Treatment of Prisoners in the U.S. Continues to Be Cruel Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Evolution of Prison Life

What were prisons like, how were prisoners treated and classified through American history -- including prison environments in the last few years? This paper delves into those topics and provides the available literature that validates the points to be made in this essay.

The History of Prisons and Prisoner Life in America

According to author and Professor Jack Lynch, prisons were among the very first public buildings when settlers began to populate and develop the New World. And there were few long-term punishments that were meted out, and among those were individuals convicted of being "debtors" (Lynch, 2008). The problem with putting the poor in prison because they couldn't pay their debts was that "…they could never earn the money they owed"; but it wasn't until the 1830s that the U.S. began to "…abolish debtor's prisons" (Lynch, 3). Instead of being imprisoned, convicted criminals were forced to wear letters on their clothing indicating the nature of their crime. In fact, up until the year 1700, "criminals" were subjected to "public shame"; to wit, those who committed adultery wore an "A" (think Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter); others wore "B" (blasphemer); "D" (drunk); "F" (fighter); "M" (manslaughter); "T" (thief);
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and "R" (rogue) (Lynch, 3).

In the late 1700s American political and moral leaders began to back away from stiff punishments like death by hanging for relatively modest crimes. The "most substantial problem with locking people up" was that American prisons could be "…less humane that the death and torture they were meant to replace," Lynch writes on page 5. That was because "corruption was rampant" and prisoners were expected to "bribe their keepers for minimally adequate treatment"; but for those without the monetary ability to bribe their guards, they were "allowed to die of neglect" (Lynch, 5). "Hygiene was appalling" and "open sewers often ran through the facilities" in the late 1700s (Lynch, 6).

In 1841, prison reformer Dorothea Dix told the Massachusetts Legislature that prisoners were "…confined in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens," and they were "chained, beaten with rods, lashed into obedience" (U.S. History, 2014). Moreover, she pointed out that prisons were "overflowing" with lawbreakers from ordinary people arrested for spitting on the sidewalk to murderers (U.S. History). Abuses continued into the early 20th century, and in spite of prison reform movements during the 20th century, the American Civil Liberties Union -- which has been the court-appointed monitor of the L.A. County Jails since 1985 -- has documented instances of "…overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and extreme abuse of inmates" by guards / deputies (ACLU). In the…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

American Civil Liberties Union. (2013). Prison Conditions. Retrieved March 19, 2014, from https://www.aclu.org.

Austin, J., and Hardyman, P.L. (2004). Objective Prison Classification: A Guide for Correctional Agencies. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved March 19, 2014, from http://www.jfa-associates.com.

Lynch, J. (2008). Cruel and Unusual Prisons and Prison Reform. History.org. Colonial Williamsburg. Retrieved March 19, 2014, from http://www.history.org.

Schwirtz, M. (2014). Mental Illness and Violence Rise at a Vast Jail. The New York Times.

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