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Breathing Through Bars: A Brief History on the Prison System in America


There are a lot of debates today revolving around America's penal system, and its capital punishment laws. I could probably go on for days about what I believe, and why, and the moral and political issues surrounding crime in America...but that's not what this article is about.

True to myself on this website, I am merely going to offer you information that is as unbiased as I can give, and let you make your own determinations based on this article and hopefully other resources!

So what exactly is this article going to cover, if not the debates revolving all things criminal in the United States? Isn't that the interesting thing?

Well, I believe that in order to take a stand on a certain issue, one needs to have extensive knowledge of its history, and its beginnings. This can provide so much insight into how it has become what it is today, and can also prove to be incredibly interesting! So, this article can be considered the first step in your exploration.

It will cover the origin of the prison system in America (even slightly branching into other Western civilizations), its development throughout the centuries, as well as its current standing. There isn't AS much on the current penal system because that's where politics and points of view shade information, but I tried to give you as much objective information as I can for such a condensed article.

I hope that you enjoy it!


A Brief Overview of Origins

Prisons haven't been around as long as you may think; at least, not in the way that we define them today.

They were, however, one of the first public buildings put into place in the New World, stemming from the British's need for a "house of detention". And while this sounds like the prisons that we currently use today, they weren't exactly the same.

Early prisons were not necessarily considered "houses of punishment" (, but rather were more commonly used as temporary holding cells.

The only ones who might have been detained for longer periods of time in these facilities were political prisons, high-ranking prisoners of war, or those in debt. But during this time, even the detaining of debtors made little sense to many, as it prevented them from earning the money they would need to pay back their debts.

However, in general, most of the people that occupied these cells were common criminals who were merely awaiting their trial. Once their sentencing was decided, however, they were moved out of the prisons and usually put to death or released. Oftentimes this would be done in waves, where the currently accused would all be released for their trial at once, while those who had just been attained would move into their spots.


The Slow Creation: Origins and Inspiration

Even in the 16th century, prisons, like we know them today, were not around. The closest thing to a prison was the English workhouse, which originated under the Tudor family in the 1550s. The most well known was Bridewell, a former royal palace that was converted into a workhouse.

The Bridewell model became popular in later years, and in 1570 more started to show up around England, with Bridewell then becoming a common noun for a workhouse.

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But not all was perfect: these workhouses or prisons were badly maintained and the wardens were often negligent to prisoner's needs. It was not uncommon for people to die of typhus, malnutrition, or other such means.

On a seemingly unrelated note, Quakers were starting to campaign in the 1680s against the death penalty, and wanted to use incarceration as a more human alternative. This might seem unattached right now, but I promise it'll come back up later!


Actions Taken: Criticism on the Prison System

Before prisons were established in the states, the alternative punishment to the death penalty was banishment. A prime destination for many of these accused was the American colonies, prior to the Revolutionary War. Afterwards, Australia became a popular area. The prisons that they were sent to were considered almost worst than being put to death, however. Dying of neglect was common, and the buildings also could prove to be a fatal place to be.

Reformers started to look into these corrupted systems and take action against them. Richard Mead wrote in the 1720s that the government "take Care, that all Houses of Confinement should be kept as Airy and Clean, as is consistent with the Use, to which they are designed." Quakers also took a special interest in the healthy treatment of prisoners, which would later be reflected in our Bill of Rights.

Remember when I said workhouses would come back? Here they are!

In 1777, John Howard wrote The State of the Prisons in England and Whales, in which he touched on the ever-important idea of using prison as a main means of punishment, inspired by the workhouse model. But he was not completely on board. He criticized how the workhouses were organized, and how unhygienic they tended to be. He went into detail about the corruption and abuse of prisoners at the facilities, thus sparking an interest in reform for the people of England.

Additionally, he suggested reforms within the prison system that are still in effect today: a paid staff, outside inspection, and a proper diet along with other basic necessities that people would need.

