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All inmates had to wear the rough workhouse uniform and sleep in communal dormitories.

Stuck in the Poorhouse: The Complexity of Poverty

Supervised baths were given once a week. The able-bodied were given hard work such as stone-breaking or picking apart old ropes called oakum. The elderly and infirm sat around in the day-rooms or sick-wards with little opportunity for visitors. Parents were only allowed limited contact with their children — perhaps for an hour or so a week on Sunday afternoon.

Upon entering a workhouse, paupers forfeited the responsibility for their children. Education was provided to these children but often they were forced into an apprenticeship without the permission or knowledge of their parents. Colonial America developed its own version of workhouses following the English model and closely resembled prisons. At this institution there were a detailed set of rules including when to get up each morning, when to eat, when to go to bed with bells ringing throughout the day reminding everyone of these times and rules about cleanliness e.

Meals were highly regimented, with one bell 10 minutes before each meal and another one ringing directing them to the dining room after they have washed up for the meal. Opened in , it remained in operation until the late s. There was also one in Worcester, Massachusetts, opened in as a workhouse, then converted to an almshouse and poor farm in The poor farm in Haverhill, Massachusetts, opened in , existed until the late s, and presently a nursing home. Jails in Early America.

Many of these were children who had been separated from their parents because of wars, illnesses, deaths in the family and other problems. This situation became a problem of social control from the standpoint of the authorities, especially in such rapidly growing cities in the northeast, such as Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Similar problems emerged in the Midwest and the western frontier as the 19 th century grew to a close.

One of the most popular laws that often resulted in a short jail sentence was the law of vagrancy. The original law stipulated that it was a crime to give alms to any person of sound mind and body who was unemployed. In actual fact, the law was passed in order to provide a steady supply of cheap labor to landowners and to regulate the labor force.

The prime force behind this law was the famous Black Death of , the pestilence that reduced the population in England by about one-half. Among the results of this wave of pestilence was the reduction in the size of the labor force and the corresponding reduction in the profits of the lords of the manors and other employers. This period witnessed a significant change in social class relations and in the composition of the work force. What the new laws indicated was that more and more people were beginning to make their living by working for a wage, whereas before they had not they worked the land as serfs.

Workers were becoming more mobile, searching for the best jobs at the highest wages.

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In short, it was the beginning of a capitalist economic system. Such a system would become a constant battleground between owners and workers still going on today. The conflict is at the heart of the capitalist social order: it is the inherent contradiction within a capitalist system whereby the process of producing commodities is essentially a public process involving many different people, while the results of such production in this case the profits are privately owned.

In response to this significant change, the landowning class passed a series of laws known as the Statutes of Laborers in as noted above. The vagrancy laws passed at this time were consciously designed to control the mobility of the laboring classes and to protect mostly the interests of the landowners.

In time the law was altered to adapt to changing social and economic conditions. Indeed, the merchants and other capitalist entrepreneurs needed protection from those whose life conditions forced them to steal in order to survive. Throughout American society, from colonial times, well into the 20 th century, vagrancy laws continued to be enforced against those on the margins of society. The first known jail in the colonies was in Virginia in Other states established jails in rapid succession, such as in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and South Carolina.

In Philadelphia was built perhaps the most famous, the Walnut Street Jail which was eventually changed to a prison to house long-term prisoners in Most of the inhabitants of these jails were debtors, children, the mentally ill, in addition to felons and misdemeanants. In colonial times jails were often filled with those who violated laws related to religion.

This was especially the case in New England, as the legal system was dominated by the enforcement of laws that religious based. For example a study of one justice of the peace court found that three offenses taken together constituted almost one-third of the cases Religion was woven into codes throughout the colonies, but was most evident in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In Salem, Massachusetts, the infamous witchcraft trials resulted in people coming to trial, mostly women, who spent many days and nights in the Salem jail waiting for their trial and, for 19 of them, waiting for their execution. Among other offenses were heresy which was often the foundation for the offense of witchcraft , blasphemy, Quakerism, and violation of the Sabbath. Architecturally, most jails in colonial America resembled ordinary houses.

Prisoners were placed in rooms in these house-like structures. Classification was non-existent and men, women, and juveniles were mixed together, with predictable. These jails held not only those who were awaiting trial but debtors, the homeless and unemployed.


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Typical of many jails was the one located at the corner of Third and Market streets in Philadelphia. Here, as in other county jails in Pennsylvania at the time, it was a common custom for the jailer or sheriff to provide a bar, charging inflated prices to the prisoners for spirits. In Chester County, the English custom of charging for various other services was also in force, e. This was, of course, the famous Walnut Street Jail, which was eventually converted to a prison.

It was also considered a common practice for certain women to arrange to get arrested to gain access to the male prisoners. He was paid by the county through a system of fees. Specific items such as food, clothing, and other things were submitted to the county commissioners for money. Just like other criminal justice positions with a lot of power, the jailer was often corrupt and was notoriously known for embezzling public funds, soliciting bribes from prisoners and their families, selling whiskey to the prisoners, and abusing the inmates.

Throughout the 20 th century and during the present time, jails have continued to function mostly as poorhouses. The current recession has resulted in a significant increase in the number of homeless people. There is typically a cycle that the homeless experience and this includes "brief, and sometimes not so brief, stops at local jails. The case involves a Hispanic man charged with "sexually assaulting a quadriplegic man for whom he worked as a home health aide.

Consequently he spent 19 months in jail awaiting his trial, since he refused to plead guilty.

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He was finally found not guilty. Ironically he spent more time in jail awaiting this decision than he would have spent had he pled guilty to a lesser charge. After some careful investigation by a member of the public defender's office who was finally able to find time to conduct an investigation because his case load was so high it was discovered that the alleged victim had made similar complaints to the home care agency that hires helpers to take care of people, like the victim, who need constant care.

An almost identical case was reported in Seattle in February, About p. Williams was "standing next to a tree When police questioned Williams, he became "increasingly belligerent," Bale wrote. He accused Bale of spying on him, then pointed and shook his hand and finger at the officer, Bale's report says.

It was a reaction, that's all. He creeped up behind me, and I didn't see him. It was just a startled reaction on my part. I wasn't going to hurt anyone. But police arrested and booked him for obstructing. The accused said he wanted to get out of jail, and even kept asking guards to make an inquiry.

He also stated that the jail was similar to homeless shelters he has stayed at. It was kind of like a bed and breakfast for a while. Have we come full circle from the early years of poorhouses? It certainly appears that way. An estimated 3. However, there have been reports of a growing tendency in many cities to criminalize homelessness and arrest the homeless and place them in jail.

For instance, a report from the National Center on Homeless and Poverty, which studied cities across the country, found that: [91]. One example typifies what is happening, in this case the city of Los Angeles. The report notes as follows:. Advocates asserted that the money could have instead provided supportive housing for people. The modern jail is merely a reproduction of the almshouse and poorhouse of centuries ago. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. Berkeley: University of California Press, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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Farole, Jr. This report found that public defenders offices handled almost 6 million indigent defense cases in ; the percent estimate comes from the following: Bannon, A. Nagrecha and r. Diller New York: Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved on November 30, Beck Piven New York: Vintage Books. See also Rothman, D. The Discovery of the Asylum. In , the English form of the word was written as gayhol , but it eventually split into two distinct words: jail from jaiole and gaol from gaiole , both meaning 'jail, prison.