History of Prisons

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Penology is the study of philosophy and practice to repress criminal activities in society. It’s a science that took thousands of years of trial and error to develop.

Learning the science of penalties and punishments starts with diving into the history of prisons, which goes back to early human civilizations.

So, what existed before prison? How was incarceration invented? How did the prison system develop?

This article explores the beginning of prisons in the United States. It’s a complex yet fascinating subject that shows the development and reform of correctional facilities in America.

Furthermore, this article shows how different modern prisons are compared to jails people had in ancient times.

If you want a handy website to get information on more than 7,000 prisons and jails nationwide, visit LookUpInmate.org.

Our website can help you on your quest to learn more about jails and prisons in the U.S. You can get information like a facility’s address, contact information, and links to the institution’s official website.

The History of Corrections in America

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Detaining unruly people to prevent them from wreaking havoc on other people’s lives has long been a concept since people lived together to form communities.

Ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome all described a place where people who were deemed lawbreakers were kept and locked up.

In America, the concept of jails was brought about by European settlers. One of the first records of places of detainment in the U.S. was the wooden Barnstable Village jail in Massachusetts. The “Old Jail,” as it was called, was built in 1690 and operated until 1820.

Brief History of the Federal Prison System

In 1891, the United States government established the country’s first prison system. The passing of the “Three Prison Act” established the first three federal prisons in the United States, namely Leavenworth, McNeil Island, and Atlanta prisons.

Before passing the Three Prison Act, incarcerated individuals were held in state prisons, whether guilty of state or federal crimes.

Today state offenses are typically imprisoned in state penitentiaries, while federal offenders are placed in federal prisons.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) handles all federal prison facilities in the country. As of 2023, there are 122 federal prisons or institutions, 6 regional offices, 27 residential reentry management offices, 2 staff training centers, and a headquarters.

What Is Prison?

Prisons are places of confinement for people held in custody as punishment for crimes committed. Usually, a judicial authority decides who goes to prison and for how long.

Imprisonment is usually the last leg of the litigation process, where the judge orders the defendant to spend time behind bars.

In modern America, places of incarceration are state prisons, federal penitentiaries, and jails. Each holds convicts of different severity of crimes and different sentence lengths.

Development of the Prison System

The development of the prison system in the United States took hundreds of years before it became today’s modern system.

The prison story of America started in Europe during the 16th century when correction houses were built to detain offenders and vagrants for rehabilitation.

As settlers from England and other European countries came to the New World, they also brought their cultures and the concept of incarceration, and the rest was history.

The Emergence of the Penitentiary

The birth of the penitentiary happened when English jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed and advocated the concept of penitentiaries or places of punishment and personal reformation.

Aside from Bentham, another English reformer, John Howard, wrote books that exposed the appalling state of prisons in England and Wales.

Their combined works made the public aware of the problems in English prisons, which resulted in changes in the country’s prison system.

These changes trickled across the Atlantic and into America, which resulted in the creation of the first penitentiaries in the United States.

The first penitentiaries were built in Pennsylvania and New York in the late 19th century.

The Invention of Incarceration

The concept of prisons has been with humanity since early civilizations. However, Jeremy Bentham was among those that developed the modern idea of incarceration.

Through Bentham’s advocacy, incarceration now focuses on punishment and rehabilitation. Bentham was against the death penalty, so he developed the penitentiary to allow convicted people to reform while enduring the consequences of their actions.

Behind Bars: The Invention of Mass Incarceration

Prison systems in the United States became somewhat stable until the 1970s, when mass incarceration kicked in. The rapid growth of the prison population occurred during these tumultuous times.

Rhetoric focusing on curbing the increased crime rate was the talk in politics. Legislators tried to resolve this issue by passing stricter punishments, all with prison or jail time.

Because of strict laws with prison sentences, mass incarceration occurred, and prisons slowly became overcrowded.

