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A public building used for the confinement of people convicted of serious crimes.

Prison is a place used for confinement of convicted criminals. Aside from the death penalty, a sentence to prison is the harshest punishment imposed on criminals in the United States. On the federal level, imprisonment or incarceration is managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a federal agency within the department of justice. State prisons are supervised by a state agency such as a department of corrections.

Confinement in prison, also known as a penitentiary or correctional facility, is the punishment that courts most commonly impose for serious crimes, such as felonies. For lesser crimes, courts usually impose short-term incarceration in a jail, detention center, or similar facility.

Confining criminals for long periods of time as the primary form of punishment is a relatively new concept. Throughout history, various countries have imprisoned criminal offenders, but imprisonment was usually reserved for pre-trial detention or punishment of petty criminals with a short term of confinement.

Using long-term imprisonment as the primary punishment for convicted criminals began in the United States. In the late eighteenth century, the nonviolent Quakers in Pennsylvania proposed long-term confinement as an alternative to Capital Punishment. The Quakers stressed solitude, silence, rehabilitation, hard work, and religious faith. Confinement was originally intended not only as a punishment but as an opportunity for renewal through religion.

In 1790, the walnut street jail in Philadelphia constructed a separate cell house for the sole purpose of holding convicts. This was the first prison in the United States. The concept of long-term imprisonment became popular as the U.S. public embraced the concept of removing offenders from society and punishing them with confinement and hard labor. Before the existence of prisons, most offenders were subjected to Corporal Punishment or public humiliation and then released back into the community. In the nineteenth century, as the United States became more urban and industrial, poverty became widespread, and crime increased. As crime increased, the public became intolerant of even the most petty crimes and viewed imprisonment as the best method for stopping repeated criminal activity.

The early nineteenth century was filled with fierce debates about how a prison should be run. There emerged two competing ideas: the Auburn System and the Eastern Penitentiary System. The Auburn System took its name from the Auburn, New York, prison, which opened in 1819. At first, the prison placed all its worst offenders in solitary confinement, but this arrangement led to nervous breakdowns and suicides. The system was modified so that inmates slept in separate cells but worked and ate together. However, the inmates were forced to remain silent. Administrators believed this code of silence would prevent prisoners from picking up bad attitudes and would promote their rehabilitation.

The Eastern Penitentiary System at Cherry Hill, Pennsylvania, opened its gates in 1829. The prison building was designed in the form of a central hub with spokes radiating from this administrative center. Small cells lined each spoke and prisoners had their own exercise space. Unlike the Auburn System, this system promoted extreme isolation. Not surprisingly, many inmates committed suicide. In time, the Auburn System prevailed, as state legislatures saw advantages in congregate living. The Auburn System encouraged prison industries to help make prisons self-supporting.

1971 Attica Prison Riot

The September 1971 revolt and riot by inmates at the Attica State Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, ended in a violent response by state officials. However, during the five days inmates controlled the prison, lawyers for the inmates and prison officials sought to negotiate a peaceful solution.

During the spring and summer of 1971, the inmates at Attica had negotiated with prison administrators over a list of prisoner complaints. Among the grievances were inhumane conditions, abuse by prison guards, Arbitrary release dates, a lack of racial diversity among the prison guards, and the prison's failure to give inmates a reasonable opportunity to exercise their freedom of religion. On September 9, 1971, the talks broke down and dozens of inmates revolted. Inmates managed to overtake prison guards, take hostages, and gain control of the prison facilities. One prison guard and two inmates were killed in the initial uprising.

Over the next three days the inmates met with a host of attorneys, including Civil Rights and antiwar advocate william m. kunstler. The inmates communicated with state officials through the attorneys and submitted a list of more than two-dozen demands. They also took steps to protect the hostages from more hostile inmates by forming a human ring around the hostages.

On September 13, 1971, the commissioner of corrections submitted a settlement ultimatum to the inmates and gave them one hour to respond. If the inmates did not agree to the terms in one hour the state would use force to reclaim the prison. After two hours had passed with no response, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller ordered an assault. Officials shut off the electricity to the prison, state police dropped tear-gas canisters from helicopters, and state troopers emptied their rifles into inmates in the prison yard. The assault was brief but bloody: 39 inmates and hostages were killed. A total of 43 deaths were ultimately attributed to the events from September 9 through 13. The state's actions in retaking the prison were heavily criticized, leading to a review commission report that called the use of force excessive.

