A History of Corrections and Policing in America

Three recent podcast episodes on NPR’s Throughline help us better understand the origins of mass incarceration, policing and the social-political system that has come to shape a concept of ‘criminality’ that currently has both local and global import.

In the first episode on Mass Incarceration, we learn about the origins of one of America’s earliest penitentiary’s: Eastern State. Operational from 1829 – 1971, this institution was not only equipped with state of the art architecture(e.g., it was equipped with indoor plumbing before the White House) it was also the largest public building in the country when it was built. Although the design may have been inspired by the utilitarian schemes of the great British social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), its justification was founded on the Quaker ideals of punishment and penitence. It was thought that penitence was a pathway towards spiritual reconciliation with God and the individual to be in deep solitude (i.e., isolation). In reality however, the isolation proved debilitating from a mental health—and as would be pleaded over a century later—human rights perspective. Nevertheless, this American institution had set the standard for a modern conceptualization of deviance. The French historian/philosopher Michel Foucault would remark in his 1975 landmark tome Discipline and Punish that the architecture of the modern prisons in fact resembles that of hospitals, schools, and factories; and that this was no coincidence. In fact, Foucault claimed that the architecture common to these institutions was a technological consequence of the privatization and internalization of social control, which he called ‘discipline’. In other words, as public displays of state-sanctioned violence (e.g., public executions in the square) came to be disregarded, a new form of social control arose. In this form, behavior would not so much be governed by public retribution for deviance but rather by a deep and abiding sense that someone (whether it be God, one’s superior, coworkers or the authorities) was always watching. Penitence, in this lens, was shorn of its spiritual gloss and revealed to be a form of domesticity within a state of constant surveillance. Where there was once punishment, would now exist discipline.

Of course, the Puritan ethic was not the only social determinant driving the evolution of towards our modern concept of penitence or ‘correction.’ This was all developing against the backdrop of the Reconstruction era. Between 1863 to 1877, following the American Civil War, newly emancipated American slaves (mostly Black men) were afforded constitutional freedoms—including the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments—for the first time. This allowed many Black Americans to buy property, establish business and even occupy local, state, and national offices as elected officials. But by no means was there a semblance of racial equality here. The Southern states passed the Black Codes (from which the Ku Klux Klan emerged) and, later, Jim Crow laws to restrict the freedoms and opportunities of the newly emancipated people—and importantly to massively increase their criminality. This proved to be a huge economic boon to the Southern states, who had seen their productivity and economic power obliterated with the abolition of slavery. Most consequentially, Throughline suggests, was the exploitation of the 13th amendment by White Southern states. Clearly and poignantly illustrated by Ava DuVernay’s prized documentary—eponymously named—the 13th amendment outlawed the institution of slavery except in the instance of criminality. So the Southern states began to rely on a system of increasing Black criminality (i.e., through Jim Crow laws) to ‘reconstruct’ a slave-labor based system (which we know as convict-leasing) to repay their way debts and re-establish their economies. As Black families moved Northward to escape their oppressions, new racialized theories of criminality came with them to justify their displacement in Northern cities (and prevent them from successfully competing with Whites, themselves a newly burgeoning class of immigrants). We are still awash in this tide of history; today the US has the highest number of incarcerated people in the world (despite being only the third most populace country) and over a third of incarcerated individuals identify as Black despite making up only 13% of the total US population. Today, the incarceration of individuals—many for petty drug crimes—still forms a lucrative economy for high earning professionals (i.e., prosecutors, police, therapists, corrections officers). But it was not only within the legal and economic sectors that notions of criminality became laden with racial undertones. Medicine, specifically the science of eugenics, and forensic psychology bumbled into the scene eager to establish their own institutions that politicians were all to eager to ratify as they cloaked the moralistic, paternalistic and colonialist gaze of the state under the benign veil of rehabilitation. Others have convincingly documented how slavery fundamentally shaped the formation of the psychiatric asylum both before and after Reconstruction.

