American and European prison systems' histories

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History of the American Prison System

Those who perpetrate crimes are forcefully detained in a prison, where they are denied certain freedoms as outlined by the laws and authorities of their respective states. Prisons have always been crucial to a country's ability to carry out its criminal justice system's goals and function effectively. Before the American Revolution, there was a jail system in the United States. Three historical eras helped to create the American prison system. The American Civil War was fought during the first period, the Jacksonian period. During this time, the majority of American states used rehabilitative labor and imprisonment as the standard punishment for crimes done. (Cole, Smith & DeJong, 2015). The second era of prison development in the U.S was the progressive error which was after the civil war. In this era, primary penalties involved probation, parole and indeterminate sentencing. Major reformation and Restructuring of the American prison system began in 1970s which was the third Era. Reformation and restructuring was due to the high growing number of prisoners in U.S. which involved change in responsibilities of the federal and state agencies which were responsible for prison administration.

History of the European Prison System

Europe prison system began from the ideas of Plato who was a philosopher in the Ancient Greek (O'connor, 2014). Plato opposed retribution to offenders and proposed punishment as a way of reforming offenders. He further proposed prisons as a form of punishment rather than for detention; this was before the age of B.C. During this error, forced labor was another form of punishment to prisoners.

In the middle ages to the 17th century in Europe, prisons were based in castles and fortresses. In this age, gallery slavery sentence was the most common punishment that was administered to prisoners (McConville, 2015). Development of modern prisons in Europe began in the early 19th century. In the modern era, the form of punishment was physical and entailed capital punishment, mutilation and other non-physical punishments. The modern era of prison development in Europe was faced with high resistance to torture and public execution which led to the decline of death sentencing and consequent development of mass incarceration cumbered with hard labor. It is during this era that Christian morality was upheld in Europe prison system and humane institutions of moral instructions were constructed for prisoner’s correction.

Comparison of American and European Prison Systems

Different countries have different prison systems across the world. Nevertheless, the American prison system documents a statistical record of the largest prison in the world both regarding detaining capacity and the number of inmates. The Russian and other European prison systems are incomparable to this record. Compared to its peers, the United States of America continues to register the highest levels of crime resulting in a large increase in prison population, and this leads to overcrowding of the prisons and capacity straining (Bez, 2017). As the United States of America continues to ‘advance’ in crime, the European worlds such as Germany and Netherlands have greatly advanced in crime reduction through the development of national policies and criminal justice system that solve the dilemma of crime.

Comparison of the American and the European prison systems can well be achieved through micro-analysis of specific Europe countries (Germany and Netherlands) prison systems and the United States of America prison system. The scope of analysis revolves around two key issues; organization and sentencing.

Organization of the Netherlands Prison System

Regarding organization, Netherlands prison system can be regarded as comparatively simple as it is based on single jurisdiction. The national agency of correctional institutions is the national body that is mandated with the governance of the federal system of prisons in Netherlands and operates under the command of a single prison governor. The federal body governing the prison system is comprised of guards, medical professionals, social professionals, administrative staff, and wardens.

The Netherlands prison system operates under three levels of security operations which encompass; closed prisons, semi-open prisons, and open prisons. Closed prisons are perceived to hold high levels of security while semi-open prisons have moderate security and open prisons are perceived to hold the minimum levels of security. The variation of security levels is based on prison infrastructure, freedom as well as external and internal security personnel. Open prison possesses most of the privileges based upon the three fundamental variations of security levels. Inmates in open prisons have weekly leaves of absence from prison which is barely on weekends.

The three levels of security are further separated by gender where males and females are held separately. Also, separation of security levels extends to segregation of juvenile inmates and inmates who require top security. The top security incarnation normally is normally reviewed after every six months where the inmate is freed from this level of security imprisonment or the period further extended; this high-security level imprisonment is known as interment.