Further readings

Oswald, Russell G. 1972. Attica—My Story. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Wicker, Tom. 1994. A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.


Prisoners' Rights; Riot.

By the mid-nineteenth century, prisons existed throughout the United States. Prisoners were kept in unsanitary environments, forced to work at hard labor, and brutalized by guards. These conditions continued until the 1950s and 1960s, when heightened social and political discourse led to a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation. The closing of one particular prison symbolized the change in correctional philosophy. Alcatraz Prison, located on an island off San Francisco, was used exclusively to place in solitary confinement convicts classified as either violent or disruptive. Rehabilitation was non-existent in Alcatraz. The prison was filthy and rat-infested, and prisoners were held in dungeon-like cells, often chained to stone walls. Established in 1934, Alcatraz was closed in 1963, in part because its brutal treatment of prisoners symbolized an outdated penal philosophy.

By the mid-1960s, the stated purpose of many prisons was to educate prisoners and prepare them for life after prison. Many federal and state courts ordered administrators to improve the conditions inside their prisons, and the quality of life for inmates greatly improved.

Prison Life, New Hampshire State Prison

The New Hampshire Department of Corrections oversees four prisons, three halfway houses, and one Secure Psychiatric Unit (in Concord). Prison facilities include the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord, the New Hampshire State Prison for Women in Goffstown, the Lakes Region Facility in Laconia, and the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin. The Lakes Region Facility is reserved for first-time offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes; the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility houses medium-security male inmates. It costs $19,888 per year to keep an inmate in prison in New Hampshire.

The men's prison in Concord, New Hampshire, is representative of the daily life of the average prison inmate in the United States. Upon order of the court, new prisoners are transported by sheriff deputies to the appropriate prison receiving facility. After arrival, the inmate is photographed, fingerprinted, and given prison clothing and toiletries. Prisoners must wear prison clothing and an identification card at all times. All new inmates are placed in a locked cell and are kept isolated from other prisoners until approved by prison staff for proper housing assignment.

During approximately 30 days in quarantine custody, called Reception and Diagnostic, inmates are interviewed and tested by a multidisciplinary team of prison staff. Inmates receive an orientation to prison rules and expectations, medical and dental exams, mental health assessment, religious and program orientation, and educational testing. After the diagnostic period is over, the offender moves to a correctional housing unit with similarly classified inmates.

Inmates are classified either C-5, C-4, C-3, C-2, or C-1 (C stands for "classification"). The C-5 classification is for dangerous or problem inmates. C-4 inmates are individuals who were C-5 but are working their way back to C-3 status, which is the general prison population. New prisoners are designated C-3 unless they break rules while in Reception and Diagnostic, in which case they may be classified as C-4 or C-5.

C-2 inmates are housed in a minimum security building just outside the prison walls; C-1, or work release, inmates are allowed to live in halfway houses. Though they are supervised by prison officials, they live outside the prison, preparing for reentry into the community.

Daily life for a C-5 inmate is spartan. The average C-5 inmate spends all but one hour in a cell located in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), a building separate from the rest of the prison population. A C-5 inmate has no cellmate and receives his meals in his cell. He may leave his cell for one hour of outdoor exercise a day in a cage outside the SHU. Also, for a few minutes a day, a C-5 inmate may be allowed to make collect telephone calls from a room located in the SHU.

Some C-5 inmates are allowed to work at sites located within the SHU; most of them make sheets, towels, or pockets for pants. C-5 inmates with work privileges are allowed to communicate with one another while they work. A C-5 inmate may keep reading materials. He may also watch his own television, but only when he has been in SHU for more than 30 days. Whenever a C-5 inmate leaves his cell, he is shackled by guards at the hands and feet and escorted until he reaches his destination.

A level of security more severe than C-5 is called "isolation." An inmate in isolation may not leave his cell except for one hour a day of outdoor exercise inside a cage. He may not watch television or listen to the radio and has one Bible for reading. An inmate may be kept in isolation for only a 15-day stretch, and he must be held in another setting for at least 24 hours before beginning another 15 days of isolation.

