History

It is easy view the prison as an everlasting, static institution. But the prison actually emerges from a specific history, and the way we have viewed it has changed substantially over the years. This essay presents one of the key themes in the history of prison education: the conflict between the inherent need for control within a prison and education’s ability to set one free.

Corporal Punishment

Jean-Baptiste_Le_Prince,_Supplice_du_grand_knout_(c._1765)Until the end of the eighteenth century, law enforcement used corporal punishment such as beatings and the stocks to deter lawbreakers. The prison was introduced as a humane alternative, advocated by reformers such as Dr. Benjamin Rush. But, as scholar David J. Rothman explains, “[i]ncarceration was not the critical feature of the reformed system, and rehabilitation was not its expected goal.”[1] The early model of the prison still aimed at deterring criminality, so the system included little provision for rehabilitation. Reformers instead created a system to lock people up in a controlled setting for an extended time as a means of punishment. This neglect in the original design may explain the later conflict in the identity of the prison, as reformers began to change the mission from deterrence to rehabilitation.

Hope for Humaneness: The Nineteenth Century

Reformers in the antebellum period optimistically and enthusiastically introduced the idea of rehabilitation. Rothman compares the Auburn and Pennsylvania models, the two most prominent examples of early attempts at rehabilitation in prisons. In both cases, reformers focused on “isolation, obedience, and a steady routine of labor” as the means to remake the criminal, reasoning that lawbreakers simply never learned these values and that prison provided a space to teach them.[2] .

This emphasis on teaching submission was reflected in the education offered to prisoners. Generally, this “education” involved prisoners performing hard labor as a means to develop a work ethic. But it included a literary element as well: some reformers saw reading the New Testament as a way to induce remorse.[3] Reformers believed that the power of words, intertwined with religious underpinnings, would convince the criminal to become part of the normal, religious society.

By Unknown illustrator [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Unknown illustrator [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But as the century progressed and overcrowding eliminated the possibility of isolation, the system further viewed hard work as the way to reform the criminal.[4] Prisons often used inmates’ chain gang labor to cover costs. According to Rothman, nineteenth century prisons after the Civil War – much of San Quentin’s early years – were “characterized by over-crowding, brutality and disorder.”[5] At the same time, the administrators of prison systems “became cynical about the idea of reform, trotting it out only at convenient times and places.”[6] Immigrants increasingly populated prisons, making them a less popular place for official legislative oversight. Wardens and guards could focus solely on control, with little thought about rehabilitation.

A Belief in Government: The Progressive Era

A new era of prison ideology emerged as Progressives adopted prison reform into their greater urban improvement agenda in the early 20th century. This type of reform vested great hope in the power of the government to use scientific principles to solve society’s ills. Larry E. Sullivan describes the core tenets of the Progressive Era in his book The Prison Reform Movement.[7] Progressives expected people’s behavior to be shaped by certain social and biological laws and therefore curable by scientific means. Called “The New Penology,” the method aimed to cure the root causes of criminal behavior as opposed to exacting punishment for a crime. This led to structural changes to the penal system, including the addition of probation, parole and indeterminate sentencing.

Experts focused both on the individual criminal and his outside surroundings, analyzing data to determine the exact cause of criminality and propose a solution. Reformers also stressed the humanity of prisoners, arguing that they merely lacked an understanding of proper socialization. This grew out of the greater middle class Progressive mindset, which saw education as the key to social mobility and encouraged the enforcement of mandatory public education outside of the prison walls. Thus the prison system began to emphasize education as a means to rehabilitate an inmate.[8]

Warden at Sing Sing. Date unknown. Source: George Grantham Bain Collection; Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Warden at Sing Sing. Date unknown. Source: George Grantham Bain Collection; Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Some improvements were attempted inside the prison walls. In “The Failure of Reform,” Edgardo Rotman describes several innovations designed by Progressives to provide treatment for inmates.[9] Rotman cites the efforts of Thomas Mott Osborne, who established Mutual Welfare Leagues at Auburn and Sing Sing, in which a committee of inmates helped plan disciplinary procedures. Although not formal education per se, these experiments hoped to teach cooperation and self-determination to alter behavior. They sought to uplift the inmates by educating them about mutual responsibility and proper behavior, allowing them freedom of thought within that context.

But the struggle between educational freedom and punitive control frustrated the experiments. These perceived failures indicated to prison administrators that education and control must be at odds, and they chose to prioritize control. Thus, such experiments deteriorated into the normative, repressive pattern of prison life.

