The history of corrections in the United States is captivating and multifaceted. From the earliest records of the humanity, punishment has been applied as a means of social governance convincing people to conform to shared laws, rules, and norms. A lot has evolved in the last century with respect to institutions as well as fundamental principles. The fundamental goal of corrections is to enhance order and safety in the society. Public safety and social order depend on effective social control. Social controls take the form of norms and customs. Cultural restriction and societal expectations are sometimes enacted into criminal law. Violation of criminal laws or behavioral standards warrants correction. Corrections refer to various aspects of the pretrial and post-conviction augment of people accused or convicted of crimes (Schmalleger and Smykla 19). The criminal law is a collection of rules and regulations that outline public offenses committed against the society or state and define punishments for the wrongs committed. This paper discusses the evolution of the American correction system by covering custody levels, types of corrections, and historical overview.

The Evolution of the American Correctional System

Corrections represent a complex system consisting of interdependent units whose operations are directed towards the main purpose. Key goals of corrections are punishment and protections. The American prison system has evolved throughout several eras. Codified punishment for offenders was conceptualized in the early ages of the human history (Misis 1). According to Misis (1), the American Revolution, classicalism, and religious doctrines resulted in the development of the American prison system. Most concepts, principles, and practices that serve as the pillars of the American criminal justice system were adopted from England (Misis 3). Penal or criminal law defines crimes and specifies corresponding criminal punishments. In the Colonial Era, jails were primarily used to house people awaiting a court appearance. Prior to federalism, early prison facilities in America were operated by the military. The main purpose of corrections was to carry out criminal sentences. During the colonial period, the British penal system was adopted. The system was based on the Great Law of 1682, which relied largely on execution and punishment (Misis 3). The Great Law was used until it was replaced by a punitive code, the Anglican Code, in 1781 (Misis 3). In the 19th century, more states embraced the prison system instead of hanging. After the American Revolution, the concept of Enlightment gained a center stage and penitentiaries emerged as entities where criminals could work as they served their penitence. In the mid-19th century, attention shifted to deterrence and rehabilitation. At the beginning of the 20th century, the concept of rehabilitating criminals gained prominence. As of this research, the American corrections subsystem of the criminal justice system focuses on rehabilitating offenders or convicts before they are released back into the society (Misis 5; Schmalleger and Smykla 14). Rehabilitation includes job training and housing assistance.

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The correctional system enforces dictates of the law (Schmalleger and Smykla 20). Corrections are essential because punishments carried out play an important role in the control of the society members. The ultimate goal of criminal law or corrections is social control, community safety, and public order.

In terms of the current paper, the field of corrections has gained professionalism. Professionalism of corrections entails recognition of the role of scientific approaches to corrections (Schmalleger and Smykla 26). Evidence-based corrections, widely known as evidence-based penology, is the application of scientific approaches to studying correctional procedures with an aim of increasing effectiveness of the correctional system, as well as enhancing efficiency of the resource allocation (Schmalleger and Smykla 22). Professionalism and social diversity are important because they impact positively correctional clients. In addition, they have played a critical role in the development of structures and functioning of correctional facilities, programs, and institutions. Correctional goals of rehabilitation, restoration, retribution, incapacitation, and just deserts produced sanctions of probation and parole (Schmalleger and Smykla 20).

Types of Corrections

The criminal justice system is made up of three major components: police, courts, and corrections (Schmalleger and Smykla 19). In this respect, corrections can be conceptualized as a subsystem of the criminal justice system (CJS). Key constituents of corrections are prisons, jails, parole, and probation (Schmalleger and Smykla 19). Corrections are classified into two broad categories: institutional and non-institutional corrections. Prisons and jails are forms of institutional corrections. Schmalleger and Smykla (18) note that institutional corrections entail incineration and rehabilitation of juveniles and adults convicted against the penal law. It also involves confinement of individuals suspected of a violation, awaiting trial and adjudication. Prisons are federal or state facilities with custodial authority over individuals sentenced to confinement (5). According to Alarid and Reichel (126), prisons can be classified as federal or state prisons. State prisons constitute 92% of the US prisons, whereas federal prisons cover 8% (Alarid and Reichel 126). In spite of the decline in crime rates, the population of convicts has continued to grow. This is subject to harsh criminal laws and the fight against drugs (Peak 244). Prevailing policies perceive prison facilities as institutions to discipline and lock up offenders in an effort to prevent crime. This approach has led to adoption of hard-hitting sentencing practices, which contribute to the growing prison population. According to Schmalleger and Smykla (6), arrest and conviction of many drug-related offenders have resulted in a large correctional population in almost all states. The other explanation behind the explosion of correctional population is that parole authorities have become reluctant to release inmates.

