Where can I Learn About the History of Corrections in America

Jo Gustafson
posted this on February 13, 2013 12:08 PM


I am looking for information regarding the newer classification of Eras in Corrections........I already have documentation about:                 
The Penitentiary Movement – 1790 to 1870
The Reformatory Movement – 1870 to early 1900’s
The “Big House” Era – Early 1900’s to 1940
The Medical Model – 1940 to 1960’s
The Contemporary Justice Model – 1960’s to present



You may not find a real consensus on this. It depends on whose ciminal justice textbook you read or who you might hear speak at a conference, etc.

You might remember the swing to a rehabilitation model "Rehabilitative Era" in the 1960's - 1970's with a lot of experimentation and innovation with treatment, programming, even facility design, etc., then a a swing back to the punishment model in the 1980s - early 1990's which was more of a lock them up model "Retributive Era". As you know, the big change the last  decade has been the emphasis on offender re-entry, application of evidence-based practices, and agency accountability. Since the Attica riots in 1971, the consistent theme has been enhancing professionalism in corrections.

Many of the following resources are from the Internet so it is difficult to get scholarly citations for them



History of Prisons in America

Ryan Baalman and Jake Cox.  Chapter 7: Prisons Today:  Change Stations or Warehouses?
Development of prisons is mainly American. About the late 18th century incarceration of criminals was much more humane than the other means used before. In the 19th century two systems of penitentiaries were made. The Pennsylvania and the Auburn system. The Pennsylvania system was formed to rehabilitate criminals through incarceration and isolation from the general public. The system was used in 1870 at the Walnut Street Jail, which was one of the first facilities for punishment in the country. This system gave inmates time to think about the crime that was committed. Under this system inmates were not allowed to speak to other inmates or guards. The Auburn system began as a way to better rehabilitate inmates. This was done by allowing prisoners to work together during the day then be segregated at night in separate cells. Over time correction facilities lifted the talking bans at night between cells. These two systems of rehabilitation systems eventually spread to other countries and in time became world-wide. The systems allowed for complete breakdown of inmates to rehabilitate them to make the right decision when they are released.

There are nine different Eras in prison history:

o    Penitentiary Era-(1790-1825) Pennsylvania and Auburn system were born. 30 state prisons built. 
o    Mass Prison Era-(1825-1876) Rehabilitation prisons flourished, 35 more prisons built.
o    Reformatory Era-(1876-1890) Allowing inmates with intermediate sentences to be Released on Parole, 20 reformatories were built. First women’s    prison built in New York.
o   Industrial Era-(1890-1935) Prison industries were created, public accounts system. Which are programs within a prison that the facility pays for the items and allows inmates to built or raise homes, animals, etc.. Then the facility either sells or donates the final product of the animal or item that the inmates had trained or built. Contract system eventually replaced the public account system, which allowed inmate labor to go to the highest bidder.
o    Punitive Era-(1935-1945) Alcatraz was built with the emphasis of strict punishment and custody in mind.
o    Treatment Era-(1945-1967) began with riots in prisons due to overcrowding. The medical model was used to treat inmate behavior as a disease.
o    Community-Based Era-(1967-1980) half-way houses and community corrections buildings were made.
o    Warehousing Era-(1980-1995) parole was abolished in several states. Incarceration turned to incapacitation. President Reagan declared “war on drugs.” Prisons became overcrowded making control difficult. 
o    Just-Deserts Era-(1995-present) Prisoners are punished fairly on the severity of the crime committed.

From Colby College (see tab 2) at


A Brief History of Alcatraz - Federal Bureau of Prisons

Federal Bureau of Prisons
Describes before the prison was built, the rock, birdman, escape attempts, and the closure of the facility. Compiled by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.


Correctional Photo Archives

Eastern Kentucky University. Special Collections and Archives. 2001
Access to the American Prison Society Photographic Archive collected by William Bain is provided at this website include:  about the collection; access the collection; access the inventory; search this site; other links; other resources; and contact information. "[R]ich in its depiction of early twentieth century prison life and conditions. . .[, this] collection covers numerous subjects such as prison living conditions, recreational activities, industries, hospital care, corporal living conditions, recreational activities, industries, hospital care, corporal living conditions, recreational activities, industries, hospital care, corporal punishment, work gangs on the farm and quarries, vocational activities, weapons confiscated prison architecture, . . . the death house. . .[and] prison officials"


Correctional Systems: Modern Penal System Eras: Chapter 4


Eastern State Penitentiary:  A Prison With a Past

Chai Woodham. 2008
Philadelphia set the stage for prison reform not only in Pennsylvania, but also the world over.


Focus on the Death Penalty:  History and Recent Developments

University of Alaska, Anchorage, Justice Center. 2001 Since death penalty statistics were first collected on a regular basis starting in 1930, this overview will focus upon the history of the death penalty in the U.S. from 1930 onward. Four sections comprise this document:  the death penalty in the U.S. -- 1930-1967, moratorium on executions, Furman invalidates most death penalty laws, new laws upheld, executions resume, Supreme Court decisions refine death penalty laws, and current status; selected U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the constitutionality and refinement of death penalty laws; recent developments and future -- U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Amnesty International, and the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC); and other historical resources for the U.S. and England. 017404


Historical Statistics on Prisoners in State and Federal Institutions, Yearend 1925-1986

Bureau of Justice Statistics The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is the United States' primary source for criminal justice statistics.  The BJS mission is to collect, analyze, publish, and disseminate information on crime, criminal offenders, victims of crime, and the operation of justice systems at all levels of government.  This publication is one of hundreds in BJS data collections.


History of American Corrections Video

American Correctional Association. 2001
Corrections has evolved into a highly technical professional field with well trained individuals. This video follows the industry from its earliest beginnings to its current form. It provides a look at the philosophies, attitudes, and events that have shaped the American prison. Product Number 784.


New York Correction History Society

Access to the following is provided at this website:  about the NYCHS; NYCHS chronicles, timeline, and museum; North Country criminal justice history; Ontario County jail histories; Rochester Penal History including the New York State (NYS) Sheriff Association information; Auburn and Osborne; history of executions in Auburn Prison; Friends of Island Academy; history of the Correctional Association of New York; "Return to Raymond Street Jail -- a Tour of Brooklyn's Bastille"; "First:  Blackwell's Island. Then:  Welfare Island. Now. . .Roosevelt Island"; "Chaplain Chapin's Cards"; DOCS Memorial Wall (In Memoriam since 1922); Liberate Artifacts; Hart Island Potter's Field; searches and researchers; the New York City Department of Correction newsletter archive; and links.


Online Video Search & Discovery Engine: History of Prison Videos


The Philosophy and History of Prisons

Joycelyn M. Pollock. Texas State University - San Marcos
Chapter 1 Objectives:  Understand the definition of punishment. Be able to articulate the retributive and utilitarian rationales for punishment. Understand the social contract and how it supports the right of society to punish. Distinguish between incapacitation and punishment. Understand the restorative justice philosophy


The Transformation of Corrections: 50 Years of Silent Revolutions

Simon Dinitz
Our topic today is the transformation of corrections.  We will focus, in particular, on the silent revolutions of the last 50 years, the decades since World War II.  The silent revolutions include first and foremost, the involvement of the courts in the correctional process and in setting of the guidelines under which corrections is now operating.  015778