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Three Waves of American Prison Development, 1790–1920

Punishment and Incarceration: A Global Perspective

ISBN: 978-1-78350-910-2, eISBN: 978-1-78350-907-2

Publication date: 10 October 2014



This chapter calls attention to penal regime shifts, emphasizing the importance of comparing different periods of prison development. In particular, it examines different instantiations of prison across time.


I discuss three periods of prison development (1790–1810s, 1820–1860, and 1865–1920), focusing on the nature of prison diffusion across the United States. Specifically, I discuss the homogeneity and diversity of prison forms in each period.


I demonstrate that the first two periods were particularly homogenous, as most states that adopted prisons followed a single model, the Walnut Street Jail model (1790–1810s) and the Auburn System (1820–1860), respectively. By contrast, the post—Civil War period experienced the emergence of women’s prisons, adult reformatories, and distinctively Southern approaches to confinement. Using neo-institutional theory, I suggest this post-war proliferation of prison forms was only possible because the prison had become institutionalized in the penal landscape.


Scholars rarely examine multiple shifts in penal regime together, reducing their ability to make comparative insights. This chapter juxtaposes three historical periods of prison development, thereby illustrating the diversity of the third period and improving extant understandings of prison evolution.



Rubin, A.T. (2014), "Three Waves of American Prison Development, 1790–1920", Punishment and Incarceration: A Global Perspective (Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Vol. 19), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 139-158.



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