"If there's an intellectual highway, there's also an intellectual subway" (Stanley Crouch)

    The modern period in correctional history refers to the time from 1800 to the present. It includes the penitentiary movement (1829-1865), the reformatory era (1870-1910), the industrial prison model (1900-1940), a transition period from 1935 to 1960, and the population boom period (overcrowding) that started around 1980.  What carried over from the earlier historical periods was belief in the power of silence and penitence.  A penitentiary, as the term came to be known, described an institution deliberately designed to enforce penitence, prisoner anonymity, and individual manual labor (or handiwork) in a single cell (Allen et al. 2010).  The absence of speech between inmates was to help prevent cross-contamination of criminal inclinations.  Penitentiaries had many rules (silence, lockstep marches, prison stripe clothing, and disciplinary quarters), and many wardens believed that the best way to reform an inmate was to break their spirit with all sorts of degrading rituals and ceremonies.  These were "big houses" as prison architecture took off on the idea that bigger is better.  For almost all the penitentiary era (1829-1865), competition was rampant over two different models.

    The first model was called the Pennsylvania system.  It was based on the idea of "separate and silent."  The state of Pennsylvania built two big prisons, one in Philadelphia and another in Pittsburgh.  These were known as Eastern Penitentiary and Western Penitentiary, respectively.  Eastern Penitentiary was operational from 1829 to 1971, and there are some good photos and videos of it at, and the Wikipedia article on it is pretty good.  Western was a poor imitation of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon design (explained shortly), and Eastern better characterized the model as consisting of large cells that faced outside so each inmate would have a small amount of outdoor space or footage.  Inmates could exercise in their own cells, have their meals delivered, and never come in contact with another inmate.  If they wanted to plant a garden in their outdoor patio, they could.  If they wanted to engage in handicraft activities, that was their labor.  But, everyone had to do some labor (or have a hobby).  Only two states mimicked the Pennsylvania system:  New Jersey and Rhode Island.  However, the Pennsylvania system was adopted wholeheartedly by many European countries.

Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon Design

   Bentham was an English philosopher and theoretician of criminal justice, who around 1790, tried to popularize a type of prison design he called the Panopticon. None were ever built in England, but three or four got built in the United States. They were circular structures, with prisoner cells along the outside of the circle and a guard station at the center. The 24-hour surveillance was supposed to provide the perfect control over the inmate mind.  The biggest one of these roundhouses ever built was in 1925 outside of Joliet, Illinois, called Stateville. However, the most interesting one was built in 1885 in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and called the "Squirrel Cage" because all the pie-shaped cells along the outside of the circle could be mechanically rotated by a crank. The Squirrel Cage jail is also high up on the list of America's most haunted places.  Panopticon prisons are an interesting side journey in the history of corrections, but even today, you still run into people who believe in their philosophy of total control and surveillance.

    The second model was called the Auburn system.  It was based on the idea of "congregate yet silent."  It took its name from the New York State prison in Auburn, NY.  Here, the cellblocks were built so that the inmate cells faced inward into a central corridor.  The cells were designed for little more than sleep, and inmates were marched in mass, tier-by-tier, to places for eating and work.  Silence was still enforced, but group work was the emphasis.  The Auburn system was mimicked by Connecticut and at least 30 other states, mostly because it was cheaper to build and control with this model.  Certain prison industries flourished, and often Auburn-style prisons were self-sufficient with their own farms and tailor shops.  The famous Sing Sing prison is an example of the Auburn model.  The Auburn model claimed the Pennsylvania system drove inmates crazy.


    A reformatory is simply a penitentiary with a host of additional buildings; e.g., eating halls, industrial workshops, tailor shops, barber shops, gymnasiums, chapels, music halls, schools, etc.  They were designed to provide a whole bunch of facilities and services that would saturate or "irrigate" the criminal tendencies out of the inmates.  The first one was built in Elmira, NY during 1876, and its warden was Zebulon Brockway.  Reformatories were originally designed for adult felons, but quickly became imitated as the model for juvenile correctional facilities.  Elmira was mimicked by at least 17 different states up until 1913.  Academic education was combined with military discipline, but the signature characteristic was the idea of indeterminate sentence, which meant that inmates could earn early release thru hard work and good behavior.  In other words, release (or parole) came after they were "reformed," and the people who spearheaded this idea were Captain Maconochie (warden of Norfolk Island, about 800 miles off the coast of Australia) and Sir Walter Crofton of Ireland.  Sometimes, the model is referred to as the Irish model because of Crofton's influence, the Irish model referring to a grading system based on marks that could lead to parole.  It wasn't exactly the same as a diagnostic classification system, but it was a good start.  Barnes & Teeters (1959) recounted the following characteristics of a reformatory:


    During the years 1900-1940, America embraced the idea of turning prisons into factories in order to produce a profit.  Of course, only states with Auburn-style prisons participated in this movement, although Bentham's panopticon design also took hold in a few places.  The Southern states continued to rely upon the convict-lease system in which inmates were farmed out to contractors.  In the North, however, several governors quickly discovered an enormous source of revenue was possible from all the wood furniture, metal furnishings, shoes, and textile products being produced in the tradework shops, not to mention the profit potential from the sale of bumper crops at the prison farms located around or outside the institutions.  Iconic prison products included cheap cigarettes (Pyramid was a prison brand up until 1988) and, of course, those polished license plates (which are still made by inmates in many states, including California and Florida).  The American federal prison system embraced the industrial model wholeheartedly (and still does) -- see UNICOR online for the current product line.  Certain countries, like Thailand, quickly embraced the industrial model and stuck with it.

    The goals of prison industry are threefold: (1) to instill good work habits; (2) to reduce idleness; and (3) to enable repayment to society or victim(s) (ACA 1986).  Number one and two are associated with the ideas that labor has moral value and "sweat equity" promotes honor.  These ideas represented a relatively novel approach to rehabilitation -- i.e., the notion that real-world work would be the best prerelease preparation (unfortunately, many of the inmates who jumped on the industry bandwagon were lifers).  The academic thought of Illinois sociologist Daniel Glaser (1964) added tremendous weight to the rehabilitative value of this model, and the movement was helped along by a "hands-off" (corrections) policy adopted by the courts.  If anything suffered during this period, it was education.  Inmates became more interested in working factory-style than in getting an education.  It can also be noted that it was during this period when prisons added psychological counseling and therapy services.  By 1935, this so-called Medical Model co-existed quite well with the Industrial Model.  It wasn't really counseling or therapy as most people know it.  What it consisted of was primarily vocational aptitude testing and rudimentary diagnosis or classification of the kind that recommended, upon intake, the best "assignment" and/or housing unit for the offender.  Staff who did this work were called placement officers, and this author had the pleasure of working as one during the 1980s, in the position once held by prison sociologist Lloyd Ohlin (1956).  In fact, similar to the Taylorization movement in private industry, championed by Henry Ford, prison psychology up until the end of the 1950s was primarily prison sociology.

    The resistance of organized, union labor brought down the Industrial movement.  To most Americans, it didn't look good for prisons to be so industrially profitable while the Great Depression was going on.  Certain politicians made a name for themselves by opposing the model.  For example, as early as 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order prohibiting the federal government from purchasing inmate-made goods.  In 1929 Congress responded by passing the Hawes-Cooper Act which permitted states to bar the importation of prison- made goods. Implementation of the act was delayed, however, by five years to give states time to adapt to the new law.  In 1935 Congress passed another law, the Ashurst-Sumner Act, which added the weight of federal criminal law to the enforcement of state bans on the importation of prison-made goods. Impetus for this legislation came primarily from the textile industry (at that time, textiles accounted for almost one-quarter of all prison-made goods).  At the beginning of the century, about 85 percent of all inmates nationally worked in prison industries; by 1940 the figure had fallen to 44 percent.


    From 1935 to 1960, prison life became bleak. A period of riots plagued the 1950s.  Despite efforts (or maybe because of them) at incorporating "real" psychology in the form of diagnosis, classification, and treatment (the Medical Model), more and more inmates were seen an "incorrigible" and/or dangerous.  Except for the war years, prisoners were discontented.  They disliked the bleak architecture of the mighty fortresses they were confined in.  They disliked the dying out of prison industries.  They disliked the uneducated, unprofessional staff that worked at the prison.  It became apparent that political cronyism and nepotism dominated the hiring, firing, and promotional aspects of personnel administration.  This was the era in which "supermax" prisons were born, the most famous one being Alcatraz, the one championed by J. Edgar Hoover in his war on crime and dislike of academics. 

    The academic or intellectual world abandoned the field of corrections during this period.  Nobody seemed to take an interest or even care about what went on in prison.  There was public indifference, and the felt sensation of this (along with budget cutbacks) culminated in the well-known Attica riot of 1971, which (even though outside this time period) represented inmate resentment over society not caring about them.  Further, the racial makeup of the prisoner population was changing.  Prison gangs were being formed.  Nobody seemed to know what correctional ideology (if any) best reflected society's mood.


