Prisons are a large operation in the US. The country’s very first prison, Eastern State Penitentiary, was built in 1829 by the Quakers, and had its first inmate by October 25 of that same year. Charles Williams, a local farmer, was sentenced to two years of confinement with labor for stealing an expensive watch, a gold seal, and a gold key. It marked the beginning of a long story for convicted criminals in the US.
The country now has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. 728 people for every 100,000 are currently living out a sentence behind bars. This means that well over two million people are now in all types of prisons in the US, including state, federal, private, and juvenile institutions. According to Pew Research, the majority of prisoners in federal and state institutions in 2017 were black, accounting for 475,900 inmates. Whites came in second, totaling 436,500 inmates. The Hispanic population in these prisons came in third, amounting to 336,500 people.
Depending on the crime committed, sentenced criminals can receive many different forms of punishment. Thankfully, many of the brutal ways humans have punished wayward members of society in the past have now faded from practice. Have you ever heard of drawing and quartering? Someone convicted of high treason in historic England up until 1870 would have suffered this fate. They would have been tied to a wooden frame and dragged by a horse to the location they were to be executed. They would then be hanged in such a way as to ensure their neck did not break. Before they died, they would have been taken down and subjected to inhumane torture. Their body would then be decapitated, and divided into quarters, all while the general public watched in horror, fascination, disgust, and perhaps relief.
Humanity has thankfully matured somewhat from these times of gore and ghastliness. We still have some unpleasant punishments however, some of which are used to penalize those who have committed the most horrible crimes. From various ways to die, to ways prisoners are punished for small misdemeanours inside prison, the best we can hope for now is that the punishment befits the crime.
The Death Penalty
Yes, it is true: you can actually die for committing a crime in 30 US states. The federal government and the US military also authorize the death penalty. Many states that have this form of punishment have not actually used it in recent years, but it does still exist. And it is varied. Criminals can be killed for their crimes in the US by hanging, firing squad, electrocution, by receiving lethal injections, and by being placed in a gas chamber.
What is the most common method? Lethal injection is the primary method of capital punishment in the country. This approach involves injecting one or more drugs into a person that will kill them. It often consists of an anesthetic or a sedative, which is followed by a drug that paralyzes the person. Finally, something is given that will stop the person’s heart from beating, and they die.
For those who feel squeamish about this method, there are other methods. Electrocution is used in eight states. These include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Three additional states allow inmates to be hung, (Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington), and three others permit the use of a gas chamber, (Arizona, Missouri, and Wyoming). Oklahoma allows the use of a firing squad to kill someone if the other methods of killing are somehow found to be unconstitutional, and Utah still allows a firing squad, but only for inmates on death row who have picked it as a way to die before 2004, when it became outlawed.
Who is punished this way? People who commit treason, espionage, large-scale drug trafficking, and certain types of murder can possibly be given the death penalty. It all depends on their case, and how their cards fall during their trial.
Of course, not everyone who is in jail has committed a major crime. Sometimes criminals have committed something as simple as shoplifting. Once in jail, prisoners who do not cooperate can not have their food, water, or right to basic sanitation taken away. They can, however, lose privileges such as the right to see visitors, to earn wages, and to buy things from the commissary. Furthermore, some prisoners are placed in solitary confinement for their behaviour behind bars, which prevents them from having contact with other people. This is a minor punishment in comparison with the death penalty. It can really cause internal chaos with a person’s emotions, however. Frank de Palma, an ex-convict who spent over 40 years in prison for multiple crimes including murder, spent 22 years in solitary confinement. He tells his tale as part of The Marshall Project, and somehow, he survived this ordeal, but became extremely agoraphobic as a result, and suffered from panic attacks once he was released from prison.
Punishments That Are Disallowed
Law authorities find many ways to penalize prisoners. Some things are truly off limits, however. An inmate cannot be tortured, as this goes against US and international law. In some states, you also cannot be asked to participate in slavery as a punishment. This might seem obvious, but some places do still allow this. Slavery as a punishment for crimes is still a part of some states’ constitution. This power is never acted out, but Ohio, Colorado, and Minnesota are all examples of states that have allowed for this until recently. Ohio tried to remove slavery as a punishment from its constitution in 2016, with a bill introduced by Alicia Reece, a Democrat representing Cincinnati. Reece attempted to remove the archaic and offensive references but dishearteningly, nothing was done to address the cause.
Some places have succeeded in changing. Lawmakers in Minnesota moved to change their state’s constitution in February of 2020 and removed all references to slavery, and Colorado reworded its constitution in 2018 to abolish absolutely all forms of slavery within the state.
What is your best way to avoid all these problems and terrible fates? Be a good person, watch out who your friends are, be in the right place at the right time. You can also try to make the right choices. Hopefully the law will be on your side.