The History of the American Corrections System

209 views 6 pages ~ 1576 words
Get a Custom Essay Writer Just For You!

Experts in this subject field are ready to write an original essay following your instructions to the dot!

Hire a Writer


According to the BJS (Bureau of Justice Statistics), the United States is the largest jailer globally, with over 2.3 million convicts held in the country's local, federal, and state jails and prisons (Clear et al., 2013). The American correctional facilities have transformed from being places for holding criminals as they await deportation, beatings, whippings, maiming, or execution to institutions of societal retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation (Clear et al., 2013). This paper explores the history of the American corrections system from the colonial era to the present time.

The Colonial Era

Before the Eighteenth century, the concept of the use of jails or prisons as facilities for punishment did not exist in Europe, neither did it exist in European colonies in America. Jails existed, but they were primarily used to hold criminals temporarily as they awaited trial. The only category of criminals that extended their stay in the prisons were debtors and political prisoners (Barnes, 1921). During the colonial period, criminal justice in America was defined by two qualities, which included the exclusive imposition of fines or corporal punishment, and the prescription of extremely severe penalties. Civil, religious, and criminal violations were all handled by the country's justice system, and corporal punishment was enforced through flogging, humiliation, execution, or banishment (Barnes, 1921). Most of the early Europeans who arrived in colonial America were exiled offenders from Britain. It was a normal practice before 1776 for the British law enforcers to punish convicts by banishing them to their colonies in America, a practice which ended after the Revolutionary War (Barnes, 1921).

The Rise of Crime and Reform

As the size of the American settlements expanded, trade boomed to support the growing American economy. As a result, crime also increased. In response, the British legal system introduced "The Bloody Code," which increased the scope or bracket of capital offenses from about fifty to more than two-hundred (Mackenzie, 2001). Americans who felt uncomfortable with the "The Bloody Code" sought another option. The writings of John Howard, Cesare Beccaria, as well as other penal activists, created the logical foundations for a different view of the criminal justice in America. Quakers from West Jersey and Pennsylvania were part of the first-ever Americans to champion for the replacement of capital or corporal retribution by incarceration, a step which laid the foundation for the modern criminal justice system (Mackenzie, 2001).

Overcrowding and Reform Movements

The period that followed the Revolutionary War, and part of the Nineteenth century, were characterized by a mixture or combination of increased immigration and reduced mortality rates, which resulted in a population increase in the newly formed United States. The individual states' populations more than doubled within a four-decade period. The increased population strained the country's prison system due to the lack of adequate infrastructure (Barnes, 1921). The resource limitations resulted in overcrowding, which further led to stiff and ineffective prison policy. The early American prisons ended up being plagued by poor hygiene, dilapidated facilities, and widespread corruption. Again, the early reformers, led by religious leaders (the Quakers), advocated the improvement of detainee conditions to provide dignified and healthy incarceration (Barnes, 1921).

Emergence of Different Prison Models

In 1831, the French political observer, Gustave de Beaumont, and his colleague Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in the middle of America's first-ever prison construction boom. In their report, the Frenchmen observed that what differentiated the American correctional facilities in all the cities from the townships of mid-Nineteenth century United States was primarily monetary resources and equipment (Clear et al., 2013). In order to reduce their housing costs, prisoners in jails and workhouses had to work in the correctional facilities where they were incarcerated. Prisoners' labor or work was viewed as a privilege as it enhanced their rehabilitation. At Pennsylvania's Walnut Street Jail, which got introduced in 1790, incarcerated convicts worked collaboratively, designing shoes and clothes. However, the most dangerous offenders got isolated in solitary cells, only allowed to have the Bible (Clear et al., 2013). In 1821, a new justice system was introduced in Auburn prison, which executed hard labor and strict silence, as well as corporal retribution for the offenders. The major competitor to the Auburn justice structure was the prison facility developed in Eastern State Penitentiary, which formed the most expensive and largest correctional facility in the United States by 1829 (Barnes, 1921). The justice system in Eastern State Penitentiary allowed prisoners to be held separate from one another. Besides, prisoners had personal exercise, bathroom, and sleeping facilities, all provided in an individual cell (Barnes, 1921). The Auburn and the Eastern State Penitentiary facilities operated with the concept that the offenders' conduct could be changed by either forced labor or solitary detention. However, due to the expenses associated with the Eastern State Penitentiary's justice system, most American corrections had a high likelihood of adapting the Auburn model (Russo et al., 2017). The period of the Mid-Nineteenth century had significant population alterations in America. The loss by the Confederacy during the Civil War resulted in the freedom of several slaves in the South, who were predominantly African-Americans. The freed slaves immigrated to American industrial cities in search of jobs, while others moved to the West to begin a new life (Russo et al., 2017). Similar to independence-time America, the post-Civil War United States faced an increased rate of crimes, which again resulted in the overcrowding of prisons. During the Eighteenth century, overcrowding in prisons led to corruption and decay. Therefore, to provide some form of control to their detainees, most Northern prisons re-introduced corporal punishment for offender infractions, and the practice continued both unofficially and officially until the Mid-20th century (Russo et al., 2017).

