In order to understand incarceration reform in the early twentieth century, one must have a sense of what preceded it. Going back to colonial times, prisons were not used to punish or rehabilitate offenders; rather, there were jails whose purpose was to hold the accused until their time came up for trial or for punishment. Punishment was physical, including whippings, being pilloried, or sentenced to death.
By around 1800, the death penalty was reserved only for murder, and penitentiaries were instituted with the idea that the offender, with religious instruction and time spent in silence and isolation, could repent of his/her offenses. By 1870, further instruction was provided in the areas of general education and vocational training.
By the 1890s, however, prisons became increasingly overcrowded, and punishment took precedence over rehabilitation. Prison conditions became more severe as prisoners were subjected to such cruelties as gagging, restraining, and being forced to work a tread wheel. In the south, in particular, where over seventy-five percent of the prison population was comprised of African Americans, prisoners were leased out to chain gangs under extremely inhumane conditions.
At the turn of the twentieth century, criminal behavior was beginning to be looked at through the lens of psychological interpretation. Rehabilitation was attempted by hiring psychologists and professional prison administrators who were to stop physical abuse and forced labor. Prisoners were given more instruction, recreation time, exercise, better food, group and individual therapy, and health care. Parole boards were established, and probation was instituted.
However, it needs to be noted that as the twentieth century wore on, prisons continued to become more overcrowded, and with that came the attendant problems of deteriorating conditions, abuses, and drug use.