Protective Custody is a special classification that is similar to the C-5. Inmates in protective custody are segregated from the general population: they move about the prison in a group separate from the other inmates. Protective custody is reserved for those inmates who have requested it and have a valid fear for their safety.

C-4 inmates are held in a Close Custody Unit, which is also separate from the general population. C-4 inmates may have a few more privileges than C-5 inmates, but they do not have the full number of privileges enjoyed by the general population. They may work, they are not shackled as they move outside their cells, they may eat in the dining hall with the general population, and they have cellmates. Also, the C-4 floor plan is similar to that for C-3 inmates: each cell opens into a common area where inmates may talk and play cards or other games. However, unlike C-3 inmates, C-4 inmates may not lock themselves in their cells for privacy, they may work for only a short period of time at a specific work site, and they generally have fewer privileges and are more strictly supervised than C-3 inmates.

C-3 inmates comprise the general population. They may move about the prison facility unencumbered by restraints. They work at various jobs, some building high-quality furniture. Inmates can earn from $1.50 to over $3.00 per day, depending on the job. Those who perform highly skilled work, such as carpentry, may earn $3.50 a day. Inmates do not receive cash for their work; their earnings are banked in an account. Using their account, they may buy articles from the canteen, such as personal hygiene products, soda, candy, chips, and cigarettes. Inmates may smoke cigarettes in the common area and in their cells. However, if his cellmate objects, an inmate may not smoke in his cell.

An inmate may receive money from persons outside the prison, but he may not receive packages of personal items. He may not spend more than $200 per month, no matter how much money he has. He may buy items such as magazines, books, radios, and televisions, but only through the manufacturer.

Inmates on C-3 status enjoy the full range of educational and work opportunities available in the prison, and their days are often consumed by these activities. They may also use the law library for a certain amount of time each day.

An inmate's day begins at approximately 7:00 A.M. Those inmates scheduled to begin work before 7:00 A.M. are awakened earlier. The lights are dimmed around 10:00 P.M. and sometimes 11:00 P.M. on weekend nights. Except for C-5 inmates, restless inmates may leave their cells during the night to sit in the common area.

C-3 inmates move from place to place at the top of the hour; they have 15 minutes to reach their next destination. If they are tardy for any destination, they will be reported as being out of place. Being out of place in prison is a serious infraction. If the disciplinary board finds that an inmate was out of place, the inmate may lose the privilege to watch television, listen to the radio, or talk on the telephone. Repeated violations may result in transfer to C-5 status.

Further readings

New Hampshire Department of Corrections. Available online at <> (accessed September 2, 2003).

Santos, Michael. 2003. Profiles from Prison: Adjusting to Life Behind Bars. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

"Time in Prison." 2001. State of New Hampshire Department of Corrections (January).

In 1971, a bloody, day-long riot at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York sparked a reaction against rehabilitative ideals. More than 40 people were killed in the uprising in Attica. Shortly after the Attica riot, the Federal Bureau of Prisons began to transfer unruly federal prisoners to the Federal Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, where they were held in solitary confinement. In 1983, after three killings in the prison, the prisoners in Marion were placed on permanent lock-down, making the entire prison a solitary confinement facility virtually overnight. Marion has remained on lockdown ever since.

By the 1980s, most prison administrators abandoned rehabilitation as a goal. Forced by an increasing problem with overcrowding and the resulting increase in violence, administrators returned to punishment and security as the primary purposes of prison. Though most prisons continue to operate educational and other rehabilitative programs, the rights of prison inmates have been frozen at the minimal number recognized by courts in the 1960s and 1970s. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against prison guard violence, but courts have generally refused to expand the rights of prison inmates. In most cases, courts have approved increased infringement of inmates' rights if prison officials declare that the restrictions are for security purposes.

