Oldest Prisons in America

8 Oldest Prisons in America

Over the past several decades, the United States has become infamous for its large and notorious prison system – in fact, America is the biggest jailer in the world, with 25 percent of world’s total inmates. The history of prisons is closely linked with the history of the United States. Before the 18th century, prisons as we know them today did not exist in Europe or the American colonies. Early jails were often used as temporary holding facilities until punishment was determined. However, as these jails got more crowded and people committed crimes more often, the colonists, particularly the Quakers of Pennsylvania, decided to establish penitentiaries – where prisoners could reflect on their crimes and repent.
Walnut Street Prison, established in 1773 is considered to be the very first prison in America and was soon followed by Newgate in New York in 1797. These prisons did not stay open for long, but they served as the main inspiration for several of the old prisons on this list. Many of the prisons on this list were pioneers in the penal system and developed techniques and forms of punishment that were eventually used at prisons around the world. Some of these historic prisons are still operational today, while others are now used as museums.

8. West Virginia State Penitentiary

Year Opened: 1876 – closed in 1995 (construction started in 1866)
Location:  Moundsville, West Virginia
Status:  Closed – currently used as tourist attraction and law enforcement training facility
Security Class:  N/A

West Virginia State Penitentiaryphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

West Virginia State Penitentiary  was the first prison built in the state and has recently attracted global interest as the Gothic-style building was featured in the trailer for the anticipated Fallout 76 video game. Since closing in 1995, West Virginia State Penitentiary has been a popular tourist attraction due to the reported ghost sightings.

The plans for West Virginia State Penitentiary began in 1866 when the State Legislature purchased 10 acres of land just outside of Moundsville. A temporary prison was built on the site while inmate labor was used to build an imposing Gothic Revival prison. The first cell block as well as the administration building was completed in 1876 and West Virginia State Penitentiary was officially opened. Over time, West Virginia State Penitentiary built up a dark reputation – 36 homicides were confirmed at the prison, the recreation room (“The Sugar Shack”) was used for gambling, fighting, and rape, and numerous prisoners escaped.


7. Joliet Correctional Center

Year Opened: 1858 – closed in 2002
Location:  Joliet, Illinois
Status:  Closed – has been used as a set for various films and TV shows; now open for tours
Security Class:  N/A

Joliet Correctional Centerphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Joliet Correctional Center was an historical Gothic-style prison that served as the inspiration for West Virginia State Penitentiary. Joliet Correctional Center was built in 1858 to replace Illinois’ first prison. The facilities at Joliet Correctional Center were notoriously outdated and running water and in-cell toilets were not installed until 1910.

Despite its deterioration, Joliet Correctional Center stayed open until 2002 and has been featured in several movies and television shows. After Joliet Correctional Center closed, it was used more frequently as a set; most famously, the old facility was used for the first season of the show Prison Break. For the past few years, the Joliet Area Historical Museum has been wanting to offer public tours of Joliet Correctional Center and in 2018 volunteers from the museum was finally allowed to start giving tours.


6. San Quentin State Prison

Year Opened: 1852 – building completed in 1854
Location:  San Quentin, California
Status:  Operational
Security Class:  Minimum – maximum (Men’s)

San Quentinphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

San Quentin State Prison, usually just called San Quentin, has earned a reputation for being one of the worst prisons in America. The prison is home to the largest death row in the country and by law, all California executions (both male and female) must take place at San Quentin.

San Quentin is tied to California’s beginnings; before San Quentin was opened in 1852, California criminals were housed on prison ships. In 1851, the state decided to finally set up a permanent prison and the following year 20 acres of land near Point San Quentin was purchased. The first prisoners arrived at the future site of San Quentin on July 14, 1852, (Bastille Day) and were tasked with constructing the first cell block. Over the years, San Quentin has been home to many notable criminals, including Charles Manson, Randy Steven Kraft, Richard Chase, and Scott Peterson.


5. Missouri State Penitentiary

Year Opened: 1836 – closed in 2004
Location:  Jefferson City, Missouri
Status:  Closed – now a museum
Security Class:  N/A – was a maximum security prison

Missouri State Penitentiaryphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

Before closing in 2004, Missouri State Penitentiary was the oldest prison west of the Mississippi River. Construction of the prison began in 1834 and in 1836 the first inmate, Wilson Eidson, was admitted to the newly opened Missouri State Penitentiary. Unlike most of the other early prisons on this list, Missouri State Penitentiary was also used to house female prisoners because there were no federal facilities for women at the time. The first female inmate came to Missouri State Penitentiary in 1842 and the prison continued to accept female inmates until the early 1960s.

