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1971 Attica Prison Riot, Prison Life, New Hampshire State Prison, Prisoners' Rights, Further Readings

A public building used for the confinement of people convicted of serious crimes.

Prison is a place used for confinement of convicted criminals. Aside from the death penalty, a sentence to prison is the harshest punishment imposed on criminals in the United States. On the federal level, imprisonment or incarceration is managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a federal agency within the DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE. State prisons are supervised by a state agency such as a department of corrections.

Confinement in prison, also known as a penitentiary or correctional facility, is the punishment that courts most commonly impose for serious crimes, such as felonies. For lesser crimes, courts usually impose short-term incarceration in a jail, detention center, or similar facility.

Confining criminals for long periods of time as the primary form of punishment is a relatively new concept. Throughout history, various countries have imprisoned criminal offenders, but imprisonment was usually reserved for pre-trial detention or punishment of petty criminals with a short term of confinement.

Using long-term imprisonment as the primary punishment for convicted criminals began in the United States. In the late eighteenth century, the nonviolent Quakers in Pennsylvania proposed long-term confinement as an alternative to CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. The Quakers stressed solitude, silence, rehabilitation, hard work, and religious faith. Confinement was originally intended not only as a punishment but as an opportunity for renewal through religion.

In 1790, the WALNUT STREET JAIL in Philadelphia constructed a separate cell house for the sole purpose of holding convicts. This was the first prison in the United States. The concept of long-term imprisonment became popular as the U.S. public embraced the concept of removing offenders from society and punishing them with confinement and hard labor. Before the existence of prisons, most offenders were subjected to CORPORAL PUNISHMENT or public humiliation and then released back into the community. In the nineteenth century, as the United States became more urban and industrial, poverty became widespread, and crime increased. As crime increased, the public became intolerant of even the most petty crimes and viewed imprisonment as the best method for stopping repeated criminal activity.

The early nineteenth century was filled with fierce debates about how a prison should be run. There emerged two competing ideas: the Auburn System and the Eastern Penitentiary System. The Auburn System took its name from the Auburn, New York, prison, which opened in 1819. At first, the prison placed all its worst offenders in solitary confinement, but this arrangement led to nervous breakdowns and suicides. The system was modified so that inmates slept in separate cells but worked and ate together. However, the inmates were forced to remain silent. Administrators believed this code of silence would prevent prisoners from picking up bad attitudes and would promote their rehabilitation.

The Eastern Penitentiary System at Cherry Hill, Pennsylvania, opened its gates in 1829. The prison building was designed in the form of a central hub with spokes radiating from this administrative center. Small cells lined each spoke and prisoners had their own exercise space. Unlike the Auburn System, this system promoted extreme isolation. Not surprisingly, many inmates committed suicide. In time, the Auburn System prevailed, as state legislatures saw advantages in congregate living. The Auburn System encouraged prison industries to help make prisons self-supporting.

By the mid-nineteenth century, prisons existed throughout the United States. Prisoners were kept in unsanitary environments, forced to work at hard labor, and brutalized by guards. These conditions continued until the 1950s and 1960s, when heightened social and political discourse led to a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation. The closing of one particular prison symbolized the change in correctional philosophy. Alcatraz Prison, located on an island off San Francisco, was used exclusively to place in solitary confinement convicts classified as either violent or disruptive. Rehabilitation was non-existent in Alcatraz. The prison was filthy and rat-infested, and prisoners were held in dungeon-like cells, often chained to stone walls. Established in 1934, Alcatraz was closed in 1963, in part because its brutal treatment of prisoners symbolized an outdated penal philosophy.

By the mid-1960s, the stated purpose of many prisons was to educate prisoners and prepare them for life after prison. Many federal and state courts ordered administrators to improve the conditions inside their prisons, and the quality of life for inmates greatly improved.

By the 1980s, most prison administrators abandoned rehabilitation as a goal. Forced by an increasing problem with overcrowding and the resulting increase in violence, administrators returned to punishment and security as the primary purposes of prison. Though most prisons continue to operate educational and other rehabilitative programs, the rights of prison inmates have been frozen at the minimal number recognized by courts in the 1960s and 1970s. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against prison guard violence, but courts have generally refused to expand the rights of prison inmates. In most cases, courts have approved increased infringement of inmates' rights if prison officials declare that the restrictions are for security purposes.

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