attica aren’t exactly the destinations of choice.

Prison is about justice, however. Whether you’re about retribution or about reformation, the end goal is the same: remove the criminal offender from society unless and until justice is served and the miscreant is no longer a danger.


That’s the theory, at least. But, in fact, the American prison system has a much darker and far less noble history. This is a troubling legacy that has endured from the 18th century all the way to the present day.

The Baleful Brits

Of course, the American prison system didn’t just materialize in a vacuum. We learned a good deal about how (and how not) to run a penal system from the same place where we got most of our laws: the Fatherland, Merry Old England.


In fact, some of America’s first prisons weren’t “American” at all. They were British, erected around the time of the American Revolution to punish and constrain those naughty colonial rebels.


Accounts of English prisons in Revolutionary-era America are pretty harrowing. The archives are all but overflowing with accounts of prisoner abuse, everything ranging from forced marches in the lethal heat of summer to rancid, often inevitable provisions that left prisoners sick and starving. 


But it wasn’t just the jailers who were the problem. English prisons were known to employ doctors who would make Nurse Ratched look like Florence Nightingale, such as the notorious Frenchman who would eventually be executed for the poisoning deaths of American prisoners of the British in New York.


But the Brits didn’t just reserve their brutality for those incorrigible American rebels. In fact, English prisons in the homeland were no less cruel. In this, they fit in perfectly well with their counterparts on the Continent.


In England, while the spectacle of the public flogging or execution had fallen somewhat out of favor by the late 18th century, the punishments themselves had not. Inside prison walls, the convicted were routinely whipped, branded, tortured, and hanged. Those who survived were frequently shipped off to the British colonies, only to die en route or in the harsh environments of the Empire’s hinterlands.


Meanwhile, in France, the final decades of the 18th century brought about a new device that would get quite a lot of use in the coming years. Celebrated as a “swift and humane” tool for beheading prisoners, the guillotine would come to symbolize the French Reign of Terror.

The Injustice of “Justice”

While the American prison system today isn’t necessarily one built on public torture and executions as general entertainment or the mass shipping of prisoners to near-certain death overseas, there are, however, some things that haven’t changed.


Perhaps the most significant — and the most tragic — issue is that the American justice system really isn’t, and never really has been, just at all. The poor, for example, have long been disproportionately represented in the American prison population.


While it’s true that, in most cases, you can’t be sent to prison for debts anymore (except in the case of overdue child support or back taxes), the tangential effects of poverty can put you at greater risk of incarceration.


After all, poverty is a generational curse, leading to poor health and poor education, which in turn limits your opportunities in life. And when your prospects are bleak, so too may be your mental health, increasing your risk of substance abuse disorders and other self-destructive coping mechanisms that might well put you beyond the boundaries of the law.  


When you have no money for adequate legal representation, odds are, if you do find yourself in trouble with the courts, you’re not going to fare very well. Time spent behind bars only makes life on the outside that much more challenging, especially when it comes to finding meaningful employment. And so the cycle continues.


Today’s prison system, not unlike the prison system of the past, doesn’t have much incentive at all for breaking the cycle. Many American prisons have been privatized, meaning that they’re turning some pretty astronomical profits on the incarceration and forced labor of their prisoners. To educate, rehabilitate, or offer drug counseling to these prisoners would be to risk freeing the golden goose. So prisons today operate pretty much along the same models that they’ve been following for two centuries, with devastating results generation after generation.

America’s Prison System Hasn’t Learned From the Past

Prisons were never intended to be a spa retreat. By definition, they’re designed to restore order when society has been wounded by someone’s willful misdeed. But the American prison system, much like its English and European predecessors and counterparts, has often fallen short of the ideal, with society’s most vulnerable and marginalized paying the highest price.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho, and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.