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US Prison History

  • British Criminals are no longer sent to America

    Up until 1776, it was standard procedure for British authorities to banish criminal offenders to the American colonies as a form of punishment. That practice ended after the Revolutionary War, and Australia took the place as the primary destination for British convicts.
  • Walnut Street Prison Established

    Quakers in Pennsylvania and West Jersey were among the first to advocate substituting corporal or capital punishment for imprisonment, laying the foundations of modern criminal justice. Walnut Street Prison was designed to provide a severe environment that left inmates much time for reflection, but it was also designed to be cleaner and safer than past prisons. The Walnut Street Prison was one of the forerunners of an entire school of thought on prison construction and reform.
  • Auburn State Prison Established

    Auburn State Prison established a disciplinary and administrative system based on silence, corporal punishment, and congregate labor. In architecture and routine, Auburn became the model for prisons throughout the United States.
  • 13th Amendment Ratified

    The Thirteenth Amendment made slavery illegal, but arresting criminals, sentencing them to hard labor and then leasing that labor was all perfectly legal. This marked the beginning of the convict lease system, in which prisoners in the custody of the state were leased to private enterprises. Once again, involuntary labor was big business in the South, though Northern institutions weren't above taking advantage of this lucrative opportunity either.
  • Indianna Women's Prison Established

    In the late 19th century and early 20th century, women's-only prisons and juvenile facilities began to emerge. Many of the reforms that improved quality of life for inmates, such as vocational training, educational classes, libraries and recreation, can be credited to innovations pioneered in women's prisons.
  • Federal Prison System Established

  • Harrison Narcotics Tax Act Passed

    Congress passes Harrison Narcotics Tax Act,
    restricting the sale of opiates and cocaine, launching the
    country’s “First war on drugs.”
  • Alabama Becomes Last State to Outlaw Convict Leasing

  • Zoot Suit Riots

    “Zoot Suit Riots” in LA and Detroit riots, two
    examples of racial violence that break out during and after
    WW2; this leads to calls for increased national attention to
    police brutality and misconduct. Before WW2, most criminal
    justice policy in the US was in the hands of local or state
  • Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill

    Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill begins;
    closing of mental hospitals and reduction in overall state care
    for people with serious mental illness. Jails and prisons
    eventually take up the slack.
  • High Rates of Crime

    US and most western countries experience dramatic
    increase in crime. From 1962-1972, the annual number of
    homicides more than doubles. The homicide rate among
    blacks had been several times higher than whites since at least
    the 1930’s.
  • Gideon v. Wainwright

    Supreme Court — in Gideon v. Wainwright — rules
    that indigent criminal defendants have a right to a lawyer.
    The Court says nothing about how to pay for such counsel,
    leading to a rise in fees charged to defendants. In the 1960’s,
    a number of rulings by the Warren Court expand the rights of
    incarcerated people and people being policed, at the expense
    of police power.
  • Goldwater Campaign

    Goldwater campaign uses explicitly racial language to
    discuss crime. Conservatives conflate riots, street crime, and
    political activism.
  • Office of Law Enforcement Assistance is Created

    Johnson creates Office of Law Enforcement
    Assistance, with support from left and right. OLEA provides
    funding and programs to expand and improve state and local
    criminal justice systems.
  • Johnson's "War on Crime"

    Johnson calls for “war on crime” in context of war
    on poverty and other root causes. Omnibus Crime Control
    and Safe Streets Act passes Congress, but with major
    modifications from conservatives that give most funding
    control to the states. Johnson considers a veto, but the
    assassination of Robert F. Kennedy dissuades him.
  • Nixon declares "War on Drugs"

  • Rockefeller's Drugs Laws are Toughest in Nation

    New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller enacts
    toughest drug laws in the nation, punishing possession of even
    small amounts of drugs with 15 years to life.
  • Increased Incarceration Rates

    1970's- mid 1980's: General increased incarceration for
    lower-level felonies.
  • Regan declares "War on Drugs"

    Reagan recommits to War on Drugs.
  • Corrections Corporation of America Established

    Corrections Corporation of America, the first and largest of
    contemporary private prison corporations, is founded.
  • Sentencing Reform Act Passed

    Sentencing Reform Act prescribes mandatory
    minimums and eliminates judicial discretion.
  • Regan's "Crack" Down

    Reagan administration hires staff to publicize the
    emergence of crack cocaine.
  • Public Not Extremely Concerned about Illegal Drugs

    Polls show less than 2% of the public believe illegal drugs to
    be the most important problem facing the country. LA Times reports that a national wave of crack-dealing related murders actually followed the wave of media hype
    about crack. “Scare stories about an ‘instantly addictive’ and
    violence-provoking drug served to spread crack cocaine, not
    accurately describe its use in most of America.”
  • Bush Beats Dukakis

    Polls now show a majority believe illegal drugs are a
    leading problem.
    Willie Horton ad helps George H. W. Bush defeat Michael
    Dukakis and become President. Horton was a black
    man serving a life sentence for murder in Massachusetts,
    where Dukakis was governor. Released for a weekend
    furlough, Horton did not return to prison as scheduled and
    subsequently committed assault, robbery, and rape. The ad
    blamed Dukakis.
  • Homicide Rates Down, Drug Rates Up

    National homicide rate begins steady,
    significant decline. Reported drug use begins to climb again, but remains well below 1970’s rates.
  • 3 Strikes Law

    Longer prison sentences mostly due to three-strikes and truth-in-sentencing laws.
  • Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act

    Clinton signs Violent Crime Control and Law
    Enforcement Act, the “largest crime bill in the history of the
    country,” which is sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden. The act bans incarcerated people from receiving Pell Grants for college. Additionally, it gives the DOJ the power to sue police departments for civil rights infractions. The Violence Against Women Act is part of the bill.
  • 9/11 and the War on Terror

    9/11 attacks prompt War on Terror, which increasingly
    is used as justification for intrusive policing in the name of
    homeland security and counterterrorism.
  • ICE Formed

    US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) formed.
  • SHU Exclusion Law Passed

    New York State passes SHU Exclusion Law, beginning
    process of limiting who can be placed in solitary confinement.
    George W. Bush signs Second Chance Act, which increases
    federal funding for reentry programs.
  • "Right on Crime" Founded

    Marc Levin founds “Right on Crime,” the conservative group
    promoting mass incarceration reform.
  • Public Safety "Realignment" in CA

    California institutes Public Safety “Realignment” to
    reduce state prison population, under Supreme Court order to
    reduce overcrowding. Shifts responsibility for people convicted
    of non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenses from state
    prisons to local jails and probation.
  • Snowden

    Edward Snowden reveals the extent of US phone
    surveillance. 87% of wiretaps are used in cases where “drug
    offense” is the most serious suspected crime.
  • Obama Administration

    Obama administration reverses its policy on asylum
    seekers, deciding that ICE will detain all arriving Central
    American families, even those judged to be "fleeing a “credible
    threat” who will likely be granted asylum.