In the 1790s, penal reformers rebuilt America’s squalid jails as airy, hygienic places meant to keep residents and society healthy. Now they’re hotbeds of COVID-19. What went wrong?
The first U.S. prisons emerged in reaction to the overcrowded, violent, disease-infested jails of the colonial era.
Prisons as we understand them today – places of long-term confinement as a punishment for crime – are relatively new developments. In the U.S. they came about in the 1780s and 1790s, after the American Revolution.
Previously, American colonies under British control relied on execution and corporal punishments.
Jails in America and England during that period were not themselves places of punishment. They were just holding tanks. Debtors were jailed until they paid their debts. Vagrants were jailed until they found work. Accused criminals were jailed while awaiting trial, and convicted criminals were jailed while awaiting punishment or until they paid their court fines.