20th Century Prison Reform

"Man is free at the moment he wishes to be" - Voltaire

"Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." - Martin Luther King Jr.

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The 20th Century Prison Reform Movement, although facing struggles through the decades, succeeded in improving the jail/prison conditions for mistreated inmates.

Historical Forces


- Although jails generally operate under stated capacities, all state and federal prisons are overcrowded, many as much as 33 percent higher than their official capacities.

- A Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report listed 2,078,570 men and women incarcerated as of June 30, 2003, an increase of 57,600 more inmates than held on the same date 1 year earlier. States and the federal prisons held 1,380,776 prisoners while local jails housed 691,301 inmates.

- From July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003, the number of state and federal prisoners grew by approximately 2.9 percent, the largest increase in 4 years. The federal inmate population increased by 5.4 percent, and state prisoners increased by 2.6 percent. During the same period, the local jail population increased by 3.9 percent.

- As of May 2003, the number of inmates in all US federal and state prisons was 480 per 100,000 residents, up from 476 per 100,000 on December 31, 2002. There were 238 jail inmates for every 100,000 U.S. residents on June 30, 2003. Overall, 1 out of every 140 U.S. residents was incarcerated.

- 10 states reported an increase of more than 5 percent in the 1 year period from June 2002 to 2003, most severe in the smaller state prison systems: Vermont (up 12 percent), Minnesota (up 9 percent) and Maine (up 9 percent). The largest state prison systems, Texas and California, rose by 4 percent and 2 percent respectively. Only 9 states reported a decrease in population, led by Rhode Island (down 3 percent) and Arkansas (down 2 percent).

- The state and federal penal system held 90,700 non-citizens as of June 2003, 2.3 percent more than a year earlier. The federal system held 34,456 non-citizens (38 percent of all non-citizen prisoners).

- On June 30, 2003, the federal system had 170,461 prisoners, more than any state prison system. Since 1995, the federal system has grown an average of 8 percent per year, compared to average annual growth of 2.9 percent for their state counterparts, and 4 percent for jail inmates during the same period.

The primary causes for a drastic increase in the US prison/jail population are increasing numbers of arrests for drug offenses in the "war of drugs", increased federal and state funding for policing (more criminals caught and incarcerated), an increased role of victims and victim advocacy groups in the court process (harder parole/release guidelines), added bed capacity in the correctional system (exceeding capacities of facilities), recidivism by the offender population (return to prison after parole/release), the high rate of offenders returned to prison for failing to successfully participate in or complete community supervision (probation, parole, supervised home release, transitional supervision, furlough, and community release programs), harsher penalties for certain types of offenses such as drunk driving and crimes involving guns or physical or sexual violence, narrowed eligibility for community release or alternative sanction options, and the aggressive approach taken by criminal justice agencies and the court in implementing "tough on crime" policies (three strikes laws etc.)

Poor Treatment

- Prison labor was a violation of rights that many jails had engaged in through the early half of the 20th century. States began to stop using inmates for labor in the early 20th century, but some who believed that they were carrying out the process without the cruelty previously involved, kept putting prisoners to work until around 1960.

Methods and Tactics

Prison Riots

The U.S. prison system experienced more than 1,300 riots in the 20th century. Prison insurgencies can be tied to a variety of causes, including racial tension, gang rivalries, individual feuds and general grievances against guards and prison administrators.

Major Riot #1: Attica Correctional Facility (Attica, New York, 1971) - An uprising by prison inmates of the Attica facility, a maximum security prison, ended in the bloodiest prison confrontation in American history. 5 days earlier, 1300 prisoners had rebelled, taken over the prison, and held 40 guards hostage. They issued a list of demands, including calls for improvements in living conditions as well as educational and training opportunities, then entered into negotiations with state officials. The negotiations failed and state police and national guard troops seized the prison. In the course of the reconquest they killed 43 individuals, including 10 hostages.

Major Riot #2: New Mexico State Penitentiary (Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1980) - This was one of the most violent riots in the history of the American correctional system. The uprising started in anger over poor prison conditions, including severe overcrowding, lack of sanitation, poor-quality food, the cancellation of educational/recreational/rehabilitative programs, inconsistent policies, and poor communications between officers and inmates. Negotiations between law enforcement and the rebels stalled, and after 36 hours heavily armed state police troopers and National Guard servicemen managed to retake the compound. In the end, 33 inmates lay dead and 200 were injured. Of the 12 officers taken hostage, only 7 were injured.

Major Riot #3: Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (Lucasville, Ohio, 1993) - On Easter Sunday, 450 inmates rioted in this maximum security prison. This disturbance occurred due to fear
among Muslim inmates that correction officials would force the prisoners to have tuberculosis vaccinations. Taking these vaccinations would have violated the prisoners' faith. It also appears that some inmates desired to settle old disputes with other prisoners. The inmates rebelled for 10 days, took 8 prison guards hostage, and eventually surrendered to state law enforcement after prison officials agreed to review the prisoners 21 demands. This violence claimed the lives of 4 prison inmates and a corrections officer.

Court Cases

Disability Rights

- Pennsylvania Department of Corrections V. Yeskey - The Supreme Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to state prisoners.
- Armstrong V. Davis - A federal District Court ordered the Board of Prison Terms to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act during parole hearings after there were reports it had blatantly failed to do so.
- Armstrong V. Wilson - A federal District Court demanded an improvement in access to prison programs for inmates with physical disabilities at all of California's prisons and parole facilities.
- Clark V. California - After a class action lawsuit, corrections administrators agreed to develop and institute a plan to screen inmates for developmental disabilities, and to provide handicapped prisoners with safe housing and other supportive services and amenities.
- Thompson/Bogovich V. Davis - The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a parole board may not exclude disabled people (specifically people with substance abuse histories) from consideration for parole.

