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Prison Systems

A prison can be defined as a facility that is set up under the authority of a state. Within these facilities, individuals who have been sentenced for criminal activity are forcibly denied a large number of freedoms and placed within the confines of the prison. Most prison facilities form a part of the state’s judicial set up or justice system.

Prison systems have evolved over the years from simple workhouses for both the poor and convicted criminals to sophisticated correction facilities. In England, for example, around the 17th century, most prison systems were seen as work houses run by church parishes. These workhouses acted as debtors’ prisons and also housed the poor. Conditions in these early prison systems were deplorable mainly because parishes did not want to condone able bodied people from moving into the work house. By the 19th century, England’s prison systems had expanded to include felons and juveniles. The prison set up continued to be deplorable. Jails were filthy and dark and no separation of inmates were maintained. By mid the 1800s, an important reform began to take place in the English prison systems. This reform saw the introduction of better food in the prisons; inmates were also allowed to participate in exercise programs and were also entitled to regular bathing. The reform also went ahead to introduce a library in the prisons where inmates could continue to improve their literacy.

In the context of the United States, prison systems evolved in three major phases. The first phase, known as the antebellum era, included the widespread introduction of restorative labor and imprisonment. The second phase or the reconstruction era took place after the American Civil War. This era introduced the concepts of probation, parole and sentencing without any specific end date (indeterminate sentencing). The final phase or the progressive era, which began in the 20th century, included an unparalleled expansion of the nation’s prison systems. This expansion continues to take place both at the state and federal level.

Prisons systems today are very diverse ranging from maximum security prisons to juvenile halls and mental institutions. The introduction of other measures such as fines and probation enables minor offenses, such as stealing an orange, be treated differently from major crimes such as violent robbery. In terms of prison systems development, the United States continues to have one of the best laid out incarceration facilities in the world but the nation still experiences many cases of overcrowding in its facilities.


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