Prison has always been a tough place to live: cramped quarters, poor food and dangerous people make it a difficult place to survive. Despite the poor conditions of modern American prisons, they are still much more tolerable than in the recent past. The root of these changes stems from the work of activists and promoters of prison system reforms.
In early American history criminals were only kept in jails to await trial, punishment or death. After the Revolutionary War, nearly all states began building and implementing prisons to utilize in their justice systems. These prisons were mainly comprised of multiple large rooms that contained all prisoners, who were loosely guarded. Soon riots became too frequent, and the death rate too high, and it was clear that reforms were needed. This led to the development of the Auburn system (also called the Silent system). This system changed the large crowded rooms into small separate cells; it also banned prisoners from speaking to each other during meals and work. This reform was meant to be rehabilitative by teaching prisoners self-discipline and respect for others through silence and personal reflection.
However well-intended, within two decades the prison system was out of control again. Nearly all prisons had quickly abandoned the rehabilitative goal, and overcrowding grew into an immense problem. The Elmira Reform in New York (Elmira Correctional Facility) was the first institute to implement a series of new ideas in an attempt to reform once again. These ideas included educational programs where inmates could learn to read and write, as well as athletic and music programs. The Elmira Reform also provided prisoners the opportunity to learn vocational skills in various trades. Perhaps most importantly, the Elmira system sought to differentiate between juvenile and adult inmates, while also advocating the possibility of rehabilitation. Although this improved the quality of life for many prisoners, it did little to reduce the sheer number of prisoners and did even less to stop the deterioration and the exploitation of America’s prisons and inmates.
In an effort to take these changes a step further, Warden Thomas Mott Osborne introduced a Mutual Welfare League at Sing Sing prison. This allowed prisoners to act on a committee and so make requests and decisions as representatives of the Auburn inmates. By the end of the 1920s this reform had created prisons averaging 3,000 male staff who were required to have professional management skills, with the intention of reducing tension and violence within prison walls.
The 1950s saw a series of extremely violent riots that were triggered in response to a lack of medical care, low quality of food, brutality from guards and a lack of hygiene essentials. The rioting prisoners were able to make their complaints heard, and across the next ten years their demands were officially recognized by the Supreme Court as necessary rights. This action prompted the 1955 United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which resettled the emphasis of prisons on the rehabilitation of inmates.
Contemporary American prisons have changed little since the end of the 1950s, except for a rapidly rising population level. A notable reason for this is the high rate of recidivism for American parolees. These released prisoners only have a small amount of supervision after exiting, and their “ex-con” status often makes it difficult to find a job, which prompts their return to crime. With many of the same people repeating their offenses soon after regaining their freedom, it is obvious that further reform is needed.