Where Was The First US Federal Penitentiary Established?

Leavenworth is the name of a Kansas city that is synonymous with the prisons that are nearly as old as the city itself. The city’s location just outside of Kansas City and at the intersection of many routes of travel made it a clear choice for first, a major military base, then the military’s prison, a state prison, and in 1890, one of the first federal prisons created in the United States. The federal prison is among five different military and state prisons sited in the Leavenworth area. In order to find a person who has been sentenced to federal prison since 1982, use the federal inmate search lookup tool at bop.gov.

A prison is a secure facility constructed to hold those sentenced by a court to serve more than one year of incarceration. Federal prisons are those that hold individuals convicted of breaking federal laws, which may include:

  • kidnapping,
  • bank robbery,
  • child pornography,
  • identity theft,
  • mail fraud,
  • drug trafficking across state lines, and
  • crimes committed on federal properties or that are federally controlled like airports, postal facilities, and government offices.

How Many Federal Prisons Are There in the US?

There are currently 22 maximum-security federal prisons in the U.S. with an additional 65 medium- and low-security federal prisons, as well as 13 privately-run prisons, contracted to the federal government (which were slated to be phased out under the Obama administration’s prison reform efforts but were reinstated by the Trump administration) and seven additional prison camps, mostly adjoining established federal prisons.

How Did Prisons Start in America?

Much of American law and punishment for breaking the laws are borrowed from English common law. When people moved from England to establish colonies in America, they considered themselves British subjects (prior to the American Revolution) and therefore continued the traditions they were familiar with, which included courts and judges (or magistrates, in the absence of judges), monetary punishments for breaking the law as well as the use of public humiliation, which often involved using public “stocks” that detained the guilty party for the period of their penalty in the public square (usually a few hours).

The first prisons in the U.S. also mimicked English penal codes, sometimes using underground prisons that resembled dungeons to house the most dangerous criminals. One of the oldest jails, called the Old Gaol and used from 1690 to 1725, has been restored on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

It wasn’t until around 1800 that the first statewide prison systems (run by individual states) and regional prisons were created, but at this time they were not organized on the federal level. Those that still exist include the Philadelphia area Eastern States Penitentiary, a regional facility, that was operational from 1825 to 1971. At ESP, like other facilities in existence around the Civil War, prisons introduced the concepts of probation, parole, and reforming individuals through work and study. They also began grouping inmates by the severity of their crimes.

The next major chapter in prisons began in the early 1970s when the number of those convicted exploded, requiring many new facilities to hold the fivefold expansion of inmates. Researchers pin the expansion of federal prisons on the trend toward life sentences, including “three strikes” laws, which put many nonviolent drug offenders in prisons since the 1970s.

The federal inmate lookup tool at bop.gov makes finding a prisoner much easier, but it is limited to those imprisoned since the mid-1980s and will not return results about historical inmates like Al Capone, who was convicted of tax evasion – but you may find former baseball great Pete Rose’s name there, as he served time in the federal prison camp at Marion, Illinois, in the 1980s after being convicted of cheating on his taxes after being accused of betting against his own baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, while a manager.

Three Prisons Act

prisons act

Three federal prisons were created by a bill called “The Three Prisons Act” in 1891. These were to be built in Leavenworth, Atlanta, and Ft. McNeill in Puget Sound, Washington. In fact, Ft. McNeill already existed as a federal prison, and the Leavenworth facility was previously a military prison that was to be transferred to the Department of Justice. A new federal prison at Leavenworth was then constructed using prison labor donated by those housed in the existing Leavenworth facility.

Federal prison facilities are arranged by various levels of confinement:

  • Supermax is the term used for the Florence, Colorado facility that is the most secure of federal prisons, including keeping prisoners disoriented so they cannot figure out where they are in the warren of buildings and preventing communication with the outside world. Here, prisoners are allowed a brief period each day to exercise in a pit about the size of a swimming pool.
  • High security describes the type of facility used to house those who are potentially violent, dangerous to other prisoners, or who seek to maintain contact with criminal associates.
  • Medium security penitentiaries are reserved for nonviolent individuals.
  • Low security prisons may even allow parole after 85 percent of one’s sentence has been served.
  • Prison camps are the lowest-level security, often reserved for white-collar criminals.