A History of the US Prison System


The US Prison system has a long and problematic history. And, it’s a huge system. There are over 2 million people incarcerated in the system today.

There are 110 federal prisons, over 3,000 municipal jails, over 1,700 juvenile facilities, and over 1,800 state prisons, along with immigration facilities, tribal jails, military prison facilities, and many others.

So, how did this massive system get started? Let’s go through everything you need to know about the US prison system.

The History of the US Prison System

The US prison system evolved from the British system of justice since the United States was originally a British colony. Originally, many more crimes were punishable by death, rather than incarceration. Around the 1780s, the system was reformed.

If you’re wondering, “when was the first prison built?” We’ve got the answers. The first proper prison in the United States was built in 1720, in Maine.

The first American prison built in the United States was in 1790, in Philadelphia, expanding the Walnut Street Jail that existed in the space previously. The first prison for women was opened in 1935, in New York, but was shut down just 30 years later due to the terrible conditions.

Around 1866, Southern states started leasing prisoners for labor to companies, which became the basis for today’s modern private prison labor system that exploits many workers. the Federal Prison Industries, which was meant to help inmates build work skills, was eventually established in 1934.

The Virginia case Ruffin v. Commonwealth, in 1871, set the precedent that allowed the government to deny constitutional rights, which was eventually curtailed by Wolff v. McDonnell in the 1970s.

The federal prison system, where people convicted of federal crimes end up, was officially established in 1891. By 1942, the parole system had been implemented in every state. 

The US Prison System Today

Today, the US prison system is in major need of reform. The number of people in American jails and prisons has increased dramatically since the “War on Drugs” was declared by President Nixon in 1971. This kickstarted the mass incarceration problem in the United States.

And, the prison system in the United States affects some people more than others.

The system is much more likely to incarcerate Black and Latinx people than white people. Racial bias isn’t the only systematic bias prevalent in the prison system. People in prison are also much more likely to live in poverty.

And, you don’t have to be actually convicted to be trapped in prison or jail. Many people are stuck there awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail or because of bureaucratic issues.

Of course, there may be someone you know in the US penal system. If you’re looking for a particular inmate, make sure you take a look at this page for the info you need.

Now You Know About the US Prison System

Hopefully, you now have all the information you need about the US prison system. But, the prison system isn’t the only aspect of this country that it’s important to learn about.

Are you looking for more information about history and political issues in the United States? Scroll through this website for more.