Within US borders a whole other world is hidden behind concrete and barbed wire. A place of violence and coercion. Drugs and crude weapons pervade its economy. This is an entire world behind bars. The criminal justice system has a way of trapping people in cages that result in a lifetime of obstacles that sabotage efforts at redemption. Society punishes those with criminal records long after they have finished their sentence. How have reform movements of the criminal justice system since the Gilded Age influence how the system is implemented today? To answer this question, we have to take a journey back to the reform movements during the Gilded Age, the effect it had on prison life, and how convicted criminals are viewed in society.
Decades after the Civil War Era, there have been many approaches to reform prisons. According to the American Correctional Association, in 1870 they held their first inaugural meeting in Cincinnati, where it articulated its support for rehabilitative penology; the study of the punishment of crime and prison management. Here the ACA published and presented the ‘Declaration of Principles’. The document directed prison administrators to implement indeterminate sentencing, moral training, industrial training, and educational programs. An article written by Fiona Doherty who attended Yale Law School published that one of the attendees was Enoch C. Wines, the secretary of the New York Prison Association. Wines proposed a system in which inmates were rewarded for their good behavior and released after they have been reformed. This is known as indeterminate sentencing. Defined by Cornell Law School a judge sentences the prisoner for a period of time, and a parole officer sets a release date within those limits based on factors of the criminal history and imprisonment behavior of the offender. Prisoners could now be released without completing their sentence and the unserved parts would become a testing period. When released if the convict behaved themselves, they would be allowed to stay in the community. If they did not, then they would go right back to jail. What resulted from indeterminate sentencing was the concept of parole.
Another person was Zebulon Brockway, who assisted in writing the Declaration. Brockway proposed a system that focused on providing education to prisoners as stated from an autobiography ‘Fifty Years of Prison Service’ by Brockway. In 1876, Brockway tested his ideas as the director of Elmira Reformatory in Elmira, New York. Inmates during the day would serve and receive education, and at night get vocational training. In his book he discussed a points system where inmates could get an early release if they accumulated enough points from either acquiring a technical skill or completing academic assignments. A dissertation by Anthony Grasso, an Assistant Professor of American Politics at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, NY discussed Brockway’s approach. Grasso noted that under Brockway’s supervision Elmira established education programs, indeterminate sentencing systems, and a marks system for good behavior. His system made it possible for prisoners to return to society.
A prison sentence is anything but luxurious. With conditions sometimes being as low as humane, there is a reason why they are considered dangerous. An example would be the Yuma Territorial Prison. Located in Yuma, Arizona this prison housed famous outlaws from the old west, including Elena Estrada. She was legendary for ripping her unfaithful partner’s heart out and throwing it in his face according to the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum. Yuma was constructed in 1876 and the first 7 prisoners built their own cells. Over its 33 years in operation, 3,069 prisoners, 29 of whom were women, were incarcerated here. Prisoners were transported here by train and their belongings were immediately confiscated. After they would be stripped of their clothes, bathed, and given a uniform. Next, they would be assigned a cell with 5 or 6 other inmates. On each side of the small cell, they would sleep on mattresses infested with bedbugs. On the other hand, the prisoners had access to schooling where they could learn how to read, write, and speak other languages. During their free time, they could make hand-crafted items that would be sold to the public. Despite having access to a variety of resources the inmates still called this place a ‘hell hole’. The people of Yuma referred to the prison as the ‘Country Club on the Colorado’. They were resentful that the prison had better amenities than most of their homes. Though it may have seemed luxurious, the prison was feared by inmates. It was described as, ‘impossible to endure, more impossible to escape’. Each cell was given one bucket for bathing and could bathe only once a week. Yuma had very strict rules and if broken you were taken to solitary confinement also known as ‘The Dark Cell’. The prisoner was locked in a 4-foot-high iron cage that was placed inside and would be stripped down to just their underwear. They were brought only bread and water once a day and light came only from a small ventilation shaft recorded by the museum. This prison was eventually shut down in 1909 due to overcrowding, and all inmates were moved to a new facility in Florence, Arizona. This is an example of how the old system looked and functioned, but today it is far different.
Since the Gilded Age, there have been massive prison reform movements that have impacted how prisons are run today. The structure of the system has improved, the function of prisons has enhanced, but it is still broken. There are people who have injustice prison sentences. Once a person has made contact with the system, they are prevented from growing and becoming truly free.