History of the US prison system

Written by:
November 5, 2020
Updated on November 3, 2020
Ian Waldie // Getty Images

History of the US prison system

Statistics on the U.S. prison system paint a sobering picture of incarceration and the country’s criminal justice system at large. As of 2020, nearly 2.3 million people across the country were behind bars, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. More than half of those people who are locked up are held at one of 1,833 state prisons. The rest can be found at one of 3,134 local jails, 110 federal prisons, 80 Indian Country jails, 218 immigration detention centers, and other facilities.

The country’s staggering rate of incarceration—698 per 100,000 residents—is higher than that of any other country, per the Prison Policy Initiative. How did we get to this point?

To find out, Stacker took a look at the history of the U.S. prison system. We scoured information from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice, state criminal justice research, archival journals, and criminal justice reform advocacy groups to learn about the rise of the prison-industrial complex and how the country came to lock up such a high percentage of its own population.

The resulting timeline will take you through the openings of some of the most notorious prisons across the country, like Alcatraz and Eastern State Penitentiary. It also points out major legislation that increased the number of people and average length of time behind bars and led to widespread disparities among the incarceration of people of color for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. Finally, we point out important reform milestones, such as when the U.S. had the lowest approval of the death penalty, the implementation of key rehabilitation programs, and attention from the U.S. Justice Department on the unconstitutionality of bail.

Curious about how the U.S. prison system developed since our country’s founding? Click through to see 50 major moments from 1790 to 2020.

1790: First US penitentiary opens in Philadelphia

When Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia was expanded in 1790 as part of an effort to relieve crowded conditions, it became the country’s first penitentiary, according to the Law Library. It had an intentionally designed environment that, while safer and more sanitary than other prisons, confined inmates to their cells for their entire sentence with little human contact. The goal was to give incarcerated people time to reflect on their behavior, sans distractions.

1829: Eastern State Penitentiary becomes first “modern” prison

Philadelphia became home to the first “modern” prison in 1829, when Eastern State Penitentiary opened. It touted the practice of solitary confinement as a way to give inmates time to reflect on their crimes and eventually emerge reformed. The penitentiary would later be famous as the place where Al Capone was incarcerated.

1833: US bans debtors’ prisons

The federal government abolished debtors’ prisons, where people had previously been incarcerated for an inability to make good on their debts, in 1833. Over the following decades, Congress would develop bankruptcy laws to help resolve unpaid debts.

1835: Nation’s first women’s prison opens

The country got its first women’s prison when Mount Pleasant Female Prison opened in New York in 1835. After receiving criticism for subjecting incarcerated people to gagging, straitjackets, and other inhumane conditions, the prison would be shut down 30 years later.

1866: Convict leasing becomes widespread

When the Civil War ended in 1865, convict leasing became widespread in Southern states. This system allowed prisons to lease out incarcerated people, mostly Black men, to private businesses for a fee. According to PBS, the system helped enrich states and businesses while treating the convict laborers dismally.

1871: Virginia court deems prisoners “slaves of the state”

In the 1871 case Ruffin v. Commonwealth, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that inmates were “slaves of the state” who had forfeited nearly all personal rights. It allowed the criminal justice system to deny basic constitutional rights to prisoners for nearly a century, according to Process.

1891: Government establishes Federal Prison System

In 1891, Congress passed the “Three Prisons Act,” which created the Federal Prisons System. It allowed the first three federal prisons to open—USP Leavenworth, USP McNeil Island, and USP Atlanta—under oversight from the Department of Justice.

1907: New York establishes first parole system

In 1907, New York adopted a comprehensive parole program—the first state in the country to do so, according to Dui Hua. The program included modern components of parole, such as indeterminate sentencing, supervision after release from prison, and definitive criteria for revoking parole.

1928: Last state outlaws convict leasing

Alabama became the last state in the nation to outlaw the practice of convict leasing in 1928. Chain gangs, or groups of incarcerated people who were chained together to do hard labor for punishment, would soon emerge, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

1930: Congress creates Bureau of Prisons

While federal prisons had been around for more than three decades, the Federal Bureau of Prisons wasn’t established until 1930. It would become responsible for managing and regulating all federal correctional institutions to “provide more progressive and humane care for federal inmates.” It was also responsible for ensuring consistency and providing centralized administration for these facilities.

