Prisons and the American Conscience: A History of U.S. Federal Corrections

Prisons and the American Conscience: A History of U.S. Federal Corrections

Prisons and the American Conscience: A History of U.S. Federal Corrections

Prisons and the American Conscience: A History of U.S. Federal Corrections


In tracing the evolution of federal imprisonment, Paul W. Keve emphasizes the ways in which corrections history has been affected by and is reflective of other trends in the political and cultural life of the United States.

The federal penal system has undergone substantial evolution over two hundred years. Keve divides this evolutionary process into three phases. During the first phase, from 1776 through the end of the nineteenth century, no federal prisons existed in the United States. Federal prisoners were simply boarded in state or local facilities.

It was in the second phase, starting with the passage of the Three Prison Act by Congress in 1891, that federal facilities were constructed at Leavenworth and Atlanta, while the old territorial prison at McNeil Island in Washington eventually became, in effect, the third prison. In this second phase, the federal government began the enormous task of providing its own prison cells. Still, there was no effective supervisory force to make a prison system.

In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was created, marking the third phase of the prison system's evolution. The Bureau, in its first sixty years of existence, introduced numerous correctional innovations, thereby building an effective, centrally controlled prison system with progressive standards. Keve details the essential characteristics of this now mature system, guiding the reader through the historical process to the present day.


Only in the last two centuries has confinement in penal institutions become the basic penalty for criminal behavior. In earlier times, offenders were sentenced to a wide range of punishments: executions, tortures, banishment, slavery, transportation to penal colonies, public flogging, or exposure to public ridicule in the stocks.

In the past two hundred years, penal systems have undergone substantial evolution, impacted by emerging social and economic developments, legislative reform, drastic effects of war, new insights evolving from management experience, and research in the social and behavioral sciences.

The United States government had virtually no penal institutions until the early twentieth century. Persons convicted of federal law violations were housed in state institutions by contract. William Sidney Porter, sentenced for a federal crime, was committed to the Ohio State Penitentiary, where he began writing and became known eventually as O. Henry, his pen name.

This book, by Professor Paul Keve, experienced correctional administrator and writer, is a history of the United States government's prison administration, with expanded emphasis since 1930 when the Federal Bureau of Prisons was created by Congress. In its sixty years of existence, the Bureau has introduced many correctional innovations. This record of those events becomes a valuable source of information for staff, academicians, and the general public.

In the mid-1980s, Bureau director Norman Carlson, recognizing the need for gathering and preserving a vast range of valuable historical documents and memorabilia, appointed a task force to propose a solution. The report of the committee led to an important decision --

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