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Prison Life History And Today

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 4464 words Published: 4th May 2017

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Prison deals with prisoners from all kinds of backgrounds. Every prisoner has different problems and there are a range of services on offer to help them while in prison to prepare them for their eventual release. Prison is a place used for confinement of convicted criminals (Gaines, & Miller, 2009). Aside from the death penalty, a sentence to prison is the harshest punishment imposed on criminals in the United States. On the federal level, imprisonment or incarceration is managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a federal agency within the department of justice (Gaines, & Miller, 2009). State prisons are supervised by a state agency such as a department of corrections. Confinement in prison, also known as a penitentiary or correctional facility, is the punishment that courts most commonly impose for serious crimes, such as felonies. For lesser crimes, courts usually impose short term incarceration in a jail, detention center, or similar facility (Gaines, & Miller, 2009).

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Prison life of the 1700’s of an accused was not as strict. There were windows that the prisoners could look through in order to solicit for charity from the people walking by, and sometimes prisoners would be allowed to sell things at the prison gates (“Prison life,” 2011). Although there are many differences between the life of a prison in the 1700’s and the life of a prisoner today, there are also many similarities. Each accused individual was captured by the police and taken to the nearest holding cell (“Prison life,” 2011). These cells were in prisons called local prisons. The individual was then let free or convicted of his or her crime. If convicted, the individual was taken to the closest common prison (“Prison life,” 2011).

During the 1700’s there were only local holding jails, common prisons, and houses of correction; later, during the 1800’s prisons became more separated and prisoners were assigned to the appropriate prison (“Prison life,” 2011). The convicted were not stripped of their belongings like in today’s prisons, but they were searched for weapons or objects that could be used to escape. Once inside, the prisoner was assigned a small cell made of hard walls, floors covered in dirt and rodents, and a bed (“Prison life,” 2011). If the prisoner was lucky, this bed consisted of a small hammock tied to opposite walls, but often times it was made of a wooden bench or the floor. For meals the prisoners were scarcely fed, but if they were, little rations of bread and water were given. Many times the prisoners died of starvation and thirst (“Prison life,” 2011).

According to the Burlington County in New Jersey, in the 1800’s when the prison was initially designed, each inmate was to have his or her own cell with a fireplace and a narrow, unglazed window placed above eye level (“Prison life,” 2011.)The rules of the jail directed that prisoners were to be bathed, deloused, and have their clothing fumigated, and that each cell should have a bible or prayer book to improve the soul. Individual cells, planned for felons or criminals, were arranged in sets of four, opening off a short hall at each end of the building (“Prison life,” 2011). These blocks of cells were to house separate groups, such as routine criminals, first offenders, or women. The bigger rooms on the main hallways were to provide accommodation the debtors, imprisoned for owing money. These were common rooms, sometimes holding three or four men at a time, although there are some records that indicate that up to 30 debtors were housed at one time in the jail(“Prison life,” 2011). During their day, debtors were to be allowed to move about the jail, working at various cleaning chores or employed in the basement workshop (“Prison life,” 2011).

Then the dungeon or maximum-security cell was in the center of the top floor (Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008). That location was carefully chosen to prevent escape by digging, to minimize communication with criminals in the cell blocks, and to ensure constant surveillance by guards making rounds. This was the only cell without a fireplace. It is flanked by niches for guards or visitors and has one very high, very small window and an iron ring in the center of the floor to which the prisoner could be chained (Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008).

Until 1888, the jail keeper and his wife and family would live in two rooms on the first floor of the jail. The Keeper’s wife was anticipated to supervise the female inmates and the Keeper was to execute the rules of the jail as devised by the prison board, which was composed of members of the freeholders. The Keeper and his family lived in these quarters until the adjacent brick house, connected by a passageway, was constructed on the corner of Grant and High Streets (Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008).