    Generally considered to have begun in 1960 (Allen et al. 2010), the true "modern era" of corrections involved prisons becoming a reflection of the turbulent times outside of prison.  In other words, for every urban riot, assassination, drug overdose, radical protest, and civil rights movement in general society, there was a mini-counterpart inside every prison.  To make matters worse, the courts (especially the Supreme Court) abandoned its "hands-off" policy and started intervening in correctional affairs.  This was an era of extensive overcrowding where keeping things under control was the main priority.  Prisoners, with their newfound rights, were actively suing prison administrations.  Several courts declared whole state systems or individual prisons unconstitutional.  The population boom can be blamed on a number of things:  crime rates were up; politicians often ran on law-and-order platforms; the war on drugs was launched; racial fear permeated the general public; and some intellectuals started advocating "conservative" get-tough policies; e.g., DiIulio (1987).  The result was rapid population expansion, across the board, in all state, local, and federal institutions.  No area of the country was spared.  New ideas were badly needed.

    Only two improvements can be noted this period.  One, prisons became more escape-proof.  Two, computerization and technology brought better monitoring and tracking of inmates and parolees.  Prisons were becoming total institutions (Goffman 1961), a term meaning almost every aspect of life is controlled by the authorities, but short of being totalitarian.  The following table illustrates the differences:

Total Institution

Totalitarian Institution

All aspects of life (work, play, sleep) are carried out under one roof. There is complete isolation from the outside world.
All activity is in groups and strictly scheduled. All activities are physically debilitating, exhausting.
All activities are planned, to suit a rational goal:
(1) to maintain inmate-staff split, social distance, prevent development of normal work ethic
(2) mortification of self; each case is an unique experiment in the self-stripping process
(3) maintain authority, evaluation anxiety, multitude of items coming up for judgment (dress, etc)
All activities are unplanned. There is uncertainty.
There is a privilege system (of house rules, small rewards, you can build a world around minor privileges, and the privileges eventually become rights). There is no privilege system.  There is only constant personal humiliation if you try.
There is an argot system (a lingo, an inmate code, secondary adjustments, a ranking of employees & inmates). They are constantly devising new forms of psychological harassment.
There are situational adaptations:
(1) withdrawal -- all at once or a progressive continuum
(2) rebellion -- it's what raises moral in a total institution
(3) colonization -- a mixture of home & institution life
(4) conversion -- taking the staff's view of self
There is torture, a pattern of deliberately-planned severly abusive treatment.

    Prisons have long been considered "schools of crime" but it was during this period when it became apparent that harsh or unfair prison experiences helped build up a reservoir of hate and resentment, not to mention a grab bag of criminal tricks, that inmates took back with them into society.  Community corrections helped a little with this, but not much.  Many inmates today go in as petty, nonviolent offenders, and come out as serious, violent offenders.  Serious, violent crime is committed by a "revolving door" of people, referred to as 7/70 theory, where 7% of offenders commit 70% of the crime (Wolfgang et. al. 1972). It's customary to state that two-thirds of all released prisoners will be back in prison within three years of their release.

    Everything in modern corrections is done on a large scale because there is an endless stream of prisoners. On average, one new jail or prison is built every week in America.  The system is quite costly.  Total expenses run about $32 billion a year, although industry proponents claim it only costs $22 billion a year.  Each prisoner costs the American taxpayer about $21,000 annually (although $35,000 a year is another commonly cited figure).  On any given day, there are about 6 million people under some form of correctional custody, which includes probation. There are about 600,000 correctional employees with a variety of job titles, and corrections is the fastest growing part of the criminal justice system.  The average pay for entry-level work is around $35,000, but an extra $15,000 is usually available by working overtime. Most of the employees work at the state-level (62%), the city or county level (34%), or the federal level (4%). The average employee is a white male from a rural background.  There are currently about 4500 correctional facilities in the U.S.; 1084 state prisons, 3304 city and county jails, and 112 federal prisons. Then, there's the additional group of one and a half million juvenile delinquency cases each year that produces about 70,000 intakes into the juvenile prison system, 40,000 of which are privatized, and the rest consisting of a variety of detention centers, halfway houses, camps, ranches, and shelters.  In addition, approximately 7 million Americans spend a night in jail every year.

    Overcrowding is a global problem. Although official numbers are hard to come by, some countries are believed to have an overcrowding problem worse than the U.S. (quite possibly Australia, Russia, Brazil, and China).  Housing more inmates in a cell than what it is designed for is common in the U.S. and anywhere else overcrowding is present.  In fact, that is the legal definition of overcrowding.  The average prison cell built today is at least 70 square feet (7x11 or 8x9), but only about 60 square feet are usable, resulting in 30 square feet per prisoner if double celled.  Some older prison and jail cells provide 40 to 56 square feet (5x8 or 7x8). Federal judges in many states have ruled since 1977 that every prisoner deserves at least 60 square feet of cell space. The fact is that cell size varies depending upon the type of facility.

