The Oldest Prisons in the U.S.

The prison system in the United States dates back more than 230 years and is as old as the country itself. The system was created based on the English penal code and has many characteristics resembling the English system. The number of prisons in the United States grew from a handful of debtor prisons in early times to the more than 4,500 facilities in operation today. The current prison population in the U.S., according to U.S. Department of Justice data, is 1.6 million (2011). The State of Louisiana has the most prisoners per 100,000 people (1,619) while the State of Maine houses the fewest inmates per capita of any state (151 prisoners per 100,000 people).

The oldest prisons in the country that are still in operation today are the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, and the San Quentin State Prison located in Marin County, California. Read on for a short history of each facility.

Sing Sing Correctional Facility (1826)  

The Sing Sing Penitentiary is located just outside New York City on the Hudson River. The prison has been in continual use as a correctional facility for 187 years. The facility is a maximum security, male only correctional institution designed to house approximately 1,700 people, although the current population at Sing Sing is around 2,200 prisoners.

The facility first opened in 1826 as a replacement for the older Newgate Prison, built in 1797 in New York City. Initial inmates held at Sing Sing were those convicted of felonies, as well as mentally incompetent persons and individuals adjudicated as being insane. By 1848, insane and mentally incompetent prisoners were transferred to a new state mental hospital located in Utica, New York. Women were first housed at Sing Sing in the Mount Pleasant Female Prison opened in 1839 and were subsequently transferred to county facilities and finally to a new women’s prison built in Auburn, New York in 1893.

San Quentin State Prison (1852)  

The oldest prison in the State of California is the maximum security men’s facility located in the unincorporated town of San Quentin, California. The prison was opened in July 1852 and currently serves as the only death row facility in the state. San Quentin houses 3,955 male prisoners in a facility only designed to hold 3,082, as of January 2013. The 734 inmates that currently live on death row constitute the largest male death row population in the world. The most famous inmate to have been executed at San Quentin is possibly Stanley Tookie Williams, founder of the L.A. Crips street gang.

Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth (1875)  

The Disciplinary Barracks are located on the oldest military installation west of the Mississippi River. The barracks are the only maximum security military prison and this is the oldest prison in the federal correctional system. The facility houses 440 male inmates convicted of military crimes. Of the housed prisoners at Fort Leavenworth (known as “The Castle”), six are currently on death row, including former Army Major Nidal Hasan, who was found guilty of the shootings at the base at Fort Hood, Texas that left 13 dead. Another notable prisoner being held at Leavenworth is Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning, a former Army private and intelligence analyst who was convicted of providing classified documents to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.


Jason Belmont is a freelance writer based in Issaquah, Washington who focuses on law & society. Those who find themselves in trouble and in need of assistance in Texas should consider going with OK Bail Bonds, located in Houston, Texas.