Were Early American Prisons Similar?

There’s a stark difference between the prison system of the 18th and 19th centuries and the current modern facilities of today.

In the old days, prisons were dark, rife with disease, and squalid. Cells were inhumane places that made the lives of people behind bars miserable.

During that time, it was acceptable to throw people into dungeons, place them in shame, and subject them to physical abuse as punishment for their crimes and violations.

Eventually, penal reform improved how prison administrators treated inmates in these places of incarceration.

One such reform was the Auburn system, adopted in the Auburn Prison in New York during the late 19th century.

The Auburn system focuses on providing work to inmates during the day and placing them in individual cells in solitary confinement at night.

Before the Auburn system, prisons included corporal punishments for prisoners. Flogging, whipping, and other physical abuses were normal forms of punishment in early prisons. However, these eventually changed with modern prison reforms.

The Auburn system focused on subjecting prisoners to hard labor as part of their reformatory process inside correctional institutions. Prisons became workhouses filled with inmates subjected to work, contributing to the facility’s profit.

The Purpose of Imprisonment

Surprisingly, the idea of incarceration as punishment only happened after the 18th century.

Jails were previously used as deterrence and to detain people so they could go to trial, which would usually end in either execution, dismissal, or retribution, “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”

In some cases, jails were places to imprison debtors and people with light crimes.

Early prisons are different from the facilities the country has today. Before, inmates faced a life of hardships behind bars. They’re often caged, chained, and abused. There was no substantial attempt to care for prisoners, especially as many see prisons as places of punishment.

During the 1880s, prisons became “laboratories” for scientific and medical experimentation, research on criminology, medical research, and psychology.

In the 20th century, the modern prison system slowly emerged, and imprisonment had a higher purpose than only being a place of punishment.

Today the main focus of most prisons today is rehabilitation. That said, prison authorities constantly gauge the effectiveness of imprisonment and recidivism rate.

The recidivism rate is the rate at which a prisoner reverts to crime after serving time in a correctional facility. This rate acts as a measuring stick that helps prison authorities fine-tune their facilities for pursuing prisoner rehabilitation.

Types of Prisons

The United States ranks high among the countries with the largest prison population in the world. As of 2023, almost two million people are behind bars in over 7,000 facilities in the country.

Prisoners are spread into jails, state or federal prisons, and penitentiaries.

Prisoners in jails usually have sentence lengths of one year or less. Typically, jail inmates are people arrested by law enforcement, individuals awaiting trial or sentencing, and defendants convicted of misdemeanors.

On the other hand, state prisons house people convicted of state crimes. In contrast, those convicted of federal crimes stay in federal institutions.

Aside from jails and prisons, specialized detention centers, such as war and concentration camps, saw widespread use during World Wars 1 and 2. Unfortunately, these facilities became places of abuse.

During the Nazi invasion, European concentration camps were used to imprison minorities and war criminals, resulting in the unjust death of millions of people.


You can categorize prisons into two types of supervision models. These are direct supervision and indirect supervision.

Direct supervision is the combination of physical design and prisoner management strategy. This supervision type aims to reduce problematic behavior in prisoners.

Direct supervision allows continuous interaction between prisoners and prison staff stationed inside housing units. Prison staff can manage inmates that proactively encourage positive behavior.

On the other hand, indirect supervision is where prisoners stay in cellblocks, and prison officers do routine rounds to ensure safety and order inside prisons.

Order and Discipline

The consistent implementation of order and discipline is one factor that keeps the prison system working. When a prison facility loses its ability to impose its regulations, it can lead to disorder.

Maintaining order is one of the high priorities in prison, and setting up ways to ensure it is crucial. Proper inmate supervision and management must always be present to avoid riots and other violent events.

However, to maintain order, prison authorities must instill discipline and, at the same time, teach prisoners to avoid breaking prison policies by punishing unruly individuals.


