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Prisons and Punishments: The Failure of the Treadmill in America

In 1822, when the American press began to circulate articles praising the use of a new invention in England that would instill fear in convicted felons and turn them into productive citizens, politicians, prison officials, and the press in America took notice. The invention was a treadmill, a large, long cylinder equipped with steps that prisoners would cause to rotate in a motion akin to walking up stairs that would grind corn, pump water, or perform other tasks that required mechanical power.

A few prisons in America quickly adopted the idea, and officials from other prisons eagerly waited to see if the treadmill as a punishment would match the glowing reports of its use that were coming out of England.

Adoption of the Treadmill in America

Treadmill - small

One of the first prisons to adopt the treadmill was the Bellevue County Penitentiary in New York City, located where 26th Street meets the East River, in 1822. Thirty-two convicts on two machines rotated the barrel-like contraptions through stepping motions, and every completed rotation of a cylinder caused a bell to ring. With this device, the convicts could grind 40-60 bushels of corn, which fed both the prisoners and residents of an almshouse.

The idea of using treadmills in prisons intrigued the Governor of Massachusetts, who called for an investigation into its possible use during his annual address to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1823. As a follow-up to this inquiry, an official at the Bellevue Penitentiary declared that early indications show the treadmill to be “one of the most successful of inventions.” He reported that while the prisoners were engaged on the treadmill, they hardly spoke a word to each other, and that even when they were resting they were too fatigued to engage in conversation. He described the atmosphere created by the treadmill as “orderly and submissive” and added that it required little supervision. He concluded that when the treadmill is combined with solitary confinement, the two punishments “furnish the most salutary punishment and the most powerful detriment from crime that the lenient spirit of our laws admits.”

Elsewhere, in the spring of 1823, the Connecticut Legislature passed a resolution to appropriate $3,000 to erect a treadmill in the Newgate state prison in Simsbury, CT. In general, convicts at this prison spent their time behind bars practicing traditional crafts, such as blacksmithing, shoemaking, and stone cutting. Prisoners who did not ply a trade usually worked as waiters and common laborers, but now they could also be put on the treadmill.

Newgate Prison, CT - 1890

Newgate Prison, CT – 1890

In a report commissioned by the Connecticut Legislature on the prison’s conditions one year later, the committee contended that use of the treadmill in the prison was too new to draw firm conclusions about its effects, but it did acknowledge that it is a “powerful instrument” that could easily be used to abuse prisoners if put in the hands of the wrong supervisor. The committee asked a physician to assess the treadmill’s health risks, and he concluded that there were none. The report pointed out that the treadmill was particularly useful for employing convicts who were scheduled for short stays in the prison–where setting them up with a trade would be a waste of time–and concluded that the treadmill was an effective mode of punishment, because it is “peculiarly irksome; requiring a severe exertion of the body, but furnishing no employment of the mind.”

Bad Reviews

For the most part, newspaper reports about the use of treadmills in prisons were generally positive if not glowing. But a few reports also appeared that questioned the effectiveness of the punishment.

In March 27, 1823 the Baltimore Patriot published a report out of England about the first time a treadmill was put into motion in a prison in Reading. All appeared to be going well during the first few days of its operation until 1:00 p.m. on a Monday, when all 32 of the prisoners refused to go on the wheel unless they received more food and leather-bottomed shoes. The article reported that the men were under the impression that the worst punishment that would befall them for their work stoppage would be confinement in their cells, but the prison keeper and his assistants used “arms and bludgeons” to compel the men to return to work.

One year later, another report from England appeared in an American newspaper that highlighted the negative aspects of treadmills. The criticism came from the Edinburgh Review in its assessment of the use of treadmills in a prison in North Riding of Yorkshire in northern England. The reviewer called treadmills the “new magistrates plaything” and went on to write a scathing critique of its use:

The labour of the tread-mill is irksome, dull, monotonous, and disgusting to the last degree. A man does not see his work, does not know what he is making; there is no room for art, contrivance, ingenuity and superior skill–all which are the cheering circumstances of human labor. The husbandman sees the field gradually subdued by his plough, the smith beats the rude mass of iron by degrees into its meditated shape, and gives it its mediated utility: the tailor accommodates his parallelogram of cloth to the lumps and bumps of the human body, and holding it up, exclaims, ‘this will contain the lower moiety of an human being.’ But the treader does nothing but tread; he sees no change of objects, admires no new relations of parts, imparts no new qualities to matter, and gives it no new arrangements and positions; or if he does, he sees and knows it not, but is turned at once from a rational being, by a justice of peace, into a primum mobile [literally, “first moved”: the outer moving sphere of a geocentric model of the universe], and put upon a level with a rush of water or a puff of steam.

