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