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Non-institutional corrections, also known as community corrections, entail parole, probation, pardon, and correctional administration indirectly linked with institutions (Peak 259; Schmalleger and Smykla 19). Probation is the most frequently used community correction. Usually, probation includes characteristics of other sanctions such as fines and community service (Peak 259). Parole refers to an early supervised release after a conviction (Peak 259). According to Peak (261), parole is less complex than probation in terms of administration subject to the fact that parole is administered centrally on a statewide basis. Violations of the criminal law admit individuals into the American correctional system. In other words, crimes that bring offenders into the corrections subsystem include infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies (Schmalleger and Smykla 9). The latter include arson, rape, murder, and aggravated assault. Misdemeanors are minor violations of the criminal law. Apt examples include simple assault, petty theft, and disturbing peace. Infractions are minor violations of local ordinances often punishable by fines (Schmalleger and Smykla 9).

Custody Levels

In the criminal justice process, corrections are the final stage. Correctional clients include parolees, prison inmates, probationers, and those held in jails. According to Alarid and Reichel (131), there are approximately 1,364 correctional institutions in the United States. Out of that number, nearly 9 % are designated for female population, about 90% are designated for males, and approximately 1% are coed. Jurisdictions with more than one male or female prisons are likely to label various correctional institutions in terms of security level. The level of risk posed to the security and safety of the state, prisoner, and correctional institution is established by the external classification system (Austin and Hardyman 7).

Typically, prisons are classified as minimum, medium, maximum, or super maximum security (Alarid and Reichel 131; Austin and Hardyman 9). According to Austin and Hardyman (12), minimum, medium, and maximum security prisons are for general population prisoners. Alarid and Reichel (131) note that general population of prisoners are individuals who can interact with large groups of prisoners under the same security level. General prisoners constitute approximately 80% of prisoners in the United States. Some correctional facilities belong to a single level, while others run several security levels. Special population prisoners form about 20 % and have super maximum disciplinary status, protective custody, and administrative segregation (Austin and Hardyman 13). Prisoners who are mentally or medically ill fall under this group. Most correctional activities are experienced at the state level. Therefore, this paper focuses on state facilities.

Minimum-Security Facilities

These are correctional institutions where inmates have significant person freedom coupled with relaxed supervision. In other words, prisoners in these facilities have the most privileges and freedom provided to any state prisoners. Minimum security facilities includes both community and institutional-based facilities such as trusty centers, wilderness camps, community corrections facilities, work release centers, and drug rehabilitation centers. The facilities resemble community houses and college campuses. Generally, housing is often represented by barracks, dormitory-style, or small rooms with personal access. Prisoners in such facilities show little threat to themselves and the public as whole. Washington, Montana, and Virginia are predominant users of minimum-security institutions (Alarid and Reichel 133).

Medium-Security Facilities

Unlike minimum-security prisoners, inmates in medium-security facilities receive more supervision, but still retain some significant freedom while moving around programmed activities. The other difference is that medium-security prisoners are not allowed to possess more personal things within the facility. Furthermore, prisoners are usually escorted by guards. The facility perimeter is lined with razor wire, chain-link fences, and motion sensors.

Maximum-Security (Close-Security) Facilities

Maximum-security facilities are designed for maximum control, surveillance, and supervision of general population inmates. Conventionally, these facilities are built as defense-like structures with guard towers. Most prisons built between 1800 and 1930s were virtually maximum security subject to the fact that classification of prisoners was challenging. Modern maximum security prisons adopt the double fence design instead of high stone walls. Initial maximum security facilities had high walls and relied primarily on human observation of the prison perimeter. Modern prisons use electronic devices such as motion sensors and closed-circuit cameras (CCTVs) to monitor the perimeter and alert the staff about breaches. Characteristically, there are more officers per prisoner to control inmate movement and optimize officer safety. Given that security is the central focus, supervision is close and constant. Prisoners live in single or double cells. Further, fewer correctional programs exist for inmates. Maximum-security prisons have special custody units to briefly hold voracious prisoners or to protect reformed prisoners. These include solitary and short-term administrative segregation (Austin and Hardyman 75). Former correctional or police officers are often placed under protective custody. Supermax prisons are those that are at the ceiling of security level. The progression of supermax prisons suggests that corrections are moving away from the dispersion approach to the concentration approach.


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Much has transformed in the American correctional system over the past century in terms of institutions and codes that govern their operations. From the discussion above, it is apprarent that changing times have transformed aspects of this indispensable part of the justice system. Levels of correctional administration available in the society and within the US correctional facilities include minimum-, medium-, maximum-, or super maximum security institutions. In summary, custody level for general population prisoners is complex and dynamic because prisoners continue to move around various facilities over time as their custody level is lowered or raised. Privileges and freedom of movement are greatest at the lowest level of custody. Further, operational costs are proportional to the level of custody.