Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Human Cages, A Recap of Prisons In America (Part 1 of 2)

Why do we build cages and then put people in them, what are we trying to accomplish and is it working?

By: Joel Gardner
Executive Director - Whitewashed USA

Before going any further, I need to say that I appreciate prisons and those who work in them, I sleep a lot better at night knowing some people are locked up. However, I do think our current prison system is unsustainable and will make our communities less safe if we keep going the same direction, so the question above does need to be answered. To answer this we need to go back to the beginning of the story when the first puritan was thrown into the stockade for committing some unholy act against God and the village. Here is a very simplified history.

Puritan Stockades

This first American prison system was designed to accomplish several things:
  1. To punish an individual, consequences for breaking the rules.
  2. To publicly shame and humiliate, as a deterrent for repeat offenders.
  3. To force a kind of spiritual repentance through bodily punishment.
  4. To teach the evil doer a lesson.
  5. To possibly force a confession in time or with additional tortures.
  6. To maintain and reaffirm control over those who were prone to rebellion.
This prison system worked, but still had a few problems that became apparent:
  • The court system was easily manipulated and often wrong, leaving innocent people angry and resentful towards those in charge, and guilty people thinking they just needed a better defense.
  • Public shame never helped anyone think better of themselves and be a better person.
  • For these same reasons it was not very effective at forcing repentance, teaching a lesson, or convincing someone to volunteer for a worse punishment by confessing.
One thing this system did very well was number 6 on the list, if there was someone in the village that had a complaint, or that was leveling uncomfortable accusations against someone in power, repeated beatings and incarceration turned out to be an excellent way to get them to be quiet and fall in line. 

Slave StockadesWhen indentured servitude and slavery became the primary method for getting things done cheaply here in the new world, the prison system was already in place to fit the needs of owners who needed their human possessions to stop complaining and get to work. The stockades became cells, they were still used for other forms of criminal punishment, however there is a distinct shift to using them more as a way to manipulate the slave class into submission combined with increasingly brutal punishments. 

The usefulness of prisons combined with laws for the purpose of slavery cannot be overstated, some of the ways it helped slave owners was to:
  • Enforce penalties for slaves who tried to leave
  • Enforce penalties for anyone helping or even not challenging a suspected runaway
  • Legalize inhumane treatment and brutality for any reason based on class status
  • Keep slaves from having a public voice or changing class status by keeping citizenship out of reach
Next week, look for part two of this story, where I will look at the impact of tying slavery to the prison system and how that context changes the story today.

You can read part two of this story here

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