20th Century 0

20th Century American Prisons

Joseph J. Green

Northern Arizona University

Throughout the 20th century there were many reforms to the American prison system. We will take a look at some of the architecture, prisoner programs, and key developments grouped into three sections, the early, mid, and late 20th century. We will also take a focus on racial disparity and female inmates throughout these periods. As we will see, it appears that the American focus on its prison systems seems to shift over time, in an almost cyclical way with American attitudes towards crime and prisoners.

Early 20st Century

In the first third of the 20th century, the focus on penance that was started by the Quakers with the Pennsylvania prisons (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015), was starting to come to an end. Instead, there was a rise on the focus of individual treatment, educational programs, such as elementary teachers being present, vocational programs, early release programs, and indeterminate sentences (Schoenherr, 2009). All of these programs were designed to encourage prisoners be valuable members to society upon release, instead of simply giving people time to think about what they did and repent.

Prison architecture in the south, often took the form of prison camps where prisoners were contracted out to plantation owners. Penitentiaries were rather unpopular in the south, as they had a preference for local, rather than state, justice, but remained popular in the north. The north now included some “big houses” which were prisons capable of holding more than 2500 inmates (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015). In these prison systems there was a very real racial disparity, which we shall see continue. Blacks in the United states comprised of about 9% of the total American adult population, yet they made up about 31% of the total prison population (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015).

This era saw several key developments to the prison systems. There was a push for having separate prisons for adults, children, and females within the prison system (Schoenherr, 2009). This also saw to the development of the juvenile court systems (Schoenherr, 2009). However, male prisoners were seen as more valuable than the women who were put to work for domestic chores which didn’t contribute much to the prison systems, while the men worked on farms in the south, or built goods for public sale in the north (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015).

By the end of the first third of the 20th century, there was a major move to end contract prison labor (Schoenherr, 2009). It was seen as giving unfair competition to certain businesses, and eventually resulted in the north ending the contract system that led to the sale of goods to the public, but the creation of a system that the prisoners could make goods in which the states buy, such as license plates (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015). In the south the states decided to start buying up their own plantations to put the prisoners to work, as opposed to contracting them out.

Mid 20th Century

The middle of the century brought some welcome changes for prisoners. The “Hands Off Doctrine” finally came to an end (Maloney, n.d.). This doctrine meant that prisoners were essentially slaves to the state. The doctrine stopped the judicial branch from interfering with state prison programs. After it was repealed, there was a huge demand from the prison population for more rights,. Eventually, the supreme court began to grant constitutional protections to prisoners (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015).

This era saw a return to a focus on rehabilitation for prisoners (Campers, 2012). Prisons began to focus on bringing back education, vocational rehab, and the like (Campers, 2012), after focus on such things were lost for a while when the prisons became overcrowded (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015). An interest in prisoner rights was also bolstered by the civil rights movement (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015). Diagnosis was added to programs designed to help prisoners, as crime began to be seen as more of an act of sickness than willful crime (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015). However, in 1974, Robert Martinson came to the conclusion that “nothing works” when it comes to rehabilitating people. He came to the conclusion that no one treatment reduced rates of prisoners returning to the system after release (Campers, 2012). These findings ultimately lead to a loss of funding for prisoner rehabilitation programs (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015).

Prison architecture didn’t change too radically by this point. Most southern states did have at least one central penitentiary now, but most prisoners were still working on large prison plantation farms (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015). However, there was a new prison design called the “Telephone pole prison” which began to flourish (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015).

Women began to receive increased equality in prisons, such as having similar vocational and treatment programs as did the males (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015). During this time, prisons were beginning to see less foreign born Caucasians enter the prison system (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015), but had an increase of blacks,. Hispanics, and Native Americans (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015).

19th Century to Current

Next we find American returning to the theory that crimes are a choice, not a sickness, and rehabilitation falls out of favor, largely thanks to Martinson’s findings (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015). A reliance on imprisoning serious offenders became the way to protect society (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015).

In this age we find less use for work camps and focus more on putting people into central holding facilities. Bigger more secure prisons are created for federal, and some state, criminals (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015). There is a greater recognition in the differences between men and women, and treatment programs and sentencing grows to reflect this. Women are often considered to be a lower risk to the public, so it is believed that women should have a greater consideration for community-based sentences (Liberal Arts Competency, 2015). Blacks continue to be on the rise in prisons. At this time, Blacks comprised about 12% of the national population, yet more than 40% of the total prison population.

One key development of this era was the idea of retribution for victims, instead of just fines to the state or jail time, gets increased attention. This is good, but there is also an increased focus on being tougher on crime and the start of the war on drugs. Drug related crimes get increased punishment and mandatory minimum sentences are introduced, which leads to an increase of prisoners, and an increase in prisoners leads to the need for more prisons, or a revaluation on sentencing laws.


As we can see, the prison systems evolve over time. We went from contract and forced labor of the early 20th century, to having better rehabilitative programs for a while and increased rights, to the modern day when rehabilitative programs are less favorable and an increased desire to imprison more people and for longer sentences takes over.

This is quite clearly a pattern. We start with trying to save souls prior to the 20th century which evolves into trying to rehabilitate people, to an overcrowding relapse, and eventually more rights and treatment, until we find ourselves back at just throwing people in prison with no real hope and overcrowding happens once again. We are due for increased focus on rehabilitating prisoners, and we must do something about overcrowding. The solution of building more prisons doesn’t help the situation. It leads to an embarrassment for the United States as the prison population grows out of control. We do, however, see an interest in the decriminalization of drugs in the United States, particularly regarding marijuana (Governing.com, 2018). Ending the war on drugs is a clear step in the right direction to lowering our prison population. As of 2016, 47% (81,900) of federal prisoners were serving time for a drug offense, and as of 2015, 15% (197,200) of state prisoners were serving time with a drug offense being their most severe offense (Drug War Facts, 2018). That’s a lot of people being forced into the prison system due to the war on drugs, the clear path to reducing prisoners is to reduce crimes related to possession. It is clear that it is time for legal reform in order to reduce the prison population. However, it is not clear that these laws will change soon, but it is time for a general focus back onto rehabilitation of prisoners and the prevention of relapse.


Campers, S. (2012). A Failing Correctional System: State Prison Overcrowding in the United States. [online] Digitalcommons.salve.edu. Available at: https://digitalcommons.salve.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1079&context=pell_theses [Accessed 8 Apr. 2018].

Drug War Facts. (2018). Number Of People Serving Time For Drug, Violent, Property, and Other Offenses In US Prisons. [online] Available at: http://www.drugwarfacts.org/node/2645 [Accessed 8 Apr. 2018].

Governing.com. (2018). State Marijuana Laws in 2018 Map. [online] Available at: http://www.governing.com/gov-data/state-marijuana-laws-map-medical-recreational.html [Accessed 8 Apr. 2018].

Liberal Arts Competency 115 Objective 1 Lesson 1. (2015). Pearson Learning Solutions, pp.34-53.

Maloney, T. (n.d.). RIGHTS OF DETAINEES AND PRISONERS IN THE UNITED STATES. [online] Law.ufl.edu. Available at: https://www.law.ufl.edu/_pdf/academics/centers/cgr/11th_conference/Tim_Maloney_Rights_of_Detainees.pdf [Accessed 8 Apr. 2018].

Schoenherr, S. (2009). Prison Reforms in American History. [online] History.sandiego.edu. Available at: http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/soc/prison.html [Accessed 8 Apr. 2018].