In keeping with the purpose designed into the structure, the basement level enclosed workshops where prisoners were expected to learn a useful trade, such as how to make brooms, baskets, or shingles (Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008). The notion didn’t work, given the short time most inmates spent in the jail, and over time, the workshops became used as minimum security cells. Another, less supervised pastime of the inmates that endured through the ages was prisoner graffiti (Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008). Depicting humor, despair, and a belated piety, several fine examples of this art have been photo conserved and are on display throughout the building. The felons eating room, also in the basement, allowed controlled access to the exercise yard with its twenty foot wall. Outside, prisoners could tend a small garden of fresh vegetables. In one corner of the yard, an area was set aside for the gallows, which were dismantled and stored between hangings (Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008).

Food, linens, cleaning supplies, and craft materials were stored in the basement near the kitchen, baking, and washing facilities. Once a day, the prisoners were to be served a main meal of meat and vegetables. The other two meals were usually cooked cereals or grains. They had milk and cider to drink, as well as water (Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008). One of the inmates was made chief cook, preparing all prison meals, and that inmate slept in a basement cell next to the kitchen. Large washtubs were provided for laundry and regular baths for the prisoners (Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008).

Also the relatively few women who were imprisoned at the beginning of the 19th century were confined in separate quarters or wings of men’s prisons (Sullivan, 2006). Like the men, women suffered from filthy conditions, overcrowding, and harsh treatment. In 1838 in the New York City Jail known as the tombs, for instance, there were forty two one person cells for seventy women. In the 1920s at Auburn Penitentiary in New York, there were no separate cells for the twenty five or so women serving sentences up to fourteen years (Sullivan, 2006). They were all lodged together in a one room attic, the windows sealed to prevent communication with men. But women had to endure even more. Primary among these additional negative aspects was sexual abuse, which was reportedly a common occurrence. In 1826 a woman named Rachel Welch became pregnant while serving in solitary confinement as a punishment and shortly after childbirth she died as a result of flogging by a prison official (Sullivan, 2006).

Such sexual abuse was in fact so acceptable that the Indiana state prison actually ran a prostitution service for male guards, using female prisoners (Sullivan, 2006). In addition, women received the short end of even the prison stick. Instead of spending the money to hire a matron, women were often left completely on their own, defenseless to attack by guards. Women had less access to the physician and chaplain and did not go to workshops, mess halls, or exercise yards as men did. Food was brought to their quarters, and they remained in that area for the full term of their sentence (Sullivan, 2006).

As fearsome as the prison seemed, it was not escape proof. The walls were scaled and the roof penetrated many times in its history. The chosen routes to freedom seem to have been through the roof of the jail, and along the yard wall or the roof of the passageway to a place of descent. One notable escape occurred in 1875(Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008). Four inmates punched a hole through the ceiling of an upper corridor cell to gain access to the roof, went down the sloping front wall and down around the woodpile beside the prison yard gate. A fifth accomplice was too large to fit through the hole and insisted at being left behind (Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008). Despite a quick response by the warden, it seems that at least some of these escapees were never caught.

In the Burlington County Jail, some criminals were fated to spend their last days on earth. State law mandated that criminals convicted of a capital crime were to be executed in the County in which they were found guilty, and Burlington County was no exception (Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008). Several public hangings were conducted in the prison yard on a gallows erected for each occasion. Originally designed to house approximately 40 prisoners, the Burlington County Prison held over 100 inmates when they were moved to a converted armory that formerly stood behind the jail. Overcrowded conditions required yet another, larger prison which was erected in 1983(Johnson, Wolfe, & Jones, 2008).

The daily life in Folsom State Prison back in 1880, prisoners were woken up by an early morning bell and were dressed and beds had to be made and stand in their cell doors with their night buckets (“Prison life,” 2011). Once they were unlocked they marched down to the middle of the building where there was a set of steel doors that were hinged to the floor (“Prison life,” 2011). When they filed out for the day, they would all dump their nights waste from the bucket down a hole and then limestone would be thrown in the hole and water to flush the waste away. At dinner they would take to with them at so when the prisoner got locked up for the night again, they had their toilet with them (“Prison life,” 2011).

During that time the prisoner would eat beans for dinner which were place on plate and not utensils were used. You had to eat with your face down in the plate and no talking was ever allowed. If you were good prisoners could earn the right to eat boiled beef and vegetables (“Prison life,” 2011). However if you were a con boss, which is somebody who is the boss of other prisoners, prisoner could then eat a variety of stewed meats and vegetables that were in season and use tin dishes and have utensils and talk during dinner(“Prison life,” 2011). Prisoners of Folsom State Prison generally worked seven and half hour days with no break. They completed their work day by early afternoon and lights out was enforced by eight o’ clock with no exceptions (“Prison life,” 2011).

