Punishment, Isolation and Rehabilitation

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A wind of change was blowing over prisons in Europe and America in the late 18th and early 19th century. Reformers such as the Englishman John Howard denounced the use of physical cruelty as punishment for specific offences. They condemned the foul prison environment. They cried out against the fact that all offenders, regardless of their offence, were held together in the same premises. They proposed a radical transformation of the correctional system: punishing offenders through isolation and work to rehabilitate them. These ideological changes are reflected in the architecture of prisons built in Canada in the 19th century.

John Howard

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He called for clean and healthy prison conditions as well as classifying prisoners based on their offences. He added that with spiritual counseling and work to combat idleness, detainees could be rehabilitated. The Englishman John Howard (1726-1790) is known as the father of prison reform.

He was appointed sheriff of Bedfordshire in England in 1773. He visited many prisons in Europe and wrote a damning report on their conditions. His recommendations led to the enactment of two laws in England intended to improve prison conditions. In the United States and Canada, John Howard’s views inspired a new corrections philosophy and new 19th century prisons.

Isolation and Conversion

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How can offenders be made to reflect over their actions and change their behavior? Based on the ideas proposed by the Englishman John Howard, new 19th century prisons fostered the isolation of inmates in cells, silence at all times and spiritual counseling to get them to mend their ways. Work, as an antidote to idleness and laziness, was also at the heart of this corrections reform. This gave birth to the first penitentiaries or “places of penance".

Model Prisons

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In 1790, the Walnut Street jail, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, proposed the “Pennsylvanian model” of detention: total and continuous isolation of inmates in their cells for the duration of their detention.

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Starting in 1817, the Auburn prison, in New York State, proposed another model: partial isolation in total silence. The prison featured cell blocks made up of storeyed rows of small back to back individual cells. It also included workshops where inmates would work in silence. This model would inspire the Kingston penitentiary, in Ontario, and would remain the standard in Canadian prisons until the 1930’s.

The Prison Dispute

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Between 1796 and 1804, various citizen groups were concerned about the terribly dilapidated state of Lower Canada’s houses of detention. They requested that the House of Assembly pass a law for the construction of a prison in Quebec City and Montreal. But how would this project be funded?

English merchants in Quebec City and Montreal advocated a tax on farmlands. French Canadians, who were the majority in the Assembly, proposed a tax on imported goods, and they prevailed. The act, promulgated by the King in London, inflamed an underlying rivalry between the two groups, who came out publicly in the newspapers, the Quebec Mercury and Le Canadien. The prison dispute sparked off a larger conflict that culminated in the Patriot Rebellion of 1837-1838.

Controlling Deviances

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The hardened criminals, the destitute, the insane, vagrants, women, children, the elderly… They were all mixed together in common prisons. The most needy were held there for lack of more adequate resources. How to control and help these people?

In the first half of the 19th century, poorhouses and asylums for needy women and the insane were opened up by the Church and private charities. The first reform school for young offenders was inaugurated in 1857. Abandoned or mistreated children were sent to industrial schools. These institutions were used to prevent potential deviances by the poor and to keep them out of jail.