Section 6.2: Prisons

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When people are convicted of a crime, they may be sent to prison. However, before they are sent to their final destination, they go through a process where they are evaluated based on various factors such as the type of crime they committed, their criminal history, risk of escape, health issues, and any behavioral problems they may have.

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This is done at a classification or reception facility. The purpose of this evaluation is to determine how dangerous the offender is and what kind of treatment they need. After the assessment, the prison staff will assign the prisoner to a specific prison based on the evaluation results.

When choosing which prison to assign the prisoner, the primary concern is safety, followed by practical concerns such as the availability of bed space. The prisoner’s individual needs are also considered. However, the prisoner has almost no say in which facility they are assigned to. Sometimes, prisoners may request to be moved to a facility closer to their family, but this is not always possible because of security concerns and bed availability.

Female inmates often face more challenges because there are fewer prisons specifically designed for them. This means that they may be housed far away from their families, and there may be no options available that are closer.

Development of Modern Prisons

Before the 1800s, many countries that followed common law relied heavily on physical punishments. However, in the 18th century, some people started to question the use of physical punishments and advocated for the reform of offenders instead. One of these early reformers was John Howard, who proposed the use of penitentiaries. Penitentiaries were places where offenders could engage in work and reflection as a way of atoning for their misdeeds. The term penitent refers to the feelings of sorrow and regret that come with having done wrong.  Prisoners were kept in solitary cells to create the appropriate atmosphere for reflection.

Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail was one of the first attempts to model the European penitentiaries. The system used there later became known as the Pennsylvania System. Inmates were kept in small, dark cells, and no communication was allowed. Critics of this system began to speak out against the practice of solitary confinement early on, as they believed it was emotionally damaging to inmates.

The New York system evolved along similar lines with the opening of the Auburn Penitentiary in 1819. This facility used what came to be known as the congregate system. Inmates spent their nights in individual cells but were required to congregate in workshops during the day. Work was taken very seriously, and talking was not allowed while on the job or during meals.

Prisons in the South and West were different from those in the Northeast. In the Deep South, the lease system was used, where businesses negotiated with the state to exchange convict labor for the care of inmates. Prisoners were primarily used for hard manual labor, such as logging, cotton picking, and railroad construction. In the West, Eastern ideas of penology did not catch on, except in California, where many frontier prisoners were held in federal military prisons.

By the mid-19th century, overcrowding and understaffing had led to deplorable prison conditions across the country. The National Prison Association (which would later become the American Correctional Association) issued a Declaration of Principles in 1870, which expressed the idea that prisons should be operated according to the philosophy that prisoners should be reformed and that reform should be rewarded with release from confinement. This ushered in the Reformatory Movement.

The Elmira Reformatory opened in 1876 under the leadership of Zebulon Brockway, was one of the earliest prisons to adopt this philosophy. Brockway ran the reformatory according to the idea that education was the key to inmate reform. Inmates that followed the rules were classified at higher levels of privilege, and they earned credits toward release under a “mark” system. This was a shift away from the doctrine of proportionality and toward indeterminate sentences and community corrections.

The rehabilitation model gained momentum in the 1930s as psychology and other social and behavioral sciences became popular. This was essentially a medical model in which criminality was seen as a disease that could be cured. However, rising crime rates and a changing prison population led to a shift toward the crime control model in the 1970s, with a focus on punishment and lengthy prison sentences. This led to a dramatic increase in prison populations and corrections expenditures, which many states can no longer sustain. As a result, there is a growing emphasis on community corrections and a move back toward a rehabilitative model.

🔍 Reflect

How have historical shifts in the philosophy and practice of imprisonment influenced modern correctional systems, and what are the potential benefits and challenges of returning to a rehabilitative model today?

Prison Classifications

Prisons in the United States are categorized by custody levels, ranging from the highest security levels to the lowest. Super-maximum-security prisons house the most violent and escape-prone inmates and are characterized by almost no inmate mobility within the facility and fortress-like security measures. They are very expensive to build and operate, with the first one, Alcatraz, which was built in 1934 by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. 