Excessive Force

- Madrid V. Gomez - A federal court ruled that conditions at California's Pelican Bay State Prison (a supermax facility) be subject to renovations with the goal of eliminating excessive force, improving health care, and removing prisoners with mental illness from the Security Housing Unit.

General Conditions

- Thompson V. Enomoto - A California state court ordered the Board of Corrections to improve prison conditions and establish rights for condemned inmates at San Quentin.
- Toussaint V. McCarthy - a federal court ruled that conditions in the solitary confinement facilities at the San Quentin, Folsom, Soledad, and Deuel Vocational Institute prisons were unconstitutional.
- Wilson V. Deukmejian - A California state court concluded that the conditions in the general population facilities at San Quentin constituted "cruel and unusual" punishment and ordered that these conditions be improved.

Medical/Mental Heath Care

- Plata V. Davis - A federal court required the California Department of Corrections to greatly augment its prison medical care policies and procedures, and to divert significant resources into the prison system to ensure universal access to adequate medical attention.
- Budd V. Cambra - The San Francisco Superior Court ruled that the California Department of Corrections (CDC) violated the law by failing to license health care facilities that provide inpatient treatment to more than 160,000 prisoners throughout the state.
- Coleman V. Wilson - A federal court ruled that the mental healthcare network operated by the CDC was unconstitutional, and that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to the needs of mentally ill inmates.
- Gates V. Deukmejian - A California state court demanded that corrections officials agreed to improve medical care, psychiatric care, and the treatment of HIV prisoners, and to reduce crowding at the California Medical Facility.
- Marin V. Rushen - A federal court ordered an improvement in medical and psychiatric care at the San Quentin prison.


Early 20th Century

- In the first 2 decades of the 20th century, prisoners who were published novels were mainly social activists. Socialist writer Kate Richards O'Hare spent a year in prison (1919-1920). This experiance caused her to dedicate her life to exposing atrocious prison conditions and the economy by which they were supported. Anarchist activists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman also wrote while imprisoned. This type of writing deepened their philosophical convictions and influenced people worldwide.
- One of the most popular accounts of prison life in the early 20th century was My Life in Prison (1912), by Donald Lowrie. The book inspired Thomas Mott Osborne, who was later commisioned as warden at the "Sing Sing" prison, to dedicate his career to prison reform. In 1924, after World War I, H.L. Mencken founded the American Mercury magazine. This insitution regularly published articles from convict authors.
- In 1932, Robert E. Burns published his memoir I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, which was later made into the movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Having escaped from prison, he wrote to expose the realities of harsh prison labor. During this time, much of the US population was impacted by the effects of poverty, crime, and general social hardship, making more people receptive to prison narratives.

Post - World War II

- Published in 1965, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was the first full-length memoir of an African-American convict. Co-written by Alex Haley, the book was published the same year that X was assassinated. This lanmark novel had a profound impact on American society in this era of radical change. Prisoners and ex-prisoners began using literature to participate in revolutionary activities. Many prominant authors were influence by Malcolm X, including Eldridge Cleaver, Iceberg Slim, Piri Thomas, and Jack Henry Abbot.
- By the late 1970’s, prison writing was being published extensively in the form of cheap paperbacks, newspapers, magazines, and films. In the 80’s and 90’s, however, there was a backlash against this type of literature. New York led the legislative attack against prison writing. In 1977, the “Son of Sam” law made it illegal for convict authors to profit from their books. Many claimed this was an attempt to keep the American people ignorant of the realities of their own prison system.
- Prison writing began to go out of fashion in the 1980’s. One event triggering this reaction was the 1981 publication of the letters that Jack Henry Abbott wrote from prison to Norman Mailer. In the Belly of the Beast was an enormously popular work and documented the anger and discontent Abbott had cultivated in his years of incarceration. Within a month of his release from prison, Abbott murdered a man during a fight.

Major Figures/Groups

Samuel June Barrows

- Samuel J. Barrows, a Massachusetts Representative, played a major role in prison reform, along with many other issues that called for change. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Barrows was a strong activist for prisoner rights and prison reformation. In 1905, he was named the president of the International Prison Congress, and continued to help with parole laws and jailing methods.

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Homer Cummings

- Homer Stille Cummings, the 55th attorney general of the United States, took a great interest in prison reform when he was in office from 1933 to 1939. Cummings was a great help in the establishment of Alcatraz, which would serve as a model for other maximum security prisons. His work on reformation lead to him being named chairman of Connecticut's Committee on State Prison Conditions.

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James V. Bennett

- James V. Bennett was the director of the United States Bureau of Prisons from 1937 to 1964. Bennett also served as Secretary of the National Parole Conference, president of the American Prison Association, and vice-chairman of the Section on Criminal Law of the American Bar Association. His dedication to prison reformation made a lasting impact on the American penal system.

American Civil Liberties Union

- Since 1972, the ACLU's National Prison Program has been working to make sure that people aren't being imprisoned unfairly and that no jail policies violate the constitution.

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Level of Success

The 20th Century Prison Reform Movement was Successful because...

The 20th Century Prison Reform Movement introduced a new type of prison, with nicer, cleaner conditions and better treatment of the inmates. This movement also helped to put an end to terrible matters such as overcrowding and prisoner labor.

The 20th Century Prison Reform Movement was Unsuccessful because...

Although this reform movement came a long way in abolishing harsh policies, prisoners' rights are still being violated, which will require solutions from the 21st century.