Challenges and Reforms in the Southern United States

In America's Southern part, the freed African-American captives got re-arrested and taken back to prisons due to minor offenses. The number of Black prisoners increased rapidly since they were the major target of the law enforcers, and they received hefty judgments from the racially prejudiced judicial system. The 13th Amendment, which got signed into law in 1865, made slavery illegal (Mackenzie, 2001). However, arresting criminal offenders, punishing them by hard labor, and leasing the convict's labor was entirely legal. The Thirteenth Amendment marked the introduction of the offender lease system, where convicts in the state's custody were leased to private institutions or organizations (Mackenzie, 2001). Forced labor was, once again, a booming business in the American South. Due to the deplorable conditions in which convicts were kept, several prisoners incurred injuries, and others also died due to torturous punishment. Some prison camps recorded high rates of mortality of up to forty percent (Mackenzie, 2001).

Modern Developments

Towards the fall of the 19th century and the start of the Twentieth century, the emergence of juvenile correctional facilities and women's prisons began. Most of the changes that improved life quality for prisoners, such as educational classes, vocational training, recreation, and libraries, can be attributed to reforms made in the women's penitentiaries (Clear et al., 2013). As the American cities expanded towards the end of the 20th century, the inmate populations also increased, leading to the expansion of the prisons. The Twentieth century was the period when the first-ever maximum security prisons got established (Mackenzie, 2001). Besides, the Twentieth century was the period when punitive policy transitioned from prisons being areas for corrections to facilities for maintaining public order and isolating disorderly individuals. The shift led to the construction of prison facilities in rural, remote areas, as opposed to the cities or towns from where most convicts originated (Clear et al., 2013). The Twentieth century also created reforms in the prison work laws, majorly due to the Great Depression. Due to the high unemployment rate at the time, the concept of prisoner labor competing with that of free workers became politically irrelevant. The prison officials, therefore, opted to depend on federal and state grants to run the prison facilities (Russo et al., 2017). The United States' prison population remained steady in the better part of the Twentieth century. In 1978, the combined population in the federal and state prisons was less than 350,000 convicts (Russo et al., 2017). However, the population increased to over 1.5 million inmates 25 years later. State expenditures on correctional facilities have also increased from about $6.5 billion in 1985 to about $51.9 billion in 2015 (Russo et al., 2017).


In overall, the primary contributors to various changes in the American corrections system have been stringent policies on crime, especially those focusing on the use and sale of illegal drugs, "three strikes" laws, and mandatory minimums. Other contributors to changes in the American corrections relate to regulations that have resulted in the current situation in which one in thirty-one adults in the U.S. is either on parole or behind bars. Such policies have also led to the disproportionate population of minority groups getting incarcerated, with African-Americans representing about forty percent of the country's total prison population.


Barnes, H. (1921). The Historical Origin of the Prison System in America. Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 12(1), 35. doi: 10.2307/1133652

Clear, T., Reisig, M., Cole, G., & Petrosino, C. (2013). American Corrections in Brief, 15-33. Retrieved from

Mackenzie, D. (2001). Sentencing and Corrections in the 21st Century: Setting the Stage for the Future. Department Of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 6-40. Retrieved from

Russo, J., Drake, G., Shaffer, J., & Jackson, B. (2017). Envisioning an Alternative Future for the Corrections Sector within the U.S. Criminal Justice System. Criminal Justice Needs Initiative, 1-28. Retrieved from

December 12, 2023


Subject area:

American History

Number of pages


Number of words




Writer #



Expertise American History
Verified writer

GeraldKing is an amazing writer who will help you with History tasks. He is the friendliest person who will provide you with explanations because he really wants you to learn. Recommended for your history or anthropology assignments!

Hire Writer

This sample could have been used by your fellow student... Get your own unique essay on any topic and submit it by the deadline.

Eliminate the stress of Research and Writing!

Hire one of our experts to create a completely original paper even in 3 hours!

Hire a Pro