American Corrections...A History

             In colonial America (the period from the first European settlements through the Revolutionary War), there were no state or federal prisons. Towns operated jails, but these local institutions held mainly debtors and people awaiting trial or execution. The various colonies had different laws for dealing with felons (serious offenders), but generally speaking, their criminal laws imposed physical punishments. Colonial punishments included flogging, branding, mutilation (as in the removal of an ear or nose), hangings, public humiliation, and banishments to wilderness areas, but they seldom involved confinement in penal institutions. In short, in the colonial period punishments emphasized the infliction of pain, not the deprivation of liberty.
             After the Revolutionary War, citizens of the new country began to rethink issues of crime and punishment. Proud of having achieved liberty from England and stressing the importance of self-government, the leaders of the new United States began to think of deprivation of liberty as a better type of punishment than the old-fashioned physical punishments of the English and Continental traditions. Moreover, they decided that local communities should continue to be responsible for the punishment and correction of misdemeanants (minor offenders), but states should mete out the consequences for felons.
             The first steps toward a new approach to punishing felons were taken in Philadelphia, which was the governmental center of the new country and also the region with the highest concentration of Quakers. This religious group emphasizes the value of the individual, holding that each of us has the ability to discover an "inner light" that leads to God. Quakers therefore oppose capital punishment and believe that no one is beyond redemption. As a colony under the leadership of William Penn, Pennsylvania had adopted the Quaker principle of humane treatment as a guideline for criminal punishments, gre...

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