Home » American Prison System – Correctional eras

American Prison System – Correctional eras

Correctional eras in US Criminal Justice System: From the Penitentiary to the Just Deserts era


The penitentiary era marks the beginning of the US correctional system.  Since then several eras have passed and the philosophy of the correctional system has kept changing as these eras changed. It is important to have a knowledge of these eras to understand how the US correctional system has progressed. The first important era in the history of US correctional system is the penitentiary era. These prisons have been a part of the correctional system for more than 200 years. Before they came into existence, the nature of punishment was more corporal in nature. After prosecution, the criminals were humiliated, tortured or even killed. The methods of humiliation and torture used on the convicts were absolutely brutal. So, prisons must have come as a major relief for the convicts.

Initially, the prisons were not well kept as they are today and the sole reason to close the criminals was to keep them away from the social life. Things might have changed 200 years later, but earlier punishment even with prison could take the form of torture. Most cultures and societies throughout the world used to rely upon corporal punishment for correction.  In history several forms of physical torture have been used to punish criminals.  The bigger the crime, the harsher was the punishment. Flogging and mutilation were quite common. In cultures like Egypt, the tongues of the criminals would be cut or their eyes were removed for punishment. In other several cultures, the criminals would be humiliated publicly so that everyone in the society received a lesson.  Exile was another popular method of punishment for crime against the Royal family. The workhouses originated in the sixteenth century in Europe.


Penitentiary era:

In US, the prisons originated with the emergence of the penitentiary. Quakers in Pennsylvania were the first to convert the Walnut street Jail into a Penitentiary. The focus was both on deterrence and rehabilitation. In several of the contemporary prison systems, this philosophy is still being followed. The prison life in that  era was seen as an opportunity for penance and for making  amendments. The prisoners were confined in solitude in small single cells. This era lasted from 1790 to 1825.

Mass Prison era:

The era from 1825 to 1876 was known as Mass Prison era. This era adopted a more humanitarian approach by leaving the solitary confinement approach behind.   Under the Auburn system, also known as the NewYork system, the prisoners were allowed to work together during the day and again put in solitary cells at night. The silence and order associated with the penitentiary era was still preserved.

The reformatory era:

Next came, the reformatory era that lasted from 1876 to 1890. Before this era, both the Pennsylvania and Auburn systems were being used. However, as the nineteenth century approached its end, the belief that offenders and particularly the juvenile offenders could be rehabilitated emerged. This belief was also encouraged by the experiences in Ireland and Australia which released offenders early based on their good behavior.  During the 1840s, Captain Alexander Maconochie developed a system of earning credits for good behavior that prisoners could use to buy their freedom. Sir Walter Crofton further developed it by using a four stage process where the prisoners were kept under supervision before being fully released into the society. There were three main goals of the reformatory era – education, behavior and work training. These changes also led to the development of parole towards the end of the 19th century.

Industrial era:

The industrial era followed the reformatory era and lasted from 1890 to 1935.  One main reason that the reformatory era was considered a failure was because there was a lack of proper follow up and criminals would return to offending. This raised concerns related to security and discipline. It also led to an increase in costs related to the running and operation of prisons. In this era, prison labor was a method to make the prisons self-sufficient and self-sustaining. The Ashurst Summers Act of 1935 officially ended this era.

Punitive era:

Next came the punitive era which lasted from 1935 to 1945. Since the Industrial era could not be a success either, the focus had to be shifted towards stricter imprisonment. The focus of the administrators was on custody and institutional security.  With it, large maximum security prisons came into being. It resulted in increased monotony and frustration for the inmates. Escape and riots became common in this era as the environment inside the prisons became increasingly unbearable for the inmates. The prison inmates were not left with any positive option and life inside the prisons was hell for them.

Treatment era:

The punitive era was followed by the treatment era. It lasted from 1945 to 1967. The national economy had grown strong and America was leading the world. In this regard the Post World War II era proved to be a productive era that led to a reform in thinking regarding the correctional system. The belief again turned towards the reformation of the prisoners. With it emerged a new era that was grounded in medical treatment. The offender was seen as someone sick who needed treatment to return to normal life. The stigma associated with prison life was also reduced and the term inmate was replaced with resident or group member.  Various forms of therapy were used in this era to treat the inmates so they could grow mature and assume responsibility. However, again there were civil lawsuits against the use of federal funds for the purpose of psychosurgery, medical research etc that led to the closure of this era.

Community based era:

After it came the community based era that lasted from 1967 to 1980. With it a shift towards the community based correction was brought. Terms like deinstitutionalization, decarceration and diversion became a part of the correctional terminology. The underlying concept was that rehabilitation could not be made possible away from the society. The prisoners are expected to return to normal life in mainstream society. They were released temporarily into the society to meet their job responsibilities on work leave/ work release.

Warehousing era:

The warehousing era followed the community based era. Rising recidivism during the late 70s and early 80s had led to increased public disappointment. Based on it a strategy was developed that abandoned all the hopes of rehabilitation of prisoners. New sentencing schemes were also developed that made at least the minimum sentencing mandatory. This era lasted from 1980 to 1995 and the popular belief held during the era was that nothing worked to change the offenders.

Just Deserts era:

Starting from 1995, this era has continued since then. The underlying philosophy of this era is that sentencing is both a necessary and deserved consequence of irresponsible behavior. The emphasis remains on individual responsibility.

Today, there are 102 federal prisons and 1719 state prisons in US. Apart from it, there are juvenile correctional facilities and local jails and other types of prison like Indian country jails. All these prisons together hold 2.4 million inmates. A disproportionately large population of people closed inside these prisons are people of color. Apart from it the number of female and elderly inmates has also grown. Many of these prisons are infested by problems of many kinds. Particularly, the elderly and psychologically ill inmates are most vulnerable among the prisoner groups. So, many eras have passed but none of them has been able to provide an effective and permanent solution to prevent crime.