Such critiques of treadmills in American newspapers, though, were rare. But the enthusiasm of the press in the use of treadmills did not translate into their broad adoption in American prisons. Indeed, only four prisons in America ever employed treadmills, and in three of the four cases, the prisons quietly left their treadmills behind only a few years later when new prison facilities opened up to replace them.

Failure

England widely embraced the use of treadmills in its prisons from the time of its invention in 1822 to the early 20th century. In 1895, Oscar Wilde was even put to work on a treadmill after he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to a two-year prison term. But if the treadmill was successfully adopted in England and showed so much promise in regulating the behavior and work of prisoners, then why did it fail to take hold in America?

David H. Shayt from the Smithsonian Institute believes the answer lies in the different need for work and the different attitudes toward prison labor between the two countries. After the Revolution, as America broke away from England and its influence on the American criminal justice system, American reformers in the early nineteenth century looked to Enlightenment philosophy for new ways to address the problem of crime and criminals. As a result, corporal and capital punishment was replaced by long periods of incarceration, where criminals spent their time reflecting on their bad behavior and interacting only with “good men”—i.e., members of the clergy and prison staff—in an attempt to reform them.

In a country like America, where liberty is highly valued, spending long periods of time behind bars was increasingly seen as an appropriate form of punishment for serious crimes. Attention now focused on how prisoners spent their time, with a preference for isolation, silence, and rigorous manual labor to keep them from sinking into idleness.

In both England and America, prison officials sought to use the labor of their convicts to offset the costs of housing them, and perhaps even to make a profit. In America, prisoners spent most of their time locked in their cells performing handicrafts to earn their keep. The idea was to turn the convicts into productive members of society by the time they finished their sentences.

The treadmill had the advantages of being able to regulate and measure precisely the productivity of convicts–longer intervals between the ringing of the bell meant their pace was slackening–and no special skills were required to operate it. But here is where the treadmill failed miserably in America. This latter “advantage” in the eyes of the American criminal justice system was perceived as a liability. The treadmill could not demonstrate any long-term benefit for the prisoner, who merely served as a power source. It did nothing to turn that prisoner into a productive worker.

Treadmills also turned out to be a poor use of potentially productive prison labor, especially in America where any form of labor was relatively scarce at the time. Convicts in America were already producing shoes, clothing, hardware, furniture, and other goods from raw or semi-finished goods brought into the prisons. To take this highly productive labor force and put them on a relatively inefficient treadmill would have seemed like folly.

In the end, treadmills turned out to be more of a psychological tool–by making prisoners mindlessly turn a large wheel for hours at a time–than a productive one and functioned more as a means for retributive justice than for reforming convicts. Americans valued productivity so much that even wasting it in the form of convict labor was an idea that simply could not take hold.

Postscript

The advantages of the treadmill as a device that requires great physical effort with little necessary skill–and that measures accurately the productivity of its users–did not entirely go to waste. Today, treadmills (now known as Stairmasters or stepping machines) are staples at gyms and health centers, where users can measure the number of steps they take, the speed in which they take them, the calories they burn, and more. Few people realize that these popular pieces of exercise equipment trace their beginnings back to early prisons and punishment.

The original users of treadmills in the nineteenth century were compelled to rotate their cylinders; today, people seeking physical fitness pay for the privilege to do so.

The author on a "Treadmill"

The author on today’s “Treadmill”

Sources

  • American Mercury, February 28, 1826, vol. XLII, issue 2174, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot, January 4, 1823, vol. LVII, issue 4351, p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “The Reading Tread-Mill.” Baltimore Patriot, March 27, 1823, vol. XXI, issue 66, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Salem Gazette, June 6, 1823, vol. I, issue 45, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Shayt, David H. “Satairway to Redemption: America’s Encounter with the British Prison Treadmill. Technology and Culture 30:4 (Oct., 1989), 908-938.

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