During its long history, several infamous American criminals served time at Missouri State Penitentiary, including notorious robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd and the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., James Early Ray. Missouri State Prison was the state’s main maximum security prison for over 160 years and is currently open as museum dedicated to preserving the prison’s history.


4. Eastern State Penitentiary

Year Opened: 1829 – closed in 1971
Location:  Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Status:  Closed – now a museum
Security Class:  N/A – was a maximum security prison

Eastern State Penitentiaryphoto source:  Pixabay

Another one of America’s most notorious and oldest prisons is the now defunct Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened its doors on October 25, 1829. Eastern State Penitentiary was created to be the world’s first true “penitentiary” and the design of the prison was heavily influenced by the ideas put forth by the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in the late 18th century.

Unlike other prisons of the time, Eastern State Penitentiary believed, based on the Philadelphia Society’s ideas, that only complete solitude could reform a criminal – this system became known as the Pennsylvania System. Each individual cell housed everything and inmate needed – a bathroom, feed doors, and a small exercise yard – to minimize contact between other inmates as well as guards. While this system may have kept inmates from harming one another or the staff, the prisoners often went mad. There were often riots and escapes and eventually, Eastern State Penitentiary briefly converted into a standard prison before being shut down in 1971. Today, Eastern State Penitentiary serves an historical museum and is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.


3. Sing Sing Correctional Facility

Year Opened: 1828 – construction began in 1825
Location:  Ossining, New York
Status:  Operational
Security Class:  Maximum (Men’s)

Sing Singphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons via United States Library of Congress

Sing Sing Correctional Facility, commonly known as Sing Sing, is not only one of the oldest prisons in America, but one of the most infamous in the country. Construction of Sing Sing began in 1825 and prison labor was used until the prison was completed in 1828. While the Auburn System was developed at an older New York jail, Sing Sing was the first prison to really embody the harsh and extreme nature of the congregate system – this is a reputation that Sing Sing has never been able to shake off.

Not only was Sing Sing the embodiment of the Auburn System, it was also dubbed the “Death House” because of the 614 electric chair executions (including 8 women) that took place between 1891 and 1963. Adding on to Sing Sing’s infamy was the fact that the prison often held some of the most notrious prisoners in American history, including James Larkin, as well as several members of the mafia like Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. In recent years, there has been a proposal to turn some of the old abandoned parts of Sing Sing into a prison museum, highlighting Sing Sing’s importance to the development of the American penal system.


2. Auburn Correctional Facility

Year Opened: 1817
Location:  Auburn, New York
Status:  Operational
Security Class:  Maximum (Men’s)

Auburn Correctional Facilityphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

Auburn Correctional Facility was opened in 1817 and has continued to operate out of the same spot since then. The Auburn prison is considered one of the early pioneers of the American penal system – Auburn Correctional Facility was the first prison to put inmates in individual cells. It was also the first prison to separate the mentally ill from the general population and in 1890, Auburn Correctional Facility became the first prison in the world to execute an inmate with the electric chair.

Famously, Auburn Correctional Facility developed what is now known as the Auburn System, which was implemented in other prisons around the world. Essentially, the Auburn System stripped the prisoners of their sense of self by enforcing a strict silence policy, making the prisoners wear striped uniforms, and putting them to work in prison shops – any disobedience was met with a physical whipping. The system was so effective, that Auburn Correctional Facility allowed prison officials from around the world and the public as well to tour the prison. All of these dehumanizing conditions were eventually lifted in the early 20th century.


1. New Jersey State Prison

Year Opened: 1798
Location:  Trenton, New Jersey
Status:  Operational
Security Class:  Maximum (Men’s)

New Jersey State Prisonphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

While the New Jersey State Prison was not the first prison in the United States, it is the only one still around from the 18th century, making it the oldest prison in America. The prison was opened in 1798 as the New Jersey Penitentiary House and this building is now the oldest part of the current prison – the 1798 Penitentiary House is the oldest building still in operation as part of an active, working prison in the United States.

In 1832, New Jersey State Prison built a new cell house, known as the Fortress Penitentiary. The prisoners were moved from the Penitentiary House to the new Fortress Penitentiary in 1836. Most of   Penitentiary House was demolished except for the Front House, which was turned into a residence for the Keeper of the State Prison. A modern compound was added to the two older parts of New Jersey State Prison in 1979.

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