Historical Insights Prison Life—1865 to 1900

Prison Life—1865 to 1900

By the late 1800s, U.S. convicts who found themselves behind bars face rough conditions and long hours of manual labor.

“Just as day was breaking in the east we commenced our endless heartbreaking toil,” one prisoner remembered. After the American Civil War, the number of U.S. penitentiaries in the South and West spiked—their inmate populations surpassing 30,000. By 1880 African Americans became the majority of inmates, replacing immigrants. Overcrowding, disease, and widespread abuse of convicts at the hands of both guards and fellow criminals plagued prisons and kept death tolls high. Because of limited space, even murderers condemned to life rarely served their full sentence. In the South, chain gangs became common—filling the labor shortage caused by the end of slavery; prisoners worked 15-hour days without pay. Northerners also explored new penal models including one system that required constant silence, while others tested experimental medical treatments on inmates. Petty thieves and repeat offenders alike shared cells, while murderers were usually confined to upper floors to prevent breakouts. By 1910, the U.S. prison system was stretched to its limits—its population had quadrupled in three decades.