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President Barack Obama called for an examination of sentencing policy around nonviolent crimes during a visit to El Reno. | White House
History

Doing Time: A History of US Prisons

How did the United States become the world's biggest jailer?

Published On 07/21/2015
7:00 AM EDT
Mary Dyer was exiled by Massachusetts authorities over a theological dispute. She returned and was arrested three more times by authorities for spreading Quakerism. On the fourth arrest, she was executed. | Library of Congress
William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, was an early champion of prison reform, and was himself incarcerated several times because of his religion. | Library of Congress
Old Newgate Prison was a colonial American prison that originally opened as a copper mine. Its first prisoner arrived in 1773 and escaped 18 days later. Considered costly and inhumane even for its time, the prison closed in 1827. | Library of Congress
Walnut Street Jail was considered a model for its time, a progressive institution touted by prison reform advocates. | Library of Congress
Eastern State Penitentiary isolated prisoners, preventing any form of communication among one another, in order to encourage reflection and rehabilitation, according to its architects. | Library of Congress
African Americans were arrested and their labor leased to private businesses, a form of punishment that endured well into the 20th century. | : Library of Congress
Alcatraz, one of the most infamous maximum security prisons in U.S. history, opened in 1934. Given that the facility was once a former military prison and housed on a remote island, the institution clearly existed as a means of punishment and isolation, rather than prisoner reformation. | Thinkstock/iStock
U.S. prison history shows cycles of overcrowding and overspending followed by reform. | Thinkstock/moodboard