For most of Western history, long-term incarceration wasn’t used as punishment, and many countries even had rules against it, Rubin tells Knowable. “The idea of confining people for long periods of time as punishment was really quite revolutionary.” Her research involves combing archives for records, letters and other documents on the early history of prisons, and along with other scholars she argues that prisons as we now know them first arose in the nascent United States, shortly after the Revolutionary War. (Jails, used for short-term confinement, have a much longer history in Europe and around the world.)
Prisons were controversial from the start, and over the last 230 years the public conversation about them in the United States has taken many turns. At first, Rubin says, they were billed as a humanitarian achievement — a more effective and more humane way to punish criminals than corporal and capital punishment. But their purported goals have shifted with time, with varying degrees of emphasis placed on protecting the public by taking criminals out of circulation, punishing them for their crimes, rehabilitating them into better citizens and serving as a deterrent to other would-be lawbreakers.
When prisons fail to rehabilitate criminals or reduce crime, or when they end up costing more than the public wants to pay, conversation tends to be about that particular issue — and not about the inherent limitations of prisons as institutions, says Rubin: “I’m not an abolitionist, but I can’t look at the history of prisons and not think, why are we still using them?”
Honestly, I think the conversation we should be having is not one about prisons.
If we’re talking about prisons as a tool for rehabilitation, you can have the best-designed prison, and it will be virtually meaningless if people released from prison face the types of challenges on the outside that they face now: the inability to receive various kinds of governmental assistance, prohibition from getting certain types of jobs (including jobs they were trained for while in prison), difficulty getting most jobs because of background checks and discrimination against people with criminal records, a slew of fees and fines they still need to pay, not to mention the lack of help finding a place to live and transitioning to the outside world. They have a very tight rope to walk to not return to prison.
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