From World War II to the War on Drugs: The Treatment Era

The 1950s began with a series of prison riots, grown out of the dashed expectations and suffering caused by failures of the Progressive movement.[10] Many states still employed the harsh labor tactics of the nineteenth century, and budget concerns often restricted investment. Instead of clamping down in response to these riots, the prison system decided to reassert their rehabilitative intentions through a new series of therapeutic programs. Hailing the “Era of Treatment,” 1950s penologists prepared to increase reforms, facing the future with optimism.[11]

The 1950s combined Progressive ideas of therapy with a growing emphasis on sociology. Supported by the booming post-war economy, prison management expanded the Progressives’ classification system, which categorized inmates based on “treatability” in an effort to separate hardened criminals from those more likely to be rehabilitated. Penologists used psychiatry and therapy in an effort to “cure” the “sickness” causing the inmates to commit crimes.

The optimism of the penologists directly contrasted the intentions of the inmates, who often faked rehabilitation in order to convince prison administration that they were ready for parole. This, Larry E. Sullivan explains, came from the prevailing knowledge that no matter the rhetoric, “custody always took precedence…. The concept of rehabilitation is fine, but it takes a back seat to public safety; and public safety means order and no riots or escapes.”[12]  Like before, this contradiction limited prison reform.

A view of San Quentin. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A view of San Quentin. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This paradigm in prison reform included an expansion in educational programming, including a new emphasis on reading and literature in California prisons. In The Rise and Fall of the Radical Prison Movement, Eric Cummins traces this specific brand of bibliotherapy to Herman K. Spector, the librarian at San Quentin and a man of “staunch integrity and feisty determination” who was “young, energetic and zealously devoted to bringing the regenerative power of books to the service of inmate rehabilitation.”[13]

Spector’s program connected literature and education to rehabilitation, as he believed that by “following bibliotherapy [the prisoners’] attitudes would conform more closely with cultural norms.”[14] An avid consumer of journals on penology, he collected data on all the inmates’ reading habits and added group reading discussions as part of the broader emphasis on psychiatry. To Spector, books taught proper cultural practices and important ideas that complemented the rest of the prisoners’ treatment. The librarian had transcended to the role of mental health worker.

Spector’s program exemplified the effort to control rehabilitation through the regular censorship of available material. According to Cummins, he professed a “public distaste for censorship of reading,” but he weeded out “undesirable materials” that were critical of church and state. Instead of seeing this as censorship, Spector considered this a way to create a “repository… of the eternal truths of mankind.”[15] He was not closing minds of inmates; he was opening them up to more enlightened principles. Emphasizing the consistent goal of control, this aimed to form inmates’ minds to ideological norms through exposure to great literature. 

The Radical Prison Movement

The power of the word, it would turn out, had a great effect upon the prisoners at San Quentin, but not in the way that Spector had hoped. Prisoners began their own education programs, where they taught black and Chicano history and Marxist thought. Cummins connects this to the rise of the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. Empowered by education, prisoners began writing political tracts that appealed to the outside Leftist movement. (See video of Eldridge Cleaver below) To the middle-class Left, the prisoner represented an anti-hero around whom they could rally.

The prisoners’ rights movement coincided with tangible action in favor of prison reform. Earl Warren, whose governorship ushered in the Era of Treatment in California, led the Supreme Court, and he delivered judicial support through cases like Gideon v. Wainwright. But for many, progress jeopardized public safety, and soon, the reform rhetoric championed in the Era of Treatment unraveled.

The Decline of Treatment: 1970s-Present

The 1960s were not a peaceful time in American history, delivering to the conservative class of the 1970s a world rife with chaos. In this chaotic context, the prisoners’ rights movement in California developed a new intensity. Prisoners like Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton advocated revolution; smuggled literature taught inmates to construct bombs. George Jackson’s books made him a popular antihero, = his death sparking revolt at Attica prison. The prison seemed to crumble from within.

This context, argues Christian Parenti, provided fertile ground for a new era of harsh anti-crime rhetoric.[16] In Lockdown America, Parenti chronicles the intensification of policing and incarceration that began in the 1970s. Conservative Barry Goldwater’s ideas of law and order, espoused during his ill-fated bid for the Presidency in 1964, became part of Richard Nixon’s 1968 platform, in which he promised to restore stability to a nation in crisis. Faced with the reality that the President technically wields no power in police activities, Nixon decided to pursue his campaign promises by launching a “War on Drugs” which served to increase his reach into law enforcement.

At the same time, with neither the war in Vietnam nor the Civil Rights movement as a rallying point, cohesion on the Left diminished. Reform enthusiasm suffered as the post-war economic boom deteriorated. Prisons could shy away from their rehabilitative message and become solely punitive. The Left began to embrace this ideology, as bipartisan criticism in 1976 compelled Democratic Governor Jerry Brown to disable many Progressive reforms through legislation that defined incarceration as “punishment” rather than “rehabilitation.”[17]

In this new era of control, prisons greatly restricted educational and library access. In his article “The Least of Our Brethren: Library Service to Prisoners,” Larry E. Sullivan describes the 1970s as “the swan song of the treatment or rehabilitation movement in prisons” as soon an ethos of “‘just deserts’ would rear its head and roar against convicted felons like a politician running for office” [because] “[i]f rehabilitation didn’t work, why have treatment tools like libraries that just cost the taxpayers money?”[18] What kept libraries at least somewhat intact was the Supreme Court case Bounds v. Smith, which said that state prisons had to provide “meaningful access” to the courts. Many took that as access to a law library. But the state offered little more.

