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Prisons and Punishments: Inventive Ways to Cut Prison Costs

Cutting government budgets is on the minds of almost everyone nowadays. All levels of government seem to have empty coffers and are looking for new ways to save money in the midst of persistent societal needs. This situation is prompting many state governments to reexamine how they punish their criminals and to look for creative ways to reduce the heavy burden that strict sentencing laws and mass incarceration over recent years has had on taxpayers.

A Long and Vexing Problem

On November 10, 2012, the New York Times drew attention to these new approaches by publishing an editorial entitled, “How to Cut Prison Costs,” which supported steps taken by various states to contain expenditures on prisons by reducing recidivism through expanded drug treatment programs, improved post-prison supervision, and retooled parole systems.

Chip Corwin, a third-year student at the University of Wisconsin Law School, responded to the NYT editorial by arguing that along with implementing these cost-cutting programs, we as a society need to rethink the use of lengthy prison terms as punishment and should instead put away only those who “pose a grave risk to public safety.” He called for a new emphasis on “results over retribution,” a philosophical change that he maintained could restore communities, aid in paying restitution to victims, and “could frustrate the private prison industry’s unconscionable efforts to profit off mass incarceration.”

The New York Times asked readers to write responses to Corwin’s letter and published the resulting dialogue under the heading “How We Punish Crime.” All of the published letters supported Corwin’s view and added even more ideas for how to reform our dysfunctional U.S. prison system.

The issue of how to punish criminal offenders has long been a vexing problem. Today in our Age of Budget Cutting, government officials are using the need for cost savings to find new and better ways to deal with convicted felons. So perhaps it is natural that government officials in the Age of the Industrial Revolution turned to machinery for help in solving their prison problem.

An Industrial Solution

Beginning in 1822, a celebratory article began to appear in numerous American newspapers that described a device invented in England and recommended by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline. This new machine, the article claimed, would solve once and for all the problem of employing prisoners and act as a preventive punishment that would sharply reduce the prison population and save the state money.

The invention was a treadmill, or treadwheel. The idea was to have a line prisoners step on boards attached to the sides of a long cylinder in the form of a paddle wheel, which would in turn provide power for grinding wheat or corn or for pumping water up from the ground. The effect for the prisoners would be like climbing an endless flight of steps, in the way that modern-day step machines function in health clubs today. (Suddenly, I have a great idea for a new revenue stream for gyms!)

The Salem Gazette, October 25, 1822 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

The treadmill was the invention of Samuel Cubitt of Ipswich, and one of the first was erected at the House of Correction in Brixton, England. The treadmill article that appeared in American newspapers notes that even though the treadmill had only been in operation for a short while, it had already shown great promise as a means of punishment. For one, the treadmill solved the problem of providing “regular and suitable employment for prisoners sentenced to hard labor.” And even if the supply of corn that needed grinding fell off or the water reserves were sufficient, it was not necessary to suspend the labor of the prisoners. In fact, it was not even necessary to inform the inmates of these circumstances. They could continue to fulfill their sentence of hard labor in the absence of productive need and not even know it.

Another advantage was that the operation of the device required minimal supervision. In Brixton, a series of ten treadmills radiated out like spokes on a wheel from the Governor’s house, which gave the governor a complete and continuous view of their workings. The operation of the machine was also so simple that prisoners did not need instruction in how to use it, nor did it require any tools, which might otherwise be “liable to waste on misapplication, or subject to wear and tear.” Even more, the machine automatically policed the prisoners’ productivity. If the speed with which the prisoners worked ever dropped below a certain level, the slow pace would cause a bell to ring and alert the governor or the taskmaster.

The treadmill could also save the state money. Even though an initial expense was required to build and put the machines into operation, they would have the overall effect of reducing the number of prisoners through deterrence. According to the celebratory article, “many prisoners have been known to declare that they would sooner undergo any species of fatigue, or suffer any deprivation, than return to the house of correction, when once released.” Imagine these prisoners’ reaction if they were told that one day people would actually buy or pay to use exercise machines that essentially mimics this form of punishment!

The Reality

For a short time, the use of treadmills in prisons proliferated in England. But the conditions created by their operation were brutal. The machines ran for ten hours a day at many institutions, with prisoners alternating between 20 minutes of rest and 20 minutes of work for hours on end. In a drive towards productivity, officials sometimes forced pregnant women and inmates with bad legs onto the treadmill, and fatigued prisoners were at times crushed and mangled in its gears.

The treadmills were not that productive either. The power that could be generated by the inmates fell well short of what could be produced by a water-driven wheel. And if indeed the machine did accomplish its goal of reducing the number of prisoners, what would happen if that number fell below what would be needed to operate the treadmills?

The early description of the treadmill that appeared in American newspapers was glowing. But did criminal justice officials in America buy into these arguments and race to implement this new invention in their prisons in the same way that those in England did? Stay tuned. An answer to this question will appear in another post on Early American Crime.


“Description of the Tread Mill.” Salem Gazette, October 25, 1822, vol. XXXVI, issue 83, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

“How to Cut Prison Costs” (Editorial). The New York Times, November 10, 2012. Website:

Ignatieff, Michael. A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.

Lienhard, John H. “Prison Treadmills.” Engines of Our Ingenuity, no. 374. Website:

“Sunday Dialogue: How We Punish Crime.” The New York Times, December 1, 2012. Website:

Weekly Eastern Argus, April 8, 1823, vol. XX, issue 1048, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

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