His criticisms did not stop in England, though: in 1786, America began to examine its own prison system, and start a discussion on its flaws and potential for improvement. It is during this time that the first prison reform societies started to form.

Early Reformation and Evaluation

During this time when America was reflecting on its own treatment of prisoners in captivity, Quakers were making their moves.

The Quaker group called the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons worked in the 1780s and 90s to replace corporal punishment with the use of imprisonment to treat criminals for their wrongdoings. They suggested this be done by combining the ideas of American prisons along with those of the English workhouse, which would allow for a more permanent dwelling for the accused.

The original idea for the new American prison was that it would be the more common way of punishing a crime and that it would involve hard labor (much like workhouses did).

Their ideas did not remain in force for very long throughout the colonies, but their influence was everlasting. Even after the Revolutionary War, their new criminal codes which approached punishment more humanely rapidly spread from Philadelphia to other states.

The Enlightenment perhaps played a huge role in prison reform, as the idea that social institutions formed character came into play.

These ideas came with another justification against the death penalty: many citizens at the time "shared a new philosophical conception of human nature" ( '

These two new views on human nature and society both played into the final conclusion on humans as a whole. Now, they were no longer seen as fundamentally flawed but instead were viewed as rational beings who were heavily influenced by their environments, with the ability to reform. This proved to be HUGE in the reformation of prisons during the time, and are philosophies that are perhaps still in effect today. Creating a more productive environment with a more positive outlook altered the structure of American penitentiaries forever.

If you don't get what I'm saying, read this quote by a signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush, who outlined it all perfect in 1787:

"The design of punishment is said to be--1st, to reform the person who suffers it,--2ndly, to prevent the perpetration of crimes, by exciting terror in the minds of spectators; and,--3dly, to remove those persons from society, who have manifested, by their tempers and crimes, that they are unfit to live in it".

This same guy also called for a "house of repentance" as a primary means of punishing criminals. Sound familiar?


The Birth of the Modern Penitentiary

Oh and by the way, by modern I mean: pretty damn close to what we have now, minus a few bells and whistles. And sirens. And artillery. You get what I mean.

A lot of people were on board with abolishing the death penalty, save for the most extreme crimes. And there were a lot of theoretical solutions, but now there had to be a concrete solution. If the death penalty was reduced severely, where would all the non-dead criminals go?

The solution came from good ole' Pennsylvania, who transformed an old jail on Walnut Street into the very first penitentiary in 1789.

Now that the penitentiary was an actual thing, there were issues to be addressed, dating back to the corruption and mistreatment that plagued earlier American and British prisons. Jeremy Bentham was very clear in what he thought should be done, in order to prevent the same things from happening again: he believed that prisoners, though under a strict regime, should still be kept healthy. This was also the time where women and men were separated and sanitation was greatly improved.

In good old American fashion, this new type of institution led to new inventions and new ideas on how they should be constructed and run.

Perhaps the most revolutionary of these ideas came from that Jeremy Bentham, who not only had his ideas on organizational reform but also on architectural reform. His Penapticon Writings of 1791 outline ideas and layouts still used in the modern prison system. The author himself was considered a liberal utilitarian philosopher (woah, that's a mouthful), and believed that penitentiaries should have constant surveillance.

His solution? A centrally placed observer (have you seen Oz?) that would allow for the constant surveillance of all inmates. Cells would radiate from this central location to optimize visibility, and this model was used for the next half-century.

During this time, however, the new prison was not the only solution. They were still not common, though the idea of imprisonment as opposed to death was. The other solution? Prison hulks. Though these didn't have as much of an impact, they lasted from 1776 to 1857, when they were finally abolished for many of the same reasons early prisons were disapproved of.

So what were they? Prison hulks were basically a means of transportation for prisoners: ships were anchored in either the Thames, Portsmouth, or Plymouth. The prisoners unfortunate enough to be sent to these harbors were put to work in hard labor during the daytime hours, then chained into the ship at night. The conditions were absolutely unacceptable, with a lack of control and poor physical conditions being some of the many problems that these hulks faced. These flawed practices were what eventually lead to their demise.

