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prison reforms

At the beginning of the 1800s, prison reformers began to emphasise the importance of keeping prisoners alone. It was thought that if they had time to reflect in solitary confinement, prisoners would see the error of their ways and become reformed. Prisons were built consisting of many tiny cells where the prisoners lived and worked alone. Each cell had its own exercise yard. Prisoners were separated even in church by tall screens to prevent them from seeing other inmates. By the 1850s, however, the separate system had been largely superseded by the silent system, mainly because of overcrowding. In the silent system, the prisoners worked and exercised with other inmates, but they were forbidden to talk to, even look at each other.

Later reformers introduced the idea of an indeterminate sentence, dependant on the prisoners behaviour. Good conduct and hard work led to privileges and association with other inmates. These ideas were tried in Ireland, France and the English penal colony on Norfolk Island, off the coast of Australia. There, prisoners gained marks for good conduct and hard work, or lost them for bad behaviour. When they reached the required number of points, they could be released. Other reformers introduced the idea of a conditional release, whereby a prisoner was released before the end of his sentence provided he complied with certain conditions. If not, he was returned to prison. This led to the parole system, widely used today.

Reforms in the 1900s have led to further improvement of prisons. In the 1930s, for example, prisons began to develop rehabilitation programmes based on the background, personality and physical conditions of the inmate. This approach made rehabilitation programmes more meaningful. But despite such efforts, attempts to rehabilitate offenders had disappointing results. Many failed because of poorly trained staff, lack of funds, and ill defined goals.

By the 1960s, many people felt that criminals could be helped better outside prison. As a result, many countries began to set up community correctional centres and halfway houses. Offenders lived in these facilities just before the release and received counselling to help them adjust to life outside prison. The number of prison inmates declined, but community correction programmes also failed to meet expectations, and prisons again become the most preferred institution.

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