Corrections: State and Federal Prisons, a History of Growth


There are two things to which a person may aspire:  To discover or to inspire.  The growth of the state and federal prison system in America is a good example of this in action. 

From the earliest concepts of Gaols to the modern prison complex, a single underlying notion has both driven and responded to the growth of this industry:  There must be a reason for punishing criminals other than simple vengeance.  As a result, the first penitentiaries, predecessors of prisons today, were built with a view to behavior modification procedures (Foster, 2006).

By taking an historic tour one can see clearly how inspired the first planners of prisons were, as well as discover what led to the sometimes rapid growth in the modern prison/corrections industry. In fact, the state and federal prison systems have changed perhaps more in the last 20 years than in the previous 100.

Early State and Federal Prisons

If one could wind back the clock to Norfolk, England, in 1875, one might get to see Sir Thomas Beever proudly announcing to the public that Wymondham Gaol is finally open.  This is near the end of the Age of Enlightenment, when the Western World began to look inward and outward.  Looking outward, Western civilization could see barbaric tribes across the far reaches of the known world, living life in the past, the way things had always been done.  Looking inward, the Western World believed itself more civilized and reformations began to touch every aspect of life, including how to deal with criminals.  Belief in the scientific method drove society to find more humane ways of dealing with the lawless, while perhaps transforming these into law-abiding, productive citizens (Foster, 2006). In other words, society began to consider something other than punishment for criminal actions.

As the Enlightenment period continued, persons such as Jeremy Bentham and Caesar Beccaria proposed theories of crime and criminal behavior. Even religious-minded persons got involved, pointing to concepts such as repentence as taught in Judeo-Christian beliefs that even the worst criminal/wrong-doer could repent and turn his/her life around to the good.

View List of State and Federal Prisons

Across the Atlantic Ocean only five years after the opening of Wymondham Gaol, the Philadelphia Society would oversee the opening of the first prison in America, the Walnut Street Jail.  Soon to follow would be Auburn Penitentiary, and as the several states began to rapidly incorporate the same operational model, called simply, the Auburn model, prisons would be built which would be largely foreign to the minds of most living today.  Around the same time, the Federal Prison system was developing.  The first Federal prison was the converted Army Fort near Leavenworth, Kansas (Foster, 2006).

The idea behind these early prisons, which were called “Penitentieries,” was to create or stir in a convict, an attitude of repentance. In fact, the very name alluded to this, thus, “PENITENTiaries.”  Put simply, the goal of early State and Federal prisons was behavior modification. Reading and study of the Bible was strongly encourage, sometimes required.  Anyong considered not fit for repentence, faced execution for their crimes, not imprisonment. Prisons were for those in which societ had at least some hope of turning to a good life.

Some today may shudder at the notion of behavior modification, especially as related to religious instruction, yet the very name we use for prisons today alludes to this notion: “Correctional” facility. Corrections carries the automatic notion of teaching so as to alter behavior, hence, engage in behavior modification. So really, little has changed…or has it?


The Rise of the State and Federal Prison Industries


Such a simple beginning for such a complex industry seems contradictory but considering how the

English: Supermax prison, Florence Colorado Es...
English: Supermax prison, Florence Colorado Español: La Penitenciaria de los Estados Unidos, Administrativa Maxima (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

growth occurred it is not.  In the late 19th Century the majority of Americans took for granted the States’ Rights aspect of the Constitution and very few questioned the sovereignty of the several states.  As a result, each state developed a prison system similar to its neighbors yet decidedly different.

The differences in state and federal prison systems have been studied, expanded upon, rejected, and even ridiculed.  In most cases, Department of Corrections’ officials eliminate what does not work while keeping what does (Foster, 2006).  One interesting study was recently published showing a possible causal link between the security level a prisoner is assigned to and the likelihood of recidivism (Gaes & Camp, 2009). This study is important because as the system developed, both state and federal prisoners are assigned to a facility according to an assessed security-level.  If the study is correct, however, this could create considerable difficulties for prison officials.  Here is how the current system functions:

