Reforming the American Prison System
Introduction: The American criminal justice system serves as a mechanism to administer societal justice. To ensure societal justice, the legal system deters crime by detaining unlawful violators, eradicating them from society and providing appropriate punishment.
It accomplishes these goals the prison system establishment. Unfortunately, the modern U.S. prison system remains severely flawed in its disciplinary administration. In what appears a sad reality, many criminals receive better treatment than the homeless and most other impoverished Americans. Frankly, our prison system seems more like a privileged playground than a place of punishment. The government sequesters superfluous amounts of money in taxes to subsidize inmates, providing prisoners with facilities such as a full-length basketball court and gym packed abundantly with weight equipment.
Worse, our prison system in its objective deliberately seeks to ameliorate conditions for prisoners. Accommodating and appeasing their interests, our prison system presents a serious problem. Prisoners deserve no such comfort. Rather, these facilities, which reward prisoners for their offenses, only psychologically reinforce criminal behavior and thereby instigate recidivism.
Moreover, the overwhelmingly crowded population bombarding many state prisons exacerbates exorbitant facility expenditures. These excessive expenses impose a severe strain on the U.S. economy. Nevertheless, solutions exist. First, the government needs to abandon its funding of correctional facilities. These programs wastefully appropriate unreasonably high amounts of money to undeserving criminals who only repeat crimes. Secondly, to economize money and space, prisons might consider implementing a prisoner classification system that separates prisoners based on criminal severity.
Hence, classifying prisoners corresponding to the level of threat seems an invaluable approach. Innocuous individuals such as drug addicts and others who pose minimum threat belong in either jail or rehabilitation centers whereas capital punishment might serve as appropriate punishment for the most dangerous convicts. Deportation appears the only answer for illegal alien prisoners who deserve no place in America. Therefore, the American prison system necessitates extensive reform as referenced by unnecessary correctional facilities and overcrowding, which collectively not only cause outrageous facility expenses but encourage additional crime. In contemporary American society, many prisoners experience undeserved special treatment.
Rather than receive impartial punishment as the conventional criminal justice system advocates, they actually live a privileged lifestyle due to correctional facilities which reward them for their actions. In prison, recreation encompasses various program activities. For example, ranging from passive activities to sports, recreation may include, “television/movies, board games, card games, billiards, bingo, hobbies such as ceramics, photography, music, art, basketball, volleyball, and/or strength training exercise like weight lifting,” (Correctional Recreation: An Overview, 1).
While prison institutions vary extensively in the recreational programs offered, “federal facilities tend to support a wider range of activities,” such as, “jogging tracks, outdoor recreational yards, softball fields, photography dark rooms, music rooms, hobby rooms, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, theaters, etc.,” (Correctional Recreation: An Overview, 1). How ridiculous! These criminals deserve no appeasement. Justice only prevails when convicts suffer the proper consequences for their actions. Whatever happened to the “just deserts” model of criminal sentencing, providing appropriate corresponding punishment commensurate with criminal severity, which our criminal justice system advocates (Schmalleger, 403)? Furthermore, federal, state, and local governments invest approximately, “$62 billion” annually on correctional adult/juvenile correctional facilities (State Corrections Spending, 1).
Since 1986, State Corrections spending aggrandized from $10,085,000,000 to “27,598,000,000” in 1996, surpassing $30 billion for 1998, and eventually reaching “$40,995,000,000” by 2004 (State Corrections Spending, 1). In 2005, state corrections expenditures culminated at a whopping, “$42,890,000,000” with current totals exceeding this amount (State Corrections Spending, 1). Following this pattern, projected federal and state funds expect to reach at least, “$27 billion”, “$15 billion” of which constitute operational funds and another “$12 billion,” in capital funds (State Corrections Spending, 1). Operational costs include, “utilities, food, medical supplies, communication services, transportation, program services, and a variety of contracted support services,” among other correctional resources (Public Safety, Public Spending, 18).
Based on the above-mentioned calculations, reasonable predictions suggest increases anywhere from, “$2.5 – 5 billion annually by 2011,” (Public Safety, Public Spending, 18). Essentially, the taxpayer spends billions of dollars each year not to punish, but rather reward criminals for their misconduct. Go figure. What a frivolous waste of money! Prisoners deserve no special treatment. It undermines societal justice. Rather, such special recreational treatment serves as a reward that psychologically reinforces the criminal behavior.
Recall the case of ‘Bomber Bandit’ David Wayne Britton. During his initial 14 year sentence at Sing-Sing Prison, Britton participated in the Rehabilitation Through Arts (RTA) program which provided professional acting instruction. Less than 2 years after his release from prison, Wayne regressed into recidivism. Resorting to former ways, Britton recommitted robbery, and currently, serves another 14 years in prison. Why? His rehabilitation at Sing-Sing represents a reward which psychologically reinforced his behavior.
