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Origins of Parole &
Its History in NY©

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One can trace to early civilizations the practice of paroling certain prisoners for particular purposes – that is, conditionally releasing them from confinement while not freeing them entirely from constraints in their continuing status as “imprisonables.”


[Sketch of Socrates]
Bust of Socrates (sketch).

In Socrates’ era, some Athenians inmates might be granted temporary release from prison for particular civic festivals but their activity and whereabouts in the city were subject to “The Eleven,” a kind of elected prison commission and parole board. The prisoners’ release, however temporary in such circumstances, demonstrated the power that the rulers had, not only over the prisoners, but also over the citizenry in general. Yet this show of muscle did not rile the masses, but rather reflected credit upon the rulers because they clothed the demonstration of power in the feel-good spirit of the civic occasion. To get insight on what the Greek festival paroles were all about, think of current era Christmas clemencies.


Rome and other imperial cities imposed exile in some criminal cases. In a sense, ancient banishments could be viewed as a kind of parole. They were conditional releases from prison where far worse punishments likely awaited. The parolee’s freedom was conditioned on his not returning. The penalty that parole violation triggered was death. Any citizen had the right to kill an exiled prisoner found back in town.


Linking Exile and Parole

Connecting parole and exile may at first glance seem a far-fetched linkage. But in fact, parole evolved historically from a particular brand of banishment practiced by the British. It was euphemistically called “transportation” but better termed “penal colonies,” or in some instances even more precisely “prisoner colonization.”


[Virgina Quarter]
The Virginia quarter, the 10th coin in the U.S. Mint's 50 State Quarters Program, honors Jamestown, the nation's first permanent English settlement. Jamestown turns 400 in 2007. In 1606, King James I chartered the Virginia Company for New World colonization. Its first three ships landed in 1607 on a small island along a river that the settlers named for the king. They also named their town for him. Later James I promoted "transportation" of convicts as a way to both punish and colonize.

While Australia springs immediately to mind, “transportation,” launched by King James I in 1615 as a more “merciful” punishment, did not really become a regular feature of English law and order until land in the Americas became availability for colonization. That made regular resort to the penalty economically useful.


Penal transportation in the various New Worlds took a twist. Those exiled were not set free to fend for themselves. They were set to work at indentured servitude. Their labors would render “profitable service” to the British Commonwealth. Banishment merged with bondage. Yet, from the often-cruel requirements imposed before release would be granted emerged a key correctional concept -- “earning parole.”


In prior eras, the granting of paroles was not primarily related to any progress toward a more acceptable attitude and behavior that the recipient might or might not be making. Those paroles had been granted primarily for reasons of state – they fit a civic occasion, an economic need, a political purpose.  To the extent the individual inmate’s rehabilitation – real or pretended – had entered into the picture, it was of secondary significance. True, the real troublemaker wasn’t likely to be granted a parole. But becoming a model prisoner held little prospect of early release either. Luck and/or influential family and friends were more relevant factors.


[Norval Morris book cover]
Reviewing Maconochie's Gentlemen: The Story of Norfolk Island and the Roots of Modern Prison Reform (cover above) for the Washington Post, Jennifer Wynn wrote:

"The 'gentlemen' referred to in the title of criminologist Norval Morris's book are the tamed ex-convicts who emerged reformed from [the] prison experiment . . known as the Marks System, whereby convicts could earn marks, or credits, for good behavior that would reduce the length of their sentences."

NYCHS charter member Jennifer Wynn is director of the Correctional Association of New York Prison Visiting Project and author of Inside Rikers -- Stories From the World's Largest Penal Colony.

Maconochie and Crofton

British Naval Captain Alexander Maconochie and Irish prison commissioner Sir Walter Crofton are usually credited for pioneering progressive systems that gave prisoners ways to gain early release through accumulating “marks” earned by satisfactorily accomplishing tasks assigned and by avoiding conduct that could forfeit those “marks.”


Maconochie in 1840 at the Norfolk Island penal settlement in the South Pacific put into practice a program that he had advocated earlier for prisoner colonies while at one in what is now Tasmania where he had served as an official.


Maconochie is mentioned and quoted more often because he wrote so much on the subject (usually in response to hard-line critics who often prevailed over him). But Sir Crofton’s implementation was more extensive, lasting and provided a working model that other penologists could and did see in operation.


Sing Sing Warden Gaylord Hubbell, during his tour of Irish prisons in 1863, was much impressed with the Crofton system. It included awarding “marks” to inmates on their work, behavior and educational progress; then transferring them to an intermediate or transitional prison, and lastly, once a sufficient set number of marks were amassed, releasing them under continued supervision


Whereas Maconochie had crafted a “marks” system for granting early release, Crofton added the component of continued supervision after release, thereby giving parole a dimension that has become a defining characteristic – monitored freedom for prisoners.


Warden Hubbell, New York Prison Association leader Enoch Wines, reformatory pioneer Zebulon Brockway and others familiar with Maconochie and Crofton ideas incorporated them into the manifesto of progressive principles proclaimed at the 1870 founding in Cincinnati of the National Prison Association (NPA), now called the American Correctional Association (ACA).

Copyright © 2001 by Thomas C. McCarthy, New York City

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