Maximum-security prisons are fortresses that house the most dangerous prisoners, with only 20% of U.S. prisons labeled as maximum security but holding approximately 33% of inmates. These facilities are characterized by very low levels of inmate mobility, extensive physical security measures, and features such as tall walls and fences, watchtowers staffed by officers armed with rifles, and security lighting and video cameras.

States that use the death penalty usually place death row inside a maximum-security facility that is often regarded as a prison within a prison. Medium-security prisons are another level of custody, using a series of fences or walls to hold prisoners that are still considered dangerous but less so than maximum-security prisoners. These institutions offer more inmate mobility and provide more treatment and work options, with most likely to engage inmates in industrial work.

Minimum-security prisons are institutions that usually do not have walls and armed security and house nonviolent prisoners with a very low risk of escape. These institutions have far more programs for inmates, both inside the prison and outside the community, and are most likely to provide inmates with the opportunity to engage in productive activities. Women are most often housed in women’s prisons, which are smaller and fewer in number than male institutions. A few states operate coeducational prisons where both male and female inmates live together. Still, most facilities are segregated by gender due to the fear of predation by adult male offenders.

In the past, the dramatic growth in prison populations led to the emergence of private prisons. Private organizations claimed to own and operate prisons more efficiently than government agencies. The Corrections Corporation of America is the largest commercial operator of jails and prisons in the United States. However, the popularity of private prisons has waned in recent years due to legal liability issues and a failure to realize the huge savings promised by private corporations (Clear et al., 2019).

🔍 Reflect

How do different levels of prison security and classifications impact the management and rehabilitation of inmates, and what are the ethical and practical considerations of using private prisons?

Special Populations

A significant problem affecting the operation of prisons in the United States is the presence of special populations, including elderly inmates. Due to an aging population and mandatory sentencing laws, the number of elderly inmates has dramatically increased, which is a costly proposition for the American correctional system. Elderly inmates require more medical attention and are less able to work than their younger counterparts, which undermines the prison industry’s ability to subsidize operational costs.

Moreover, younger inmates may prey on elderly inmates, making them more vulnerable. Consequently, the federal prison system and many state systems are rethinking policies that contribute to the “graying” of correctional populations.

Another special population is inmates with chronic medical conditions, which are becoming more prevalent in jails and prisons. While arthritis and hypertension are the most common chronic conditions among inmates, more severe and less treatable maladies are also widespread.

Many larger correctional facilities have special sections devoted to inmates with medical problems, which require additional medical staff to work with security personnel. However, recruiting medical staff willing to work in confinement with inmates is a constant problem for administrators.

Critics argue that the number of mentally ill inmates in the United States has reached crisis levels. The deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s, which advocated for the rights of mentally ill individuals, had the unintended consequence of dumping the mentally ill population into jails and prisons.

The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 further reduced funding for mental health hospitals, exacerbating the problem. With state hospitals gone or severely restricted, communities resorted to criminalizing the mentally ill, which is a poor solution that fails to address the root cause of the problem.

🔍 Reflect

What are the challenges and implications of managing special populations, such as elderly and mentally ill inmates, within the prison system, and how might policy changes improve their care and rehabilitation?

Prison Overcrowding

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2021, the United States has a total prison population of approximately 1.5 million (Kaeble & Cowhig, 2022). Despite a recent decline in the prison population, overcrowding continues to be a serious problem in many states. In fact, as of 2021, 21 states were operating at or above 100% capacity. This overcrowding violates constitutional standards and has led to court orders requiring states to take action to reduce their prison populations.

To address this issue, many states have implemented a variety of programs aimed at reducing prison overcrowding. For example, some states have built new prisons, expanded existing facilities, or retrofitted them to increase their capacity while still meeting legal guidelines. Others have implemented early-release programs to reduce the number of inmates in custody. For instance, in 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that allows for the early release of thousands of inmates who have less than a year left to serve their sentences and meet certain criteria.

In addition to early release programs, states have expanded the range of criminal sanctions beyond traditional parole and prison sentences. Some have implemented community corrections programs, which provide non-incarceration options for certain offenders. Others have developed diversionary programs, such as drug courts or mental health courts, which offer treatment and other interventions instead of incarceration.