The 1980s saw an expansion in the War on Drugs, and California saw a threefold increase in the prison population under a flurry of anti-crime legislation and the introduction of new high-tech, high security “supermax” facilities.[19] The 1990s became a particularly definitive time in the anti-crime paradigm, when President Bill Clinton dismayed reformers by incorporating “tough on crime” into the official Democratic platform through the 1994 Violent Crime, Control and Law Enforcement Act.

A New Era of Progressivism?: The Twenty-First Century

By California Department of Corrections (http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/News/background_info.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By California Department of Corrections (http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/News/background_info.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As a result of the elimination of official rehabilitative programs in prison, the state and federal governments disallowed the use of official funds for higher education in prisons. To take their place, many college professors and students developed independent, voluntary programs emerged. Heather J. McCarty of Ohlone College presents the history of the current higher education program at San Quentin in “Educating Felons: Higher Education in Prison.” In 1989, Patten College in Oakland began offering various degrees through San Quentin and opened a college at the prison. But the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners, cutting off the main source of funding for the program. Two years later, in 1996, Professor Naomi Janowitz from UC Davis began a volunteer-based college program, which grew to become the only on-site degree-granting higher education program in the California prison system.

This optimism expressed by the reformers such as McCarty who work outside the official system maps onto a resurgence of judicial action upholding the rights of prisoners. One year after McCarty published her article, the three-judge ruling in Plata v. Schwarzenegger (later Brown v Plata) established that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation violated the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punish through its inability to provide adequate medical care.[20] California appealed to the Supreme Court, and in the summer of 2011, the Court ruled in favor of the prisoners, instructing California to reduce its prison population.

By Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States (Anthony Kennedy - The Oyez Project) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Justice Kennedy. By Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States (Anthony Kennedy – The Oyez Project) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The ruling also introduced a significant idea into the official perception of prisoners. In the opinion, Justice Kennedy emphasized the idea of human dignity: “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons.  Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”[21] Like the reformers of the Progressive era, the ruling stressed the humanity of prisoners, recalling a sense of empathy that the modern system lacks.

On a political level, President George W. Bush passed the Second Chance Act in 2008, which provided grants to reentry and education programs. Although it was not a large allocation, it symbolized a monumental shift in policy from the previous decades.

Although a historical analysis cannot predict the future, the recent events in the penal system signify a possible reemergence of enthusiasm for prison reform. But this new enthusiasm, should it emerge, must bear in mind the conflicts that stifled earlier attempts at reform. If control continues to take precedence over rehabilitation, efforts at reform, particularly involving education, will pose a challenge to the status quo’s control model, threatening the longevity of these programs. Real reform requires a reevaluation of the system specifically examining the perception of the paradox between education and incarceration.


[1] Morris, Norval, and David J.. Rothman. “Perfecting the Prison.” In The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. Autre tirage : 1998. ed. New York: Oxford university press, 1995. 100-116.

[2] Ibid 105

[3] Vogel, Brenda. 1995. Down for the Count: A Prison Library Handbook. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press. 3-4

[4] Blackmon, Douglas A. 2008. Slavery by another name: the re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Doubleday.

[5] Morris, “Perfecting the Prison,” 112

[6] Ibid 113

[7] Sullivan, Larry E. The Prison Reform Movement: Forlorn Hope. 1. publ. ed. Boston: Twayne Publ., 1990

[8] Justice, “College of Morals,” 288

[9] Morris, Norval, and David J.. Rothman. “The Failures of Reform: United States 1865-1965.” In The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. Autre tirage : 1998. ed. New York: Oxford university press, 1995. 151-177.

[10] Sullivan, The Prison Reform Movement, 47

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid 66

[13] Cummins, Eric. The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994. 17

[14] Ibid 23

[15] Ibid 25-26

[16] Parenti, Christian. Lockdown America. New ed. London: Verso, 2008.

[17] Perkinson, Texas Tough, 329

[18] Sullivan, L. E. 2000. “The Least of Our Brethren: Library Service to Prisoners Money is always available for punishment, but what about for reading?” AMERICAN LIBRARIES. 31: 57

[19] Perkison, Texas Tough, 329

[20] Simon, Jonathan. “Social Justice: Crime and Punishment.” History C187: The History and Practice of Human Rights, Prof. Thomas Laqueur. UC Berkeley, Berkeley.  11/10/11.  Lecture.

[21] Kennedy, Anthony. “Brown, Governor of California, et al v. Plata et al.” Supreme Court of the United States. www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-1233/pdf (accessed December 17, 2011)

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