What Are Prisons For?

No longer rehabilitation, but to punish—and lock the worst away

Even U.S. prisons were supposed to be part of the New World's promised land. The first American prisons would not merely punish inmates, but transform them from idlers and hooligans into good, industrious citizens. In 1790 a group of Philadelphia Quakers, brimming with revolutionary optimism, began the experiment in a renovated downtown jail. They were bent on "such degrees and modes of punishment . . . as may . . . become the means of restoring our fellow creatures to virtue and happiness." No other country was...

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