Prisons and jails in the country are being monitored or supervised by several agencies that are part of the U.S. criminal justice system.

  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons manages the federal prisons in the United States.
  • The National Institute of Corrections aims to help federal, state, and local correctional facilities improve the country’s corrections practice.
  • States Department of Corrections of every state oversees the management of the state’s prison system.   


The government doesn’t operate all prisons in the country. Some facilities are built and operated by private corporations. These types of prisons are privately owned and operated, with the approval of the U.S. government.

The following sections explore the reasons why the U.S. government allows companies to build prison facilities.

Prison Populations

The growth of the prison population started with the onset of mass incarceration in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the need for more prisons becomes apparent when facilities slowly experience overcrowding.

The government goes into a contract with companies willing to build prison facilities to help accommodate the growing number of incarcerated people. However, the services of a private prison aren’t free, and the government pays it with taxpayers’ money.

National Trends

In the United States, there’s a steady reemergence of private prisons. These prisons come under scrutiny from critics, especially with reports of low-quality service, which some see as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

However, despite the reports, these privately-owned prisons continue to operate and have inspired other countries to follow.

Prisoners’ Rights

The concept of prisoners’ rights is the extent of privileges given to prisoners in custody after being convicted of crimes. In most of U.S. history, how prisoners were treated depends on the prison authorities that manage the facility.

However, this changed when federal courts in the 60s, and 70s, oversaw state prisons and developed the concept of prisoners’ rights. Further refinement of these rights happened in the next decades, shaping how inmates are treated in correctional facilities today.

Alternatives to Prison

The county’s prison system experienced a shift in prisoner treatment. Prisons are no longer simply places of punishment but an avenue for rehabilitation and reform.

The Department of Justice and other agencies involved in the criminal justice system have developed systems that encourage reform.

Meanwhile, courts provide alternative sentencing for prisoners to encourage rehabilitation. Some prisoners may be given probation as an alternative to jail time.

In some states, courts can order convicted individuals to undergo rehabilitation treatments like alcohol and drug abuse therapy while under probation as an alternative to a prison sentence.

In addition, prisoners have access to educational programs to help them develop skills they can use once they reenter society.


Another popular alternative to doing prison time is paying fines and penalties. This alternative is inexpensive to administer because it doesn’t have associated consequences like job loss and the apparent stigma of going to jail.

However, fines may not equal punishment for all, as some criminals can easily afford to pay for their crimes with money. On the other hand, some defendants may not be financially free to pay fines, resulting in incarceration despite this alternate option.


The main difference between restitution and fines is that in restitution, the victim’s loss is calculated and included in the bill the offender must pay.

The restitution amount depends on many factors, like medical bills for injuries, counseling costs, and job or income loss experienced by the victim of the crime.

Other Penalties

Aside from being sentenced to spend years on end in a state penitentiary, there are instances where the felon’s crime is so grave that it merits capital punishment. However, the death penalty applies only in states that allow such extreme punishment.

Community service is another penalty given to offenders of relatively light offenses. The court orders the defendant to spend a specific period to complete community work.

Examples of community service for inmates are the following:

  • Janitorial duties
  • Working with nonprofit organizations
  • Speaking at events about the consequences of crime
  • Sharing what they learned from their experience

Violent criminals may be sentenced to a maximum security prison and be under surveillance by prison administrators to ensure safety and security.

To learn more about the different prison facilities in the country, visit LookUpInmate.org. Our website provides access to over 7,000 U.S. correctional facilities, including federal and state prisons, local and county jails, military prisons, and immigrant detention facilities.


1. When did prisons begin?

The earliest record of prisons or places to hold in custody a person who violated a community’s law was from the first millennium B.C.E. (before the common era) in Mesopotamia and Egypt. 

2. What existed before prisons?

Before there were prisons, criminals were subjected to physical punishment or execution. Prisons were only places of detainment to ensure that a felon faced trial and was judged. 


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