1934: Alcatraz prison opens in San Francisco Bay

The Federal Bureau of Prisons opened a now-notorious high-security prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay in 1934. Designed to be “a prison system’s prison,” Alcatraz was intended to hold inmates who were deemed to be violent, dangerous, or escape risks.

1934: Congress establishes prison work-skills corporation

On June 23, 1934, Congress established the Federal Prison Industries, a government-owned corporation dedicated to helping inmates gain work skills. The move was an effort to help people successfully transition from prison back into society and avoid committing future crimes.

1940: Bureau of Prisons modernizes practices

Between its founding in 1930 and the subsequent decades, the Bureau of Prisons nearly doubled the number of inmates and institutions under its purview. It then worked to modernize its practices in 1940, establishing inmate classification and security levels at different institutions. These concepts are still used by the bureau today.

1940: Prisons in the North adopt correctional institute model

A new type of prison reform came about in 1940, with northern states adopting the “correctional institution model.” This type of incarceration aimed to reduce the physical and psychological pain of prisons by offering vocational training, recreation, visitation privileges, and therapeutic programming. However, these programs were only provided to people considered capable of reform, which rarely included people of color, per the Vera Institute of Justice.

1941: Attorney General bans convict leasing

Attorney General Francis Biddle issued Circular No. 3591 to all U.S. attorneys in 1941. The circular formally abolished the practice of convict leasing, as it was a form of involuntary servitude.

1942: All states implement parole systems

Every state in the country, as well as the federal government, adopted a parole system by 1942. It would raise the number of prisoners released through parole, hitting a high 35 years later, when nearly three quarters of inmates “were released early on parole,” according to Dui Hua.

1946: Battle of Alcatraz leaves five people dead

A handful of inmates at Alcatraz penitentiary staged a violent escape attempt in May 1946. Now known as the “Battle of Alcatraz,” the unsuccessful escape ended with the deaths of three inmates and two correctional officers. One other prisoner and 14 guards suffered injuries, as well.

1959: Corrections adopts “Medical Model”

The “Medical Model” of corrections gained traction in the late 1950s, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This theory stated that rehabilitative programs could provide a cure to the “disease” of criminal behavior. The Bureau of Prisons would go on to diagnose an incarcerated person through a classification system and offer educational programs and counseling services as treatment.

1961: Bureau of Prisons experiments with prerelease centers

As part of an effort to reduce recidivism, the Bureau of Prisons established three “prerelease centers” for juvenile offenders in 1961. The experimental halfway houses were intended to give participants the tools they need to avoid a life of crime upon their release, such as a savings account, appropriate clothing, and a steady job, according to a 1969 report in Criminal Justice Monograph.

1964: President Johnson signs the Criminal Justice Act

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Criminal Justice Act into law on Aug. 20, 1964. It advanced the right to counsel in federal courts by providing hourly wages and expenses to lawyers appointed by the court.

1965: Prisoner Rehabilitation Act becomes law

The passage of the Prisoner Rehabilitation Act of 1965 led to major changes in federal correctional work. It offered furloughs, work-release programs, and support from community residential treatment centers to people incarcerated in federal prisons.

Mid-1960s: Support for death penalty drops to record low

American support for the death penalty dropped to record lows in the mid-1960s. When asked by Gallup if they were in favor of capital punishment for a person who’s been convicted of murder, just 47% of Americans said yes, while a record high of 42% of Americans said they opposed.

1971: President Nixon declares war on drugs

President Nixon paved the path for the zero-tolerance drug policies of the 1980s when he announced a “war on drugs” in June 1971, per the Drug Policy Alliance. Violations of drug laws would lead to the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug law offenses to skyrocket to more than 400,000 from 1997 from just 50,000 in 1980.