Around this time, the Penitentiary Act also was put into effect in 1799. It determined that prisons should be built with one inmate per each cell and that it should operate on the idea of continuous labor carried out in silence.


Growth of the Modern Penitentiary: The 19th Century

The Penitentiary Act was the start of a series of reforms and refinements that would ensure the prison system would work effectively and humanely. Of course, there's still debate on whether this was achieved or not, but that's another argument for another article!

So shortly after the Act was put into place, the first national penitentiary was built in 1816 in Millbank, London. It held up to 860 prisoners, who were, in accordance to the Act, held in separate cells. They were allowed to associate with other prisoners during daytime hours, while also maintaining a healthy work schedule of simple tasks such as picking "coir" (tar rope) and weaving.

By the start of the 1820s, nearly all states had gotten rid of the death penalty with the exception of 1st-degree murder or other similarly severe crimes.

With this diminishing of the presence of the death penalty came the development of more prisons, and thus development of two ideas about the prison system and how it should be modeled:

The Separate/Solitary System

This system was implemented by Pennsylvania and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. it encouraged isolation, as its name implies. Prisoners were of course kept in separate cells, with the added intent of keeping them in those cells as much as possible for maximum solitude. This meant that prisoners had to eat, sleep, and work in total isolation during their incarceration.

The Silent/Congregate System

This system was used by New York in the Auburn and Sing Sing Penitentiaries. Like the separate/solitary prisons, inmates were kept in separate cells. However, unlike the other model, they were allowed to eat meals and work with other prisoners. The catch? They had to do it in total silence, something that was rigidly enforced by the guards.

Both systems have their merits and had their followers. While they may seem to differ severely, they did have similarities. They both sought to rehabilitate their inmates, and to varying degrees, they both had a focus on isolation, the use of labor, and the importance of surveillance.

The Silent/Congregate system used in New York eventually became the most popular, however, because it was generally cheaper. This allowed more wide-ranged use among other prisons around the country.

Europe was keeping an eye on the US during this time, and became interested in the prisons that were starting to pop up around the states. The Pentonville Prison, built in 1842, is a perfect example of how they implemented models born in the US.

The Prison held only 520 prisoners in separate cells and implemented the panopticon system by having 4 separate wings of the prison radiate from a single point from which all cells could be easily watched and monitored.

The cells themselves were 13 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 9 feet high, with the inclusion of a solitary confinement unit. The architectural and organizational model that this prison used inspired over 50 more prisons to use this template in the next 6 years.

Even though American prisons served as models for Europe, they were not perfect: in 1867, prison reformers Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight wrote a Report on the Prisons and Reformatories in the United States and Canada, which pointed out administrative corruption as well as prison abuse.

This document perhaps, in part, inspired the forming of the Prison Commission in 1877, which allowed local prisons to be controlled centrally. This period of time also saw a change in the way the effectiveness of penitentiaries was viewed: while the past focused primarily on reform, the new goal seemed to revolve around preventing offending and reoffending.

But fear not! Reform was not lost, and this change was not a permanent one! The Prison Act of 1898 brought back the importance of reform and emphasized it as the main role of prison regimes. This act has a penal-welfare context that is still alive and well in today's prison policy. The separate system of one prisoner per cell was also diluted, as well as the eventual abolition of hard labor. But just hard labor; not labor in general. The Act established a new idea of productivity for the prisoners that would encourage a possible livelihood after release.

The end of the 19th century saw the implementation of juvenile correction: people began to believe that youths should have their own prison establishments separate from those of adults.


The Prison Develops More: the 20th Century

The very beginning of the 20th century saw the birth of the Prevention of Crime Act of 1908 (see, I told you, the very beginning!). This introduced the borstal system, which revolved around hard physical work, technical and educational instruction as well as a strong moral atmosphere for incarcerated youths. They used the system to ensure that a young prisoner would have to work through a series of grades, based on privileges, until their eventual release.

