A Brief History of the Bureau of Prisons

Pursuant to Pub. L. No. 71-218, 46 Stat. 325 (1930), the Bureau of Prisons was established within the Department of Justice and charged with the "management and regulation of all Federal penal and correctional institutions." This responsibility covered the administration of the 11 Federal prisons in operation at the time.

As time has passed and laws have changed, the Bureau's responsibilities have grown, as has the prison population. At the end of 1930, the agency operated 14 facilities for just over 13,000 inmates. By 1940, the Bureau had grown to 24 facilities with 24,360 inmates. Except for a few fluctuations, the number of inmates did not change significantly between 1940 and 1980, when the population was 24,252. However, the number of facilities almost doubled (from 24 to 44) as the Bureau gradually moved from operating large facilities confining inmates of many security levels to operating smaller facilities that each confined inmates with similar security needs.

As a result of Federal law enforcement efforts and new legislation that dramatically altered sentencing in the Federal criminal justice system, the 1980s brought a significant increase in the number of Federal inmates. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 established determinate sentencing, abolished parole, and reduced good time; additionally, several mandatory minimum sentencing provisions were enacted in 1986, 1988, and 1990. From 1980 to 1989, the inmate population more than doubled, from just over 24,000 to almost 58,000. During the 1990s, the population more than doubled again, reaching approximately 136,000 at the end of 1999 as efforts to combat illegal drugs and illegal immigration contributed to significantly increased conviction rates.

The Bureau of Prisons has experienced many highlights and challenges during its first 80 years. For more information on the history of the Bureau of Prisons, please see the selected bibliography below or visit the National Archives & Records Administration research room for the Bureau of Prisons.

Selected Bibliography on the History of the Bureau of Prisons
  • Carlson, Norman A. "The Federal Prison System: Forty-Five Years of Change." Federal Probation. Vol. 39, No. 2, June 1975, pp. 37-42.
  • Carlson, Norman A. "Corrections in the United States Today: A Balance has been Struck." The American Criminal Law Review. Vol. 13, No. 4, Spring 1976, pp. 615-647.
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons. "Factories with Fences: The History of Federal Prison Industries." Washington, DC: Federal Prison Industries, Inc. 1996.
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons. "Thirty Years of Prison Progress."  Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons. No date.
  • Hershberger, Gregory L. "The Development of the Federal Prison System." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice/Federal Prison System. 1979.
  • Roberts, John W. "View from the Top." Federal Prisons Journal. Vol. 1, No. 4 (summer), pp. 27-46, Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons. 1990.