1971: Attica prison uprising draws attention to Prisoners’ Rights Movement

Around 1,200 incarcerated people mounted an uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in New York and took 42 staff hostage in September 1971, demanding political rights and improved conditions. After the inmates and corrections commissioner failed to reach an agreement, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police to take control of the prison. Police fired nearly 2,000 rounds and dropped tear gas by helicopter. Forty-three people died in total, four of whom were killed by inmates. The incident was considered a defining moment in the Prisoners’ Rights Movement.

1971: Bureau of Prisons adopts “Balanced Model”

The “Medical Model” of corrections became viewed as ineffective in the early 1970s. The Federal Bureau of Prisons soon shifted to a “Balanced Model” of incarceration, which determined that the goals of prison were “punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.” The “Balanced Model” is still the prevailing philosophy of the bureau today.

1973: Era of mass incarceration begins

The U.S. entered a sustained period of rising incarceration rates beginning in 1973. The rate of U.S. residents behind bars would quintuple from 161 out of 100,000 people in 1972 to 767 per 100,000 in 2007, according to “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States.”

1974: US Supreme Court upholds some constitutional rights for prisoners

In the 1974 case Wolff v. McDonnell, a class-action lawsuit launched by an incarcerated person in Nebraska, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that inspection of mail between attorneys and inmates violated a person’s right “of access to the courts.” However, it ruled against the allegation that prison disciplinary proceedings were a violation of the 14 Amendment’s Due Process Clause, according to Oyez.

1976: Supreme Court rules on prisoner’s health needs

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1976 that ignoring the medical needs of an inmate is “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain”—a breach of the 8th Amendment. The ruling allowed other inmates to sue after prisons failed to address their medical needs, and by the 1980s, an industry of correctional health care popped up, per KFGO.

1983: Corrections Corporation of America privatizes prisons

The Corrections Corporation of America, now known as CoreCivic, opened in 1983. Within its first year in business, the for-profit prison and detention center company would get a first-of-its-kind contract from the Department of Justice to build, operate, and manage a secure correctional facility, according to a company video referenced in a Timeline story. It would mark the beginning of the country’s private prison industry.

1983: Supermax prison era begins

Inmates at a U.S. Penitentiary near Marion, Illinois, murdered two corrections officers in 1983, resulting in a permanent lockdown that confined prisoners to small cells for all but 90 minutes every day. The lockdown would become a model for new “Supermax” facilities in the coming years.

1984: Sentencing Reform Act becomes law

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 brought major reforms to the federal sentencing system. It shifted the goal of incarceration away from rehabilitation, allowed for appellate review of prison sentencing, and made federal sentences determinate. It also established the U.S. Sentencing Commission to create sentencing guidelines.

1986: Congress sets mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses

Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986. The law would require that anyone who is convicted of a “serious” drug-trafficking offense, defined as a crime with a minimum amount of substances (like 500 grams of cocaine) to receive a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. It also established a mandatory decade-long sentence for people convicted of “major” trafficking offenses and doubled the mandatory minimum sentences for second offenders. The policies would become part of the reason the federal prison population ballooned in the 1990s.

1988: Congress creates stricter sentences for drug possession

Congress established a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for anyone convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine. The policy would have long-term negative impacts on the Black community, leading to even greater racial disparities in groups of people behind bars.

1989: California constructs the first Supermax prison

California became home to the first Supermax facility in the nation when it built Pelican Bay in Del Norte County in 1989. The prison had no need for a cafeteria, educational facilities, shops, or a yard, as it was designed to confine incarcerated people to 8-by-10-foot cells for 22.5 hours every day. With their remaining 90 minutes, prisoners were allowed to use a concrete exercise pen on their own, per NPR.

1990s: Federal prison population skyrockets

Throughout the 1990s, the inmate population at federal correctional facilities more than doubled amid increased efforts to crack down on drugs and undocumented immigration. By the end of 1999, the Federal Bureau of Prisons would have around 136,000 inmates under its purview.

