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The History of Corrections in America

Brief History of the Federal Prison System

The United States government established the prison system in 1891. The Three Prison Act established funding for Leavenworth, McNeil Island and UPS Atlanta. It appears the first Federal prison was Leavenworth in Kansas. It started housing prisoners in 1906; however, prior to it opening federal prisoners were held at Fort Leavenworth military prison. Prisoners were used to build the facility.

Before the U.S. government passed the Three Prison Act, federal prisoners were held in state prisons. Today the Federal Bureau of Prisons houses inmates convicted of federal crimes. As of today the total number of inmates held in BOP operated facilities is 183,820 in 122 institutions, 27 residential reentry management offices and 11 privately managed facilities.

BOP Timeline

  • 1891 - Federal Prison System Established
  • Congress passes the "Three Prisons Act," which established the Federal Prison System (FPS). The first three prisons – USP Leavenworth,USP Atlanta, and USP McNeil Island – are operated with limited oversight by the Department of Justice.

BOP History

  • Pursuant to Pub. L. No. 71-218, 46 Stat. 325 (1930), the Bureau of Prisons was established within the Department of Justice and charged with the "management and regulation of all Federal penal and correctional institutions." This responsibility covered the administration of the 11 Federal prisons in operation at the time.
  • USP Leavenworth was one of three first generation federal prisons which were built in the early 1900s. Prior to its construction, federal prisoners were held at state prisons. In 1895, Congress authorized the construction of the federal prison system.[5] From an article at this link: Leavenworth
  • The other two were Atlanta and McNeil Island (although McNeil dates to the 1870s the major expansion did not occur until the early 1900s)
  • 1896 June 10: the Congress authorized a new federal penitentiary.
  • 1897 March: Warden French marched prisoners every morning two and one-half miles (4 km) from Ft. Leavenworth to the new site of the federal penitentiary. Work went on for two and one-half decades.
  • 1906 February 1: All prisoners had been transferred to the new facility, and the War Department appreciatively accepted the return of its prison.
    This medium-security prison for men opened in 1902 after President William McKinley signed off on the construction of a new federal prison in Atlanta. Along with USP Leavenworth and McNeil Island, it is one of the oldest federal prisons in the United States. From United States Penitentiary, Atlanta

Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America

Nellis, Ashley, and Jean Chung. The Sentencing Project, 2013
“This analysis documents long-term trends in the use of life imprisonment as well as providing empirical details for the offenses that comprise the life-sentenced population” (p. 1). An appendix provides a graph for each state showing their trends in the use of life sentences.
Document ID: 027635

1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary Prison Riot

BBC (London, England), 2009
This video documentary covers the February 2 and 3, 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary. During this riot, the worst in the history of corrections in the United States, 33 inmates were killed with over 200 injured, and seven of the 12 officers taken hostage hurt.
Document ID: 026908

Correctional Photo Archives

Eastern Kentucky University, Special Collections and Archives
Access to the American Prison Society Photographic Archive collected by William Bain is provided at this website include: about the collection; access the collection; access the inventory; search this site; other links; other resources; and contact information.

New York Correction History Society

This website serves to pursue, preserve, and promote the history of Correction Services in New York. Areas covered include Probation, Parole, Juvenile Justice, Alternatives to Incarceration, and Transitional Services.

A Brief History of Alcatraz - Federal Bureau of Prisons

Federal Bureau of Prisons
Describes before the prison was built, the rock, birdman, escape attempts, and the closure of the facility. Compiled by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.