  1. Both State and Federal prison systems have a first-level security risk – minimum.  In both cases, prisoners are not considered a flight risk and are given considerable latitude for movement within and without the perimeter of the facility.  In the case of state prisoners, some are trustees permitted to work outside the fences whereas others are those sentenced to half-way houses and work-release programs.
  2. Low-Security is the next level and again, both the State and Federal systems are similar.  Security is heightened, with a reduced ratio of convicts to guards; fencing is generally doubled or improved in some similar fashion.
  3. Medium-Security prisons in both cases begin to resemble secure locations:   These, house fewer prisoners per guard and the perimeter is sure to be far more secure.  Guards may be mounted along the fence and inmate movement is greatly limited.
  4. High-Security prisons are considered more traditional prisons.  These are the ones seen in movies and books with the high stone walls and guard towers with spotlights and rifles.  With a far narrower gap between the guard to inmate ration, such prisons are clearly more expensive to operate.  This helps one to understand how careful criminal justice officials need to be in assigning cases to one prison or another.  Budgets are involved.
  5. Finally, both State and Federal systems use a Maximum-security level.  In the case of both systems, lifers and death row inmates are sent to such prisons.  In the case of the Federal, an AdMax prison takes care of certain federal prisoners of special interest to the United States Government.  Infamous bomber Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to such a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, (Lloyd, 1997).

(Side note clarification: In recent years, the Federal Bureau of Prisons – BOP – has developed additional terms for certain facilities. Thus, anyone referring to the Lists of State and Federal Prisons found on this site will discover that some Federal corrections facilities are listed as “Administrative Security/Admin Security” and “Admin Medical.”  This is simply a way of identifying certain Low, Medium, and high level security correctional facilities housing prisoners with special needs or interest to the Federal Government. For instance, prisons housing Psychiatric/Criminally Insane convicts, will be in an Admin Medical facility. Certain high-profile killers, such as Terry Nichols, are held in Maximum Security level/Administrative corrections facilities better known as Admax.)


Do State and Federal Prisons Create Criminals?

The central question in the State and Federal Prison study by Gaes & Camp was, “Do State and Federal Prisons create criminals?” This is clearly an important hypothesis to study because if that is the case, then we have been doing things completely wrong for some time. Rather than helping those convicted of crimes in society to turn their lives around (positive behavior modification), we may instead be engaging in negative behavior modification.

The study asserted that the classification of an inmate to a particular security-level prison has more to do with recidivism than any of the so-called factors used to make the determination.  If this is the case, then corrections officials must reconsider the classifications now in use at state and Federal prisons.  The entire system would need a complete overhaul (Gaes & Camp, 2009; Foster, 2006). Of course, the system has overhauled itself considerably since its inception.  Whereas state systems continue to vary greatly, especially as regards community corrections services, the Federal system has only had seven directors.  With each director serving for several years, the system has developed in spite of most political whims.  Early prison growth was largely attributed to widespread unemployment in the 1930’s and until the ‘get tough on crime’ drive of the 1980’s and 1990’s growth generally followed population figures (Foster, 2006).

List of State and Federal Prisons

It is worth noting that the increase in prison populations through the 80’s and 90’s could have been more a result of administrative and legislative changes than with a real increase in crime.  With lawmakers passing the so-called ‘three-strikes’ law and increases in the number of persons returned to custody as a result of failed drug tests, the increases appear somewhat artificially created (Chavers, 2009).  Much of the legislation passed could be called knee-jerk reactions to public opinion, regardless the increases demand additional prisons be built.

The Privatization of State and Federal Prisons

Playing further into the growth and evolution of State and Federal Prisons in the United States criminal justice system is the trend in the last couple of decades to privatize the prison industry–in other words, to truly transform the prison system into a real industry, with profit motives, marketing tactics, and everything needed to ensure growth of the bottom line. With the product being prisoners, such moves can only ultimately result in an ignoring of such studies as conducted by Gaes & Camp.

Or conversely, such studies could be used to ensure a growing prison population (and growing profits, naturally). In other words, such studies can be used to transform society and state and Federal prison concepts for the better or to put more revenue in the pockets of corporate investors.

Where exactly the privatization of State and Federal Prisons will lead, one can only at this point hypothesize but it does not take a stretch of the imagination that it can only lead to even further growth of the U.S. prison industry with a similar growth in necessary taxation to support a growing state and federal prison population. Studies are already underway regarding this trend.

