Prevention History of Corrections—Punishment or Rehabilitation? - Colonial And Earlypost-revolutionary Periods

prisoners punishment howard pennsylvania

Just as in Europe, physical punishment was common in colonial America. Americans used stocks, pillories, branding, flogging, and maiming—such as cutting off an ear or slitting nostrils—to punish offenders. The death penalty was used frequently. In 1636 the Massachusetts Bay Colony listed thirteen crimes that warranted execution, including murder, practicing witchcraft, and worshipping idols. In early New York State, 20% of offenses, including pickpocketing, horse stealing, and robbery, were capital crimes (warranting the death penalty).

Jails were used to hold prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing or as debtors' prisons, but were not the punishment itself. The Puritans of Massachusetts believed that humans were naturally depraved, which made it easier for some of the colonies and the first states to enforce harsh punishments. In addition, since Puritans believed that humans had no control over their fate (predestination), many early Americans felt there was no need for rehabilitation.


The Quakers, led by William Penn, made colonial Pennsylvania an exception to the harsh practices often found in the other colonies. The early criminal code of colonial Pennsylvania abolished executions for all crimes except homicide, replaced physical punishments with imprisonment and hard labor, and did not charge the prisoners for their food and housing.

Ideas of the Enlightenment

The philosophy of the Enlightenment (the Age of Reason) emphasized the importance of the individual. After the French Revolution of 1789, which was based on the ideas of the Enlightenment, western European countries abolished torture as a form of punishment and emphasized that the punishment should fit the individual's crime(s). Rather than inflicting pain as the main element of correction, the idea of changing the individual became the goal. The French Revolution, however, also introduced the guillotine, a sophisticated beheading machine.

In England, John Howard (1726–90) wrote The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777), in which he described the horrible treatment of prisoners. Howard thought that prisoners should not be harassed by keepers who extorted from them, nor should they have to suffer malnutrition and disease. He advocated segregating prisoners by age, sex, and type of crime; paying the staff; hiring medical officials and chaplains; and supplying prisoners with adequate food and clothing.

Howard called the facilities "penitentiaries" (from the word "penitent," meaning to be ashamed or sorry for committing a sin or offense) because he based his ideas on the Quakers' philosophy of people repenting, reflecting on their sins, and changing their ways. Public concern led the British Parliament to pass the Penitentiary Act of 1779; it called for the first secure and sanitary penitentiary. The law eliminated the charging of fees. Prisoners would live in solitary confinement at night and work together silently during the day. Nonetheless, although Parliament passed the law, it did not actually go into effect until the opening of Pentonville Penitentiary in North London in 1842.

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