In their second episode, they document the history of the police in America. Before even the formal establishment of the colonies, there was a need for neighborhood watch groups—informal militias—that helped enforce order in counties and urban areas. However, even in these early days, there was a need for ‘slave patrols’ to subdue the enslaved, Black American population. Young, White men could be drafted to serve in this industry with minimal training and regardless of their socioeconomic status. Clearly, the slave patrols were an arm of the institution of chattel slavery, which had generated untold wealth and prosperity for the burgeoning United States. As described above, even after the abolition of slavery and the Southern surrender of the Civil War, there existed laws (known as Black Codes, and later Jim Crow) and groups (most notably the KKK) that developed to re-construct an order of White supremacy. In many cities, even the Northern progressive cities, the KKK would actually infiltrate nearly all levels of local justice and policing. However, the first modern police force was established in London with the passage of the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act. The Throughline episode names 3 novel features of this group: 1) their emphasis was on crime prevention and community control 2) strong visibility in everyday life 3) militaristic structure with uniforms, ranks and a code of command. The context for the development of this force was in fact the influx of immigrants (then primarily Irish) into British society. And this model quickly moves to the West. Since modern police were based on a militaristic model, the legacy of brutality was always with them. In 1894, a national commission—built to investigate the operations of police—found evidence of pervasive and systemic violence committed by policemen upon their citizenry. It was certainly not the last commission that would find evidence of widespread brutality and not the last time recommendations for reform would be pronounced and then just as unceremoniously forgotten.

During the Gilded Age, the robber barons and industrial capitalists began recruiting these police forces to disrupt labor unions, which were beginning to organize for the first time. As Black Americans began to move up north, not only did new theories of criminality (see above) develop but police now became a force to suppress and segregate this population from the White communities (mostly Irish, Polish or German) that saw the greatest influx and were disturbed. Similar to charges of police brutality, racial riots have a history as old as the Great Migration—when police came to see their role as defending the ‘color line’. Following the Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal, the police become increasingly professionalized and, most importantly, organized as a strong labor force to draft formerly foreign-born individuals into a newly forming White middle class. Irish and Italian populations—formerly equated with a criminal just a century ago in England—were now developing a homegrown American reputation as being loyal, hardworking and proper White folk. A field of criminology—heavily based on gathering and interpreting criminological statistics—began to write theories of racial deviance. Of course, White and ethnic was (and still is) considered an oxymoron and narratives of criminality and culture always looked at Black and non-White populations.

The third episode explored the concept of caste as a paradigm to understand the history of American race relations. The premise of featured guest speaker and author, Isabel Wilkerson, was that race is a problematic concept not only because it stands on biologically untenable grounds but because it is ahistorical and shorn of social and political gravitas. Instead, we may understand that modern race relations are like a caste system: although culture and class may create some upwardly mobile opportunities for people within a certain caste, they are also consigned to sharing particular social statuses regardless of their individual successes and circumstances. The mass criminalization of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples—with attendant theories of criminality (e.g., “super-predators”) used to warrant these operations—testifies to the role that corrections, policing and the judicial sectors played in supporting this caste system.


Although the discourse of corrections still persists in modern judicial institutions, the history suggests that it was, from the beginning, motivated by a desire to retain and improve control over certain populations. In its modern functioning, the practices of police, correctional officers, lawyers, judges are not so different from past eras. No matter how institutionally sound and protected however, the actual work belies a tension inherent in working towards salvation while also exercising imperial and militaristic authority towards maintaining the status quo. Not only are these kinds of work very different but they are often times antinomies to each other. Surely and certainly, there are individuals who enter into this work with an eye to the former; they hope to make a difference and better society. However, without a conscious awareness of this history—and perhaps cooperative efforts to reconcile with groups who have been disproportionately targeted by this history—the irrevocable tensions may inexorably lead to burnout, antipathy, monstrosity and a loss of resilience/redemption.

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