The history of race in prison
The first prison in terms of the modern sense of the word was the Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia. This jail set forth the standard that later versions would use. They used a system of solitary confinement, with each inmate placed inside the walls for the majority of their time. They believed that punishment would act as a crime deterrent and for all purposes this idea held true. Men were kept housed with other criminals of the same race.
In the early part of the 19th century the prison system introduced the concept of a workhouse. The workhouse was similar to a prison, except that inmates were forced to work during their stay. The working conditions were often harsh, with the men working 10 hours a day, with only one day off for rest. Inmates were still housed according to their race, but also segregated based on the type of crime they committed.
Around the same time some prisons returned to the idea of the Philadelphia system, which utilized the idea of solitary confinement. At Eastern State Penitentiary the inmates were kept completely separate from each other. Even when they were allowed outside their cell, guards kept their heads covered with hoods so they couldn't see or talk to other inmates. The walls were made thick so inmates couldn't talk with their neighbors. There were many men who committed suicide or went crazy while inside.
The 1870s brought about a major prison reform. Inmates were now segregated based only on their crime and not the color of their skin. They were also given job training and many prisons setup a reward system. Inmates with good behavior were given time outside and other small treats. At the Elmira Reformatory inmates were even privy to specialized treatments and programs based on the recommendations of guards and professionals working with them. Prisons also began offering parole and probation for inmates.
Congress passed a law in 1887 that forbid prisons from farming out their inmates as labor for private companies. This led to the government creating their own prisons, rather than the independent ones that previously existed. They took several old army prisons and turned them into federal penitentiaries. They also changed labor rules so that inmates could work while in prison, but the money went into their own personal account. By 1927 prisons for female inmates began appearing.
The 1930s brought about another change as inmates gained more power than the prisons. There were a large number of gangsters convicted and they tended to retain their power even inside the prison walls. Alcatraz was used as a way of controlling the most violent of criminals. It was considered the only prison that no one could escape because it was so far removed from land. It also had a deep sense of isolation for those sentenced there.
Resources on the history of race and prisons include:
- All the World's A Prison : focuses on the idea of the prison system and what it was made for.
- Prison History : offers a look at the Confederate prison system.
- Law Schools- To become a professional lawyer and defend human rights
- Prison : gives a short history and details about different types of prisons.
- Prison Reform in Pennsylvania : discusses how prisons were reformed.
- Prison Reforms in American History : provides details about reform across the country.
- Race, Prison and Poverty : looks at the issues of race and poverty in terms of prison life.
- Eastern State History : gives a history of one of the more famous prisons in the United States.
- History of Michigan Prison Industries : looks at how the penal system in Michigan used inmates for labor.
- Prison Policy : gives statistics relating to race in prison inmates.
- Prisons : discusses major events in the history of the prison system.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, the prison system in America has had a high rate of expansion in terms of inmates. A high number of those incarcerated are African Americans and many were first arrested at a young age. This really dates back to the 1980s when the war on drugs idea swept the country. Crack cocaine landed many men in jail, though some debate the accuracy of this.
Crack cocaine was cheap, which made it the top choice in poverty stricken areas such as the inner cities, popularly known as the ghetto. The main residents in these areas were African American men. When they were arrested, they were typically given the maximum sentence and many were charged with intent to sell, regardless of the amount of drugs they possessed.
Overcrowding and overpopulation were the main problems facing inmates during this period. The jails were only meant to hold so many people and with the rise in incarcerations, there simply wasn't enough space for those people. The real problem arose when African Americans were incarcerated for crimes that didn't involve either violence or drugs. At one point in time there were more blacks enrolled in prisons than in colleges. These men were also denied certain rights they were granted as US citizens including the right to vote.
During the 1990s the rate of gang related violence in prisons also rose. The gangs were often related to race, with those of a similar race working together. White supremacist groups also gained some power and inflicted violence against blacks and Hispanics. In many prisons, gangs weren't allowed to mix together and any member caught talking with one from another group faced violence from their own peers.
During this era the use of drugs inside the prison walls also grew. The prison system put stringent rules in place to reduce the chances of drugs making it inside, but these clearly didn't work. There are stories of men becoming addicted to drugs once they made it to prison and former addicts dying of overdoses inside the walls. Even today drugs are still found in jails and prisons, with minorities being the biggest group of users.