American and English prisons began under similar conditions, due mainly to the fact that the United States began as a British colony. In fact Britain utilized this colony, and others within the British Empire, as penal colonies for convicted criminals. Exile was offered as an alternative to the death penalty, or capital punishment. The United Kingdom abolished execution by hanging for murderers in 1965 and then abolished the punishment under all circumstances in 1998; this is where the differences between American and British prison systems begin. After the American Revolutionary War in the 1770s, a majority of states altered their criminal punishment statutes to reserve the death penalty as punishment only for first degree murder, and these amendments are still in place today. As the legal system began to move away from corporal punishment, incarceration became a more common sentence. Each country developed unique systems, and facilities to support them. Modern prison systems in the United States and Britain differ mainly in the way the security levels and categories of prisons are defined.
In the United States, jails and prisons are used to house convicted misdemeanants and felons, respectively. Jails are city or county-administrated facilities, housing inmates for less than one year, while prisons are federal or state-level institutions that house felons for a minimum of one year. Prisons can be further divided into a five-tier system that consists of a range of security levels including ‘prison camps’ (low security), medium security ‘correctional institutions,’ and the maximum security ‘penitentiaries.’ An even higher level of security, “super-maximum,” is reserved for prisoners who are labeled extremely threatening; this level consists of twenty three hours of solitary confinement a day for inmates. Prisons are categorized in a slightly similar way in England, following security classifications from A to D (maximum to minimum). English prisons within these categories are further defined as ‘open’ or ‘closed’ institutions. ‘Closed’ prisons include categories A through C and are mainly defined by a restriction of inmates from public interaction, following a system similar to American prisons. Category D prisons are usually ‘open’ institutions, which means that well-behaved inmates can be approved for limited interaction with the public, such as brief home visits. These low security prisons may feature less restrictive features such as open dorms or cottage-like housing for inmates, allowing for more independent movement around the property during the day. Because the English prisons have more levels of security, it is also more likely that an inmate will be incarcerated with others convicted of similar crimes.
American prisons are also considered to have more harsh conditions, resulting from both the prison’s staff and structure, and from other inmates. English prisons are known for having a fuller range of programs and activities and more liberties, while American prisons serve poorer food and have fewer amenities. American prisons are made much more dangerous by their social dynamics – gangs fight for control in the overcrowded facilities, and most inmates are practically required to participate in violence if they want to avoid being taken advantage of. Although there is still a large amount of violence in English prisons, American prisoners are at a much higher risk to carry out fights, murders, and full scale riots.
Most of these differences are attributed to the British Isles’ (and Europe’s) tendency toward liberalism, at least when compared to the United States. England’s efforts to use prisons as tools of rehabilitation have led them to create a somewhat more comfortable environment, while attempting to provide adequate programs to help prisoners reintegrate into society.