For anyone interested, following are the 14 current Federal private prisons alogn with their locations and ownership.

  1. Adams County CI– Natchez, MI – CCC
  2. Big Spring CI– Big Spring, Texas – GeoGroup
  3. Cibola County CI – Milan, NM – CCC
  4. Ray James CI– Folkston, GA – GeoGroup
  5. Eden CI– Eden, TX – CCC
  6. Giles W. Dalby CI– Post, TX – Mgmtt & Training Corp
  7. McRae CI– McRae, GA – CCC
  8. Moshannon Valley CI– Philipsburg, PA – GeoGroup
  9. NE Ohio Corr Ctr CI– Youngstown, OH – CCC
  10. Reeves I & II CI– Pecos, TX – GeoGroup
  11. Reeves III CI– Pecos, TX – GeoGroup
  12. Rivers CI– Winton, NC – GeoGroup
  13. Taft CI– Taft, CA – Mgmt & Training Corp
  14. Willacy County CI– Raymondville, TX – Mgmt & Training Corp


Aerial photo of federal prison medium security...
Aerial photo of federal prison medium security area. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The State and Federal prisons complex has developed haphazardly on an as-need basis.  As the public and policy-makers saw a need for more or differing prisons, the need was addressed.  It would be as if building a structure, then having generation after generation add to it as they saw fit—After many generations, the structure would look nothing like its ancestor.  The same could be said of how both the State and Federal Prisons system developed.

The prison/criminal justice system today, for better or worse, looks nothing like the system imagined or believed could be developed when it began. Although inspired by visions of repentent citizens rediscovering righteousness, the reality is far different. Still, one element remains in place–the notion that some convicts can and should be inspired to repententance (1880s – 1950s), rehabilitatation (1960s – 1980s), or Correction (1990s – today).

Call it what you want, the modern State and Federal Prisons/Criminal Justice system engages in behavior modification, for the better or for the worse. While discovery in Criminology and related fields continues, how exactly discoveries inspire change depends largely on the motives of those in charge.  Behavior modification is conducted in the criminal justice/state and federal prisons system, but to what end is a concern we should all closely examine.

Check out too

Tracking State Prison Growth in 50 States

Our Brother’s Keepers: Choosing the Best Course in American Corrections

Go Directly to Jail

How to Prepare for a Career as a Corrections Officer


  • Chavers, M. (2008, August). Growth Behind Bars. State News (Council of State Governments), 51(7), 19-22.
  • Foster, B. (2006). Corrections: The Fundamentals. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentis-Hall.
  • Gaes, G., & Camp, S. D. (2009, June). Unintended Consequences: experimental evidence for the criminogenic effect of prison security level placement on post-release recidivism. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 5(2), 139-162.
  • Lloyd, J. (1997, December 26). After bombing trials, unanswered questions. Christian Science Monitor, 90(), .

6 thoughts on “Corrections: State and Federal Prisons, a History of Growth”

  1. Dear Joe, I got to thinking about some more geeranl-ish questions I have for you. Mostly in regards to stuff that I (and other readers) might be curious about but either haven’t asked, or haven’t thought much about.What is your daily routine like? Do you ever feel like you get stuck in a rut?Do you still have your job after being transferred out and back in?What time do the lights go out? Is it dark or is there still *some light* in your cell?Do you have a window?How long can someone stay in the same cell? Is there a time limit before they are forcibly moved by the staff?If you could bring anything into jail what would you bring?What is the most useful thing you can obtain on the inside? (regardless of contraband status)Is it possible to be happy in prison? Speaking of happiness as a feeling not necessarily in regards to the situation of being a prisoner. (unless some people are indeed happy to be a prisoner?)Do people have magazines sent to them? Is there a limit to how many?Are people with names mentioned frequently during mail call targeted (out of jealousy) more than people that seldom receive mail? Have you found that to be a problem in your situation? (I assume using e-mail is less public’?)Is there a sought after service provided within prison? Like-wise is it better to have a hustle in prison to get the things you need or is it better to lay low, and just buy the stuff with money sent to you?How does the check in’ you mentioned in your previous reply work? How do people check in, is there a time limit, are there certain restrictions placed upon you if you do, is checking in considered a disciplinary act? Does it look bad to officials?Have you found that you rescind statements regarding a lot of the negative aspects you face (if any) on a day-to-day basis being an inmate when communicating with family or friends on the outside simply because you know that it would be hard on them to hear because there would be little to nothing they could actually do to help a situation that arose?Do you have an electrical outlet in your cell? Do inmates ever make anything useful that is powered by electricity?I know that there are a boatload of questions there, and some may or may not warrant an extended answer. Take your time, and answer in parts if you need to. I just wanted to send these questions to you that I thought about since reading your reply, and putting myself in an inmates shoes (as much as possible in thought) during this weekend. After reading your blog, and taking on a few of my own personal legal tigers at the moment I truly believe that at some point in my life I will help those being released from prison.A blog seems like such a frivolous thing these days with social media but I thank you so much for all your writings, and insight into a world foreign to most of us on the outside’ with the exception of whatever National Geographic or the Discovery Channel feel like makes good tv’ which is usually some crazy inmate in super max talking about daily stabbings and bad food.Thanks again,-Matt