Prisoners' Rights

Prisoners' rights are limited. For the most part, jail and prison inmates may demand only a "minimal civilized measure of shelter" (Union County Jail Inmates v. DiBuono, 713 F.2d 984 [3d Cir. 1983]). Generally, courts follow three basic principles when deciding whether to recognize a particular right. First, an inmate necessarily gives up many rights and privileges enjoyed by the rest of society; second, an inmate does not relinquish all constitutional rights upon placement in prison; and third, the constitutional rights retained by the prison inmate must be balanced against the security concerns of the prison.

The established rights of prison inmates include Freedom of Speech and religion; freedom from Arbitrary punishment (i.e., restraints, solitary confinement) on the sole basis of beliefs, religion, or racial and ethnic origin; freedom from constant physical restraints; a small amount of space for physical movement; essentials for personal hygiene and opportunity to wash; clean bedding; adequate clothing; adequate heating, cooling, ventilation, and light; and adequate nutrition.

Prisoners' rights can be infringed for security purposes. Prisoners have the right to freedom of speech, but prison officials may search their mail, deny a wide variety of reading materials, and edit the content of prison newspapers. Prisoners have the right to adequate space, but they may be confined in isolation for long periods, even years. Prisoners have the right to freedom from restraints, but their ankles and wrists may be shackled when they are moved. They may also be temporarily strapped down or otherwise restrained if officials believe that they present a danger.

Prison inmates often attempt to establish new rights in court. Issues connected to prison overcrowding, medical treatment, media access, even exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke, are among those faced by courts.

Another sensitive issue in prison is the use of prison guards of the opposite sex. Women prisoners may receive more privacy in this regard than men prisoners. For example, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in 1985 that the practice of assigning female guards to conduct strip searches on nude men and watch them while showering, urinating, and defecating did not violate any constitutional rights (Grummett v. Rushen, 779 F.2d 491 [1985]). However, in 1993, the same court held that it was Cruel and Unusual Punishment to allow male guards to conduct searches on female prisoners while the female prisoners were clothed (Jordan v. Gardner, 986 F.2d 1521 [9th Cir. 1993]).

Prisoners retain some rights aside from those concerning living conditions. Most prisons "classify" prisoners and place them in various units according to the categories. For example, violent criminals and persons suspected of gang affiliations are often housed in high-security areas of prison, separate from the remaining prison population. When an inmate is reclassified, he or she is entitled to notice of the reclassification and a citation of reasons for the move.

Congress and most states authorize the allowance of "good time" for prison inmates. Good time is credit for time served on good behavior, and it is used to reduce sentence length. For example, an inmate may receive one day of good time credit for every three days that he behaves well. Other states withhold recognition of good behavior until the defendant has served a certain portion of the minimum sentence imposed by the court. In New Hampshire, for example, an inmate may be released for good behavior after serving two-thirds of the minimum sentence (N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 651-A:12 [1983]). When an inmate has good time credits taken away, she or he is entitled to notice, a hearing before the prison board, and an opportunity to present evidence in her or his favor.

Inmates may also gain early release from prison through Parole, which is granted by the parole board. Prisoners have no right to parole, and the matter of early release is left to the graces of the parole board. Once released on parole, a parolee may be returned to prison for breaking one of many conditions that are normally imposed. A parolee has no right to an attorney at a parole revocation hearing, nor does an inmate have the right to an attorney at a parole hearing.Solitary confinement is used in many prisons for violent inmates and those inmates perceived as having gang-related affiliations. Some prisons are designed specifically for it. The original prisons, as envisioned by the Quakers, called for solitary confinement, but the practice was halted because of the detrimental effects it had on prisoners. However, the practice never completely ended. In the 1980s, solitary confinement became a regular feature of prisons, and it has become the sole form of incarceration in so-called Security Housing Units or Supermax prisons.

In a Supermax prison, the cells are eight-by-ten feet and windowless. The cells are grouped in "pods." The cell doors are perforated with holes large enough for guards to see inside the cell, but small enough to obstruct the prisoner's vision and light. All a prisoner can see through the door is another white wall. Each cell is furnished with a built-in bunk with a toilet-sink unit. Nothing is allowed on the walls. Prisoners may be allowed television, radio, and books, but these are taken away as punishment for any rule infractions.