Borstal System

A Borstal System is an "English reformatory system designed for youths between 16 and 21, named after an old convict prison at Borstal, Kent" (

New models for prisons were also popping up during this time: in 1930, the first open prison was built at New Hall Camp near Wakefield. The ideals behind this system might best be summarized by prison reformer Sir Alex Paterson, who said that "you cannot train a man for freedom under conditions of captivity".

Open Prison

This is "a penal establishment in which the prisoners are trusted to serve their sentences and so do not need to be locked up, thus extending the range of work and occupation they can safely undertake" (

Now, the 20th century is incredibly recent. So there are still debates going on about it, but one of the theories about changes in crime and prison reform/systems revolves around "Great Experiments", thought up by Marc Mauer and defined in his book The Race to Incarcerate from 1999. The "First Great Experiment" was the creation of the penitentiary system. The "Second Great Experiment", which we'll focus on now, refers to the mid-20th century. It basically postulates that the incarceration rate is highest at periods of economic stagnation where unemployment rates are higher than normal.

This can be exemplified by the Great Depression, which had the highest incarceration rates in history thus far. In 1939, federal and state prisons peaked at 137 per 100,000 (this means that 137 people were imprisoned per every 100,000 in total population). After this period, however, those rates rapidly dropped with the beginning of World War II.

So why did they drop when wartime came around? Does that make sense?

Why yes, yes it does! Many believe that rates decline during times of war because so many men and women are entering the military, and more jobs are created back on the homefront.

In any case, unemployment and imprisonment went up after this war, too (because soldiers were coming home and needed more jobs, and no new ones were necessarily being created like they are during wartime). Lucky for us, however, the rate did not continue to increase and instead remained relatively consistent in the following years. It wasn't until the 70s that they started to rise again, but we'll talk about that in a few paragraphs.

1948 was the year of the Criminal Justice Act, which "abolished penal servitude, hard labor, and flogging" ( While there had previously been regulatory laws and acts put into place, this one offered up a more comprehensive system for punishing and treating the incarcerated. While prisons were still the main form of punishment, other possibilities such as remand or detention centers as well as borstal institutions also became widely used.

The next major incident regarding the penal system didn't really happen until the 1960s when dissent and rebellion began to rise. There was a lot of agitation around this time, revolving around various issues including the Jim Crow system in the South, the Vietnam war, and patriarchal institutions.

Racial tensions were also paramount, as represented by Nixon's Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman who said that "[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to". This level of unrest resulted in a call for "law and order".

"Law and order" legislation thus gained ground during the Nixon administration and would see a second rising when the "war on crime" and "war on drugs" became prevalent in the Reagan administration. But for now, it came in the form of the 1968 Law Enforcement Assistance Administration which launched under the Johnson administration. As a part of the Safe Streets Act, it "provided federal support for a professionalization and militarization of law enforcement agencies nationwide" (

The 1970s

Well, okay, really we're talking about the 70s, 80s, and 90s. And while we're on the subject (which we will be for a while), this was a time in which the object of penitentiaries was not rehabilitation, but was instead to "deter and incapacitate criminals" ( by way of more severe punishments. This primarily included longer sentences, which in theory would bring down crime rates. Interestingly, this move was made without any solid proof that crime rates would actually be reduced at all.

This was also the birth of the "war on drugs" movement, which incidentally created new categories of criminals. Unfortunately, these new "crimes" fell mostly on those who were poor, or of a minority group.

On top of all of this, crime climbed rapidly again during the 70s because of economic stagnation yet again.

So here we go again to the "Second Great Experiment": Mauer believed that this experiment, in addition to what I previously mentioned about it, wanted to see if a massive use of imprisonment would actually control crime effectively. This lead to the idea that putting prisoners behind bars longer would incapacitate criminals, thus reducing the crime rate.

