In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prison History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Punishment Methods Prior to Incarceration
  • Philosophy behind the Development of Prisons
  • History of Early European Prisons
  • History of Early American Prisons
  • The Development of Modern European Prisons
  • Reform in American Prisons
  • Trends in Corrections, 1970 to the Early 21st Century
  • Revisionist Histories of Imprisonment
  • Penal Reformers
  • Race and Prison History
  • History of Women in Prison
  • Case Studies of Historical Correctional Styles

Criminology Prison History
Frank Schmalleger, Cassandra Atkin-Plunk
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0189


Prisons in the United States and Western European nations have a rich history, with the use of confinement as a form of punishment dating back to medieval times. Throughout the centuries, scholars and penal reformers have widely documented reform efforts and the shift in punishment philosophies. This shift resulted in corporal punishment methods being abandoned and replaced with incarceration. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the confinement of criminals in prisons expanded across the United States and Europe. As the use of prisons as punishment became common practice, penal innovations throughout continental Europe influenced the development of competing prison discipline systems in the United States. The opposing systems in the United States in turn promoted a change in penal practices across Europe. The state of early prison systems has been well documented, from first-hand accounts of abysmal conditions in early European prisons to historical examinations of physical prison structures. Scholars have conducted case studies of historical penal institutions as well as examined the history of women in prison, which paints a vivid picture of prisons throughout history. Historians and scholars also place great emphasis on reform efforts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where authors cite social transformations, ideological shifts, economic changes, and political events that resulted in the widespread use of incarceration that continues in the early 21st century. The 1970s is arguably the most pivotal decade in the recent history of prisons, where the United States witnessed a sweeping change in the political climate. This change resulted in a transformation of penal and sentencing policies, which ultimately resulted in mass incarceration practices in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Europe. A substantial amount of scholarly research on trends in the correctional population emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. The consequences of the unprecedented increase in incarceration have also been examined, particularly with regard to the large-scale incarceration of minorities. Overall, the numerous historical accounts of prison development and penal practices throughout time will help researchers and students alike gain a comprehensive understanding of the history of prisons in the United States and Europe.

General Overviews

Numerous works have been published that cover the history of prisons. Morris and Rothman 1995 presents what is arguably the most comprehensive historical account of the history of prisons in Western nations. Newbold 1999 constructs a short, easy-to-follow timeline based largely on the work Morris and Rothman 1995. In a classic work, Ives 1970 (originally published in 1914) provides a theoretical and historical examination of punishment methods since the Middle Ages. Blomberg and Lucken 2010 also examines punishment methods, but the authors’ historical analysis continues into the 21st century. Barnes and Teeters 1945 analyzes American and European penal systems and reform and proposes radical ideas that would impact the entire justice system. While most historical accounts of prisons examine both American and European penal systems, Harding, et al. 1985 provides a concise history of imprisonment in England and Wales only. Christianson 2002, Roberts 1997, and Roth 2006 are three excellent sources for undergraduates. In seven pages, Christianson 2002 provides readers with a general overview of the American prison system. Also focusing on American prisons, Roberts 1997 gives an illustrated historical description providing over 330 illustrations and photographs to enhance understandability. More recently, Roth 2006 presents an encyclopedic format to provide fundamental facts of penal systems from all around the world.

  • Barnes, Harry E., and Negley K. Teeters. 1945. New horizons in criminology. New York: Prentice Hall.

    Parts 4 through 7 of this comprehensive volume provide an analysis of the origins of punishment, development of American and European penal institutions, and reform of penology through the 1940s. Presents a revolutionary technique to change the face of criminology: abolish the penal system.

  • Blomberg, Thomas, and Karol Lucken. 2010. American penology: A history of control. 2d ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

    A comprehensive historical examination of American punishment practices from medieval times through the beginning of the 21st century. The work is divided into distinct eras that tell a story as the reader moves from one to the next.

  • Christianson, Scott. 2002. Prisons: History. In Encyclopedia of crime and justice. Vol. 3. Edited by Joshua Dressler, 1168–1175. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

    A succinct overview of the history of imprisonment in the United States. Examines the ideological and social movements that led the United States to become dependent on incarceration as a form of punishment. Must-read for those looking for a short overview of the major historical turning points.

  • Harding, Christopher, Bill Hines, Richard Ireland, and Philip Rawling. 1985. Imprisonment in England and Wales: A concise history. London: Croom Helm.

    A seminal contribution to the literature that provides a concise history of imprisonment in England from medieval times through the end of the 20th century. Focuses on how the British government and society shaped the role of imprisonment and penal philosophies throughout time. Examines bridewells, labor discipline, and institutions as training centers.

  • Ives, George. 1970. A history of penal methods. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith.

    Originally published 1914, this work provides a thorough historical account of punishment systems since the Middle Ages. Analyzes the theories and assumptions of criminal behavior on which laws and punishments are established. A must-read for those interested in the intersection of criminology and punishment.

  • Morris, Norval, and David J. Rothman, eds. 1995. The Oxford history of the prison: The practice of punishment in Western society. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An edited volume that provides a comprehensive account of punishment methods in both Europe and the United States from medieval times through the end of the 20th century. A must-read for those interested in how the ideals of crime and punishment over time led to the development of prisons.

  • Newbold, Greg. 1999. A chronology of correctional history. Journal of Criminal Justice Education 10:87–100.

    DOI: 10.1080/10511259900084471

    An article that succinctly breaks down the chronology of correctional history beginning in 4500 BC and ending in 1998. A great, easy-to-use reference tool for researchers and students alike.

  • Roberts, John W. 1997. Reform and retribution: An illustrated history of American prisons. Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association.

    An excellent volume that provides an illustrated historical account of prisons in the United States. With more photographs and illustrations than text, this work provides a visual account of the evolution of correctional philosophies and practices, including an examination of European influences on the American correctional system.

  • Roth, Mitchel P. 2006. Prisons and prison systems: A global encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

    An excellent comprehensive reference book that covers a multitude of topics related to prisons. Examines current and historical penal systems from all around the world, famous prisons, prisoners, and prison reformers, as well as architecture and important penal legislation. Focuses on adult male institutions.

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