History/Overview of American Prisons

History/Overview of American Prisons



History/Overview of American Prisons

Early Punishments

Before the government started using the prisons system, the British colonial system of justice was in use in the US. This system took advantage of the small settlements that existed at the time and placed a lot of emphasis on shaming people who committed crimes. Morality was a big issue in this system. The implementers believed that sin was related to crime, meaning that acts such as name-calling, lying and skipping the Sunday service were punishable crimes (Edge, 2009). The punishments applied in America were similar to those in England but less severe. The authorities punished serious crimes like theft and murder by hanging. For lesser crimes such as swearing, the government had some people whipped out in the open. Other offenders were shamed in public by being forced to wear letters that stood for their crime. For instance, adulterers would have had to wear the letter A on their back. Misdemeanors were punished with fines, a system that continues (Edge, 2009). 

The Emergence of Prisons

            Prison systems became popular in America after the American Revolution. After the independence, the leaders of the new nation placed the laws from the colonial system under scrutiny and looked for different ways to make them better (Edge, 2009). One of the reforms that they instituted involved a reduction of the crimes pertaining morality such as skipping Sunday service. They also reduced the number of times that the government applied the death penalty (Edge, 2009). After these minor changes, the situation in the United States changed. Settlements grew into cities and people became mobile. Citizens frequently moved from one city or region to another. The economy went into a decline and the living conditions deteriorated. These circumstances increased the incidence of crime and this changed perceptions about the causes of crime (Edge, 2009).

            An important precursor to the prisons system was the understanding that crime was not only caused by individual weakness but by a person’s environmental factors as well. Negative influences, poverty, illiteracy and substance abuse could cause crime (Edge, 2009). This, along with the expansion of the cities, meant that the colonial systems of punishment that mainly entailed shaming the culprits were no longer tenable. This situation prompted Dr. Benjamin Rush to meet with some men in 1787 and look for a solution (Edge, 2009). The small group decided that the system of corporal punishment should be replaced with one that reforms prisoners by keeping them detained and separated from society, while emphasizing hard work and penance. Businessperson Thomas Eddy instituted a similar system in New York (Edge, 2009). These systems then developed and gave birth to the US prisons system.  

Prisons Today

            The twentieth century was largely responsible for shaping the prisons into what they are like today. One of the changes made was the separation of young offenders from the rest of the prison population to protect them. To this effect, the government introduced Juvenile Detention Centers to house young offenders and protect them from older prisoners who are likely to be more dangerous. More changes saw the government divide prisons by the security level applied. Supermax facilities currently have the highest level of security. The government uses them to house people who it considers extremely dangerous such as terrorists. Other prison levels are the maximum-security prisons and the minimum-security institutions (Edge, 2009). In addition to these changes, the government stopped the practice of putting prisoners through corporal punishment.

Private Prisons

            Private prisons are penitentiaries in the United States that private corporations run under contract from the government (Hinkes-Jones, 2013). The system started in the early 1980s when the prison population bulged because of the government’s war on drugs. Private entities took advantage of the situation and applied for contracts to run prisons. Companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group applied for the contracts believing that private corporations can run prisons more efficiently (Hinkes-Jones, 2013). However, critics of this system have argued that the private companies have lobbied the government to institute laws that increase the prison population such as the “three strikes” rule. Additionally, critics have accused the firms of colluding with gang members to various ends and cutting down on staffing to save money at the peril of the inmates (Hinkes-Jones, 2013).


Edge, L. B. (2009). Locked up: A history of the U.S. prison system. Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books.

Hinkes-Jones, L. (2013). Privatized prisons: A human marketplace. Retrieved from https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/privatized-prisons-a-human-marketplace

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