The History of U.S. Prisons


2014 picture of the Old Jail in Barnstable, MA

The United States has more prisoners than any other country. American jails have the largest number of inmates per capita – 655 per 100,000 adults. The number of people that have been in prison at one time is more than 70 million, or 1 in 35.

States have been unable to keep up with the demand for prisons or the funds to build them. As a result, private companies fund prisons and run them as profitable businesses. It seems to be a good solution to the problem. However, the prison industrial complex is a controversial issue.

Nineteen states use private prisons to house their inmates, creating a “prison for profit” model. Private companies report making over $7 billion dollars per year. Detractors claim that the companies view prisons as cash cows, cutting corners and providing bad service to inmates. Prisoners released from private prisons have a higher recidivism rate than those from government-run facilities.

In the Beginning

The U.S. Constitution is based on British law. Incarceration in England was rare. Police sent criminals to workhouses with bad conditions. The government hoped that their “houses of correction” would rehabilitate the criminals. In the 1700s the practice of reform began. Philosophers believed that criminals needed to become “morally pure.” Inmates often ended up in solitary confinement to ponder the error of their ways. When the first settlers came to America, so did the British rules on punishment.

The Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colony courts built the first jail circa 1690 in Barnstable, MA. “The Old Jail” housed up to six prisoners, and was used until about 1820 when it was replaced by a stone building. In 1968, the Old Jail was moved onto the grounds of the Coast Guard Heritage Museum. In 1971, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While there were jails in America in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were no prisons. Colonists built the first prison in Philadelphia in 1790. The existing Walnut Street jail had been expanded to hold convicted criminals. The prison was established by the peace-keeping Quakers, who intended to use the prison for hard work, self-examination, and spiritual reflection. The plan was not successful. By the 1820s, prison had become the ultimate punishment. The government was able to keep criminals in horrific conditions, and to use them as slave labor.

Incarceration

Law enforcement locked up prisoners for a short time. People arrested for public drunkenness slept it off. Sheriffs told fighters to calm down. Those accused of more serious crimes were held over for trial, which usually occurred within a couple of days. Criminals were branded, shamed, or run out of town. The law used corporal punishment for more serious crimes.

Most people that came to America worked as laborers, so it didn’t make sense to lock them up for long periods of time. Additionally, the colonists could not feed and house criminals, so they were set free. The colonists did have a restriction on who could come to America from England. Those refused included rapists, burglars, witches, and murderers.

The era of the American Revolution changed things. The government installed two systems of punishment. One system locked up prisoners alone while the second system incarcerated prisoners in groups. At that time, the issue of incarceration was considered a Northern problem. Most of the prisons were in the North; the South used violence and the honor system to keep crime at bay.

Very little changed in the prison system until the 1970s. The War on Drugs began, causing an explosion in the number of prison inmates. States sorely needed funds to house prisoners and began to rely on corporations to fund the system. Prisons for profit were born.

Prison laborers provide big profit

Prison Labor

Prison labor goes back to the days of the convict lease system in the late 1880s. Prisons began to “lease out” their prisoners, making a profit from the work. Judges sent prisoners to plantations. Other common uses for labor were coal mining and building roads and railroads. However, the death rate of convicts was high.

The convict lease system died out. However, the government replaced the program with systems similar to convict labor. Chain gangs and prison farms became popular.

The 13th Amendment permits prison labor if the prisoner has been convicted.  The 13th Amendment states, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Today, privatized prisons make billions of dollars from inmates who are typically paid a few cents an hour.

Prisoners went on strike protesting forced labor. Inmates demanded that prisons pay them to work. They wanted to work under better conditions. In 2018, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak sponsored a prison strike. Inmates told prison officials that the inmates should not be excluded from the 13th amendment, claiming that such low pay equals “modern-day slavery.”