The Quakers built America's first prison at the end of the eighteenth century. Their motives were altruistic—they sought a humane alternative to corporal punishment and capital punishment. The Quakers' original intent was to rehabilitate inmates through hard work, Bible study, and penitence. Today, more than 200 years later, the Quakers' goal of rehabilitation has been overshadowed by what some policymakers call more realistic goals—deterrence, retribution, and incapacitation.

With almost two million inmates populating jails and prisons in the U.S. and billions of taxpayers' dollars being spent on prisons each year, corrections has become a growth industry. Government leaders, eager to respond to public fears of crime, have charted a course that experts project will result in the imprisonment of more than three million people by 2010. Strict sentencing laws and large appropriations for prison construction have forced states and localities to make tradeoffs between prisons and education or other services. Proponents of imprisonment hold the view that incarceration is responsible for declining crime rates.

Types of prisons

In the United States, prisons have traditionally been distinguished by custody level.

  • Super‐maximum‐security prisons confine the most serious escape and assault risks.

  • Maximum‐security prisons are walled fortresses that hold the most dangerous prisoners.

  • Medium‐security prisons are facilities secured by a series of fences and enclosures that hold inmates considered less dangerous and escape prone than those in maximum‐security prisons.

  • Minimum‐security prisons are institutions without walls, without armed guards, and often without perimeter fences and that hold inmates considered to be low security risks.

  • Women's prisons are separate maximum‐, medium‐, and minimum‐security prisons that hold only female inmates. During the 1990s, the proportion of women in state and federal prisons increased from 3 percent to more than 6 percent. This increase is a reflection of mandatory‐sentencing policies and tougher drug laws. A study of female inmates in 1994 found that a majority of them were serving time for drug and drug‐related charges. Men's and women's prisons differ. Men's prisons are bigger and more security‐conscious; women's prisons tend to have more fluidity in their prison population, since women tend to serve shorter sentences.

  • Coeducational prisons operate in a number of states. In these institutions, both male and female inmates eat, work, and study together. The rationale behind these prisons is to provide a more normal social environment that will facilitate the eventual reintegration of both men and women into society.

Growth in the prison population has led to the emergence of private prisons. Private corporations claim they can own and operate prisons more efficiently than public agencies can. The Corrections Corporation of America is the nation's biggest commercial operator of jails and prisons. In 1998, it owned and operated 34 prisons and jails and operated 43 other facilities that it didn't own. About 5 percent of the people incarcerated in the United States in 1998 were in commercially operated jails and prisons. Corrections Corporation has benefited from close ties to elected officials, especially those who have championed the idea of contracting out government services to corporations to save money. A 1996 report to Congress by the General Accounting Office found little evidence of savings, however, saying that one Tennessee prison run by Corrections Corporation saved only about 1 percent as compared with state‐run prisons.


A common myth is that only dangerous people are sentenced to prison. The truth is that in 1992 violent offenders composed 27.1 percent of all state prison admissions. Property offenders, such as burglars, car thieves, and arsonists, made up 34.1 percent of those sentenced to state prisons, and drug‐abuse violators made up another 30 percent. The typical prison inmate is a 30‐year‐old, uneducated male who was earning less than $10,000 a year prior to his arrest and who has a criminal history that includes previous incarceration or probation. The number of women in state and federal prisons in 1998 rose 5 percent over that in 1997. Women still account for only 6 percent of prisoners nationwide.

Exponential growth in the prison population

The number of prisoners has been growing at an extraordinary pace, up 70 percent between 1990 and 1999. The federal and state prison population stood at 129,453 in 1930. It took almost five decades to double, reaching 329,821 in 1980. Then, it took only a little over one decade to triple, nearing 900,000 in 1992. By June 1998, 1.2 million people were held in state and federal prisons. During the past 20 years, the number of persons in prison has quadrupled, and forecasters predict it will continue to grow.

The level of incarceration

The United States trails only Russia in the percentage of its citizens behind bars. The total U.S. incarceration of 668 people per 100,000 in 1998 was six times to ten times higher than that in most industrial nations. In Russia, 685 people out of every 100,000 are behind bars. A planned amnesty of 100,000 prisoners in Russia and the expectation of continued increases in the U.S. prison population means the United States will probably become the world's leader in imprisonment by early in the twenty‐first century.

