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Prison Reform

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Prison discipline has in recent times become a atter of so much moment that its consideration is forced upon every philanthropist, especially the believer of the new dispensation the law of love. Under the silent influences of Christianity, torture, exposure in the pillory, and other like dedications of the offender to public vengeance have long been abandoned as barbarous practices. Death-punishment has been much narrowed in its application; and transportation, apart from any question of effectiveness, has been rendered impracticable, except within a very narrow compass.

The movement for the alleviation of the horrors of imprisonment by physical and moral improvement of the conditions of prisoners may be said to be not only Christian, but modern. We get nothing from the practice of the times anterior to Christianity, nor yet from the Middle Ages, that accounts for much in the modern systems of prison discipline. In Greece and Rome punishments were inflicted in other ways. It must be borne in mind that among the ancients the institution of slavery rendered the prison system unnecessary. It kept the functions of punishing ordinary criminals from the public administration of the affairs of a state, and placed it in private hands. Hence there was no criminal law, properly speaking. The corpus juris, so full of minute regulations in all matters of civic right, (See JUSTINIAN), has very little criminal law, because the criminals became slaves, and ceased to be objects of the attention of the law. In the Roman empire there were houses, called ergastula, for the incarceration of criminal and refractory slaves. The feudal barons had towers in their castles, called donjons (whence our word dungeon), for the confinement of their captive foes or refractory retainers. Sometimes the prison vaults were cut in the solid rock below the surface of the earth.

When imprisonment became a function of the State in the administration of justice, it was often carelessly, and hence tyrannically, exercised, because the practice of awarding it as a punishment arose more rapidly than the organization for controlling its use. In the 15th and 16th centuries the Society of the Brothers of Mercy in Italy paid much attention to the incarcerated unfortunate trespassers of society, and so greatly alleviated their forlorn condition that many of the Brothers of Mercy are reverently spoken of to this day. St. Carlo Borromeo and St. Vincent de Paul are to be especially mentioned. But the earliest instance of a prison managed on any principles of policy and humanity seems to be that of the Penitentiary at Amsterdam in 1595, an example which was soon followed by some of the German towns, especially Hamburg and Bremen. In England, on several occasions, grave abuses have been exposed by parliamentary inquiries and otherwise in the practice of prison discipline. It is well known that the real impulse to prison improvement was first communicated by the celebrated Howard (q.v.), whose sufferings, when taken by a privateer and imprisoned at Brest, during the Seven Years' War are said to have first directed his attention to this subject. The fruits of his observations in his repeated visits to most of the prisons of Europe were given to the world partly in his publications and partly on examination before Parliament. Howard's exertions, and those of Mrs. Fry and other investigators, awakened in the public mind the question whether any practice in which the public interest was so much involved should be left to something like mere chance to the negligence of local authorities and the personal disposition of jailers. As in other reform movements, so in this, our own country has been most progressive, and Europe has willingly taken lessons from America. The reports made of our prison systems by the French visitors, Messrs. Beaumont and De Tocqueville (in 1834), De Metz and Blouet (in 1837), Dr. Juliers (sent from Prussia), and Mr. Crawford (from England), have certainly contributed very largely to the present state of public opinion on the subject. In 1834, inspectors were appointed to report annually on the state of English and Scottish prisons-a measure which had been earlier adopted with reference to Ireland; and their reports may be consulted with advantage.

"The tendency lately has been to regulate prison discipline with extreme care. The public sometimes complain that too much pains is bestowed on it that criminals are not worthy of having clean, well-ventilated apartments, wholesome food, skilful medical attendance, industrial training, and education, as they now have in this country. There are many arguments in favor of criminals being so treated, and the objections urged against such treatment are held by those who are best acquainted with the subject to be invalid; for it has never been maintained by any one that a course of crime has been commenced and pursued for the purpose of enjoying the advantages of imprisonment. Perhaps those who chiefly promoted the several prominent systems expected from them greater results, in the shape of the reformation of criminals, than have been obtained. If they have been disappointed in this, it can, at all events, be said that any prison in the now recognised system is no longer like the older prisons, an institution in which the young criminals advance into the rank of proficients, and the old improve each other's skill by mutual communication. The system now received is that of separation, so far as it is practicable. Two other systems were tried the silent system and the solitary system. The former imposed entire silence among the prisoners even when assembled together; the latter endeavored to accomplish their complete isolation from sight of or communication with their race. By the separate system, the criminals are prohibited from communicating with each other; but they are visited by persons whose intercourse is more likely to elevate than to debase as chaplains, teachers, Scripture readers, the superior officers of the prison, and those who have the external control over it." (See PENITENTIARY).

The Prison Association in the State of New York is regarded as the most perfect organization of the kind in the world. According to the annual report, the objects of this society are threefold:

1. Humane attention to persons arrested, protecting them from legal sharpers, and securing their impartial trial.

2. Encouragement and aid of discharged convicts.

3. Careful study of prison discipline, observation of the causes of crime, and inquiry as to the proper means of its prevention.

The last is considered the most important of its objects. The statistics of the work of the society during the quarter of a century just ended show the following figures under the first object named above: 93,560 friendless persons visited in the detention prisons of New York and Brooklyn, all of them counselled, and many of them assisted; 25,290 complaints carefully examined; 6148 complaints withdrawn at the instance of the society as trivial, or founded on mistake or passion; 7922 persons discharged by the courts on recommendation of the society, who were young, innocent, committed their offences under mitigating circumstances, or were evidently penitent; a total of 133,922 cases in which relief of some kind has been offered by the association. During the last twenty-five years the assistance given to discharged convicts is summed up as follows: 18,309 persons of this class aided with board, clothing, tools, railroad tickets, or money; 4139 provided with permanent situations; a total of 22,448. Aid has also been extended to thousands of persons connected with the families of the prisoners. For some years a few hundred dollars have been annually distributed on New-year's-day among indigent families. By its act of incorporation it is made the duty of the Prison Association to "visit, inspect, and examine all the prisons of the State of New York, and annually report to the Legislature their condition." In 1876 the fourth National Prison Reform Congress was held in New York City, and very advanced ground was taken. Those especially interested in this subject will do well to consult the minutes of these proceedings, and the annual reports of the New York State Prison Association; also those of the Boston Prison Discipline Society, an organization to which is due the introduction of religious exercises into American prisons, as well as the appointment of chaplains. Prison congresses have been held in Europe since 1845. In 1872 an international congress was held in London, likewise in 1877.

While the principle of prison reform is universally recognised, it is found in practice to work with different results in different cases. This comes from the impossibility of having uniformity in the actual management of the prisons, personal tact and influence having much to do in the case. The prison at Columbus, O., has the reputation of being one of the best in the country for this reason; it enjoys superior supervision, and is wholly free from political interference. The movers in reform hope to achieve still better results in all the institutions. Their principal business is with the criminal after he is caught to reform him, restore his manhood, and return him to society a new individual. The question how to prevent crime in the first instance is another and more important question. See the excellent article on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the Amer. Cyclop. 14:6, 17, and the literature there quoted. See also Revue Chretienne, Aug. 1873, art. 1; Robin, La Question Penitentiaire (Paris, 1873); Edinb. Rev. 54, 159 sq.; Meth. Quar. Rev. July, 1873, art. v; New-Engl. Jan. 1873, art. 4; Christian Union, May 31, 1876; New York Evening Post, 1878.


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Prison Reform'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/p/prison-reform.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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