History / Prisons

A Brief History of Punishment

Licensed under CC 2.5. Attribution Rob Cottingham

Last week I waxed lyrical about history’s hidden facets. Well, now it’s time to put money were my mouth is and introduce some topics that have kept me researching until the late hours of the night.

What better place to start than with a (very) brief history of crime and punishment? Just a little sidebar note; my studies have generally centered around Western societies, specifically the United Kingdom and the United States, so that’s what this post will focus on.

Definition of a Crime

What is deemed criminal is often one of the most telling ways to discover what a society (or rather the elite, law makers) values. For instance, in 19th Century United States slaves were deemed property until the Reconstruction Era, following the end the American Civil War in 1865. In 19th Century England death caused by dueling was overlooked by the courts.

Instruments of Torture

In the UK, before the 20th Century, citizens could expect to be burnt, have their hands removed, whipped, caged, branded or publicly humiliated in the stocks.

Execution of Thomas Armstrong, 1683.
Licensed under WikiCommons

Ever heard the expression ‘hung, drawn and quartered’? It originated from a punishment that did just that; hung until near death and then cut into pieces. This brutal fate was reserved for the worst offences; crimes against the Crown.

You’re probably well aware that public hanging was common practice until the advent of the long-term prison system in 1780 (OK, you probably didn’t know that last bit), but did you know the last legal public hanging in USA took place as late as 1935? In 18th Century England, public execution was turned into a family affair; people packed a lunch and enjoyed a nice day in the sunshine and festivities.

The Prison System

As the whole point of public hangings was to discourage crimes and legitimise the power of the government, ‘The Powers That Be’ sought another way to punish people. Pioneered in Philadelphia by the Walnut Street Jail in 1870, and Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Social Hedonism’, prisons became about incarceration until offenders could be entrusted back in society. Two hundred plus years on, not much has changed. Well, that was until the 1990’s saw the

Alcatraz is one of America’s oldest maximum security prisons.
Licensed under Creative Commons 2.5. Attributions to photoseverywhere.co.uk

invention of the Supermax Prison and the concept of the irreformable inmate was first introduced into our society’s thinking.

Scarily enough, US statistics show us that crime rates have been trebling over the decades and prison overcrowding is a global issue.

The Question

So dear reader why do you think prison rates have been steadily spiking since the 1990s? Are some criminals irreformable or is the system itself flawed, and how comfortable are you with the Supermax Prison system of ‘warehousing’ people?


2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Punishment

  1. Thanks for creating a cartoon that happened to work so well for my theme!

    Interesting article by Wikipedia. I suppose with the ever present problem of overcrowding you would question how effective jail sentences are with dissuading the distribution of illegal drugs.

    In studying the links between crime and societal change there has been a suggested connection between the increase, from the 1960’s, in mental illness and spree killings in the US. Interestingly there is some research that suggests that multiple cultural changes since the 60’s (single parent families, increased movement between states and towns, rising unemployment) have caused more individuals to become isolated (mentally and emotionally), allowing problems to go unchecked and often spiral; leading individuals to ‘lash out’ at the communities that seemingly rejected them.

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