The birth of the mandatory minimum sentence of 1973 arose from these ideas and began with the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Another chief idea behind this sentencing minimum was the criticism of indeterminate sentencing. This meant the early parole possibility for criminals who worked towards rehabilitation. So once again, rehabilitation is not the primary goal.

This is best represented by Conservative Harvard Professor James Q. Wilson's Thinking About Crime, which essentially states that the correctional system needs to have the primary goal of isolation and punishment, since "society really does not know how to do anything else". He believed that this method would, at the very least, keep criminals off the street by deterring and incapacitating them and their potential followers. At this point, rehabilitation is not only not ideal but is also now considered an impossible goal.

The 1980s

The Reagan years in the 80s saw the increase of incarceration rates pass those of the Great Depression. Economic stagnation was, of course, the cause of this increase. And this was not the only thing to rise: in 1985, state prisons served a sentence average of 31 months, a number that increased 39% to 43 months by 1995; just ten years later. This length increase is the primary reason for higher incarceration rates in the United States today.

The 1990s

The "Getting Tough on Crime" legislation saw a major boost during this period. From 1982 to 1996, the criminal justice expenditures grew from just $234/month to almost double at $454/month. Additionally, this cost was incalculable to the population in terms of health, education, and welfare.

1970-1999 saw a 500% increase in federal and state imprisonment, and the last quarter of the 20th century saw a dramatic increase in prison building, which doubled capacity. Unfortunately, overcrowding also became an issue.

The 1990s were when private prisons started to develop: they were designed, financed, built, and run by private companies. Supporters believe that this would lead to cheaper and more innovative prisons, but those opposed are not so ready to jump on the bandwagon as they believe that this privatization is flawed not only in principle but also in practice.

In 1993, the Prison Service became a part of the government. This allowed the agency to have greater autonomy in operational matters, though the government continued to have an overall policy direction.

1993 also saw the creation of the "Three-strikes-and-you're-out law", which started in Washington state but spread throughout the nation and eventually to the federal government. It applied to violent crimes, burglaries, and drug offenses.

In 1999, the rate of incarceration skyrocketed, reaching 476 per 100,000. This was 3.5x that of the Great Depression, and between the years of 1999-2000, the number of inmates rose 9%.

The debates surrounding privately owned prisons, overcrowding, prison reform, and prison administration are still flaring today.

But we're not getting into that! Remember?


Types of Prisons and Inside Prisons Today

Thanks to for these overviews!

Maximum Security

These prisons are generally the most famous (or infamous!). They include prisons like Attica, Sing Sing, Joliet, Leavenworth, Alcatraz, and San Quentin. They all have walled fortresses, and house the most serious, aggressive and dangerous criminals of the system. They have secure custody and control, with strict guidelines.


These are more recently realized and are a new innovation in high-security prison facilities. They are also known by the names of secured, special housing, maximum control security, and maxi maxi. They are highly restrictive with high custody, and isolate inmates from the general population.

Medium Security

These prisons have the same basic pattern of the maximum-security prison but are obviously less intense. They don't have as much emphasis on internal fortification, and their perimeters are marked by fences and enclosures instead of walls, with fewer guard towers for security.

Additionally, shared living and dorm-style housing are common in these facilities, with their population being far less dangerous or escape-prone. However, for those pesky inmates that don't follow rules well, there is usually a maximum-security wing for inmates that might be dangerous to others or guards.

Minimum Security

These don't have any armed guards and walls. They even sometimes lack perimeter fencing, considering the fact that their residents are considered low security risks.

Often, these inmates are not very violent, have short sentences, and are white-collar criminals. Like medium security, dorm-style living is encouraged, as well as education. A great model for these prisons is Vienna, which is a cottage plan system.

The prison buildings themselves revolve around a town square and have everything from churches to schools to libraries to shops. Each path leads to a neighborhood where homes are given to provide prisoners with private rooms. It's known for its great recreational program and educational resources.