The principles of reinforcement stipulate that “rewards increase a behavior,” (Reinforcement Theory, 1). Therefore, the rehabilitation Wayne received constitutes a reward because he repeated his robbery, increasing frequency of such behavior. Wayne repeated his misconduct because he received insufficient punishment. According to psychological reinforcement theory, effective punishment requires “immediate, intense, unavoidable, and consistent,” conditions (Reinforcement Theory, 1).
Lacking adequate intensity, Wayne’s initial sentence constitutes a reward rather than punishment since it encouraged him to subsequently replicate robberies. High recidivism rates characterize the current American prison system. Consider national statistics. According to data collected by the Bureau of Justice indicated that among prisoners released in 1994, “67.5% became arrested for a new offense, with 46.9% convicted for committing new crimes,” (State Corrections Spending, 1). Additionally, “51.8%” returned to prison either for committing a new offense or repeating crimes, violating the conditions of their release (State Corrections Spending, 1).
The 1994 national study evaluated, “272,111 prisoners released from prison in 15 states,” which comprised, “2/3” of all discharged prisoners during that year (Bureau of Justice, 1). Recidivism stems directly from a flawed prison system, one that rewards its prisoners with recreation, psychologically reinforcing the criminal behavior. Worse, our criminal justice system in its objective actually aspires to reward prisoners rather than provide the proper punishment they deserve. For example, a 1999 York Correctional Institution Manual enumerated its various objectives, which includes, “providing positive leisurely alternatives, improving self esteem, enhancing health/fitness levels, ameliorating individual creativity, strengthening positive socialization skills, relieving institutional stress, and keeping inmates occupied to reduce idleness,” (Correctional Recreation: An Overview, 1).
Such objectives suggest to prisoners that the criminal justice system condones crime. It clearly sends the wrong message. Hence, these correctional facilities intended as rehabilitation unjustifiably reward prisoners for their malevolence. Furthermore, the aforementioned correctional facilities remain available to all security prison levels except maximum prisons. For instance, even close security level prisoners, criminals with known, “assaultive histories and possible detainers, requests by law enforcement regarding pending charges, for other serious crimes,” though meticulously monitored, receive the opportunity to participate in a recreational activity (Georgia Department of Corrections, 1). Close security prisons permit temporary departure from confined cells, “to work or attend corrective programs inside the facility,” (North Carolina Department of Corrections, 1).
During the day, inmates possess access to a, “gym, auditorium, or recreational yard,” which may sometimes include, “organized recreational activities,” (24 hours in Prison, 1). Some close security prisons even allow inmates, “to watch television, play chess, checkers, cards and/or write letters,” (24 hours in Prison, 1). Unbelievable! Prison represents a place of punishment, not recreation. Again, criminals deserve no such reward. The prison system subdivides into four distinct echelons. Minimum, medium, close and maximum/super-maximum security levels represent the four echelons in ascending order corresponding to criminal severity. Even maximum/super-maximum prisons permit, “4 hours” per week of exercise, in a room surrounded by, “high concrete wall,” and usually contains one, “chin-up bar,” (Spunk.org, 1).
Prison officials, “exercise discretion,” regarding reading materials, yet may still allow certain books and magazines (Pettigrew, 1). Likewise, it the super-max prison may permit some closed-circuit television, though solely regulated by prison guards (Spunk.org, 1). Even at restricted levels, these facilities remain unnecessary to the worst criminals. Ironically, while maximum risk prisoners receive minimal recreational exposure sentenced to approximately “23 hours” of solitary confinement, these criminals alone cost the federal government more in fundamental infrastructure than any other prisoner grouping (Levels of Security, 1).
Public funding appropriated to furnish newer maximum level state prisons with the latest technological capabilities partially explains this paradox. Why? Greater security generates greater expense. It costs more to protect others, particularly prison guards, against the severe threat high-risk prisoners pose. The most recent development, super-maximum prisons represent a sophisticated adaptation of maximum prisons possessing advanced surveillance and digital devices. Prison psychologist Craig Haney believes the super-maximum prison exposes criminals to isolation, “a technological separation from inmates,” not previously possible by former prison systems (Pettigrew, 1). Yet, some of these innovations seem ridiculously expensive.
