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Jails and Prisons History and Development Essay

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Jails and prisons lay at the heart of the Criminal Justice System. These facilities helped forge the concept of rehabilitation. These institutions have changed over time and now reflect the modern methods of housing convicted individuals who need to be reformed or punished.

Description of jails

The clear concise difference between a jail and a prison is the time limit a convicted person is sentenced to and what offenses were committed. In a jail, prisoners are usually confined because they were convicted of a lesser or petty offense. Examples of petty offenses are driving without a license or a misdemeanor drug possession charge. Most of these offenses come with a sentence of a year or less and anyone with over a year sentence is usually sent to a prison facility (Seiter, 2011). Jails act as holding facilities where inmates rarely get time to be out of their cells, to reflect, or to engage in recreational time. Because jails are so short term the focus is on inward reflection of crime through solitude.

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Some of these restrictions are a product themselves of the lesser amount of time spent in the correctional facilities. Criminals are charged more in a jail facility with reflecting on their crime by being exposed to sheer solitude. Furthermore, jails rarely have any vocational or rehabilitation programs utilized within their walls. On the other hand, prisons have an ample amount of time to work with, rehabilitate, and reform offenders. Prisons do this with the hope that offenders can eventually be placed back into society and limit their recidivism back to crime.

History of state and federal prisons

The jail component of the American corrections system came well before the initiation of any prisons, probation, parole, or even halfway houses. The historical origins of jails or local corrections facilities in America come from England. American jails have developed and progressed so much further than that of its roots. Jails served a different purpose in England. Throughout the progression to the modern age, past mentality was altered from a place of confinement before harsh punishment could be administered to a place that rehabilitation and reflection could occur. The historical developments of jails and prisons overtime have gone from detention for purpose of public humiliation or deterrence, to an “out of sight out of mind” mentality, which segregated convicted individuals from the rest of society.

State prisons have their roots in the penitentiary reform ideals of the Age of Enlightenment. The Three Prisons Act is the first law that authorized the establishment of federal prisons. This act was an important milestone for U.S. prison reform. This most important fact is that this act laid the foundation for the federal prison system to be created. Prior to the act being passed there were few penal facilities in the United States. Before this time period and the passing of this act only one facility, the Walnut Street Jail located in Philadelphia, stood the possibility of housing a large capacity of inmates charged with federal crimes. The role of a jail is a diverse one and conducts a very difficult mission.

Few offenders skip the step of passing through a jail as they enter the correctional system. Jails hold a variety of offenders: including those arrested; those detained pending trial; those sentenced to short terms of confinement for minor crimes; those awaiting transfer to another facility; and those who are held administratively for a criminal justice agency. Some jail systems are larger than all but a few state prison systems while others are extremely small and have only four or five beds. Jails face unique issues such as dealing with unknown offenders, detoxification and medical problems, and serving the court with security and prisoner transportation. Jails are operated by local authorities and primarily hold pretrial detainees. Other jail inmates are serving time for misdemeanors, while others are held for a variety of reasons.

Comparison of security levels

The jail-prison distinction, however, is a very simplified label to attach to a very diverse set of facilities. There are in fact a myriad of confinement facilities meant to house criminals of all levels of seriousness. These facilities are broken up by government boundaries of local, state, and federal confinement facilities. The time needing to be served and the severity of the crime determine which of the facilities a convicted person might be sent. Prisons range starting from the most basic minimum security that houses the offenders that are less violent and are often for more administrative type offenses like white collar offenders or drug related crimes where no one else was affected or harmed. These types of prisons are considered more like camps, because they have a relatively low staff-to-inmate ratio, and limited or no perimeter fencing. These institutions are work-and program-oriented and many are located adjacent to larger institutions or on military bases, where inmates help serve the labor needs of the larger institution or base. The next step above the minimum security is low security institutions which have double-fenced perimeters, mostly dormitory or cubicle housing, and strong work and program components.

The staff-to-inmate ratio is increased compared to the previous stage. Medium security prisons are the next level up. They are stronger facilities with hardened perimeters that have double chain link fences and an electronic monitoring system surrounding the facility and its corridors. Confinement in the medium-security prisons is cell type but treatment programs are available to convicts to help propel them forward in their reformation. Here the ratio is reversed and the staff greatly outnumbers the inmates. The strictest of prison facilities is the high or maximum security institution. Within its walls are some of the most severe criminals who have committed some of the most heinous acts. This final type of institution is comprised of reinforced fences and walls. Prisoners are contained in solitary cells and their movements are controlled and monitored extremely closely.

Because of the severity of the crimes committed by the convicted individuals that are incarcerated in these maximum security facilities, there is an extremely high ratio of staff to inmates (Prison Types General Information, 2012). For prisons to be safe and secure there must be sufficient physical security, consistent implementation of security practices, established methods to control inmate behavior, and adequate preparation to reduce the likelihood or to respond to inmate unrest. For prison staff to provide effective rehabilitative services there must be an assessment of the needs and best practices of a programs focusing on substance abuse, mental health, religious services, education recreation, rehabilitation, and work opportunities. Fully understanding the importance of these programs and implementing them effectively is crucial for prisons to accomplish their dual mission of confinement and rehabilitation.

Factors that influence growth

The United States currently incarcerates more people of its citizens per capita than any other country in the world. If you count the amount of prisoners which currently reside in the U.S. prison system, it is approximately two million. This would mean that one out of every hundred and fifty residents are incarcerated in a U.S. prison of jail at any given time. Some of the factors that have led to the explosion of the prison population are poverty driven crime and the increased regulation of human and social behaviors (Ruddel, 2011).

In the 21st century, we are still contemplating the dilemmas of overcrowding and the best way to correct criminal’s behaviors. The world needs to constantly evolve its correctional systems to meet the concerns of its society and effectively reform criminal behavior to create less of a strain on law abiding citizens. Jails and Prisons are a tremendous and vital piece to the Criminal Justice process. These facilities have been a part of the correctional system for over 200 years. It stands to reason that while the system will change based on new technologies and ideas, the principals of reform and correction will always hold true (“U.S. Prison Populations-Trends and Implications”, 2012).


It is hoped that justice will prevail through the rehabilitation and reform of convicted individuals, and our prison system is the best way of correcting the factors that may influence a person to commit such offenses. Incarcerated individuals today should feel fortunate that the times and ideals of prison life have changed and criminals are classified and housed based on the type and severity of the crime, rather than one large melting pot of criminals. Crime will never be completely eradicated therefore the necessity for facilities to incarcerate offenders will perpetually be needed. Free will is one of the greatest inherent rights human kind has but this right makes some people commit crimes and others remain compliant with the rules and regulations of society. The fact that we have free will conclude that criminal behavior will not ever truly disappear and every attempt should be made to inform/reform and rehabilitate offenders, making them act in an appropriate manner that is socially acceptable.


Prison Types & General Information. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.bop.gov/locations/institutions/index.jsp

Ruddel, R. (2011). American Jails: A Retrospective Examination.

U.S. Prison populations-trends and implications. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/sp/1044.pdf
Mackenzie, D. L. (2001). Sentencing and Corrections in the 21st Century:Setting the Stage for the Future. College Park, Maryland: Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Seiter, R. (2011). Corrections an Introduction (3rd ed.). Upper saddle Hall, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

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