A Brief History of the US Prison System

It is important to know and understand the history of the United States prison system. This will help you become more aware of what is going on in your country, in the judicial system, and in society itself. The prison system in America continues to experience many ups and downs, but it has come a long way. Below, I will tell you key information about the timeline of the U.S. prison system.

According to The United States Department of Justice, In 1891, the United States first established the federal prison system. There was a Three Prisons Act which gave money for Leavenworth, UPS Atlanta, and McNeil Island. It is believed that the first federal prison in the United States was Leavenworth in the state of Kansas. This prison began holding inmates in 1906. Before the prison opened, inmates were housed at Fort Leavenworth military prison.

Prior to the Three Prisons Act being passed, federal prisoners were housed in state prisons around the country. Today, there are 122 federal institutions in the United States, and there are 183,820 inmates being held at these institutions.

The country’s incarceration rate –698 per 100,000 residents – is one of the highest around the globe. In fact, in 2020, 2.3 million people in America were imprisoned. Over half of this number are currently being housed at one of the 1,833 state prisons, and the rest can be found at either the federal prisons, or the 3,134 local jails. There are also 80 Indian country jails and 218 immigration detention centers around the U.S.

While the first federal prison was established in 1891, the first ever penitentiary opened in Philadelphia over a century before, in 1790. This penitentiary was designed to be safe and sanitary. However, it was also designed to keep prisoners in their cells for their whole sentence, and no one had any human contact. The reasoning behind this was to encourage people to reflect on their crimes and behavior without any distractions whatsoever.

In the year 1835, the first women’s prison opened in New York. It was named Mount Pleasant Female Prison. Due to the horrible treatment of its inmates, this prison did not last long and was shut down in 1865.

By the time 1930 came around, the federal prison system had been around for almost 40 years. However, this was the year that the Congress developed the Bureau of Prisons. It would assume responsibility for regulating and managing all federal prisons, which would result in providing more “progressive and humane care for federal inmates.”

In 1942, all states implemented a prison payroll system. This means that there were prisoners being released through payroll, and the number continued to increase until it hit a high of three quarters of prisoners let out early on payroll in 1977. This was a big feat in the prison system.

Medical services began operation in U.S. prisons in 1959. Their job was to help cure diseases among inmates as well as provide diagnosis of any sicknesses passing through the prisons. Another great offering the Medical Model provided was counseling services. Unfortunately, it only lasted for a little over a decade.

In 1973, mass incarceration became prevalent in the American prison systems. As a matter of fact, the rate of incarcerations increased by five times the normal amount, and it never stopped increasing. To give you a better understanding of how much it increased, the incarceration rate in 1972 was 161 out of 100,000 people and 767 out of 100,000 people in 2007.

Although the Medical Model was removed in the early 1970s, the Supreme Court declared ignoring inmates’ medical needs as a breach of the 8th Amendment in 1976. This means that prisons could be sued if they did not take care of prisoners’ medical issues.

In the mid-1980s, the Sentencing Reform Act law took effect. This law encouraged many new reforms when it came to federal sentences. Instead of focusing on rehabilitation, it allowed reviews of prison sentencing. This also led to guidelines being developed around sentencing.

When the late 1980s arrived, Congress began cracking down on drugs. In fact, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed to require any individual who was given a serious drug-trafficking offense to serve at least a five-year sentence. The strong sentences on drug offenses led to the federal prison populations increasing very quickly. The number of inmates who were being held in these prisons doubled. When the year 1999 came around, there were 136,000 prisoners in the federal prison system.

Congress went on to implement the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994. This provided almost $10 billon to prisons around the country. The focus of this money was to address sex crimes as well as hate crimes and increase rules for minimum sentencing.

In 2005, the Supreme Court decided that federal district judges no longer needed to follow the federal sentencing guidelines when providing sentences to convicted criminals. This was decided in the court case United States v. Booker.

When the year 2010 came around, the Fair Sentencing Act was passed. This raised the sentencing for crack cocaine drug offenses to 5-10 years. It was implemented to reduce unequal sentences to minorities because Latino and Black Americans were experiencing longer prison sentences for drug offenses.

The Justice Department gave out a warning in 2016 that stated any bail practices that resulted in a person staying in prison because they are in poverty goes against the 14th Amendment.

In 2018, the First Step Act bill was signed. This bill reduced minimum prison sentences when it involved nonviolent drug offenses. It also created new rehabilitative programs for inmates.