Such expense on technology appears needless and counterproductive. For example, why waste perhaps billions of taxpayer dollars on, “electronic/audio video technology,” including, “closed-circuit television,” for prisons such as the one located in Boscobel, Wisconsin, to implement visitation contact (Pettigrew, 1)? If the super-max prison vociferously opposes “face-to-face visits behind bars and glass,” restricting prisoners to digital devices within their cells, then why not simply prohibit all forms of visitation (Pettigrew, 1)? Basic utilities already incur a tremendous expense. Since 2001, the average single prisoner alone costs state prisons approximately “$22,650” per year (Public Safety, Public Spending, 18). Why add more expense?
The Georgia Department of Corrections indicates “$109,000” alone in construction costs alone for bunk beds within two maximum security cell blocks when compared to close security prisons, “$79,200”, medium security prisons, “$60,700”, and minimum security prisons, “$31, 675” (Georgia Department of Corrections, 1). What an arbitrary waste of capital! Why the grotesque expense? Again, why impose such a burden on the hardworking, law-abiding American people?
The government needs to reduce its excessive investment in needless prison utilities which serve no tangible purpose. Prisons also face the challenge of overcrowding as prisoner population increases. From the 1970s to 90s, our prison system witnessed dramatic population increases. During this interval, its population tripled, eventually surpassing approximately, “300 per 100,000,” by the early 1990s (Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 659). By 2002, the U.S. prison population reached roughly “2 million people,” approximately “702 people per 100,000” (PBS, 1).
Evidently, our prison system lacks continuity as a direct consequence of such inundation. It seems completely inconsistent and unbalanced in its administration of punishment due to an inability to regulate increasing population. Such instability remains a direct consequence of population mismanagement. As the prisoner population proliferates, surpassing infrastructural size and capacity, overcrowding results.
Hence, challenges emerge involving prisoner placement. For example, the Wisconsin super-max prison mentioned earlier harbors prisoners who never committed grievous crimes, often due to insufficient space, “in other facilities or other nonpunitive reasons,” (Pettigrew, 1) What a serious problem! Relatively harmless prisoners exposed to the most oppressive conditions, directly violating their 8th Amendment right, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment, results in all because of unmanageable prison populations. Alabama, Connecticut, and Nebraska among several other states contain severely overcrowded prisons. In Alabama, prisons squeeze some, “27,000 prisoners,” into facilities designed to capacitate only, “13,000” at the expense of incarcerating nonviolent prisoners such as, “drug and alcohol offenders,” (Research and Reports, 1).
Likewise, Connecticut faces an overcrowding crisis as its population growth transcends national trends (Research and Reports, 1). Nebraska prisons, a system that exceeded population capacity during the 1980s, incarcerate, “more than half of its inmates,” for nonviolent offenses (Research and Reports, 1). Moreover, criteria indicate continued demographic hypertrophy in prisons. Recent estimates anticipate unprecedented population growth of prisoners in subsequent years, perhaps superseding, “192,000” inmates by the year 2011 (Public Safety, Public Spending, 1). Such overcrowding not only exacerbates capital expenditures, public funding needed to accommodate prison expansion but also provokes, “security/control difficulties and increased levels of violence,” (Improving Overcrowded Prisons, 1).
Hence increasing overpopulation presents a serious predicament to the prison system. Nevertheless, reasonable alternatives exist. A transition in approach may offer some solution. First, prison systems require a reorganization of the prison population. Departments need to develop a more competent classification system that efficiently assesses criminal behavior and severity based on security risk. Why not classify prisoners according to their level of risk (Improving Conditions in Overcrowded Prisons, 1)? After all, if “lower risk groups,” require lower level security, why not transfer them to jails and/or rehabilitative centers rather than prison.
For example, the lowest level minimum risk prisoners, such as alcoholics and drug addicts, belong in rehabilitation centers rather than prison. Drug offenders represent the greatest concentration, comprise, “59% of all prisoners (Faces of HR95,1). All other non-violent minimum security prisoners who pose the least threat to public safety belong in jail rather than prison. Unfortunately, among all the “1.2 million” drug offenders in prison only “200,000 individuals represent non-user drug dealers (Washington Monthly, 1). The others represent drug addicts. Most of the other 1 million drug offenders represent non-violent drug addicts who belong in rehabilitative centers.
These individuals pose no threat to society other than the potential effects of their substance addiction. Why not remove the non-violent drug abusers from prison? After all, public officials expect the cumulative cost of housing for methamphetamine offenders to exceed, “$340 million,”(Public Safety, 11). Why not transfer the nonviolent drug addicts who currently cost unnecessary space and expense to rehabilitative centers for treatment? Why waste millions of dollars?
