Before 1775, imprisonment was rarely used as a punishment for crime. Since that year, however, incarceration rates have grown exponentially, creating the need for physicians in correctional institutions. Correctional medicine began, in its most rudimentary form, in Victorian England, under the health reforms promoted by wealthy philanthropist and devout ascetic John Howard and his collaborator, well-to-do Quaker physician John Fothergill.
Another early development in the history of correctional medicine was the work of Louis-René Villermé (1782–1863), a physician and pioneering hygienist whose study, Des Prisons, was published in 1820. The work of Villerme and other French hygienists was an inspiration to German, American, and British public health leaders and spurred an overhaul in the conditions in which prisoners were held.
In the 1970s, widespread intervention by federal courts improved conditions of confinement, including health care services and public health conditions, and it stimulated investment in medical staff, equipment, and facilities necessary to improve quality and organization of prison and jail medical services.
The Society of Correctional Physicians  is a non-profit physician organization founded in August, 1992 as national educational and scientific society for the advancement of Correctional Medicine.
- The Public Health Model of Correctional Health Care, Sheriff Michael Ashe, Jr., and Dr. Thomas Conklin. Hampden County Correctional Center. Ludlow, MA
- Priestley, P. Victorian Prison Lives—English Prison Biography, 1820-1914. London, Methuen & Co., 1985
- McKelvey B; American Prisons—A History of Good Intentions. Montclair, NJ, Patterson Smith Publishing, 1977