Organization of the German Prison System

Organization of the German’s prison system is different from that of Netherlands. German is composed of 16 states with each state having its state ministry of justice operating independently but with strong cooperation with other states. Contrary to the United States of America criminal justice system which encompasses both federal and state security, the German criminal justice system is only inclusive of the state’s criminal justice systems and exclusive of the federal justice system (Cole, Smith & DeJong, 2015). Nevertheless, likewise to Netherlands prison system, the German prison system is divided into security levels. However, security levels in the German prison system are only two; the open and closed levels of security. As the name suggests, inmates at closed prisons are held at top security. At this closed level, security is enhanced or rather reinforced through the deployment of heavy external and internal security, armed security personnel outside the prison and regarding infrastructure, fences, and walls are built high. On the other hand, open prisons have minimized security levels. The major difference between the two security levels of the German prison system is that open prisons are used to hold inmates with short incarcerations or sentences and have committed minor offenses while closed prisons hold inmates who have committed huge crimes and thus subjected to long-term imprisonment. Moreover, similarly to Netherlands prisons, the German prison as well segregates imprisonment of juveniles and women. Worth noting is the uniqueness of the German prison system which allows women who deliver while in prison to take care of their kids.

Organization of the United States Prison System

The organization of the United States prison system is the unique of all the prior outlined systems. The system operates in three jurisdictions namely; federal, state and local systems. The federal prison system is responsible for crimes committed in more than one state and thus affecting more than one state. In essence, these are crimes committed against the federal law (O'connor, 2014). On the other hand, persons who have committed crimes within their states are held in state prison systems. The local jurisdiction is mandated in jailing criminals who are awaiting trial. Local prisons operate under sheriff’s department while state prisons are governed by the state department of justice. The highest jurisdiction of the prison system in the United States, the federal system, operates under federal bureau of prisons. As in Europe, the United States prison system is divided into three security levels which entail high, medium and low. The separation of inmates is based on gender and age where women and juveniles are segregated from adult males but all housed in the same facility.

Sentencing in the Netherlands Prison System

Sentencing in Netherlands is the responsibility of the judge who hears the case, gather information and determine whether guilty or innocent. The sentencing of the judge is based on three outcomes namely; imprisonment, fines or community service (O'connor, 2014). The role of the prosecutor in this prison system is to enforce the sentence while the nation prison selection center takes up the role of classifying the prisoner and determining the location in which the prisoner is going to serve his or her jail.

Sentencing in the German Prison System

In German, however, the judge hears and collects information of the case and further determines whether the defendant is guilty. If proved guilty, the judicial panel takes up the responsibility of determining the sentence (O'connor, 2014).

Sentencing in the United States Prison System

Sentencing in the United States is completely different from that of Europe countries. The federal government has provisions for sentencing structures where several factors determine the maximum and minimum sentencing (Demleitner et al, 2015). The factors considered in the determination of sentence range from age, prior criminal record and as well as the surrounding circumstances. Punishments for guilty offenses comprise of imprisonment fines restitution and probation.


In conclusion, the major differences and similarities drawn from the American and European prison systems are based on organization, administration, operation, and demographics. Nonetheless, the general view of the two prison systems portrays the American prison system unfavorable for crime reduction and very strict while the European prison system seems to favor crime reduction through its enhanced policies and organization.


Beijersbergen, K. A., Dirkzwager, A. J., Molleman, T., van der Laan, P. H., & Nieuwbeerta, P. (2015). Procedural justice in prison: the importance of staff characteristics. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 59(4), 337-358

Bez, N. (2017). American Vs European Criminal Justice and Prison System. [online] The Lions' Pride. Available at: [Accessed 16 Sep. 2017]

Cole, G. F., Smith, C. E., & DeJong, C. (2015). The American system of criminal justice. Nelson Education

Demleitner, N., Berman, D., Miller, M. L., & Wright, R. F. (2015). Sentencing Law and Policy: Cases, Statutes, and Guidelines. Wolters Kluwer Law & Business

O'connor, R. (2014). The United States Prison System: A Comparative Analysis

Reichel, P. L. (2002). Comparative criminal justice systems: A topical approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

McConville, S. (2015). A history of English prison administration (Vol. 6). Routledge.

July 15, 2023

Crime Law

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