They suffer from a non-violent addiction that requires psychological attention. Perhaps drug-dealers who sell death to others belong with murders either in maximum security prisons or possibly serving capital punishment. Approximately “27%” of the prison population harbors illegal aliens. As non-citizens, these individuals deserve no place even in American prisons (Faces of HR95). They illegal entrance to America alone entails a felony. Roughly 2 million illegal aliens annually infiltrate U.S. borders, exacerbating crime, destabilizing the economy, predisposing the nation to additional terrorism, and ultimately, polluting our culture with malfeasance.
They alone cost the government billions of dollars in social subsidized programs. “Senate expenditures for amnesty estimate a combined “$50 billion” annually directed toward, “entitlements, Medicaid, Social Security Income, Earned Income Tax Credit, the WIC program, food stamps, public housing, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and federally funded legal representation,” (Phillips, 1). Most of them refuse to learn English. Must we accommodate them? Deportation remains the only solution. Eradicating “27%” of the prison population considerably reduces unnecessary space and expenses. Though controversial, the death penalty provides one possible solution for murderers and other malicious maximum risk criminals.
Removing the most heinous perpetrators might accommodate sufficient space to reduce overcrowding and economize prison facility expenditures. However, various flaws inhibit efficient capital punishment application. It takes months sometimes years before a prisoner receives sentencing for execution. A New Jersey Policy Perspectives report confirmed that its state death penalty system cost taxpayers, “$253 million since 1983,” (NJADP, 1). Society demands an immediate, cost-efficient solution to the death penalty. Still, the death penalty remains a contentious issue. Prisoners need to die on their own terms. Ultimately, only God determines who deserves to die, as our Judeo-Christian foundation of justice advocates.
Yet, America also remains a secular institution as our First Amendment guarantees and the Eye-for-An-Eye Code of Hammurabi, which represents biblical Old Testament scripture, also applies to our American criminal justice model. Yet, other critics consider the death penalty a violation of our 8th Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. Again, death deserves death as enumerated by Hammurabi Code. Our system provides impartial corresponding punishment. If a person maliciously kills another than death appears justified in these worst case scenarios.
Also, the conventional death penalty appears insufficiently harsh, and even appeasing, for criminals like Timothy Mc Veigh among others who find death an easy escape to life imprisonment. Hence, a quick though torturous death, black-hole confinement without food or water, hanging, crucifixion, etc. among experimentation for the most malevolent murderers offers one feasible compromise. Imagine the tremendous space and expense potentially saved by a quick, yet relentless cost-effective death administered for murderers.
Such removal saves superfluous space and expense needed to administer criminal justice. Conclusion: Since its constitutional foundation, the U.S. criminal justice system serves to administer justice in society by discouraging crime, detaining offenders, and providing proper punishment. Prison systems play an instrumental role in achieving societal justice. However, the contemporary American prison system exhibits some flaws it in its disciplinary structure. These flaws unequivocally inhibit the full effect of justice. Apparently, most prisoners receive better treatment than most destitute hardworking Americans. In fact, some convicts even live better than ordinary middle-class Americans.
Various prisons incorporate recreational activities such as exercise, sports, and pastimes to pacify inmates. Among these activities include weight training, basketball, board games, television and other rehabilitative programs designed to promote prisoner welfare. The correctional institution in its primary objective actually intends to foster health and well-being through rehabilitation so prisoners may supposedly acquire skills necessary for re-entrance into society. How absurd! Consequently, its objectives contradict the disciplinary purpose of justice; to adequately punish individuals for their crimes, and hopefully thereby reduce recurring recidivism.
Why nurture the most heinous perpetrators who deserve only retribution for their reprehensible behavior? Such a system that rewards offenders seems unconscionable. It only aggravates crime through psychological reinforcement. Must society bear the burden of recurring recidivism? These criminals deserve no sympathy. Must taxpayers subject themselves to such capricious fiscal appropriation?
Whatever happened to the notion, “No taxation without representation!” which our constitutional founders courageously advocated in their indefatigable fight for national sovereignty against Britain? Overcrowding also presents a serious systematic problem since increased inundation of prisons considerably heightens public facility expenses, instigates environmental hostility, and in worst case scenarios compels early prison release. Consider reasonable solutions. First, the government needs to abandon its funding of correctional facilities in prison.
As aforementioned, correctional facilities serve no purpose since it wastefully appropriates public funds, providing insufficient punishment to a future crime. Furthermore, the prison system demands a hierarchy that reallocates prisoners. Therefore, such classification eliminates individuals posing maximum and minimum danger, neither of whom belongs in prison. One solution might entail moving the least threatening individuals to jails.
