penitentiary | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Corrections

Penitentiary is another name for prison; the term arose during the period when offenders were expected to be penitent.

The term penitentiary is often used as another name for prison, but its origins are rooted in a very different concept of incarceration than the one commonly used today. The term arose during a time when imprisonment was seen as a means of reforming and rehabilitating offenders rather than simply punishing them. This approach, known as penitential justice, was based on the belief that offenders could be reformed through reflection, repentance, and spiritual guidance.

History of the Penitentiary Idea

The concept of penitential justice dates back to the early Christian church, which emphasized the importance of confession, contrition, and penance as a means of achieving spiritual redemption. This approach was adopted by many secular authorities in medieval Europe, who began to use imprisonment as a means of punishing offenders while also providing them with the opportunity for reflection and repentance.

The first modern penitentiary was established in Philadelphia in 1829 and was known as the Eastern State Penitentiary. This facility was designed to be a place of penitence, where inmates would be kept in solitary confinement and given ample time for reflection and self-examination. The hope was that by providing a space for inmates to confront their own wrongdoing and seek forgiveness, they could be rehabilitated and reformed.

The penitentiary system that emerged in the 19th century was based on the belief that offenders could be reformed through a combination of punishment, discipline, and moral instruction. Inmates were expected to participate in religious services and to engage in productive work activities, such as farming or manufacturing. They were also subjected to strict rules and regulations designed to instill discipline and order.

Criticisms of the Penitentiary System

However, the penitentiary system was not without its critics. Some argued that the emphasis on punishment and discipline was too harsh and that it failed to take into account the social and economic factors that contributed to criminal behavior. Others argued that the system was too expensive and inefficient and that there were better ways to address crime and social problems.

Over time, the concept of the penitentiary has evolved, and today’s correctional facilities often focus more on punishment and containment than on rehabilitation and redemption. However, the idea of the penitent as someone who seeks forgiveness and takes responsibility for their actions remains an important concept in many religious and philosophical traditions.

Modern Trends

In recent years, there has been a growing movement towards restorative justice, which emphasizes the importance of repairing the harm that has been done by criminal behavior rather than simply punishing the offender. This model of justice focuses on accountability, empathy, and community involvement and seeks to help offenders understand the impact of their actions on others and take steps to make amends.

Despite the many criticisms of the penitentiary system, the idea of the penitent as a person who seeks forgiveness and takes responsibility for their actions remains an important concept in the criminal justice system. By emphasizing the importance of reflection, repentance, and rehabilitation, the concept of the penitent can help to promote a more just and compassionate approach to addressing criminal behavior.

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Last Modified: 07/12/2023

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