Another example of past prison life was in the Andersonville prison during the late 1800’s; to cope with the horrible conditions within the stockade, prisoners turned to various activities (“Prison life,” 2011). They carved objects, sang songs, played games such as checkers and cards, read any material they could get, and wrote letters and diaries. Letters home were censored by prison officials, and many never reached their destinations. Other prisoners, intent on escape, spent time digging tunnels (“Prison life,” 2011). Although there are no records of successful escapes via tunnels, some men did escape, mainly from work crews when outside the prison. The horrendous living conditions at Andersonville resulted in the deaths of thousands of prisoners (“Prison life,” 2011).

Now moving forward to current day prison life, In Arizona, the state prison system has four levels; minimum, medium, closed and maximum. As an inmate goes up in custody level, the less freedom they are allowed. A minimum custody inmate typically lives in dorm style housing units and an open yard (Ranzau, 2009). Inmates would get woken up at 5:30 a.m. and they have free rein to walk the yard, go to chow on their own at the designated times and attend any classes and work assignments they have chosen until the yard locks down for the evening at 8:30 p.m (Ranzau, 2009). A closed custody inmate lives in a two-man cell with controlled movement. Controlled movement means that officers escort the inmates anytime they leave their housing unit (Ranzau, 2009). A closed custody unit usually has a cluster of cells in a building with one control room called a pod. The control room uses a computer to access the doors to the cells though keys can be used to open cells in case of a power outage (Ranzau, 2009). This particular closed custody unit is staffed with one officer in the control room and one floor officer in charge of two pods of inmates (Ranzau, 2009). The inmates are escorted by an officer everywhere they go, either individually or as a group. They are escorted as a group to the chow hall for their meals and to the recreation field for their exercise (Ranzau, 2009).

Medium custody inmates also live in a dorm style setting similar to minimum custody inmates. Medium custody inmates have some controlled movement but are not escorted by officers (Ranzau, 2009). The control room officer, only letting out certain segments of their dorm at a time to eat or go to recreation, controls the movement. There are officers on the yard to make sure the inmates get to where they are supposed to go (Ranzau, 2009). A maximum custody unit is strictly controlled. The inmates are only allowed to leave their cell one hour a day to go to a recreation pen. These inmates are fed in their cells through food traps in the door (Ranzau, 2009). These inmates are usually considered the worst type of inmate or they may need protection from the general population for information they have given staff or for something they did on the yard (Ranzau, 2009). One would think prison life everywhere would run as smoothly as this, but no.

Currently at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California there are more than 1,200 inmates, it’s one of the largest and oldest isolation units in the country, and it’s the model that dozens of other states have followed. It is a maximum security prison. Although all the inmates are in isolation, there’s lots of noise such as keys rattling, toilets flushing, and inmates shouting out to each other from one cell to the next(Sullivan, 2006). Twice a day, officers push plastic food trays through the small portals in the metal doors. It is said they only contact that you have with individuals is what they call a pinky shake, which is when you stick your pinky through one of the little holes in the door. The hallways shoot out like spokes on a wheel(Sullivan, 2006).

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In the center, high off the floor, an officer sits at a panel of blue and red buttons controlling the doors. The officer in the booth can go an entire shift without actually seeing an inmate face to face (Sullivan, 2006). Far below, an inmate walks a few feet from his cell, through a metal door at the end of the hallway, and out into the yard. The exercise yards at Pelican Bay are about the length of two small cars. The cement walls are 20 feet high. On top is a metal grate and through the grate is a patch of sky (Sullivan, 2006). According to Sullivan, Associate Warden Williams says they don’t allow inmates to have any kind of exercise equipment. Most of the time, they do push-ups. Some of them just walk back and forth for exercise. (Sullivan, 2006).

