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8.7: A Brief History of Prisons and Jails

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    The Growth of Jails in the United States

    jail (GOAL – old English spelling) is yet another concept that we have carried with us from Western Europe (England, etc…) when the United States was first forming. Spawning from the County-level establishment and management of jails in England, these have largely been run by County Sheriffs in the United States, ever since we began to have them. They have had various names, depending on their function and use, such as Bridewells, and Workhouses. Pictured below is what is commonly accepted as the first “built” structure to house individuals that have been processed through the courts, the Walnut Street Jail. Opening around 1790, this facility housed both jail inmates, and at some points in time convicted offenders.

    Walnut Street Prison Historical Marker


    Table 2-1 Jails in the United States

    This is due to a variety of reasons, to include: inclusion or exclusion of Youth Facilities, Native American Facilities, Privately Owned Facilities, and reporting structures (who reports a jail in a given year). Based on these fluctuations, it is difficult to get an exact count of jails each year. However, it appears that there are roughly 3,300 jails in the United States today.

    1. Cahalan, M. W., & Parsons, L. A. (1986). Historical corrections statistics in the United States, 1850-1984. U.S. Department of Justice.
    2. Harrison, P. M., & Beck, A. J. (2005). Prisons and jail inmates at midyear, 2005.BJS Bulletin.

    This page titled 8.7: A Brief History of Prisons and Jails is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Alison S. Burke, David Carter, Brian Fedorek, Tiffany Morey, Lore Rutz-Burri, & Shanell Sanchez (OpenOregon) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.