Prison Education: Evolution

By Christopher Zoukis

1789: Correctional Education Movement in the United States began with clergyman (Religious Society of Friends) William Rogers offering instruction to inmates at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Jail.

1816: Elizabeth Fry began teaching women inmates and their children to read in London's Newgate Gaol. This example later served as a model for American women prison reformers. 

1820s: Rival penitentiary plans were put into effect: The Auburn ( New York ) Plan had inmates sleep alone but come together to work. The Pennsylvania Model kept prisoners in solitary confinement for the entire period of their incarceration.  Image courtesy depositphotos.com

1820s & 1830s: American women concerned themselves with the plight of female prisoners during the Second Great Awakening, which popularized perfectionist theology, advocating the possibility of individual and social salvation.

1825: The first institution for juvenile delinquents, the New York House of Refuge, opened its doors. Prior to this, children were often housed with adults in prisons.

1826: Jared Curtis became the first chaplain of New York 's Auburn Prison. He gave 160 students in 31 classes Bible instruction.

1824-1837: During the period surrounding and including Andrew Jackson's presidency, Americans believed that crime was posing a fundamental threat to the stability and order of republican society. This gave way to the Rehabilitative Ideal: the notion that an individual's behaviors could be changed through rehabilitative efforts.

1833: The Boston Prison Discipline Society created the Sabbath School Movement, which had 700 tutors in 10 prison schools instructing 1,500 scholars (prisoners).

1833: During the same year, the chaplain remarked that while being a male convict there was tolerable, to be a female convict it would be a fate worse than death.

1846: In England, corrections educator Mary Carpenter opened her first Ragged School: a charitable school dedicated to teaching poor children literacy skills, so that they could read the Bible. Carpenter became renowned for her work with juvenile offenders and her early influence on the field of correctional education.

1860s: Dorothea Dix surveyed 320 penal institutions and almshouses (poorhouses) up and down the Atlantic seaboard in an effort to learn about and document the inmates' living conditions. Her findings indicated that extensive prison reform was needed.

1864: Hannah B. Chickering, together with several of her contemporaries, opened the Dedham Temporary Asylum for the Discharged in Massachusetts.

1867: Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight were commissioned by the New York Prison Association to conduct a nationwide survey and evaluation of penal methods. Their Report on the Prisons and Reformatories of the United States and Canada called for changes to the prison system.

1869: The first statutory provision for separate male and female prison institutions was passed.

1870: Governor Rutherford B. Hayes (later 19th president of the United States ) welcomed 130 wardens, chaplains, judges, and humanitarians to the Cincinnati National Prison Congress to begin the work that would later be termed the beginning of the country's prison reformatory movement.

1873: The first Women's Prison opened its doors in Indiana . Two types of penal institutions were established for women: the traditional penitentiary model was based on custodial and punitive measures; and the model that emphasized reform was based on the notion of reforming and rehabilitating inmates.

1876-1900: Zebulon Brockway became Superintendent at the Elmira Reformatory in New York . He set a pioneering example for the social, academic, vocational, and special education of prisoners.

1877: The second Reformatory for Women opened in Framingham , MA . Clara Barton, best-known for founding the American Red Cross in 1881 at the age of 60, was Superintendent for the year 1883. She accepted the position only after the governor threatened to give the position to a man, which challenged the notion that women's reformatories be run solely by and for women.

1897: Construction of the first federal prison began in Leavenworth, Kentucky . It would take 30 years to complete.

1901-1929: Progressive Era included a focus on prison reform and an emphasis on educating prisoners.

1900-1914: Katharine Bement Davis, superintendent of Bedford Hills Reformatory for Women, was the first female superintendent to attempt adapting school education to the particular needs of the reformatory population, thereby setting an example for other reformatories.

1914: Davis was the first woman named head of the New York City Department of Correction.

1913: Thomas Mott Osborne posed as the prisoner Tom Brown in Auburn Prison to learn first hand the conditions. Later that year he became the chairman of the commission established to reform the New York penal system. He established a system of self-government run by and for the inmates called the Mutual Welfare League at the Auburn Prison in New York State .

1914: Osborne was appointed warden of Sing Sing Prison, where he organized another Mutual Welfare League.

1928-1968: Edna Mahan's tenure as Superintendent of Clinton Farms in New Jersey spanned these years. Her educational work with female inmates is considered exemplary.

1929: Opposition from correctional officers and politicians brought about Osborne's departure from Sing Sing Prison and the collapse of the Mutual Welfare League.

1929: The Federal Bureau of Prisons turned rehabilitation into a legislated policy concerned with developing an effective classification system and individualized decisions regarding discipline and treatment.

1931: Austin MacCormick founded the Correctional Education Association. The professional organization is still in existence

1931: MacCormick completed a survey of 110 of 114 correctional programs for adults. His results were published in the seminal book The Education of Adult Prisoners: A Survey and a Program.

1932-1957: Dr. Miriam Van Waters' tenure as Superintendent at the Reformatory for Women in Framingham, MA, spanned these years. The reformatory made education one of its central tenets. She banned the term "prisoner" and had the inmates officially called "students."

1937: The Journal of Correctional Education was founded.

1946-1962: The murder rate decreased 6.9 percent, which gave foundation to rehabilitative optimism.

1954: The American Prison Association changed its name to the American Correctional Association and encouraged its members to redesignate their prisons as "correctional institutions."

1955: An international rehabilitative emphasis was formalized in the United Nations Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

1950s & 1960s: The Prisoners' Rights Movement began during this period. Prisoners sought enforcement of their constitutional rights through the writ of habeas corpus and the Civil Rights Act.

1960s: The Chino Experiment in California followed a therapeutic community method designed to change the antisocial behavior of offenders. The prison became a community center for special training, work release, and family contacts.

1965: The Survey for the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, carried out by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, found that many institutions were brutal and degrading and did nothing to prepare prisoners for re-entry.

1965: The Texas Prison College system was established, along with an emphasis on higher education for inmates.

1970s: A movement arose to oppose and discredit the rehabilitative approaches because of the belief that the therapeutic model of rehabilitation led to the abuse of intrusive therapies.

1971: Inmate uprising at Attica (New York) prison resulted in the deaths of 11 prison employees and 32 unarmed prisoners. All of the prisoners and four of the employees killed were killed by gunfire as the authorities reclaimed the prison.

1970-1994: Mandatory and minimum sentencing practices led to the doubling and redoubling of incarceration rates.

1993 & 1994: The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1993 and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 1994 eliminated Pell Grant Funding for prisoners, prompting many college programs for prisoners to shut down.

1980s & 1990s: A new category of prisons was established: private prisons, built and sometimes operated by for-profit corporations under contract to the federal and/or state government.

1995-Present: A conservative approach to the treatment of prisoners, with an emphasis on increased severity of punishment, reintroduction of capital punishment, lengthening of prison terms, and continued incarceration for drug-related offenses.