It is just basically to come out, stretch their legs and get some fresh air. Each month, officers squeeze soap, shampoo and toothpaste into paper cups for the inmates (Sullivan, 2006). Even though are issued a jumpsuit, in two days at the facility, there doesn’t seem to be a single prisoner wearing one. All of them are wearing their underwear, white boxer shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops (Sullivan, 2006). In the psychiatric at Pelican Bay, some inmates stand in the middle of their cell, hollering at no one in particular. Another’s bang their head against the cell door. Many of the inmates are naked, some exposing themselves. Obviously prison life can play a huge toll the mentality. One in 10 inmates in segregation was housed there. There’s even a waiting list (Sullivan, 2006).

Recently in Georgia the horrible treatment and conditions of the prison made headlines. Finally fed up with bad food, unjust treatment, poor education and inadequate health care, thousands of inmates in Georgia’s prison system staged Lockdown for Liberty, which was a peaceful protest on Dec. 9, 2010. According to Charlene Muhammad, a national correspondent for the Final Call newspaper; all of the Black, White, and Latino inmates from Augusta, Baldwin, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Smith, and Telfair State Prisons refused to leave their cells for work and other activities, partly because they feel the Georgia Department of Corrections treats them like slaves(Muhammad, 2010).

Ironically in a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch characterized conditions in Georgia prisons as appalling. Many inmates were vulnerable to degrading treatment due to overcrowding and unsanitary facilities, the report added (Muhammad, 2010). More recently, the State Department’s 2008 human rights country report for Georgia noted that the country’s prisons and pre trial detention centers failed to meet international standards. It also expressed concern about Georgian Justice Ministry data that showed 94 inmates died while in custody in 2008(Muhammad, 2010). Overcrowding is a huge issue also. Today, there are approximately 20,000 prisoners in Georgia, a 300-percent increase over the past five years, according to a 2009 PRI report (Muhammad, 2010).

Georgia’s prisons are some of the worst in the U.S. Cells are overcrowded, packing prisoners into confined spaces like sardines (Muhammad, 2010). Prisoners are forced to work, doing the maintenance and servicing of the prison for little or no pay. The guards are corrupt and violent, instigating fights between prisoners for their amusement (Muhammad, 2010). Prisoners are forced to pay outrageous costs for the most minimal health care. On top of that most prisoners are denied access to programs for education beyond obtaining a GED. Overall Georgia spends $10,000 less per year per prisoner than the national average. The lack of funding shows in how prisoners are treated. (Muhammad, 2010).

Every day prison life for women differs from daily prison life for men. Unlike male inmates, women in general do not present an direct, violent physical danger to staff members and fellow inmates. In fact, hardly any female prisons report any major instances of violence (Saxena, 2008). Violence is more often than not concentrated only in male prisons. In addition, female prisons do not involve the anti authority inmate social code oftentimes established in male prisons (Saxena, 2008). In male prisons, life in prison is normally governed by mandates set forth by gang leaders. This includes no snitching, not cooperating with authorities, and attacking disloyal members. Gang activity is greatly reduced in female prisons (Saxena, 2008).

Furthermore, the little bit of gang activity that does occur in female prisons doesn’t end up affecting the whole infrastructure like in a male prison (Saxena, 2008). However, being restricted does cause a lot of sever anxiety and anger for many women, especially since they are separated from their families and loved ones (Gaines, & Miller, 2009). Sometimes, women are in prison while pregnant and are oftentimes forced to give birth in the prison. Afterwards, their child is either instantly removed, or permitted to stay with the mother for a short period of time (Gaines, & Miller, 2009). Woman can also partake in conjugal visits, but this will not make up for all the lost time.

Women in prison also cope with their problems differently. Unlike men, who direct their anger outward, female prisoners tend to revert to more self destructive acts in order to deal with the situation. In fact, female inmates are much more likely than male prisoners to mutilate their own bodies and attempt suicide (Saxena, 2008). These activities include simple scratches, carving the name of their boyfriend on their body, and cutting their wrists. Wrist cutting is actually a huge concern amongst prison officials (Saxena, 2008). Blood released from wrist cutting can spread to others and drastically increase inmates’ and staff members’ risk of contracting an STD like Aids or hepatitis (Saxena, 2008).

