The history of prisons in pre-1900 America is associated with the development of the penitentiary system which changed the approach of the officials and the public’s attitude to imprisoning.
To examine the issue, it is important to discuss such works as The Cradle of the Penitentiary: The Walnut Street Jail at Philadelphia 1773-1835 by Teeters, The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society by Rothman, “History from the inside out: Prison Life in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts” by Goldsmith, and “One Female Prisoner Is of More Trouble than Twenty Males”: Women Convicts in Illinois Prisons, 1835-1896” by Dodge.
The researchers provide rather opposite views on the prison system of the 19th century; that is why, it is important to discuss the history of prisons in pre-1900 America from many perspectives, focusing on the positive and negative features of the system.
In his work, Teeters focuses on the success of penitentiaries as the effective reform to improve the prison system of the USA during the 19th century. Teeters discusses a lot of the system’s strengths using the concrete historical example of the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia developing during the post-Revolutionary period. The author pays attention to such factors as the role of penology phenomenon and responsibility of officials in the system’s progress as well as the changed approach to the role of a prisoner.
Teeters states that this system contributes to discussing a prisoner as “a rational being of like feelings and passion with themselves” because of operating the notions of dignity and man’s rights. Having focused on the role of penitentiaries for the social history of the country, the author concludes that it was the well-rounded treatment program influencing the further development of the system.
Rothman discusses the history of the penitentiary system typical for the 1800s within the larger context and comparing it with the previous and next systems and punishment programs.
According to Rothman, the evolution of the prison system in the 19th century led to focusing much on the factors of obedience, isolation, and routine activities in penitentiaries as the way to provide the necessary rehabilitation for prisoners and social order. The authors’ argument about the effectiveness of penitentiaries in guaranteeing the social control is based on answering such questions as the aspects of prisons’ organization oriented to isolation of prisoners and organization of the daily routines.
Having examined the reports and historical documents on penitentiaries, Rothman concluded that the period of penitentiaries is one of the most important in the history of the US prisons because the order and organization of penitentiaries contributed significantly to preserving the social order.
Goldsmith is not as optimistic as the above-mentioned authors while analyzing the prison system during the 1800s in America. The researcher pays attention to the fact that the development of penitentiaries in the country was not an easy process, and it was associated with a lot of challenges.
However, the ideas of the author reflect the opinion of Rothman and Morris that both the officials and prisoners influenced the progress of the system. The institution could become a failure without the effective distribution of powers and providing the successful principles of the order in prisons.
Nevertheless, the most controversial discussion of the prison system in the USA is developed by Dodge. If Teeters, Rothman, and Goldsmith concentrated on analyzing the life of male prisoners, Dodge chose to focus on the gender factor in developing the system in detail and provided the analysis of females’ role in penitentiaries.
It is important to note that during a long period of time women were imprisoned in the same penitentiaries as males. The women’s life in prisons of that period is associated with brutality and exploitation against them as well as with effective female manipulation based on gender differences. The author develops the discussion using the documents on the situation in penitentiaries in Illinois during the 1800s.
Thus, the presence of women in the same penitentiaries as males is the questionable moment in the history of prisons in the USA that is why Dodge’s research contributes to the discussion of the prison system from different perspectives. Dodge provides a lot of evidences to support the idea that women played a significant role in forming the prison system of the 19th century with references to the principles of punishment and social control.
Although Teeters, Rothman, Goldsmith, and Dodge discuss the same question of penitentiaries’ development in the 19th century, their approach to the analysis of the basic points and details is rather different. Moreover, the researchers focused on various concrete aspects of the problem, providing the fragments for composing the complex picture of the prison system’s development during the 1800s.
In spite of the fact that the authors’ discussions differ in methods and approaches, the conclusions support the idea of the prison system’s success in the 19th century. To receive the complete vision of the prison history and conclude about the role of penitentiaries for the progress of the punishment and social control systems, it is necessary to pay attention to the authors’ work as credible researches on the question.
Dodge, Mara. “One Female Prisoner Is of More Trouble than Twenty Males”: Women Convicts in Illinois Prisons, 1835-1896”. Journal of Social History 32, no. 4 (1999): 907-930.
Goldsmith, Lary. “History from the inside out: Prison Life in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts”. Journal of Social History 31, no. 1 (1997): 109-125.
Rothman, David. The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Teeters, Negley. The Cradle of the Penitentiary The Walnut Street Jail at Philadelphia 1773-1835. USA: Temple University, 1955.
- Negley Teeters, The Cradle of the Penitentiary The Walnut Street Jail at Philadelphia 1773-1835 (USA: Temple University, 1955), xii.
- David Rothman, The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 126-129.
- Lary Goldsmith, “History from the inside out: Prison Life in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts”. Journal of Social History 31, no. 1 (1997): 112.
- Mara Dodge, “One Female Prisoner Is of More Trouble than Twenty Males”: Women Convicts in Illinois Prisons, 1835-1896”. Journal of Social History 32, no. 4 (1999): 910.