2 minute read

Prisons: History

The "get Tough" Movement

Until 1963, the incidence of reported crime as measured by official crime statistics actually remained relatively constant. But then serious crime began to experience an upsurge. The nation's rate of incarceration also remained relatively stable until 1974, when it also began to shoot up. The total number of adults in prison custody on a census day in 1972 showed a rate of incarceration for the United States of 162 per 100,000 residents. By 1984 it had risen to about 318 per 100,000. By the end of 1995 it had skyrocketed to 600. From 1970 to 1994 the prison population of the United States doubled and redoubled. With some exceptions, most criminologists agreed there was little relationship between rates of crime and rates of imprisonment.

Studies showed that racial minorities were disproportionately affected by this rapid prison growth. A federal survey on 30 June 1994 found that nearly 7 percent of all black men nationwide were in prison or jail, compared with less than 1 percent of white men. Throughout the 1990s, most American prison inmates were serving time for drug crimes. The overwhelming majority of prison staff were white and most prisons were located in predominantly white rural areas.

By the end of the 1990s, the number of prisoners in custody approached two million, reflecting the greatest use of incarceration of any nation in the world. The enormous public costs of building and maintaining this multibillion-dollar prison complex already was exceeding that of public support for higher education in some states.

To reduce its prison costs while still resorting to high levels of incarceration, some states in the 1980s and 1990s began to turn to private, for-profit companies to build and operate their correctional institutions. Despite many of the problems associated with private prisons—some of them prevalent through imprisonment's painful past—such approaches appeared to be undergoing renewed popularity at the end of the twentieth century.

Likewise, the get-tough movement that started in the mid-1970s and escalated over the next two decades also seemed likely to continue for many years to come. Harsher mandatory prison sentences, increased use of capital punishment and life without parole, rollbacks of prison education programs and other rehabilitation efforts, as well as the increased development of maximum prisons and control units, all were on the increase. All this occurred despite the lack of public faith in prison effectiveness.

After being used for more than five hundred years, imprisonment still seemed to represent an integral but hidden part of the American experience—more than most citizens probably would like to admit.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: History - Early Jails And Workhouses, The Rise Of The Prisoner Trade, A Land Of Prisoners, Enlightenment Reforms