  2. Ho boy, here we go 1. YES. It feels like I’m reliving the same day over and over again. All I do is wake up, eat. Go to the rec yard for a litlte while, go back to my cell at Recall to get counted, go eat when they unlock the doors, take a shower, blah. I’m bored just typing it.2. Yes. I regained the job I had previously when I returned from county jail.3. Yes. It’s barred though.4. If you’re in the SHU, you get moved every two weeks or so. For normal inmates on the compound, you always stay in the same cell unless you request to be moved somewhere else.5. That’s kinda hard to answer. Some people DO prefer prison to the outside world. Those guys are heavily institutionalized, and their lives/minds are pretty much toast. Those people are destined to come back if they get released. I’ve even heard of people violating probation deliberately to come back to prison. That makes me sad.6. There are magazines all over the place here. I don’t think there’s a limit.7. No.8. There are tons of hustles in prison. Some people steal from the kitchen, others make wine, some cut hair, do laundry or iron clothes, some make greeting cards. There’s lots of things you can do. Some do it just for a hobby, others do it to make a living. Everything depends on your personal situation.9. You go to the lieutenants office and say that you don’t feel safe in the general population. You are placed in the SHU, and are kept there while SIS (think of an in-house FBI) does an investigation on your case. If they come to the conclusion that you are in danger, you get transferred to another facility. If they think that you will be ok, they release you back to the compound. If you refuse to leave the SHU, that’s when you can get in trouble. You will be disciplined, and they may take privileges like phone and commissary away. See some of my posts from a year ago.10. Here, no. At the last prison, yes. We cooked with the electrical outlets since the prison didn’t provide microwaves. See my previous posts where I talk about stingers.Hope that satisfies your curiosity! (Wow, I just spent $3.00 in email credits typing all this. )

  3. Yarn, what you are saying and where you are conimg from is exactly what I needed when I was going thru all of that. Your loved one is in a state of survival right now, he’s probably thinking he is the lowest thing on earth and that he has ruined his life and everyone’s around him. I know I felt that way. You need to let him know that he is valued and that he is NOT the lowest thing on earth. He made a mistake, and if he faces up to it he will be able to heal and possibly do like Joe is doing here, help others through his experience. He needs to know that you love him and care, and that is very evident from your words on this post. You are both in for a very rough and rocky road, but it is managable, as long as he has someone who believes in him. My mother was a rock for me, I even lashed out at her several times but she never turned her back on me, never made me feel like what most of society makes a sex offender feel like. I did four years in prison, four years where I didn’t have any visits at all, and I’ve been out on probation for two and a half years and I am just now feeling like there is a life for me again, without my mother and several of my friends strong support, I would have never made it. Many of the sex offenders I was in prison with lost everything, including their family and friends. Those guys didn’t fare so well. The gremlins smell that kind of weakness. So, my advice is to just stand beside him and give him hope, don’t minimize what he did, but don’t make him think he is only a sex offender, I am sure he has many strong attributes, dwell on those. He is a person who committed a sex crime, not a sex-offender. Sex offender is society’s label, don’t give in to it. Don’t let him become the sex offender, help him be the man you know and love. I hope that helps.RonWell-loved.

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