The Evolution of Jails in the United States

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Over the years the criminal justice system has been evolving to address the dynamic needs of the society. A good example of this evolution was the introduction of jails in the criminal system as a means of punishing characters which go against the rules and regulations that have been passed within the society. Prisons were part of the English criminal justice system from the 16th century, and they were subsequently imported to the United States by the colonial government. Historians trace back this penal system to the wake of the American Revolution during the colonial era. However, in as much as jails were evident in the early English Settlement in the US, the penitentiary movement in the late 18th

century tremendously changed the objectives that these facilities initially sought to achieve (Hirsch, 1992). In light of the foregoing, this paper seeks to trace the historical development of jails in the US dating back to the colonial era all the way to the contemporary prison systems.

According to Christianson (2000), jails were some of the first public structures that the colonial government constructed after it had established itself in North America. The first jails to be built by the colonial government were situated Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut in 1635, 1682 and 1727 respectively. However, by the 18th century, the colonial government ensured that there was at least one jail in each county that were under its control (Christianson, 2000). Although the criminal justice system in the colonial era had invested its resources into establishing jails, this penal system played second fiddle to other modes of punishing criminal behavior (Hirsch, 1992). During the colonial era, some of the preferred methods of criminal punishment included penal servitude, capital punishment at the gallows, banishment, the pillory, the stocks, whipping or paying fines (Hirsch, 1992). In most cases, criminal incarceration was merely used to supplement the punishments outlined above. Hirsch (1992) further argues that in the colonial era, jail was used to detain accused persons either before they were tried or sentenced by the courts.

Shortly after the American Revolution, the United States witnessed significant reforms in the prison systems that it had inherited from the colonial government. These reforms were spearheaded by the penitentiary movement that began in the late 18th

century and continued in the 19th century. The Jacksonian and Antebellum era were the initial phases of the reforms in the US prison system. During the Jacksonian era, the reformers endeavored to identify the factors that lead to criminal behavior and before finding ways of remedying the said behavior (Rothman, 2017). The Jacksonian reformers resolved that the best way of combatting criminal behavior in the society was to create a facility where the deviants would be isolated from the society (Rothman, 2017). The facility that the penologists came up with was the penitentiary. This facility was deemed as the suitable place to reform the criminal elements within the society.

According to Rothman (2017), the general consensus during the Jacksonian era was that it was necessary to isolate a prisoner from society so that they could reform their behavior. However, there were two competing schools of thoughts on how convicts could be incarcerated in the penitentiary system. On the one hand, there was a faction that believed that it was necessary to separate the inmates whereas on the other hand there were those who saw it fit if the inmates worked together during the day but were confined alone at night (Rothman, 2017). The former was referred to as the Pennsylvania or Separate System that had been adapted from Philadelphia's Walnut Street Jail whereas the latter was known as Auburn or Congregate System that stemmed out from New York's New gate Prison (Hirsch, 1992; Rothman, 2017). Intense lobbying was conducted in the early 1800s by proponents of both systems, but the Auburn system prevailed due to its cost-effective nature (Hirsch, 1992). It is necessary to point out that even as the penitentiary movement gained traction in most parts of the US, the South initially opposed the move to build the prisons during the antebellum period (Ayers, 1984). The southerners believed that the penitentiaries would curtail their independence and they repeatedly voted against it (Ayers, 1984). In a rather interesting turn of events, the southern legislators went against the will of their people and enacted statutes that paved way the construction of the prisons in their respective states (Ayers, 1984). It is believed that the legislators either resorted to this measure because they felt that they knew what was best for the people they represented (Ayers, 1984).

The second wave of prison reforms in the US occurred after the end of the American Civil War during the reconstruction era (Christianson, 2000). It was during this period that Northern states employed ruthless measures in the management of the prisoners which sharply contrasted the vision that had been outlined by the Jacksonian reformers (Rothman, 2017). Some of the modes of punishments that prison administrators used on the inmates include the water crib, brick bag, straitjackets, solitary confinements, lashing and paddling, the iron cap and the pulley (Rothman, 2017). The prison system in the south equally had its challenges as the administrators adopted the convict leasing practice from the North (Christianson, 2000). In as much as slavery had already been abolished, the people living in the South continued experiencing a racialized mode of incarceration that was denoted with hard labor (Ayers, 1984). Most of the inmates who were leased out were former slaves, and in a way, this system depicted an institutionalized form of slavery (Ayers, 1984). Convict lessees also ended up dead while working for the businessmen who used the convict lease system. 

Substantive reforms in the prison system came in 1870 after various penologists drawn from across the country came up with the National Congress' Declaration Principles (Rothman, 2017). This declaration classified a crime as a moral disease and resolved that making the prisoners suffer was not the way to treat criminals. Instead, the Declaration called for the reformation and regeneration of criminals by taking care of their overall well-being (Rothman, 2017), In a bid to fulfill the suggestions contained in the Declaration, New York built the Elmira Correctional Facility to cater for first-time offenders. The inmates in this facility underwent progressive grading, and some of them could be released through good behavior (Christianson, 2000; Rothman, 2017).

The third phase of prison reforms came during the progressive era. During this period, the South abolished the convict leasing system and replaced it with the state prison farms and the chain gangs. The new systems bore a close resemblance to their predecessors (Ayers, 1984). While many thought that there were some meaningful reforms in the south during the progressive era, shocking revelations in Arkansas prison farms highlighted the cruel manner that the administrators handled the inmates. According to Christianson (2000), inmates at the prison farms were regularly tortured by the prison administrators by being trampled on by horses, having their knuckles broken, their genitals mutilated and also being stabbed. Meaningful reforms started being realized in Arkansas prison camps after federal courts intervened. Other than the mishaps witnessed in the south, there were some spirited efforts from various quarters to ensure that the goals of the National Congress' Declaration were met during the Progressive era (Rothman, 2017).

The US prison system has also undergone a period of prisoner rights movement from the 196-s to the 1980s where prisoners have clamored to be accorded their civil liberties. According to Jacobs (1980), the courts have been used as "battlefields"to fight for the rights of inmates. For example in the case of Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546 (1964), the Supreme Court accorded prisoners their freedom to worship and also held that prison officials could not do anything they desired to inmates since they also had their rights. In yet another case, Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.483 (1969), the Supreme Court encouraged the wave of jailhouse lawyering by holding that prison officials could not punish inmates who provide legal assistance to their fellow inmates.

As seen in the text above, the prison system in the US has undergone immense transformation courtesy of various reform phases over the years. The current framework of the current prison systems that are enshrined in the criminal justice system was not easy to establish since it required hundreds of years of intense lobbying and progressive change. When one looks back at the jails that are in the country today and compares it with the systems that were in place in the previous centuries, they will appreciate the efforts that have been put towards safeguarding the rights, interests, and welfare of the inmates.


Ayers, E. L. (1984). Vengeance and justice: Crime and punishment in the 19th century American South. Oxford University Press.

Christianson, S. (2000). With liberty for some: 500 years of imprisonment in America. UPNE.

Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546 (1964).

Hirsch, A. J. (1992). The rise of the penitentiary: Prisons and punishment in early America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jacobs, J. B. (1980). The prisoners' rights movement and its impacts, 1960-80. Crime and Justice, 2, 429-470.

Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.483 (1969)

Rothman, D. J. (2017). Conscience and convenience: The asylum and its alternatives in progressive America. Routledge.

Rothman, D. J. (2017). The discovery of the asylum: Social order and disorder in the new republic. Routledge.

December 12, 2023


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