Open Institutions

Much like the Vienna prison, these are prisons without walls. They include correctional camps, farms, and ranches. They serve the purpose of relieving overcrowding, and aren't as costly to uphold. Various types of prisoners are easily separated, with Sutherland's theory of Differential Association at work.

This theory is summarized as keeping the bad away from the incredibly bad. The technical definition is: "differential association theory explains why any individual forwards toward deviant behavior. His assertion is most useful when explaining peer influences among deviant youths or special mechanism of becoming certain criminal" ( This theory also allows for more freedom of movement for inmates involved.

Now, here's a look at the inside of a prison. A very, very general inspection.

Correctional Organizations and Administration

Prison administrations usually implement a correctional system with a subdivision of a larger state department. The Commissioner is the top person, working under the governor. The next on the tier is the warden, who is the top administrator at the prison itself, but who is appointed by the commissioner.

The prison personnel include any staff working at the facility, ranging from nurses to doctors, secretaries, teachers, and the prison guards.

The institutional routines have classifications that define the process "by which the educational, vocational, treatment, and custodial needs of the offender are determined".

Prison labor and industry allows inmates to earn wages during their sentence, as well as develop regular work habits and gain vocational skills. It also serves to relieve the boredom that comes with restrictive confinement.

In 1830, Connecticut set up a series of rules that dictated prison discipline:

  • Every convict shall be industrious, submissive, and obedient and shall labor diligently and in silence
  • No convict shall secret, hide, or carry about his person any instrument or thing
  • No convict shall write or receive a letter to or from any person whatsoever, nor have intercourse with persons within the prison, except by leave of the warden
  • No convict shall burn, waste, injure, or destroy any raw materials or article of public property, nor deface or injure the prison building
  • Convicts shall always conduct themselves toward officers with deference and respect
  • No convict shall converse with another prisoner, or leave his work without the permission of an officer

These are some "official" rules. But inmates have their own code of conduct, which is far different.

  • Don't interfere with the interests of other inmates; don't rat them out
  • Keep out of quarrels or feuds with fellow inmates
  • Don't weaken--withstand frustration or threat without complaint
  • Don't give respect or prestige to the custodians or to the world for which they stand

Prisoners often undergo "prisonization", which is defined by "the socializing process by which the inmate learns the rules and regulations of the institution and the informal rules, values, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary". The idea originated with Donald Clemmer, who was a staff sociologist at Menard Penitentiary on Chest, IL in the 1930s. He believed that the process of prisonization would lead to a process of criminalization.

Women in prison are a whole different story, in a lot of ways. Women's institutions are less rare than men's institutions, and are not in all states. In fact, some jurisdictions have to contract out to ones that do have them. The prisons that are women-centered revolve around the ideology of "women's work".

So what about the children? The Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York allows infants to stay with their incarcerated mother for 18 months. In the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, inmates see children based on a rewards system: if they exhibit good behavior, they can visit their children between the ages of 12 months to 9 years for up to 5 days to a month at a time.

Socially, female offenders are generally less aggressive and violent. They divide themselves into smaller societies.

  • Squares are those who are having their first experience with custodial life. Often, these are middle-class check forgers or embezzlers.
  • Professionals are generally career criminals. They view incarceration as a hazard to their life, and they try to take advantage of the amenities of the institution. They generally don't want to risk their chance at early parole.
  • The repeat offenders have a lot of experience with the system. These are generally prostitutes and chronic drug users.
  • The Custodial Staff have the same attributes as in men's prisons.

Do correctional facilities work? We're still trying to figure out what prisoners should be expected to do, as well as what to do with the incarcerated.

The Martinson report was a project carried out at the New York Office of Crime Control Planning by researches, and analyzed previous correctional research that had been published between the years of 1945 and 1967. Their conclusion? Nothing works.

And they weren't the only ones: there were similar experiments in England and at City University, New York. They also determined that nothing actually made any sort of difference. Cheery, eh?

So why doesn't it work?