1994: Federal government builds its first Supermax facility

The Federal Bureau of Prisons constructed its first and only super-maximum security (Supermax) facility in Colorado in 1994, NPR wrote. It would house a number of high-profile criminals, including Ted Kaczynski, Robert Hanssen, and Eric Rudolph.

1994: Crime Bill increases prison funding

Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994. The act would allocate $9.7 billion to fund prisons. It would also expand the federal death penalty, address certain types of criminal behavior (such as hate crimes and sex crimes), and increase mandatory minimum sentencing rules.

1996: Congress denies welfare benefits to people with drug felonies

Congress passed major welfare reform legislation in 1996. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act would deny federal benefits such as welfare and food assistance to people who have been convicted of felony drug offenses, making their reentry from prison into society increasingly challenging, per The Sentencing Project.

1997: Private firm begins running federal correctional center

Privatized prisons reached the federal level when the Bureau of Prisons granted its contract for a company-managed federal correctional facility in California in 1997. Less than 20 years later, 13 federal correctional centers nationwide would become privately managed.

2002: Bureau of Prisons creates Life Connections Program

The Bureau of Prisons launched a new enrichment program for inmates in 2002: the Life Connections Program. Participants have the opportunity to join a faith-based residential program aimed at building values and character, as well as enhancing reintegration back into the community.

2005: Supreme Court strikes down federal sentencing rule

When the U.S. Supreme Court decided United States v. Booker in 2005, it struck down a rule that imposed requirements for federal district judges to sentence convicted criminals within the range of federal sentencing guidelines. It made the federal sentencing guidelines advisory rather than mandatory.

2009: US prison population reaches all-time high

An all-time high of 2.3 million people were imprisoned in the U.S. in 2009, Reason reported. Criminal justice reforms over the subsequent decade would allow the prison population to drop 11% by 2020.

2010: Government enacts the Fair Sentencing Act

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 raised the amount of crack cocaine for a drug offense to trigger mandatory five- and 10-year minimum sentences. It was designed to reduce disparities in sentencing people of different races, which had previously resulted in thousands of Latinos and Black Americans receiving longer prison sentences for drug crimes with relatively small quantities of crack cocaine, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

2015: President Obama visits a federal prison

President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he took a tour of the El Reno prison near Oklahoma City in July 2015. Soon after, he began calling for reforms of prison conditions and opportunities for at-risk young people to get help before they make mistakes, NPR reported.

2016: Justice department studies violence in private prisons

An investigation conducted by the Department of Justice in 2016 found that there’s consistently more violence in private prisons than in their public counterparts. Journalist Shane Bauer, who worked undercover as a guard at a private prison, said he was taught not to intervene if he witnessed inmates stabbing each other.

2016: US Justice Department warns against bail practices

The U.S. Justice Department issued a “Dear Colleague” letter in 2016, directed at people in the state and local judicial systems. The letter asserted that bail practices that result in someone remaining behind bars because they’re in poverty violate the 14th Amendment.

2017: Prison population falls below 1.5 million

In 2017, the total number of people imprisoned in the U.S. fell to less than 1.5 million—a first since 2004, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Despite the overall reduction, the prison population still increased in 20 states. What’s more, 10 states had “all-time-high” prison populations that year.

2018: President Trump signs First Step Act

In 2018, President Trump signed the First Step Act, a “historic criminal justice reform bill,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. It reduced mandatory minimum prison sentences related to nonviolent drug offenses, eased the federal government’s “three strikes” rule, and established new rehabilitative programs.

2019: Prison population drops to lowest in decades

A Bureau of Justice Statistics' survey found that around 419 of every 100,000 Americans were imprisoned in 2019—the lowest rate in nearly 25 years, according to The Washington Free Beacon. The decline in the number of people behind bars can be partly attributed to the First Step law, which reduced prison sentences at the federal level.

2020: Chicago jail becomes coronavirus hot spot

A Chicago jail became the “largest-known source of coronavirus infections” at the time, as more than 350 people were infected within two weeks, The New York Times reported on April 8, 2020. The infections would draw greater attention to overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in prisons. The pandemic also prompted authorities to free thousands of inmates across the country.

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