A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
The Corrections (Industry)
If you ride the train from Philadelphia to New York and look out the windows to the East at a certain point in New Jersey, you'll see a large and somewhat attractive campus of modern buildings, fronted by a sign with foot-high, engraved lettering that says "Corrections Institution." And if you were an alien, visiting the planet for the first time and armed only with a primer of English, you might deduce that this was a place where editors were trained, though you would be puzzled about the coils of razor wire everywhere around the perimeter of the complex. If you're a native speaker, on the other hand, you probably already have a pointer in your brain, running from terms like "Corrections Institution" directly to a simpler placeholder in your mental lexicon: prison. When we took this train journey recently it got us to thinking about the pervasive but limited success of correction and its derivatives to denote the punishment end of the criminal justice system.
Whether correction, corrective, corrections and correctional register with you as terms inviting scrutiny for characterizing state-sanctioned punishment may depend largely on your age. People under the age of 40 or so may find the terms unremarkable and may even use items like "correctional institution" or "corrections officer" in preference to older terms. In the United States, the changeover from older terms seems to have begun around the 1950s and then continued inexorably: now all 50 states use some form of correction to name the departments or agencies that oversee prisons (uh, correctional institutions) within their borders.
Photo from the online historical timeline of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
The online caption of the photo is: "1957. The training program for custodial staff was upgraded.
'Guards,' now called 'Correctional Officers,' were trained in modern penology techniques."
Canada, similarly, has the national-level Corrections Service as well as Correctional Centres at the provincial level. Australia calls its national body the Department of Corrective Services.
In these three bastions of Anglophonia then – Australia, Canada, and the U.S. – correction is clearly the term of art at the official level for designating penal institutions and activities. But speakers don't update their mental lexicons so readily, and in ordinary, informal conversation, prison still holds first place. The U.S. Federal government operates hundreds of facilities, none of which is officially called a prison today, but the body that oversees all of them got the name Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1930 and has stuck with it.
What's more, you don't have to drill down very far on the websites of any of the aforementioned bodies before you find that they call the institutions they manage the same thing that you do: prisons. Here, for example, is a paragraph from the Federal Bureau of Prisons website:
If the inmate is in the prison's health services unit, the Medical Officer may decide not to allow a visit for health-related reasons. Sometimes inmates go to hospitals in the community. Usually only immediate family can visit, according to the hospital's policy. In either case, be sure to contact the prison before you visit.
What, then, is the motive to give a new name to an institution and a range of its functions that everyone already has names for? Prison has been kicking around in English practically since day one of the language; its earliest meaning was to denote the state or condition of captivity. Prison has been used to designate a building or institution for housing those held captive since the 13th century. That's still the case in the British Isles, where correction doesn't seem to have caught on at all at the official level: the bodies in charge of housing offenders there are Her Majesty's Prison Service (England and Wales), the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the Scottish Prison service, and the Irish Prison Service.
Sign outside Pentonville Prison, London
We expect that the widespread adoption of correction and its peers is a replay of an earlier overhaul of terminology that was the great innovation of the 19th century: penitentiary. This term, like correction, was largely a North American phenomenon and remains today in limited use. Penitentiary spawned the still current short form pen, and nearly two dozen U.S. institutions are still officially called penitentiaries, all of them housing serious offenders. Canada's present day Corrections Service started out life as the Canadian Penitentiary Service.
From the online interactive timeline of the Canadian Corrections Service, "Corrections in Canada." The original caption is "1913: Saskatchewan Penitentiary Guards."
Does the adoption of new terminology for problematic institutions express an abstract hope or aspiration of society? The wordmap of prison is a fairly bleak one that goes nowhere. The wordmap of penitentiary, on the other hand, has a dotted line to penitence, and the wordmap of correction, a fairly full one, has connections to therapy and rectification. Undoubtedly a fraction of prison populations were and are today penitent; perhaps a greater fraction are in fact subject to correction, though the massively disproportional size of the U.S. prison population might suggest otherwise. But it is usually more comforting to think of prisoners as penitent or corrigible than merely detained, so perhaps our modern terminology reflects this preferred view.
Another factor we think is at play is the tendency to euphemize problematic institutions – those that society is never quite at ease with. The career of prison terminology has a slight parallel in the names adopted for institutions that we sometimes call "residential treatment facilities" today, but that have previously gone by the name of insane asylum, mental institution, and a number of even less savory slang terms. Renaming these institutions from time to time may serve to sweep away negative associations. Americans who were alive in the early 1970s heard the name "Attica State Prison" innumerable times because of the riots that occurred there. Today the place is officially called "Attica Correctional Facility."
From the surge in popularity that it experience 50 or so years ago, you might suppose that the use of correction to characterize disciplinary punishment was a 20th century innovation in English. In fact it's much older than that. House of correction first appears in the 16th century, and before that, even Chaucer says, in the "Friar's Tale":
Thanne hadde he thurgh his Iurisdiccion Power to doon on hem correccion.
So it would seem that the promoters of correction and its derivatives were simply implementing nomenclature that had been waiting in the wings of English. Is correction here to stay? Despite its lengthy pedigree, correction has a slightly Orwellian feel to it, leading us to wonder if the next overhaul of prison terminology, perhaps later in this century, will be something even creepier: something along the lines of pacification institute ... conversion center ... destigmatorium.