Perhaps another solution requires removal of the most malevolent criminals through capital punishment. Lastly, deport all illegal immigrant prisoners since they lack citizenship and deserve no place in the U.S. Ultimately, the U.S. prison system demands extensive reform because unnecessary correctional facilities plus overly concentrated populations cause unnecessary government expenditure while adulterating crime, and therefore present a grave injustice to American society.
- Public Safety Performance Project, “Public Safety, Public Spending: Forecasting America’s Prison Population 2007-2011”, 2007, http://www.pewpublicsafety.org/pdfs/PCT%20Public%20Safety%20Public%20Spending.pdf
- SBB, “Reinforcement Theory”, Sept. 15, 1996, SBB, Inc. http://www.as.wvu.edu/~sbb/comm221/chapters/rf.htm
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Recidivism of Prisoners in 1994”, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/reentry/recidivism.htm
- Georgia Department of Corrections, “State Prisons” 2007, http://www.dcor.state.ga.us/Divisions/Corrections/StatePrisons.html
- North Carolina Department of Corrections, “Assigning Inmates to Prison” 1995-2007, http://www.doc.state.nc.us/dop/custody.htm
- North Carolina Department of Corrections, “24 Hours in Prison” 1995-2007, http://www.doc.state.nc.us/DOP/HOURS24.htm
- Spunk.org, “What is a Super-max Prison?” http://www.spunk.org/texts/prison/sp001611.txt
- Pettigrew, Charles, A., “Comment: Technology and the Eighth Amendment: The Problem of Supermax Prisons”, North Carolina Journal of Law, 2002,
- South East Seventh-Day Adventist Church, “Levels of Security,” http://www.se7day.org/prison_ministry/security_levels.html
- Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, “Volume 30, Number 2 Spring 2007”, 2007, Harvard Society for Law & Public Policy, Inc.
- NewsHour Extra Story, “U.S. Prison Population Hits All-timeHigh”, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/teachers/lessonplans/math/incarceration_story_9-05.html
- Public Safety Performance, “Research & Reports,” 2007, http://www.pewpublicsafety.org/research.aspx
- Centre for Justice & Reconciliation, “Improving Conditions in Overcrowded Prisons”, 2001-2007, http://www.pficjr.org/Resources/justicereformkit/tenkeys/overcrowded
- Califano, Joseph, A., “A New Prescription – Investing in substance-abuse treatment would take a big bite out of crime”, Vol. 30, Issue 10, Oct. 1998, The Washington Monthly Online, Inc. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/1998/9810.califano.prescripton.html
- Human Rights 95, “Faces from the Human Rights and the Drug War exhibit”, Mar. 28, 1998, http://www.hr95.org/hr95faces.html
- New Jerseyans for Alternatives the Death Penalty, “New Report Death Penalty Cost New Jersey Taxpayers $250 million since 1982”, Nov. 21, 2005, http://www.njadp.org/forms/cost/cost%20study%20release.html
- Phillips, Howard, “The Constitutional Government Blog”, http://www.howardphillips.com/archive0606.htm
- Correctional Recreation, “Correctional Recreation: An Overview”, 2006, StrengthTech, Inc. http://www.strengthtech.com/correct/overview.htm
- Schmalleger, Frank, “Criminal Justice Today – An Introductory Text for the 21st Century”, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2001, 1999, 1997, 1995, 1993, 1991, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, Pearson Education, Inc.
- Public Safety Performance Project, “State Corrections Spending” 2007, http://www.pewpublicsafety.org/statistics/corrections_spending.aspx
Interesting and well researched article Michael.
Something I remember reading about a few years back about your prison system which puzzled me was about the actual time served by a lot of the inmates- roughly one calendar month for each year of sentence. does that still apply?
I was entirely relieved to find someone who actually had the backbone to write the truth concerning our prison system. Since we have been without leaders who have a strong sense of duty to our society and the victims created by offenders, and due to the lack of judgement made by actions of those in the past; we have a system that has fallen in the bucket of singers to the entitlement chorus. It has poured out all over our society, and no one wants to make a step out in the bold area of ethical and moral responsibility. I know inmates can now order outside prison foods such as pizzas, steaks, and other meals they would have missed out years ago. Administrators and governments are fear and constituent motivated. When staffing ratios are not enough to handle the many different situations inside prison walls, government officials consider more privileges for inmates in a way to make them ‘happier’ and more content in the prison environment. When 1 in 5 people are incarcerated in some states, government officials consider those numbers in their law making decisions. Remember for those who are incarcerated, they have voting family members on the outside; who will always believe their son, their nephew, their cousin, did not do it because he says so; not because they were convicted and proved to be guilty of choosing to committ a crime.
I don’t think things in our system will change too soon.