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March 2, 2015

Some more on prisons past, present and future

This post provides a space for discussion of last week's video about Eastern State Penitentiary and more generally about prisons as out modern default sentencing "output."  If you are interested in learning more about Eastern State, check out this terrific website.   Notably, in recent years ESP has been trying to incorporate more modern art and education into its tours; it is working now on an ambitious new exhibit for 2016 titled "Prisons in the Age of Mass Incarceration."

In addition, there are lots of other (in)famous prisons that tell stories about not only American crime and punishment, but also stories about America.  A number of notable Ohio-centric stories to be found within in this history, as documented by this book entitled "Central Ohio's Historic Prisons," which is summarized this way:

With the opening of the Ohio State Reformatory in 1896, the state legislature had put in place "the most complete prison system, in theory, which exists in the United States."  The reformatory joined the Ohio Penitentiary and the Boys Industrial School, also central-Ohio institutions, to form the first instance of "graded prisons; with the reform farm on one side of the new prison, for juvenile offenders, and the penitentiary on the other, for all the more hardened and incorrigible class."  However, even as the concept was being replicated throughout the country, the staffs of the institutions were faced with the day-to-day struggle of actually making the system work.

The Ohio State Reformatory referenced in this passage is located in Mansfield, and is now an historic site.   I urge everyone to take a virtual tour via this huge photo gallery.  And if you are ever looking for some web-surfing fun, check out these additional links to some good sites about some of the United States' most (in)famous prisons:

Notably, a few years ago, students had a lot to say in the wake of watching the ESP video, and you might be interested to read these 2011 student comments about prison history. This coming week, we will be shifting back into a discussion of sentencing law and the (non-capital) sentencing process, but everyone should keep thinking about both the theory and practices of imprisonment as a form of punishment as we get into the nitty-gritty of modern sentencing doctrines.

Also, of course, everyone should be thinking not just about the past and present of prisons, but also the future.  To that end, check out this forward-looking video:

March 2, 2015 in Scope of imprisonment | Permalink


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The Eastern State Penitentiary film strip left a lasting impression on me. The movie stated that the original goals for rehabilitation proved to be a failure. When I thought about this conclusion, it dawned on me that the likely reason rehabilitation outcomes were a "failure" was due to the nature of the prisons that were created. The overcrowding, expectations of silence, solitary confinement, etc. are likely not ideal environments in which rehabilitation can be effectuated. The video above states "No path of upward mobility calls to its citizens" in regards to modern day prisons. Utilizing prisons and prisoners to promote community well being may seem idealistic, but it makes sense. If prisoners remain active citizens in the community, perhaps rehabilitation can better be achieved. This video made me think about a new non-profit restaurant in Cleveland that employs people recently released from prison. The program teaches these employees how to cook so they can work their way from server to chef, hence embracing the idea of "upward mobility." The concept of upward mobility creates incentive, encourages motivation, and likely fosters rehabilitation.

Posted by: Kat Ungar | Mar 2, 2015 11:18:45 PM

On the topic of the subjective experience of prison, one interesting phenomenon which we haven't yet discussed is the notion of "Pay to Stay" prisons, in which wealthy criminals can seek nicer prisoner accommodations. The idea of pay to stay prisons conflicts me deeply. On one hand, the criminal justice system should not allow wealthier convicts to seek more livable conditions simply based on the size of their pocketbooks. On the other hand, isn't the fact that pay to stay prisons exist a societal recognition of the fact that we want to make life 'inside' prison akin to life 'outside' of prison? And, if that's the case, why have prison sentences at all if the punishment in no way resembles sacrifice? Are Internet access and flat screen TVs enough to model the luxuries of the outside world, or are they simply preventing prisoners from going crazy inside of their own heads? See this set-up in Seal Beach, California for more: http://www.today.com/video/today/52733825#52733825.

Pay to stay prisons do solve two major institutional problems: rates of violence are much lower within prison, and their existence may help to alleviate the issue of jail/prison overpopulation. Moreover, cities that are strapped for cash, according to the Today video (linked above) can make 400-500k a year on these arrangements in which prisoners shell out $100 a day to have access to certain luxuries while behind bars. While this might not be what we typically think of (in the Eastern Pen. sense) as doing 'hard time,' it's interesting to consider what implications this has for the respect of our criminal justice system, as well. I'd be curious to see what others think.

Posted by: Kelly Flanigan | Mar 3, 2015 10:20:24 AM

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