Another method utilized by female prisons for adapting to prison life is the falsehood of a make believe family (Gaines, & Miller, 2009). These groups normally contain masculine and feminine figures that act as fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. Unceremonious marriages and divorces may even be performed (Gaines, & Miller, 2009). Sometimes, an inmate may hold multiple roles. For example a woman can play a sister in one family and a wife in another. Oftentimes, gay women play the male roles (Gaines, & Miller, 2009). Although an extreme difference in prison life exists between men and women, the hurt and frustration still remain the same (Gaines, & Miller, 2009). What can be said, though, is that women deal with the situation differently than men.

In a study conducted by Mark Fleisher in 2006, according to Heidi Cool, Fleisher’s research was the first cultural study ever conducted on prison rape in U.S. prisons. This study includes research that he has done over the past twenty years on prison culture. Between 2003 and 2005, Fleisher composed information about prison life rapes by interviewing 564 inmates in men’s high security and women’s medium and high security prisons in the United States (Cool, 2006). The controlled interviews, with open ended questions, lasted between 90 minutes to, in numerous cases, six to seven hours and generated a widespread compilation of prison slang involving sex and rape and national cultural themes about prison rape shared by inmates across the country.

Fleisher figured out that prison inmate life is a culture that is determined by a need for social order and the behavioral rules of prison sexual culture is drastically different from sexual conduct rules for outside of prison (Cool, 2006). The problem of consent is complicated on so many levels but in the end, consensual sex as we know it doesn’t have an equivalent meaning in prison inmate culture, he states horrible images of unsafe prisons and widespread rape. The culture of prison sexuality, as well as ideas on rape, are not simply community beliefs transported inside prisons, rather they are different beliefs and create a different social reality (Cool, 2006). There is no equivalent in inmate sexual culture that’s equal to our perception of rape.

Once a person enters and begins their prison life, they start reexamine their sense of sexuality; men and women who may have never before engaged in same sex relations will probably try it at some point during their sentence (Cool, 2006). Majority of same sex relations are voluntary, which means they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do (Cool, 2006). However not all same sex relations are essentially deemed by inmates as homosexual relationships in the prison culture. There’s a broad range of same sex behavior but inmate culture views several acts as homosexual while other related acts are considered straight (Cool, 2006). The only true freedom they have in prison life is their sexual freedom. Another finding that surprised Fleisher according to Cool, was that in the worldview of both men and women inmates, there is a strong belief that men and women have a homosexual identity at their core and that having same sex relations in prison help them come to terms with this emerging sexuality(Cool, 2006). As for lesbian experience for women, studies have established that even experienced inmates come across heterosexual women with husbands and children, begin same sex relations within days and weeks of their arrival but upon released return to heterosexual behavior (Cool, 2006). Both men and women inmates put in plain words that same sex relations among those different with it as curiosity (Cool, 2006).

Within prison life, inmate society interprets men’s slow but sure involvement in same sex behavior as getting in touch with their feminine tendencies (Cool, 2006). Inmates say that the bulk of them don’t have sexual affairs but eventually an inner homosexual prevails in the life of a prisoner (Cool, 2006).

Furthermore, it is very infrequent for the women to be raped or obligated into sex by male or female staff; nevertheless personal relationships can develop between sexual relations. Believe it or not female inmates state they do not participate in having sex with male or female staff members unless it benefits them in some material way (Cool, 2006). Some of the benefits may include bringing them perfume or cigarettes or giving them money, which can be used for food, soap or stamps (Cool, 2006). Within Fleisher’s report, women prisoners say they will not deal with unnecessary sex among them and staff, although they have been notorious to use allegations of unwanted sex to acquire a transfer or to get revenge in a against a staff member (Cool, 2006). Evidence informs us that presently over 300,000 instances of prison rape occur in a year. 196,000 are projected to happen to men in prison in addition to 123,000 are estimated to happen to the men in county jail. (Cool, 2006).

Obviously life in prison has evolved for the better but yet seems to get worse for today’s times. It maintains that “survival of the fittest” mentality and almost an updated caveman reality. Prison life will never get better unless we get over crowding under control and get better standards as to how they are ran.


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