1950s Prison Compared to Today

Sociologists became concerned about prison conditions in the 1950s because of a sharp rise in the number of prisoners and overcrowding in prisons. After a group of prisoners cut their tendons in protest of conditions at a Louisiana prison, reformers began seriously considering how to improve conditions. Prisons in 2011 suffer from some of the same problems, although prisoners now train for jobs while in prison and their living environment is healthier.


Prison Population

In the 1950s, there were about 23,000 people in federal prison and 186,000 in state prison. Americans were therefore concerned about the number of people in prison and the seemingly exponential growth of crime during this decade. This number has increased over the last 60 years; as of 2011, there are 208,118 people in federal prison and approximately 1.4 million people in state prison.


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Prisons in the 1950s were not focused on rehabilitation, for the most part. Prison was viewed as a punishment and was intended to deter potential criminals from engaging in illegal acts. In addition, business owners opposed teaching prisoners job skills because they feared prisoners would take away jobs from the non-prison population. In contrast, many prions in 2011 offer job skills and educational programs to help prisoners find productive activity.



In the 1950s, about 60 percent of criminals went on to repeat their crimes after being released from prison. Encylopedia.com reports that there was no organized rule regarding parole; often, violent criminals were let out on parole while non-violent criminals remained in prison for their entire sentence. This problem continues today, as people who possess drugs and other non-violent criminals make up a large percentage of the prison population.


Prison Conditions

1950s prisons often suffered from massive overcrowding. Prison cells meant to house one or two inmates often contained four or more prisoners. As a result, prisoners were unable to adequately share toilets and lived in dirt and squalor; in addition, they often fought violently with one another as well as being beaten by guards. While these conditions have improved, in 2011 overcrowding in state prisons is still a concern.