Furthermore, many states have revised their criminal laws to reduce the number of people sent to prison. For example, some states have decriminalized or reduced the classification of certain offenses, such as drug possession, in an effort to decrease the number of people sent to prison for non-violent offenses.

Despite recent declines in the prison population, overcrowding continues to be a significant problem in many states. States have implemented a range of programs and policies to address this issue, including building new prisons, early release programs, community corrections, diversionary programs, and revising criminal laws. These efforts are critical in ensuring that correctional facilities operate effectively, efficiently, and constitutionally.

🔍 Reflect

How do various strategies to reduce prison overcrowding, such as early release programs and community corrections, balance public safety and the rights of inmates, and what further reforms might be necessary?

Prison Programs

Prisons can be seen as similar to small cities, where all the basic needs of life must be met, but with the added requirement of facilitating rehabilitative objectives. Prison programs generally seek to meet one of these objectives.  This includes providing medical services to inmates, meeting their religious needs, and ensuring access to recreational activities.

Inmates also have opportunities to participate in labor and industry programs, which can help them develop skills and earn income. A range of rehabilitative programs are also available, including job training, addiction treatment, and therapy for psychological and emotional issues.

For example, many prisons offer vocational training programs, such as welding or computer skills, to help inmates develop skills that can be used in the workforce upon release. Additionally, some facilities offer substance abuse programs, which provide counseling and support to help inmates overcome addiction. Inmates may also have access to group therapy or individual counseling sessions to address mental health concerns, such as depression or anxiety.

While some of these programs may be mandatory, others are voluntary, and inmates can choose to participate based on their interests and needs. These rehabilitative programs can help reduce recidivism rates and prepare inmates for successful reentry into society.

One of the most commonly offered programs in prisons is job training or vocational education. This type of program provides inmates with practical skills and knowledge that can be applied to a variety of industries and trades. Inmates who participate in these programs may be able to earn certification in specific fields, such as automotive repair, welding, or plumbing. The goal of job training programs is to provide inmates with marketable skills that will make them more employable upon release, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will return to prison.

Another important program is substance abuse treatment. Substance abuse is a common problem among inmates, and prisons have long been criticized for not doing enough to address this issue. Substance abuse programs aim to help inmates overcome addiction through counseling, support groups, and educational classes. By providing inmates with the tools they need to manage their addiction, these programs can reduce the likelihood of relapse and improve inmates’ overall well-being.

In addition to substance abuse treatment, many prisons offer mental health services to inmates. This may include individual counseling, group therapy, and medication management. The goal of these programs is to help inmates address mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By providing inmates with the necessary tools and support to manage their mental health, these programs can improve inmates’ quality of life and reduce the likelihood of future criminal behavior.

Another type of rehabilitative program is education. Many prisons offer high school equivalency classes, as well as college-level courses, to help inmates earn a degree. The purpose of these programs is to provide inmates with the educational background they need to pursue a career or higher education upon release. By improving inmates’ educational attainment, these programs can reduce recidivism rates and increase the likelihood of successful reentry into society.

Finally, many prisons offer religious programs and counseling to inmates. These programs are designed to meet the spiritual needs of inmates and may include religious services, Bible study groups, or pastoral counseling. The goal of these programs is to provide inmates with a sense of purpose and meaning, as well as a moral compass, which can help guide their behavior both inside and outside of prison.

Overall, the purpose of rehabilitative programs in prisons is to help inmates address the issues that may have led to their criminal behavior and prepare them for successful reentry into society. By providing inmates with the skills, education, and support they need to overcome addiction, manage their mental health, and develop marketable skills, prisons can help reduce recidivism rates and promote public safety.

🔍 Reflect

How do prison programs aimed at rehabilitation, such as job training, substance abuse treatment, and mental health services, contribute to reducing recidivism and preparing inmates for reintegration into society, and what challenges might these programs face?