Racial disparities

The incarceration rate for black men in 1996 was eight times the rate for white men. These figures unquestionably illustrate racial disparity in the nation's prisons. During the late 1990s, disparities were particularly striking for young men. About 8.3 percent of black men ages 25 to 29 were in prison, compared with 2.6 percent of Hispanic men and 0.8 percent of white men of those ages. African‐American men go to prison at a higher rate than any other racial group in the United States and are six times more likely than whites to be incarcerated. In 1998, while African‐Americans made up 12 percent of the U.S. population, they constituted over 40 percent of sentenced inmates in state and federal correctional institutions. Whites, who made up about 75 percent of the general population, accounted for just over 30 percent of the state and federal inmates.

Regional disparities

There are also sharp regional disparities in incarceration rates, with southern states having the highest rates and states in northern New England and the northern Midwest having the lowest.

The driving force in the growth of the prison population

In a 1999 study of the factors causing the prison population to expand, Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie‐Mellon University, and Allen Beck, a prison specialist at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, estimate that 40 percent of the growth is due to increases in prison admissions and 60 percent is attributable to longer prison sentences served by inmates. The researchers claim the increase in commitments to prison is because of tougher attitudes toward criminals by both prosecutors and judges. The longer time served, they say, is caused by tougher sentencing laws, longer sentences, and more reluctance by parole boards to grant early release.

An additional factor driving both increases in prison admissions and increases in the lengths of sentences is the drug war. Drug offenses are accounting for the greatest share of the increase—30 percent of the new commitments to state prisons. Then, too, drug offenders serve long terms because many of them are sentenced under get‐tough antidrug laws. Legislation requiring extremely long sentences for drug crimes is a political phenomenon of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Few politicians have been willing to challenge the “get tough on drug crime” attitudes or to look at the economic and human consequences of long sentences.

Prison overcrowding

A major consequence of the tremendous explosion in the prison population is prison overcrowding. Overcrowding became the norm in America's prisons in the 1990s. At the start of 1995, 39 states were under court orders to correct overcrowding and/or unconstitutional conditions. The federal prison system was 26 percent over its rated capacity in 1995. In many prisons, inmates are double‐bunked in small cells designed for one person. Others sleep in dormitories, tents, or trailers. Overcrowding contributes to many problems, including the spread of diseases (such as tuberculosis), prison violence, prisoner lawsuits, and the shortage of resources inside prisons.

The federal and state governments have responded to this problem by building more prisons, stretching the capacity of existing facilities, releasing some inmates early, holding some inmates in local jails, expanding probation and parole caseloads, and broadening the range of criminal sanctions beyond the traditional sentences of prison or probation.

Prison programs

Institutional programs include medical services, religious programs, education programs, recreation, prison labor and industry, work release (which involves releasing inmates to work in the community during the day and returning them to prison at night), and rehabilitation (for example, group therapy that is used to address problems of specific types of offenders, such as sex offenders and drug abusers).

In evaluating prison programs, the principle of less eligibility comes into play. The public believes inmates should never enjoy a higher standard of living behind bars than free citizens experience outside prison. Based on this principle, many citizens think inmates should be denied access to certain forms of recreation, such as weights, television, and movies. Correctional officers and prison administrators counter by arguing that such activities keep prisoners busy and out of trouble. Rehabilitation programs have aroused even more criticism than recreation programs. Results of evaluations of rehabilitation programs are mixed: some programs work for individual offenders, but, in general, there is no clear‐cut evidence that rehabilitation reduces recidivism.


Supervised release from prison before an inmate serves a full sentence is called parole. Parole officers working for parole agencies provide supervision and counseling to parolees. Another agency, a parole board, determines whether inmates should be granted parole and establishes conditions that each parolee must abide by. If a parolee violates any of these conditions or commits a new crime, the parole board can revoke parole and reincarcerate the offender.

The abolishment of parole

By 1999, 15 states and the federal government had taken the politically popular step of abolishing parole boards, a vestige of what some consider as a failed system of rehabilitation. The parole system, an invention of the nineteenth century, consists of two parts: parole boards that decide when to release prisoners and parole officers who supervise convicts after they serve time in prison. Politicians advocating the elimination of parole have witnessed disappointing results. Three states have had to reinstate parole boards after eliminating them because rising prison populations forced them to jeopardize public safety by releasing many offenders early. Court orders requiring states to alleviate prison crowding are one way prisoners are released early. Another way inmates gain early release is by accumulating extensive good‐time credits. The argument against eliminating parole boards is that, without parole, an inmate's release becomes automatic once the offender serves a portion of a sentence minus good time. Under such circumstances it is more difficult for correctional authorities to keep dangerous offenders behind bars.