  • Many of the institutions that are being used are old and antiquated
  • Maximum security prisons are generally overcrowded or too large
  • Prison cells and medium-security dorms are not good enough to be inhabited, even by criminals
  • There are a lot of issues with correctional facilities being understaffed, with the staff themselves not being well trained
  • Rules revolving around the separation of inmates are not completely enforced
  • Because inmate employment is so common, a lot of prisoners are given assignment known as "idle company"
  • The discipline of institutions are generally too rigid
  • Prison life is considered monotonous and oppressive
  • Parole policies are not perfect: sometimes they are considered unfair or even inefficient
  • There is a lack of universality in comprehensive classification and program strategies
  • Prizonization and criminalization process are apparent in many correctional institutions. These prevent inmates from achieving motivation for any sort of treatment they might need.
  • Treatment programs that actually work are unavailable for most inmates

Some Facts About Prisons From the NY Times

  • The number of inmates in state and federal prisons went down by 1.7%. It went from 1,598,783 in 2011 to 1,571,013 in 2012. Half of that decline was from California, whose decrease was due to a Supreme Court ruling that aimed to relieve overcrowding. Other states that had substantial decreases include NY, FL, VA, and NC. These states had a decrease of over 1000 inmates, and more than half of all states had at least some noticeable drop in prisoners.
  • Because of tighter state budgets, as well as rapidly decreasing crime rates, laws regarding sentencing and the public's opinion changed drastically. This has resulted in reversing the trend of overcrowding.
  • Recession has played a huge role in the lessening populations in prisons nationwide. In 2011 and 2012, 17 states closed/were thinking about closing prison for budgetary reasons, which meant a reduction of 28,525 beds.
  • Most of the states that have drops are those that are trying to think about applying research-based alternatives that not only work better but also cost less.
  • Another attempt to prevent overcrowding comes in the corm of changes in state and federal sentencing laws for offenses such as drug offenses. Drugs have played a major role in the changes, and a lot of states are trying to set up programs for offenders that serve as an alternative to incarceration. This results, also, in states softening policies regarding parole, with the automatic punishment for violation no longer being re-sentencing.
  • There is a major change in public attitude that contributes to the decline in prison inmates. As crime rates have dropped over the last 20 years, so had the public's fears about criminals. Additionally, it is no longer a center point in the campaigns of politicians. Professor Frost, co-author of The Punishment Imperative, says that "people don't care so much about crime, it's less of a political focus".
  • Parole violators are treated differently now, as well. Marc Levin, who is a senior policy advisor for Right on Crime explained the conservative's position on parole violators as once being "Trail 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em", with current interests now being "Yes, there's a surveillance function, but we also want them to succeed".
  • In Texas, prisons were able to reduce their number of inmates by 5,000 in 2012. This happened because of a lack of 17,000 beds for inmates, which lead the State Legislature to change its approach to parole violations as well as provide drug treatment for offenders with a nonviolent history.
  • In Arkansas, prison population was reduced by 1,400 inmates in 2012. In 2011, Legislators passed a series of laws which aimed to soften sentencing for lower-level offenders, steering them more and more towards diversion programs.
  • In conclusion: Joan Petarsilia, who is a law professor at Stanford and the co-direct of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center wraps up this list perfectly. She says that Americans have "gotten the message that locking up a lot of people doesn't necessarily bring public safety"

So What Does It All Mean?

It means a lot, and the information can be interpreted in several different ways. Whether you're for or against how our prison systems run today, now you know its history and the current facts. Now you know how they have become what they are and why. And why even though they aren't perfect, they're much better than the alternative "put everyone to death" principle.

And on top of all that, you know have some sources to dive into if you want to know more (these are going to be listed in the next capsule)!

The inner politics of prisons and their infrastructures are difficult to know about on a vast level; there's always something that's hidden. But what we do know is that there's always room for improvement. There's always a way to make the prison system better, to tweak it and change it, to make it more humane, to make it less overcrowded. But these are all things that are happening.

So I hope that you've enjoyed this article and learned a little bit and maybe had an interest piqued! Till next time!


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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