Prisons have existed in America before the United States was ever officially established. As European nations sought to gain a foothold in the New World, more and more convicts were drafted to serve on ships. Because they were a source of cheap or free labor, they became indispensable to the development of colonies. After just a few of these colonies had been established, vagrant children, African prisoners, and other miscellaneous convicts were shipped over, usually as slaves or indentured servants. The slave trade, as it’s known, could also be called a sort of “prisoner trade.”
Because of the large amount of prisoners arriving, there arose a need for housing and detaining them; thus, the first jails and prisons were constructed. These jails were not originally a form of punishment, nor were people sentenced to spend time in jail. They merely served as holding cells for newly arrived convicts waiting to be sold, or were used to confine the accused while awaiting their trial. Rather than being sentenced to a set time in jail, convictions led to punishments like a monetary fine, or a certain number of lashes with a whip. Some of those convicted were forced into servitude, similar to the modern “community service.” Death penalties were also somewhat common, and usually carried out at a gallows. It was only after the Revolutionary War that jail-time was used as a punishment.
In the early nineteenth century, the United States’ population was expanding rapidly. As new scientific and medical advances led to lower mortality rates, and as more and more immigrants arrived every day, urban centers began to experience the development of a criminal class. As crime rates rose, lawmakers and officials acknowledged the need for penal reform. Corporal punishments were known to be largely ineffective and many states were banning slavery, meaning convicts could no longer be sold or forced into servitude. Fines could hardly be enforced among the majority of criminals that barely had enough money to eat. Post-Revolutionary thought also looked down on most of these punishments as barbaric, which led to the creation of some of the first hard-labor camps as an alternative. Thus began a nation-wide transition, state-by-state, to incarceration as the most common form of criminal punishment. Prisoners were kept at these communal facilities and performed all types of labor, typically for the betterment of their communities. The timing was ideal, especially considering the looming Industrial Revolution.
By the mid-1800s, several new types of facilities were introduced. The penitentiary became the axis of criminal justice, and other institutions like the asylum were developed to separate those with mental illnesses. Penitentiaries provided a strict structure to adhere to, countering the chaos that the general public associated with immorality. It was also in penitentiaries that a classification system was developed. Prisons were constructed to have several wings, usually separated into three groups: the worst prisoners were kept in constant solitary confinement; the next wing contained intermediate offenders who were allowed socialization and required a medium level of security; and finally inmates who were considered to be a minimal threat, which required a lower level of security, and were given privileges denied to the other groups.
Like many ideas in America, incarceration as a punishment spread rapidly when legislators realized that prisons could turn a profit, which was earned by charging fees to visitors, and by utilizing prisoner labor to make basic goods like bricks or tools. Following the American Civil War in the 1860s, prison labor typically followed the type of work done locally: southern prisoners often worked in agriculture, while prisons in the north participated in manufacturing and industrial work. Thanks to this profitable system, prisons attempted to squeeze as much labor out of their workers as possible. Coupling this with an extreme lack of oversight for prison guards resulted in seriously poor conditions. Most prison populations all the way up through the early 1900s were made up of foreign-born inmates, less than 5% of which had completed anything past grammar school. These demographics are suspected to have created a large amount of apathy among civilian Americans, so guards and prison staff were free to carry out cruel punishments without fear of public, or even legal, repercussions. It wasn’t uncommon for guards to pour alcohol on epileptic inmates and light them on fire, in order to “be sure they weren’t faking seizures.” Inmates were also frequently the subjects of scientific experiments, and in fact early vasectomy procedures were developed within prison walls.
Over time, the public became more sensitive to these atrocities. The high rate of recidivism also convinced the legal system that their current prisons were simply ineffective. With more state and federal funding, the focus of prisons slowly transitioned from profit to rehabilitation. Prison conditions gradually improved, especially following the “Prisoners’ Rights Movement” that took place in the 1960s-1980s. Many reforms were made along the way, typically at the insistence of the prisoners themselves after they regained their right to sue, and dozens of civil rights suits attacked the prison system and its practices. Although many drastic improvements have been made, the modern American prison system is still known to suffer from corruption. Unsurprisingly, a large part of this corruption is associated with privatized prisons; prisons which are privately owned and subsidized by the government, or that utilize their prisoners to make a profit in ways eerily similar to post-Civil War prisons.