American Jails: Correctional History

Walnut Street Jail
Walnut Street Jail

The first jail in America was the Walnut Street Jail that started operation in 1773 in Philadelphia, PA (ACA, 2015). Conditions inside the jail were inhumane with the goal of keeping these inmates secured and away from society (ACA, 2015). Around 1788, the Walnut Street Jail was expanded and it became the first penitentiary in the United States (ACA, 2015). The penitentiary developed in Philadelphia and inmates were assigned to live in separate cells, isolated from others, and all activities of the inmates, including eating occurred within the one-man cell (ACA, 2015). The concept behind isolating prisoners was to force reflection on past behaviors in an effort to change the person from wanting to commit any further crimes upon release (ACA, 2015).

The Philadelphia prison experiment gave birth to American penology (ACA, 2015). Penology is a Greek word for punishment (ACA, 2015). American penology is a philosophy and practice in an effort to change a person from criminal activity (ACA, 2015).

American Jails    

In the United States, there are approximately 3,600 operational jails (ACA, 2015). These jails are operated and staffed by local sheriff deputies, city, or county correctional officers (ACA, 2015).

inmates_2Jails are designed to be secure short-term holding facilities for those awaiting trial (pre-trial detention) or serving a short (less than a year) sentence (ACA, 2015). The American jails are 24/7 365 day operation (ACA, 2015). There are many types of jails in the United States. Some operate work release programs and boot camps or shock incarceration programs (ACA, 2015). Sheriff Joe of Maricopa County, Arizona runs a “Tent City”, in which jailed inmates live in canvas tents in the southwest desert surrounded by razor fencing.

Modern jails offer educational classes such as GED programs, vocational training, substance abuse programs, and parenting classes (ACA, 2015). One of the reasons these programs are part of the daily inmate routine is to keep the jailed inmates busy with activities to reduce criminal or violence by having inmates just idle with free time (ACA, 2015).

Strikes Roll On In CaliforniaThe Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department operates the largest jail system in the world (ACA, 2015). There are approximately 20,000 inmates incarcerated at any given time throughout the different jails operated by the LASD (ACA, 2015). Each year approximately 200,000 people are processed through the LASD jail facilities (ACA, 2015).

The Cook County Jail in Chicago is the largest single jail facility in the United States with an average of 9,000 inmates currently detained (ACA, 2015).


American Correctional Association (ACA). (2015). Correctional history. Retrieved from

About the Author

Mark Bond

Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms instructor for more than 33 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in criminal justice, and M.Ed in educational leadership with Summa Cum Laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education (EdD) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.