Prisoners in solitary confinement are kept in their cells, under surveillance, for 22.5 hours a day. Unlike the rest of the prison population, inmates in solitary confinement may not take advantage of educational or recreational programs. The 90 minutes outside the cell may be divided between visiting a small library, washing, and exercising in a pen connected to the pod. Prisoners are strip-searched by the guards before and after visiting any place and are placed in waist restraints and handcuffs when being escorted.

The assignment of a prisoner to solitary confinement is made by prison officials. With regard to assigning supposed gang members to solitary confinement, it is the policy in some prisons to require that the perceived gang member "debrief" officials on his or her gang activity and renounce his or her gang affiliations before being released back into the general population.

One of the most important rights possessed by prison inmates is access to the courts through Habeas Corpus petitions. After an inmate has exhausted all the motions and appeals available to contest the conviction and prison sentence, a final round of limited Judicial Review is provided through the writ of habeas corpus. Through the ancient writ of habeas corpus, a court may order the release of a prisoner wrongly held.

Habeas corpus petitions are granted only for certain constitutional violations in the prosecution of a criminal defendant. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2261 et seq., placed strict limits on this form of relief by directing federal judges to conduct habeas petition reviews according to this law. Under the act, a federal judge may not grant habeas relief on any claim adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the adjudication resulted in a decision that was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court. Since a state court is unlikely to defy a general principle of Constitutional Law that the Supreme Court has clearly established, this review provides a few opportunities for a federal judge to examine and determine constitutional law.

Relief may be granted if the state court's judgment is based upon an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence. An application of law to facts is unreasonable only when it can be said that reasonable jurists considering the question would be of one view that the state court's ruling was incorrect. If the prisoner fails to develop all the facts in state court supporting the claim, the prisoner will not be allowed to develop any new facts in federal court.

Under the 1996 law, a federal court cannot award relief on the basis of any claim that was previously decided against the prisoner by a state court. This directive must be followed even though the federal court concludes that the state court decision was erroneous and that the prisoner's federal constitutional rights have been violated.

Further readings

Bennett, Steven C. 1983. "The Privacy and Procedural Due Process Rights of Hunger Striking Prisoners." New York University Law Review 58.

Carter, Rubin "Hurricane." 1995. "Death Penalty Symposium Keynote Address." Santa Clara Law Review 35.

Miller, Nan D. 1995. "International Protection of Prisoners: Is Solitary Confinement in the United States a Violation of International Standards?" California Western International Law Journal 26.

New Hampshire Department of Corrections. 1994. Biennial Report for the Biennium Ending June 30, 1994.

Pillsbury, Samuel H. 1982. "Creatures, Persons, and Prisoners: Evaluating Prison Conditions Under the Eighth Amendment." Southern California Law Review 55.

Potts, Jeff. 1993. "American Penal Institutions and Two Alternative Proposals for Punishment." South Texas Law Review 34.Sowle, Stephen D. 1995. "A Regime of Social Death: Criminal Punishment in the Age of Prisons." New York University Review of Law and Social Change 21.

Tachiki, Scott N. 1995. "Indeterminate Sentences in Supermax Prisons Based upon Alleged Gang Affiliations: A Reexamination of Procedural Protection and a Proposal for Greater Procedural Requirements." California Law Review 83.

Willens, Jonathan A. 1987. "Structure, Content and the Exigencies of War: American Prison Law After Twenty-five Years 1962–1987." American University Law Review 37.


Corporal Punishment; Imprisonment; Incarceration; Parole; Preventive Detention; Prisoners' Rights; Sentencing.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a place where people are held in captivity, either pending trial or serving a sentence of imprisonment. Administration is in the hands of the Home Office and Prison Commissioners. There is an HM Inspector of Prisons. Prisons are run under prison regulations.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

PRISON. A legal prison is the building designated by law, or used by the sheriff, for the confinement, or detention of those whose persons are judicially ordered to be kept in custody. But in cases of necessity, the sheriff may make his own house, or any other place, a prison. 6 John. R. 22. 2. An illegal prison is one not authorized by law, but established by private authority; when the confinement is illegal, every place where the party is arrested is a prison; as, the street, if he be detained in passing along. 4 Com. Dig. 619; 2 Hawk. P. C. c. 18, s. 4; 1 Buss. Cr. 378; 2 Inst. 589.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.