Summary

Prison classification is an essential process for assigning inmates to the appropriate prison based on various factors, such as their criminal history, risk of escape, health issues, and behavioral problems. The primary concern when choosing which prison to assign a prisoner is safety, followed by practical concerns such as the availability of bed space, and the prisoner’s individual needs. However, female inmates often face more challenges due to the scarcity of prisons specifically designed for them.

The development of modern prisons began in the 18th century, with the use of penitentiaries proposed by reformers like John Howard. The Pennsylvania System and the New York system were the early models for the use of solitary confinement and the congregate system, respectively. The lease system was used in the Deep South, where businesses negotiated with the state to exchange convict labor for the care of inmates, while in the West, Eastern ideas of penology did not catch on except in California, where many frontier prisoners were held in federal military prisons. 

Overcrowding and understaffing led to deplorable prison conditions by the mid-19th century, which led to the Reformatory Movement and the adoption of the rehabilitation model. However, rising crime rates and a changing prison population led to a shift toward the crime control model in the 1970s, with a focus on punishment and lengthy prison sentences.

Prisons in the United States are categorized by custody levels, ranging from the highest security levels to the lowest, and women are mostly housed in women’s prisons. The growth in prison populations led to the emergence of private prisons in the past, but the popularity of private prisons has waned in recent years due to legal liability issues and a failure to realize the savings promised by private corporations.

Special populations, including elderly inmates, inmates with chronic medical conditions, and mentally ill inmates, are a significant problem affecting the operation of prisons in the United States. The “graying” of correctional populations is costly, as elderly inmates require more medical attention and are less able to work than their younger counterparts. Inmates with chronic medical conditions are becoming more prevalent in jails and prisons, requiring additional medical staff to work with security personnel. The dumping of the mentally ill population into jails and prisons is a poor solution that fails to address the root cause of the problem.

The United States has a total prison population of approximately 1.5 million, and 21 states operate at or above 100% capacity, violating constitutional standards. To reduce overcrowding, states have implemented a range of programs and policies, such as building new prisons, early release programs, community corrections, diversionary programs, and revising criminal laws. These efforts aim to ensure that correctional facilities operate effectively, efficiently, and constitutionally.

Prisons offer a range of rehabilitative programs, including medical services, religious needs, access to recreational activities, labor and industry programs, job training, addiction treatment, therapy for psychological and emotional issues, education, and religious programs. Inmates have opportunities to participate in mandatory and voluntary programs based on their interests and needs. These rehabilitative programs aim to reduce recidivism rates and prepare inmates for successful reentry into society.

Job training or vocational education is the most commonly offered program in prisons, providing inmates with marketable skills that will make them more employable upon release. Substance abuse treatment programs aim to help inmates overcome addiction through counseling, support groups, and educational classes, reducing the likelihood of relapse and improving inmates’ overall well-being.

Mental health services provide inmates with individual counseling, group therapy, and medication management to manage mental health concerns, improving inmates’ quality of life and reducing the likelihood of future criminal behavior. Educational programs, including high school equivalency classes and college-level courses, improve inmates’ educational attainment, reducing recidivism rates and increasing the likelihood of successful reentry into society.

Finally, religious programs and counseling provide inmates with a sense of purpose and meaning, as well as a moral compass, which can help guide their behavior both inside and outside of prison.

Key Terms

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Last Updated:  07/13/2024

References

  • Clear, T., Cole, G. F., & Reisig, M. D. (2019). American corrections. Cengage Learning.
  • Feeley, M. M., & Simon, J. (1992). The new penology. New York University Press.
  • Lynch, M. J. (2015). The origins of the rehabilitative ideal, 1870-1920. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 105(2), 437-464. 
  • Parker, H. (1976). Solitary confinement: A brief history and review of the literature. Crime & Delinquency, 22(3), 366-378. 
  • Kaeble, D., & Cowhig, M. (2022). Correctional populations in the United States, 2021. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 
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McKee, A. J. (2024). Prisons. In Criminal justice: An overview of the system (Section 6.2). Retrieved July 18, 2024, from https://docmckee.com/cj/criminal-justice-an-overview-of-the-system/criminal-justice-section-6-2-prisons/

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