Popular Prisons in the USA

The majority of those incarcerated in the United States are in state prisons. About 1.3 million Americans are locked up for sentences that are longer than one year. Of them, over 700,000 are imprisoned for violent crimes, 235,000 for property crimes, and 200,000 for drug crimes. To find out who is housed in prisons in your state, search first for a statewide inmate lookup tool, or check the individual prison website. Most searches function using a first and last name, while others may need more information.

Jails are operated on a local level, whether by counties or municipalities, holding individuals accused of crimes and denied bail or those who have been found guilty of a crime and are serving a sentence of a year or less. Local jails currently hold about 600,000 Americans, the vast majority of whom have not been convicted but are either awaiting trial or cannot pay court-related fines and fees. Most have a searchable database of inmates but the population changes

Facilities are segregated by sex and age, with most (but not all) of those under age 18 in juvenile facilities. State laws vary but juveniles accused of very serious crimes may be tried as adults when they’re as young as ages 14 or 15. There are about 1,000 juveniles currently in adult jails and prisons across the country.

Like it or not, prisons are part of our national identity and a continued source of fascination. Among the legendary lockups is Alcatraz Federal Prison in San Francisco Bay, one that spawned dozens of creative stories and held some of the country’s infamous prisoners like Chicago gangster Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert “Birdman” Stroud. The island started as a military prison but served as a federal prison from 1936-1964. It is now a tourist destination.

USA Federal Prisons

Doing a federal inmate search is easier than finding a state prison inmate because there’s a unified search tool from Bop.gov.

Drug charges are the reason that 82,000 of the 121,000 inmates are in federal prisons, of which there are at least 21 facilities in the U.S. The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons is responsible for federal prisons and prison camps. Those who are sent to federal prison have been convicted of violating federal laws, often those involving crossing state lines, use of communications facilities to commit a crime, or racketeering; also those apprehended by federal agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement are charged with federal crimes. Women are often held in separate quarters in the same facilities.

Supermax Federal Prison

Federal correctional institutions range from low-security for white-collar criminals and nonviolent individuals to a Supermax prison for those most dangerous to others. The only facility that is completely dedicated to the sort of high security, high-punishment of a “supermax” is located in Florence, Colorado. It called ADMAX USP and it houses individuals like the Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, who had escaped from prison in Mexico. Among the other inmates held in near-solitary circumstances here are Terry Nichols, who partnered with Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168; two of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers; a former FBI agent who sold secrets to the USSR, and the “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski.

Infamous State Prisons

  • California’s San Quentin and Soledad prisons are notorious breeding grounds for gangs, including seeding the dangerously violent MS-13 and others. Here, gang affiliations, rewards and retributions flow from prison to street and back, often with the assistance of guards who are bribed.
  • New York’s Singsing prison earned its reputation because the original cellblock, used for more than 100 years, was built in the 1830s. It held the state’s electric chair and was the site of over 600 executions before the state outlawed the practice in 1972.
  • Conditions were so poor at Louisiana’s maximum-security state prison at Angola that a group of prisoners cut their own achilles tendons to protest while others wrote articles and books about the place. Leased prison labor and political patronage were two exacerbating factors in the situation, as was entrenched racism.
  • Julia Tutwiler Prison in Alabama, a women-only facility, is named for a reformer but was at the center of a report on miserable conditions in recent years. The report detailed the severe sexual abuse of prisoners and history of overcrowding and unconstitutional treatment.
  • Pelican Bay is a state-run supermax high-security prison in California where the state’s worst and most violent prisoners are sent. Solitary confinement is a common practice there, and state officials are famously silent on their practices.

Island for Prisoners

Rikers Island, the primary holding facility for New York City law enforcement authorities, was opened in 1932 and hosts as many as 10,000 inmates daily. The complex consists of 10 jails for those who are serving sentences of one year or less, those being held pending trial, and those who have been denied bail, among others. Rikers Island has been notorious for violations of inmates’ rights, including those of Kalief Browder, a Bronx resident who was held for three years on charges of stealing a backpack because he could not make bail. Browder later committed suicide. A plane crash here in 1957 ended in sentence reductions for the prisoners who helped rescue those injured by the accident.

Cook County Jail in Lawndale, near Chicago, Illinois, holds about 6,500 prisoners and it's (former) women’s ward is the setting for the hit musical Chicago. Due to the city’s reputation for gangsters and crime, the jail where electrocutions once took place is similarly notorious. In 2008 a report found many violations of inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights to freedom from harm from staff and fellow inmates as well as poor medical care and rodent infestation.

History of the American Prison System

Prisons were in use in England prior to colonization of the North American continent, often in the form of dungeons at the local castle. Indeed, many of the earliest residents of North America were prisoners sent to fill out the King’s colonies or as indentured servants. Spain had a prison in Florida in the 1500s.

Most Early American forms of punishment for minor crimes against the community did not use incarceration but were generally a form of temporary humiliation, such as using public stockades where a prisoner was held for a specified period of time. Prisons, like the jail built on Cape Cod in 1690, were an outgrowth of the jailhouse that was used to hold prisoners before trials and between judgment and serving a sentence. About 100 years later, local “workhouses” were places where individuals could work off sentences.

While Boston’s pre-1800 British fort, on Castle Island in Boston Harbor was used as a prison as early as 1785, Pennsylvania is acknowledged as the first state to construct purpose-built prisons, and by 1800, eleven states had prisons.

Two competing philosophies of incarceration developed in the early 1800s: the Auburn System, based in New York, put prisoners to work with others during the day and held them individually in cells at night, while Pennsylvania’s system was based on complete isolation. After the Civil War, attempts at humane punishment and rehabilitation were largely abandoned as prisoners became subjected to physical restraints and near-torture as a means of control, including an early form of waterboarding.

The use of chain gangs and leasing prisoners for outside work began in the Reconstruction era, mostly in Southern states, in many cases to rebuild the finances of the state. Thus states began to impose longer sentences and to round up more “vagrants” to make more money. Business owners supported the movement because it ensured inexpensive labor for them. Meanwhile, Northern prisons often became manufacturing centers for similar reasons, as prisoners made pennies on the goods they produced.

In the 1980s and 1990s drug usage and related crimes prompted legislators to introduce tougher sentences, including the “three strikes” law that caused the prison population to boom and created a demand for more prisons to be constructed. As of 2019 legislation to reduce such harsh punishment was passed, allowing for a decline in the peak imprisonment period.