The concept of a penal colony or jail can date as far back to around 400 B.C. in Jerusalem, where dungeons were used to hold prisoners that were incarcerated for committing crimes.
However, jail as it is known today is more closely related to the jail system that was implemented in Britain during the 19th century, arising out of the philosophy and views of Jeremy Bentham. Prior to Bentham, a penal colony or jail was simply a holding place or facility for criminals awaiting hanging. Bentham would be responsible for imparting the notion that having criminals incarcerated could also be used as punishment, which was a completely revolutionary concept at the time.
In the United States, the history of jail and the penal colony can be traced back to the colonies established in Pennsylvania, in particular, William Penn’s colony. William Penn would abolish some of the punishment tactics and codes from England that seemed too severe for the crime. Death was a common punishment, even for what can be considered minor crimes. Aside from major crimes such as murder, imprisonment in jail was used as a punishment, along with fines and labor.
Prisons were mostly used to hold those awaiting trial, witnesses, and even those that owed debts, though this would change with the onset of the American Revolution. As more people would become incarcerated, penal colonies would have to expand and become larger in order to house more inmates. One of the first major prison facilities that was constructed in the United States would also be founded in Pennsylvania, which would become known as the Eastern State Penitentiary, which began construction in 1822 and would be completed in 1836.