The basic penitentiary pattern (as shown in the birds-eye view to the right) is also known as the radial design.   The subtype known as the Pennsylvania system placed the administration building in the center, and the Auburn (NY) system placed this building on the outer wall.  The Pennsylvania system (pictured) was based on solitary and silent confinement, with the Auburn system based on congregate work and meals with silent confinement (but inmates developed hand signals).  The administration building in the Pennsylvania system is centered.

The panopticon, or roundhouse design, was a type of modern penitentiary advocated long ago by Jeremy Bentham.  Only two were built in the world.  The guard tower is a cylindrical structure going up the middle of the inside, hence the name, panopticon, or all-seeing-eye.

The reformatory is a large structure like a penitentiary, but notice how the cell doors open inward into a mass hallway (like a hotel). This is, of course, Auburn-style, but only some cellblocks allow the cells to have windows on the back.  Reformatories became used for special populations, like juveniles and women.  If extra floors are added to the top of a reformatory or penitentiary, the design is called the big house prison design.  The original reformatories were designed for rehabilitation, and inmates learned early on how many points they could get for good behavior. 

The courtyard design is also known as a Taggert Fortress (circa 1890), named after an ex-civil war entrepreneur, Colonel Taggert, who bought up a few Army forts, and converted them into prison camps.  It tends to exist in Southern and Western states. Convicts were often leased out as laborers or on road crews, or made to exercise, drill, or become industrious. 

The campus design tried to blend in with the environment by allowing trees, rolling hills, etc., and the grounds aren't usually surrounded by a wall, but concertina razor wire instead.  The outer perimeter is patrolled by guards on foot, vehicle, and sometimes by a mini-train.  The educational center is usually the largest building on campus.

The telephone pole design, which was advocated by the federal government, is based on a long hallway with living or work quarters as add-on module units attached to the sides.  Many federal BOP prisons are based on this model.  A few states, like New Mexico, have experienced some terrible riots in them. 

The skyscraper design (circa 1980), like the one shown here, which is the Piedmont Correctional facility in North Carolina, was designed for little more than warehousing offenders, although some of the floors may contain classrooms and/or work rooms.  Exercise yards are usually located on the roof.  Most major cities (and the feds) have what are called Metro prisons of this type, and often local jails are of this type, as are many private prisons operated by corporate contractors.  

The modular design (circa 1990) is also known as a pod prison, direct supervision jail, or new generation design, and like the TV show OZ, consists of living quarters with tall ceilings, mezzanine balconies, sharp architectural angles, Plexiglas panels, and hi-tech environmental control equipment.

    Prisons are operated on the basis of care, custody, and control. Of these, control is probably the most important.  Prisoners are classified by security level (type of crime) as well as by custody level (flight risk and privileges earned by good behavior), but prisons are only classified by security level (maximum, medium, and minimum).  A maximum security prison tends to put the cellblocks near the center of the facility, and inmate movement is severely restricted.  Medium security prisons still have some restrictions on movement, and frequently require inmates to be at a certain place to stand for count.  Minimum security prisons usually allow inmates to walk around freely.  Maximum security prisons are often the main problem in terms of perpetuating an "institutional" environment with norms and values far different from those that operate in the "free world."  As observed by Crouch and Marquart (1989, p. 273):

The ghetto like atmosphere of a maximum-security prison is quite overpowering to the uninitiated. Perhaps as many as 2000 men live, eat, work, urinate, sleep, and recreate in a very limited concrete steel building. This concentration of life presents the new guard with an unfamiliar and at the very least distracting sensory experience as simultaneously he hears doors clanging, inmates talking or shouting, radios and televisions playing, and food trays banging; he smells an institutional blend of food, urine, paint, disinfectant and sweat. What he sees is a vast array of inmate personalities portrayed by evident behavior styles.

    The correctional enterprise is ultimately evaluated on how well all its activities, its treatment as well as security programs, come together and eventually allow for the replacement of correctional control with self-control.  There are no simple way to do this. Corrections is affected by laws, political appointments, judicial decisions, public sentiment, and demographics.  It has no power to restrict the flood of people that enter its doors every day. Yet it must do something, anything, to treat, rehabilitate, or reintegrate its clientele.  It is a fascinating area of study, full of challenges and frustrations, and ripe for new ideas.


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American Correctional Association. (1986). A Study of prison industry: History, components, and goals. Washington DC: US GPO.
Barnes, H. & Teeters, N. (1959). New horizons in criminology, 3e. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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Jacobs, J. (1977). Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Ohlin, L. (1956). Sociology and the field of corrections. NY: Russell Sage.
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Wolfgang, M., Figlio, R., & Sellin, T. (1972). Delinquency in a birth cohort. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Last updated: Sept. 14, 2011
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice 

O'Connor, T.  (2011). "Modern History of Corrections," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from accessed on Sept. 14, 2011.